Sunday, June 13, 2004

So What Is This?

By "this" I mean the words on these pages, oops, on this screen. This is certainly not straight news reporting, though I do try to stick to the truth and the facts, absurd as they sometimes may appear. A column? A once-a-week opinion on a single issue? Sometimes. Over time, however, this has evolved into a longer review of a variety of issues that strike me as worthy of your notice...a mini-journal or, as the kids might say, zine. With each of the issues - some about Vallejo, some about the world - I'll include the reported facts - some culled from the media, some you'll never see on the pages of the Times-Herald - and treat them in a way intended to provoke critical thinking and moral outrage. To that end, I'll sometimes rage at the lies and cover-ups and sometimes seek your laughter at the absurdities and silliness all around us. I hope you'll laugh and cry with me, but, more importantly, I hope you'll look at the issues raised more closely, get more facts, and draw your own conclusions.

So what issues might we look at? Here are several on the global and national scenes that have attracted my attention this week.

I promise to focus on Vallejo next week, and, in particular, the outrageous sham involving the interim city manager's "negotiations" with the public safety unions. Again, these past two days, the Times-Herald has shamed itself with its "reporting" on the issue, a melange of puffery, disinformation, false alarms, and some very ugly threats.

"I Was Only Following Requests."

How many times did we hear at Nuremberg, "I was only following orders" - as if one could stow their moral compass in the barracks...or outside the doors of governmental leadership. Late last week the civilian leader of our armed forces, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, carried that specious and dismissed argument to an even higher level of absurdity. Asked why he ordered a captured insurgent in Iraq to be kept "off the books" and not reported as required by the Geneva Convention to the International Committee of the Red Cross or ICRC, an uncharacteristically soft-spoken Rumsfeld replied "I did so because I received a request from the CIA to do so." Did he ask why the request was made, on what grounds? No, he said, he didn't normally get into the "details" of such requests. He just went ahead and ordered the creation of a "ghost" prisoner, whose name has still not been reported to the ICRC eight months after his capture. In doing so, Mr. Rumsfeld broke the law, for, constitutionally, international treaties to which the United States is signatory are U.S. law. He did so without being ordered and without the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity. All it took was a request. Talk about a moral jellyfish!

Ah, but, Mr. Rumsfeld, as we know, is capable of the highest flights of moral outrage, selective and misplaced though it might be. Pressed at the same press conference about reports of such "ghost" prisoners and others in U.S. custody being tortured, he reverted to his old arm-waving self, berating the media for, he claimed, overplaying and distorting the Abu Ghraib story. Some soldiers, he said, had done "some things they shouldn't have done," but, he added his voice and arms rising, "Torture? No way!" It was simply outrageous to talk about U.S. soldiers engaging in torture. One has to ask, was he not aware that just 15-minutes earlier Attorney General John Ashcroft had announced the indictment of a civilian contractor for the alleged murder of an Afghan detainee at a DOD interrogation center in that country? Was he not aware of other "wrongful death" charges working their way up the military justice system alleging the killing of Iraqi detainees by their American guards? If bludgeoning someone to death with repeated blows from an over-sized flashlight isn't "torture," what is?

Simply put, Rumsfeld should have been unceremoniously fired long ago. These most recent incidents of insensitivity to law and morality make it more imperative than ever that he be fired NOW. The safety of young American soldiers who might fall into enemy hands demands it. So, too, do the good name and honor of the United States of America.

Colin Powell Gets Nervous

A week ago, I made a plea to Colin Powell - resign with honor before the Rumsfelds of the world drag you down with them. Since then, I came across an op-ed piece written by Secretary Powell in the New York Times. Entitled "Why Generals Get Nervous," it reads in part:

During the last three years U.S. armed forces have been used repeatedly to defend our interests and achieve our political objectives....The reason for our success is that in every instance we have carefully matched the use of military force to our political objectives. President Bush, more than any other recent President, understands the proper use of military force. In every instance, he has made sure that the objective was clear and that we knew what we were getting into. We owe it to the men and women who go in harm's way to make sure that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes.

....But we also recognize that military force is not always the right answer. If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse.

Decisive means and results are always to be preferred, even if they are not always possible. So you bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the desired result isn't obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of a little escalation. History has not been kind to this approach.

