Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Don't bother, they're here


What I was getting at here, put more succinctly, is that for every problem, there is always someone to blame as the solution. Now that Americans and CIA agents and the very politicians that D.C. journalists covered for the last 8 years (at least; Rummy and Cheney go back to the Nixon Administration) are accused of committing or directing torture, suddenly torture may not be so evil after all. In fact, we needed to do it because, well...there was this ticking time bomb....and, and, they were terrorists!

Or now that Barack Obama is President, all our problems are due to those politicians (it was the Court, actually) who took prayer out of our schools and the "media" who don't respect our "tea parties." Or it's the fact that some public figure is NOK, and yet he keeps being treated like he is!

And if we could just "fix" them, that, those! then everything would be O.K. again.

Bollocks.

As DAS put it, in comments below (slightly edited for relevance, nothing more):
[Y]ou can't count on people doing the right thing, alas. I know I'm too much aligned with the Deuteronomist for the tastes around this blog on this sort of issue, but the system is supposed to be constructed in such a way that you don't have to count on people doing the right thing. What it counts on (to -- perhaps mis -- quote Madison) is ambition being made to counteract ambition.

The system was broken not because the Gang of Four failed to do the right thing and stop the torture, but because there was no motivation for them to stop the torture and every motivation not to rock the boat.

Democratic Republics work because ambition can be made to counteract ambition. But when that system fails -- either because ambition is made to be sycophantic to other ambition or because of a perhaps deliberate plot to make ambition counteracting ambition seem silly and distracting (c.f. Clintongate) -- the democratic republican system itself fails.
I agree with DAS, especially about the lessons of the Deuteronomists. Those lessons, like the lessons of the prophets, revolve around one central truth: this problem is your doing, not some "other's." It's not the fault of God, or Babylon, or anyone outside the group, or some lesser group within the group. It's your fault. Your responsibility. And your burden. You want it fixed? Fix yourself. No other fix is possible or credible.

Or, to put it even more succinctly:

You check the speck in another's eye.
You cannot see the tree in your own.
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Send in the Clowns



I was going to tie this:

WE don’t like our evil to be banal. Ten years after Columbine, it only now may be sinking in that the psychopathic killers were not jock-hating dorks from a “Trench Coat Mafia,” or, as ABC News maintained at the time, “part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement.” In the new best seller “Columbine,” the journalist Dave Cullen reaffirms that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.

On Tuesday, it will be five years since Americans first confronted the photographs from Abu Ghraib on “60 Minutes II.” Here, too, we want to cling to myths that quarantine the evil. If our country committed torture, surely it did so to prevent Armageddon, in a patriotic ticking-time-bomb scenario out of “24.” If anyone deserves blame, it was only those identified by President Bush as “a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values”: promiscuous, sinister-looking lowlifes like Lynddie England, Charles Graner and the other grunts who were held accountable while the top command got a pass.

We’ve learned much, much more about America and torture in the past five years. But as Mark Danner recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, for all the revelations, one essential fact remains unchanged: “By no later than the summer of 2004, the American people had before them the basic narrative of how the elected and appointed officials of their government decided to torture prisoners and how they went about it.” When the Obama administration said it declassified four new torture memos 10 days ago in part because their contents were already largely public, it was right.

Yet we still shrink from the hardest truths and the bigger picture: that torture was a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels; that it was carried out in scenarios that had no resemblance to “24”; that psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and that, in the assessment of reliable sources like the F.B.I. director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks.
Together with this, from an e-mail I received recently:

Attached is the Homeland Security Report on "Rightwing Extremism" that has made the news lately. It is intended to discuss radical groups that evoke hatred against certain groups (abortion rights advicates, [sic] immigrants, etc.) using unique current socio-political and socio-economic conditions (our first African American President and the poor global economy) as a foundation for this hatred. On the face of it, I don't have any problem with Homeland Security raising awareness on the rise of the activitiies [sic] of these idiot extremists. White supremist [sic] hate-mongers are as dangerous to our freedoms as the gun-control advocates ever thought about being. However, I can see where the net this report casts implicates any strong "right wing" advocate as a "potential terrorist threat", not just extremist groups. I myself, can identify with these concerns about our government's intrusion into private rights and the potential to undermine capitalism in favor of socialism. The real question in my mind is at what point in time during the evolution of a socialistic or tyrannical government does a true patriot willing to defend the principles of the country he/she loves become a "radical extremist/terrorist"? Where would Thomas Payne have been categorized in this report 233 years ago?

