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Eyewitness to Horror! 

Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published September 8, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

To be a journalist, they say, is to be an eyewitness to history. And in the last week, one former Vermont journalist has been an eyewitness to horror!

In 2001, Associated Press reporter Mike Eckel worked out of the old Montpelier bureau over the Thrush Tavern. He was writing about bloodless legislative battles at the Statehouse.

Today the Russian-speaking graduate of Colby College is writing about the real thing. In the last week, Mike's chilling dispatches filed from bloody Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia, have appeared on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

Welcome to the global village, folks!

Eckel jumped into action following the first frightening report that a band of 35 heavily armed gunmen had seized control of the town's public elementary school on the morning of the first day of class. The Moscow-based journalist quickly hopped a flight to North Ossetia. Eckel drove through the night on Wednesday to reach Beslan.

Corpses littered the school courtyard. Hundreds of students, teachers and parents had been taken hostage. Townspeople were hysterical. The unthinkable was once again unfolding on the world stage.

Surely everyone remembers the special feeling of your first day of school? The excitement. The reunion with chums you didn't see over summer vacation. The anticipation of a new teacher, new playmates. The helping hand of mom or dad guiding the littlest ones.

But none of us ever imagined what happened at the elementary school in Beslan.

You've read the stories. Seen the TV reports. The suicidal terrorists, supporting Chechen independence from Russia, conducted random executions and beatings. They shot fleeing children in the back; kept their hostages terrified and without water and food, to the point children were drinking their own urine to survive.

Then, after a two-day standoff, an explosion detonated in the overcrowded school gym-turned jail and all hell broke loose. Bombs, bullets and young flesh flew as more than 335 of the helpless captives were killed. Hundreds more were wounded and an entire small city scarred for life.

Seven Days contacted Mike Eckel in Beslan for a interview via email. From 8000 miles away, yours truly was typing questions through tears. How does an on-the-scene journalist keep it together enough to function in a place that resembles hell?  

"The grief I've witnessed here is almost unspeakable," replied Mike. "I'll never forget being at the Beslan hospital on Friday night and hearing the wails of anguish from mothers and fathers learning that their children were killed. Their anguish sears itself on your soul and it's all you can do to keep the tears from welling up in your eyes."

Indeed, the tears flowed across the world as images of Beslan filled TV screens -- tears prove our common humanity. North Ossetia has about the same population as Vermont. And Beslan, noted Mike, is about the same size as Burlington:pop. 35,000.

 "It's been a truly, truly exhausting, exhilarating and excruciating five days," wrote Eckel. "Sleep has been at a premium. It's so chaotic trying to chase different leads and different reports that you end up forgetting to eat. And that was even before the violence erupted on Friday afternoon."

Journalism is often called the "first draft of history." And history is, basically, an accounting of human murder, mayhem and warfare. It provides a timeline that tracks the rise and fall of conquerors and kings, dynasties and empires.

Unfortunately, despite an endless stream of technological "advances" and discoveries improving the "quality of life" for the human race, not one political scientist has yet discovered the most precious commodity on Earth: peace. "Life has stopped here in Beslan," observed the former Vermont journalist.

"Life will never return to normal for the residents. On the first day of the burials, there were coffins everywhere in the city, people shrieking with grief, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. And once the grief subsides, what will replace it?

"I fear it will be anger," he continued, "anger directed at the other ethnic groups in the Caucasus region: the Chechens, the Ingush, and others. More ethnic strife and bloodshed may be inevitable at this point. Local residents are already vowing retribution."

Ah, yes. Based on history, that is to be expected. You see, North Ossetia really isn't "Russian." It's a region on the north rim of the Caucasus Mountains where tribal/ethnic differences and Russian czars and dictators have determined political geography since the first recording of history.

Chechen "freedom fighters," whose grandparents fought Stalin, justify the Beslan slaughter of children by pointing out the Russian Army has murdered more than 40,000 Chechen children under President Vladimir Putin's reign.

An eye for an eye. A dead child for a dead child. How can we fool ourselves into thinking we live in a civilization?