Sound advice. Trouble is, it was written on October 8, response, believe it or not, to a New York Times editorial criticizing Powell and the military for being too cautious about the use of American military force. And Powell, of course, was writing about the elder President Bush, who understood the demands of statecraft and the limits of force. Can the same be said about Dubyah? Has he, in Iraq, "made sure that the objective was clear and that we knew what we were getting into?" Or did he listen to "so-called experts" and allow "force [to be] used imprecisely or out of frustration?"

Don't you think that General Powell is asking these same questions today and getting more nervous with each passing day? Shouldn't we?


Those of you who have kids are probably familiar that frequent response to a chiding question "Why did you do that?" "Because...." the child shoots back. Nothing more need be said.

That may be cute and excusable in a toddler, but it's neither when resorted to by the President and Vice President of the United States. I'm referring, of course, to their knee-jerk response to the conclusion of the thoroughly bipartisan 9/11 Commission appointed by the President that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and that no "collaborative relationship" existed between Iraq and al Qaeda. To that - something that has been patently clear from the start - the President petulantly responds: "The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda." Huh? Can't you just see the child, hands on hips, scowling a defiant "Because," when caught?

The ever-thoughtful Mr. Cheney offered a more detailed but no more persuasive rebuttal to the media's "outrageous" interpretation of the commission's finding, insisting yet again that there is "overwhelming" evidence of such ties. Among his details were all the old canards. The Vice President continues to insist, for example, that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met in Prague in April 2001 with Iraqi intelligence officials, even though the commission produced phone records and a bank surveillance video to show that Atta was in Florida at the time. And he still peddles that knowing fuzzing of the truth - namely, that al Qaeda "associate" al Zarqawi operated before the war out a terrorist camp "in Iraq." Surely, the Vice President knows that the Ansar al Islam camp in question was in the Kurdish controlled area of northern Iraq - an area over which Saddam Hussein could only wish he had control. It was, moreover, on the Iranian border and supported not by Saddam, but by Iran.

Isn't it time to grow up? Isn't it time to stop the charade of unsubstantiated and deliberate falsehoods? We're adults aren't we?

Fact is, a far more convincing case can be made for a "collaborative relationship" between Saddam and the United States under Ronald Reagan and Dubyah's dad. Wasn't that Donald Rumsfeld sitting there with Saddam about the time those WMDs were being used against the Kurds and Iranians? Weren't U.S. corporations among those that supplied Saddam with the wherewithal to produce his chemical and biological weapons? Didn't we look the other way when he used them? When his planes "mistakenly" bombed and strafed an American destroyer in the Gulf?

Enough! Please, enough. Just go away. Leave us in peace. We're grown-up enough to pick up the pieces.

"Mr. Sharon, Tear Down That Wall."

How I wish I could hear a U.S. President speak those words. But as that new Israeli wall grows higher - especially in the suburbs of Jerusalem - and cuts more deeply into the West Bank establishing ever newer "realities," our President simply mumbles regrets and calls for calm and an end to violence by "all parties."

Emboldened, Mr. Sharon, now plans a multi-million dollar moat between Egypt and Gaza. Now there's a Biblical metaphor for you, a parting of the seas in the desert. Just last week Jerusalem announced that it had put out bids for contracts for this politico-military and human absurdity. Remember that "McNamara Line" along Vietnam's 17th parallel. There's a reason such foolhardy projects soon earn sobriquets like "Edsel Line." History aside, sounds like something right up Halliburton's alley. I suspect, however, that Israel would not put up the overcharges and cost-overruns it might expect from a Halliburton.

So far, Mr. Sharon's "pacification" campaign in Rafah has led to the bulldozing of hundreds of homes and the re-displacement of about 13,000 Palestinians. The moat will only add to those totals. I use the term "re-displacement" advisedly, because I see there's been a rather uninformed discussion on the pages of the Vallejo Times-Herald about just what Rafah is. It is not a proper city. Nor is it an "internment camp." It is rather a refugee camp, containing new generations of descendants of those displaced in 1948 and again in 1967. Before 1967, it and the rest of Gaza were mal-administered by Egypt in much the same way it has been by Israel since then. It is a place for the human refuse of what once was Palestine, left to fester behind moats, walls, and barbed wire - a shooting field for tanks and helicopters and, yes, a breeding ground for terrorists.

I can understand, however, how there might be some confusion among Americans about just what Rafah is. After more than fifty years, such places can take on a deceptive air of permanence. But surely Mr. Sharon knows what Rafah is. Surely he remembers those other camps Sabra and Shatila. The only thing permanent about them is the despair and desperation they produce. And now Israelis and Americans are tasting the fruits of that desperation. God help us all.

