m I the only one who thinks its ironic that a visit to the Statue of Liberty now requires us visitors to surrender a piece of our freedom? The founders knew from hard experience with the British crown that the protection of individual privacy from the prying eye of authorities was essential for any country striving to be the Land of the Free. Your personal matters and movements are supposed to be just thatpersonal, beyond the reach of either government or corporate snoops. But a creeping intrusion industry is pushing aggressively into our everyday lives, bolstered by government laws and money. Everything from your travel to your purchases are tracked by massive networks of computers. And now they want not merely data, but little personal pieces of us: our fingerprints, facial features, the iris pattern of our eyes. To go up into the Statue of Liberty, for example, you now must store your backpacks and such in public lockers. Fine. But rather than the uncomplicated, unobtrusive system of oldput your bag in a locker, drop a coin, take the key, and gothe new system requires that you touch an electronic reader that scans your fingerprint. This means that your own digit is now the key for getting back your bag … and the key for what else? Oh, say the operators, trust uswe dont send your print to the authorities. Really? How do we know that? Various government agencies are now authorized to seize our library records or banking informationwhy would they not feel equally free to grab our biometric data? Indeed, your digit is going commercial. Piggly Wiggly, Thriftway, and Kroger are among the corporations already beginning to ask that we use our fingerprints, rather than credit cards, to make purchasestaking away our privacy, one finger at a time. A SOLDIERS STORY When challenged directly by a crowd of Americas troops about the Bushites ongoing damnable failure to provide adequate armor for our soldiers, Pentagon chief Donnie Rumsfeld was momentarily speechless. As the crowd murmered, Rummy said: Now, settle down, settle down. Hell, Im an old man, its early in the morning and Im gathering my thoughts here. If any of the Bushites need clarity on the scandalous way they treat our soldiers, they need only visit Army Specialist Robert Loria of Middletown, New York. Last February, he was in one of Rumsfelds unprotected Humvees when it was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Lorias left hand and forearm were blasted off and shrapnel ripped through his body. He spent months in rehab, trying to learn how to live without a hand. Finally, just before this Christmas, he was due to be released and return home when he was hit with another bomb. Rumsfelds Pentagon presented Loria with a bill for $1,700, claiming hed erroneously received family separation pay while in rehab, plus travel expenses connected to his treatment. Also, they billed him for some of the Humvee parts damaged in the bombing that tore off his hand! Loria was devastated, but the Army brass didnt care, demanding payment before they would release him. Hello. The Halliburtons rip off billions from us taxpayers, but the Pentagon is hounding the grunts! Its almost like Im being abandoned, Loria said. Like, you did your job for us and now you are no use. Thats how it feels. Clear enough for you, Mr. Rumsfeld? Thanks to press coverage and intervention by some members of Congress, Lorias nightmarish treatment by the Pentagon has finally ended. The Army was forced to clear his debt and send him home. But why should a soldier whos made such an extreme sacrifice be treated so shabbily in the first place? GOLDEN PARACHUTES Who loves ya, baby? Merck, the giant drug maker loves ya, thats who! (Assuing youre one of its 230 senior executives.) Merck is showing its love to top executives by giving each of them a brand new, gleaming golden parachute. What about the other 30,000 employees? Goodbye and good luck. Those executives might need their parachutes soon, for Merck is in trouble. As widely reported, its best selling drug, Vioxx, has been found to cause heart attacks in many who take it. Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market, but evidence now indicates that executives have known about this little side effect for quite some time, but didnt disclose it to regulators, doctors, or the unsuspecting patients who took the stuff. The company now faces federal investigations and thousands of lawsuits. Since the withdrawal of Vioxx, Mercks stock price has plummeted 40 percent, on top of a 30 percent fall the company had already suffered because of its failure to develop promising new products. All of this makes Merck a likely target for a takeover. Takeover threats make top executives very nervous, for the company doing the taking usually ousts the old team and puts in its own. Hence, the rush to provide executive parachutes. If another company takes over Merckor even buys 20 percent of its shares in an effort to take it overthe 230 top dogs become eligible to bail with a special payment of three times their annual salaries, plus bonuses, as well as stock payments. For example, CEO Raymond Gilmartin, who helped engineer this sweet deal, would get about $57 million to soften his landing. Ouch. Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Thieves In High Places: Theyve Stolen Our Country And Its Time To Take It Back, on sale now from Viking Press.