Beslan is closer to us than you might think. It's but one mountain range and a few hundred miles north of Iraq where our invading army struggles to survive as an occupying force.

Once the world's hope for peace on Earth, our United States of America has sadly abandoned the very cause that once defined us. What was once America's "moral authority" in the world has been completely lost, thanks to President George W. Bush.

The fact is, the death toll of Beslan's school children pales when compared to the death toll of Iraq's school children from U.S. bombs and bullets.

Yours truly's favorite line from the recent GOP connection was uttered by the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world," bellowed the Hollywood leading man, "then you are a Republican!

"And, ladies and gentlemen, if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism," screamed Schwarzenegger, "then you are a Republican!"

Who does this pathetic star of the celluloid world think he's kidding?

Only a muscle-bound meathead would still believe, in the 21st century, that one country, one army, can rule the entire planet. It is a vision Arnold shares with our president -- and some of history's greatest madmen.

They do not realize that humanity's only hope for a safer world is the very thing that provides safety within nation-states: strong democratic government!

Planetwise, that means a strong, democratic United Nations and the enforcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it's based upon. That landmark and overlooked document was adopted in 1948 by the leaders of a planet soaked in the blood of World War II. If you have never read it, do yourself a favor: www.un.org/Overview/rights.html.

This week, from Beslan to Burlington, one wonders whether it will take World War III to get us back on the right track, that is, the peace track?

And the only question for Arnold and Dubya is: How many more innocent school children will have to be killed before the United States of America stands firmly behind, not firmly against, the only real hope for peace -- the United Nations?

Party Pooper! -- Surely everyone is feeling bad for the Vermont Progressive Party these days. Our beloved self-righteous lefties are under attack from, of all places, the democratic system.

Progressive Party Chair Martha Abbott was on Vermont Public Radio Tuesday morning lamenting the fact that their September 14 primary ballot is full -- full of candidates who do not have the blessing of the tiny cadre that runs the Prog Party.

Even though it's officially been Vermont's third "major" party since 1999, most Vermonters think of the Progressives as the party of Anthony Pollina and a quartet of state reps from Burlap. But Tony the Prog is sitting this one out.

A little history: Anthony hit the scene many years ago as the central Vermont version of the then "progressive" mayor of Burlington -- Bernie Sanders. Anthony added a close-to-the-land agricultural touch that Big City Bernie lacked. He founded Rural Vermont. Tony even went to work for Bernie when Sanders became Vermont's congressman.

But the two differed on one key point: Pollina and many of Sanders' Burlington disciples wanted to start their own official political party.

Actually, Sanders first ran for office in the 1970s under a party label but abandoned it after a few inglorious attempts.

In the 1980s, Ol' Bernardo always ran for mayor under the "Independent" tag, shunning the "Progressive Coalition" label of all the other Sanderistas in Burlap.

Sanders is determinedly a party of one and on Capitol Hill forms his own coalitions to advance his pet issues. It certainly works for him, eh?

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Pollina and the Sanderistas pressed on with party building. They eventually pulled it off in 1999, just in time for the 2000 gubernatorial campaign.

That was the year of the Big, Bad Civil-Unions Election. It followed the turbulent legislative battle over marriage rights for same-sex couples. With Republican firebrand Ruthless Ruth Dwyer and her conservative gay-bashing, religious diehards all pumped up, things looked a bit dicey for Democratic Gov. Howard Dean.

Those who remember Dean before his transformation to national stardom recall what a law-and-order conservative he really was. Ho-Ho regularly aligned himself with Statehouse Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats to checkmate the liberal agenda championed by the leadership of his own party.

The Progs despised Dean. The liberal Ds considered him a sellout to his rich-kid roots. But the Republicans loved him -- at least until gay marriage hit the fan in 2000.

Gov. Dean, however, did the right thing on civil unions, overcoming even his own initial personal and political fears. The November 2000 election was to be the test. So why was Anthony Pollina jumping in the governor's race?

Well, to have a party, of course!