Where's the Outrage?

So now Paul Johnson has met the same barbaric fate as Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl and, maybe soon, a Korean - innocent victims all. Their "crime?" Being there for the taking and the killing. The nature of their murders was calculatedly gruesome, designed to heighten the sense of revulsion and sheer terror. In this, the terrorists have succeeded, sowing confusion and frustration in our midst.

But can't we hope that, in their gratuitous excess, they may have sown the seeds of their own demise. For I have to believe that Arabs and Muslims too must be horrified and outraged by these examples of blasphemous madness in the name of God. It has, however, been far too quiet these past few days across the Middle East and among Muslim Americans. This is not the time for anyone to remain silent. It is rather the time to shout your outrage as fellow human beings at such inhumanity. I don't know how to say it in Arabic, but I urge you as a friend, now is the time, to shout "Enough!" Don't let the false gods of hatred seduce you and drag us all into the deepest depths of self-destruction.

Religion and Politics

For better or for worse, the two - religion and politics - are inter-twined, not just among Muslims, but also among Christians and Jews. Fundamentalism knows no boundaries.

In the United States, the interface between religion and politics has become particularly ugly during this particularly ugly campaign season. I would urge all - politicians and clergy in particular - to tread carefully, thoughtfully, and lovingly through the minefield ahead.

This is no time for religious wedge politics, putting down markers, or putting down people because of what they believe....or don't. That's not what religion is about, though, too often, establishment religion would have us believe it is. The search for God is much too large, much too deep for self-satisfied, self-righteous orthodoxy. Like Bishop Jacques Gaillot, I prefer Sura 2, verse 256 of the Qur'an - "No coercion in matters of religion."

As an autonomous human being, I object to efforts being made to coerce religious orthodoxy in the political arena, particularly about issues of human sexuality, issues often too mysterious for human understanding and far too complex for legislative "quick fixes." Yes, I have in mind issues like abortion, and gay marriage.

As Americans, we have a right to expect that our national discourse on these like other subjects be conducted in a thoughtful and respectful manner and that our decisions be based on the civic principles of equal protection under the law and full civil rights for all.

As an American Episcopalian, I am incredibly proud of how our Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold has framed the discussion of public recognition of committed relationships between members of the same sex. In a February 27 statement, he said, in part:

I am concerned about the advisability of a constitutional amendment being put forth for discussion at this time. Questions of sexuality are far from settled, and a constitutional amendment perceived as settling this matter might make it more difficult to engage in civil discourse around this topic.

Further, sexuality is personal, and therefore engages us at an emotional level where the language used can inflame rather than inform. For example, some who do not support the legal and civil rights of same sex couples are disturbed at the use of the term marriage to describe such unions believing that this term should be used only in reference to the commitment between a man and a woman. Others believe that a term less than marriage is a diminishment of such relationships....

The fullness of truth seldom resides in one point of view and therefore we need to hold ourselves open to the possibility that our own perspectives will be enlarged by those of others with whom we may disagree. It is my prayer that we will find the way forward that respects the best of our civil and religious traditions.

During these debates, both within the church and civil society, I would urge us to remember that we are conversing about an issue that affects the lives of honorable men and women who should be recognized in the dignity of their personhood and not simply discussed as abstractions.

Is that really too much to expect? Should we expect or accept anything less from one another?

Moral Politics

Some of you have suggested that I offer more suggested answers to that inevitable question: "Okay, what do I do now?"

As someone interested in politics, ethics, and language, may I suggest you read George Lakoff's new book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. It's a humanist manifesto for action by a linguist who believes that words really do have meaning and that more than words are needed. Arguing from a Buddhist perspective of inter-being, he calls for "a radical relationship to the world" and that we think metaphorically, with empathy and responsibility.

As someone who would be a deacon in my Christian church, that's something I understand and embrace wholeheartedly. For a deacon is called upon to keep one foot in the world, one in the church, to bring the urgent concerns of the world to a complacent church and the balm of the church to a hurting people. One recent night, with the San Francisco Night Ministry, I found myself sitting in a Tenderloin bar toward closing hour. The bar tender, a gentle guy, leaned across the mahogany to ask earnestly "What does a deacon do?" "Well...let's talk," I began, thinking to myself "Ah, the start of yet another beautiful friendship." Wanna talk?
Posted by Vicki at 11:55 PM | Comments (0)
June 13, 2004