I also worry that the peaceful demonstration of the frustration with the way things are such as last Wednesday's "tea parties" across the country were not worthy of hardly any prime-time media coverage from the "alphabet networks". I guarantee you that if those demonstrations had been focused on the rights of a particular ethnic group, pro-abortionist or other entity, these networks would have been all over it. I would have found it much more gratifying and credible had this Homeland Security Report discussed the potential for the mainstream media's absolute sheltering of any criticism of the current governmental policy changes to also be a factor in promoting extremist actions due to the frustration such biased reporting causes.
Together with this tale from Columbine, a link to Scopes from another e-mail I received the other day. The interesting wrinkle is the preamble to the e-mail included the Snopes link, and even noted this "message" has been around since 1999. But the e-mail still insisted that despite Mr. Scott's "rambling opinion that gun control laws wouldn't have stopped the Columbine High School shootings, and that those shootings were somehow related to a lack of religion in schools," that: "Regardless, seems the statement of Darrell Scott articulately says enough about the real issues!!!!" Which would be, somehow, the lack of religion in schools and how that relates to gun violence. (Even as the Texas Legislature is considering allowing a new exception to its concealed handgun laws, to permit students and faculty and parents to bring guns to college classes, for "safety.")

What ties all of those together? This:

For the most part, we've failed so far. It was more than a little disheartening to learn of the crippling fear inside the newsroom of the New York Times, where editors and reporters were so afraid of offending, so afraid of anyone thinking that the newspaper was taking a side, that the news staffers refused to label globally outlawed practices such as waterboarding as "torture." On the same morning we learned about that wishy-washiness at our most influential newspaper, David Broder of the Washington Post was trying to argue that the torture story isn't about obeying the law, or about our national soul, but "cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance." I believe what Broder is really saying is that it's impossible for him to believe that someone who lunches across from him at the Palm or the Capitol Grille is capable of what Frank Rich described as "the banality of evil," that someone who wears a nice tie or has a kid in Little League could condone or encourage unlawful, violent and sometimes even lethal acts -- acts which we are now learning were carried out to achieve the dubious political ends of our leaders.
Or even this. The idea that somebody somewhere is NOK, and so can be excluded from the discussion, cast out of the sacred circle, exorcised from the inner sanctum, purged from the holy of holies. The idea that purification will make us all better, that "those people" do "those things," but not "our people." The idea that we could ever meet the enemy, and he could ever be us.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gobsmacked



Porter Goss:

Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as "waterboarding" were never mentioned. It must be hard for most Americans of common sense to imagine how a member of Congress can forget being told about the interrogations of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. In that case, though, perhaps it is not amnesia but political expedience.

Let me be clear. It is my recollection that:

-- The chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate
intelligence committees, known as the Gang of Four, were briefed that the CIA
was holding and interrogating high-value terrorists.

-- We understood what the CIA was doing.

-- We gave the CIA our bipartisan support.

-- We gave the CIA funding to carry out its activities.

-- On a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed more support from
Congress to carry out its mission against al-Qaeda.
And I'm whomper jawed to hear that Congress is collectively refusing to take responsibility for something it didn't do. It is clear to me that if Congress knew CIA agents were engaging in torture, then 18 U.S. C 2340 can't possibly apply! It must have all been legal! Everybody knows Congressional silence is consent! If you tell Congress you're going to torture, and Congress doesn't say "Oh, no you're not!", then it's double super-secret King's X, and it makes torture legal!