Pollina starred that fall in the gubernatorial debates. Ruth... well, Ruth was Ruth, and Dean had to take shots from both of them. If Ho-Ho got less than 50 percent of the vote, the race would have been be thrown to the legislature.

Can you say Gov. Dwyer?

The 2000 election results indicate that Vermont voters are indeed above average. They can do the math. Enough of them -- a couple thousand -- held their noses and voted one last time for Howard Dean for governor, even though their hearts were with Anthony.

Dean won with 50.1 percent of the votes cast.

In 2002, Pollina ran for Lite-Gov, achieving what he had been unable to achieve two years earlier: He became a full-fledged spoiler and got a Republican elected.

No one in Vermont has a greater appreciation of and affection for Anthony Pollina than Republican Lit. Gov. Brian Dubie.

No one.

In 2002, without the fear of Ruthless Ruth, voters weren't as worried about the math. Besides, it was only the "unimportant" office of Lite-Gov that was at stake.

Having competed now in two statewide elections, Vermont's third major party has regrouped for the 2004 race. Pollina is sitting it out. The Progs decided against running a Prog candidate for governor (they're content, obviously, with political cross-dresser Peter Clavelle).

They also decided against running a candidate for state treasurer. Or attorney general. Or auditor of accounts. Or secretary of state.

Pretty minor "major" party, eh?

This year the Progs have decided to put all their eggs in one basket -- lieutenant governor.

State Rep. Steve Hingtgen of Burlington is the man. Hingtgen's an articulate Iowa transplant with an easygoing style and an appreciation of fine beer.

The Vermont Progressive Party was expecting a very quiet 2004 election. Unfortunately, democracy has screwed up their best-laid plans.

"Invaders" -- folks with ties to the even smaller "minor" party known as Liberty Union -- have registered as candidates in the Progressive Party Primary.

Liberty Union is the gaggle of eccentric, though good-natured, political geese that first took flight way back in the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s. Its leadership included the irrepressible Peter Diamondstone of Brattleboro and a colorful cast.

Leunig's Old World Cafe founder and former owner Dennis Morrisseau was the Liberty Union candidate for Congress in 1970. He received 2.2 percent of the vote.

A tall, skinny loudmouth from Brooklyn named Bernie Sanders was the Liberty Union candidate for governor in 1972. He got 1.1 percent of the vote. In 1974, Ol' Bernardo -- then Young Bernardo -- got 4.4 percent in the U.S. Senate race as the L.U. candidate.

Got to start somewhere, eh?

Even current Progressive Party Chair Martha Abbott has Liberty Union roots!

Martha did much better than Bernie in 1974. Abbott got 5.4 percent of the vote as the Liberty Union candidate for governor!

A disturbed Martha Abbott told VPR's Bob Kinzel this week that the Progressives are not happy with the Liberty Union mischief-makers. They've even organized a defense of their party purity.

Abbott told Kinzel Prog Party loyalists will be asked to write in a party-approved slate of candidates in the primary. At least one, Rep. Bernie Sanders, is not even a member of their party.

Not to worry.

Martha said the plan is for all Progressive Party-sponsored candidates -- except their Budweiser-friendly Lite-Gov candidate -- to decline the Progressive Party nomination should they win, leaving the slots blank on the party's November ballot.

Abbott also said she will reach out to the Vermont Republican Party, which also has a couple mischief-makers entered in their primary. The goal is to come up with a law that will ban such major-party headaches in the future. Massachusetts, she noted, requires candidates to get 10 percent support at the party convention in order to qualify for a spot on the ballot.

That's right, Progressive Martha is reaching out to the Republicans.


Somewhere along the way, the old Liberty Unionite-turned-Progressive has forgotten one of the most important adjectives associated with the word democracy: "open," as in "open democracy."

Sounds like Vermont's far left has no qualms about joining up with Vermont's far right to close the door on participation in one of the most open undertakings a democracy experiences -- elections.


The fact is, if the Vermont Progressive Party truly was a major party in anything but name, it wouldn't have to sweat outsiders invading their primary. It'd have a popular message and its own good candidates.

The way things are going, the Vermont Progs might better be called the Jumbo Shrimp Party.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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