I'm pretty sure that's in the U.S. Code somewhere....

And I'm guessing this:

We must not forget: Our intelligence allies overseas view our inability to maintain secrecy as a reason to question our worthiness as a partner. These allies have been vital in almost every capture of a terrorist.
means the "black prisons" should have stayed "black!" It was really embarrassing when European nations found out we'd violated their laws by transporting"detainees" via their airports to secret prisons! It was even more embarrassing when they found out we consider all non-U.S. citizens (and certain U.S citizens, like anyone in the continental U.S. immediately after 9/11 who "looked Muslim") as persons not protected by habeas corpus or due process of law or any of the other standards we claimed to represent and model to a lawless world. I mean, how can they trust us as partners if we idly toss aside our most cherished ideals, and then lie about it? Oh, wait, I mean: how can they trust us if we reveal our lies?

Above all, Mr. Goss is right about this:

Trading security for partisan political popularity will ensure that our secrets are not secret and that our intelligence is destined to fail us.
If we learned nothing from the past 8 years, at least we learned that.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

As Much As You Can

And even if you cannot make your life the way you want it,
this much, at least, try to do
as much as you can; don't cheapen it
with too much intercourse with society,
with too much movement and conversation.

Don't cheapen it by taking it about,
making the rounds with it, exposing it
to the everyday inanity
of relations and connections,
so it becomes like a stranger, burdensome.

C.P. Cavafy, tr. Daniel Mendelssohn

"Torture"

Title 16, Part 1, Chapter 113C, U.S. Code

§ 2340. Definitions

As used in this chapter—
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

§ 2340A. Torture

(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
(b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if—
(1) the alleged offender is a national of the United States; or
(2) the alleged offender is present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or alleged offender.
(c) Conspiracy.— A person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties (other than the penalty of death) as the penalties prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy.
Seems pretty straightforward to me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Real Evil that Men Do



Christopher Hitchens, on being waterboarded:
As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured.
The Levin report argues that torture began in an attempt to establish evidence that would connect 9/11 and al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. I think this is entirely too kind.

It was ordered by Cheney and Rumsfeld, and approved by Bush Cabinet members and Bush himself, because they could do it. There is a relationship between torturer and tortured, even at a remove: and they wanted that relationship. How many of them, after all, had ever been to war, and yet they wanted war desperately. How many of them had ever interrogated a suspect? And yet they affirmed that torture was Administration policy.

Yes, there is a depth of evil here that is very, very difficult to fathom.

"AMERICA DOES NOT *&@! TORTURE!"

It's almost a pity the FBI had the sense to get out of the "enhanced interrogation" business the moment they saw it (this per the Levin report). Had they stayed in, journalists might be interviewing former FBI agents and end up, quite accidentally, talking to real experts in interrogation, rather than "former CIA operatives" who obviously think "torture works!"

Apparently "Matthew Alexander," a former CIA officer with real interrogation experience, and a book to prove it, wasn't available to NPR.

Thankfully, he was available to Keith Olbermann:



NPR also mentioned a Pew Research poll showing almost 50% of Americans support the torture. Actually, what the poll found was 16% supported the torture of "suspected terrorists" often, and 28% supported it "sometimes," and that was in February of this year. Before, in other words, the "torture memos" came out, detailing with painful clarity exactly what torture is allowed and how often it was done. And before Shepard Smith blew up, twice, on camera, about America and how America doesn't torture. Funny how details like those memos can change opinions.

Mr. Gerecht tries to make much the same point in the interview, arguing that the question of prosecution will turn on the question of public support, or not, for "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Well, that might be a defense raised by a lawyer: "Do you think it's okay to interrogate a suspect rigorously if he's a terrorist and a Muslim and a brown person and not an American?" But criminal prosecutions are not subject to plebiscite; and polls on American support for torture of "terrorists" is not a legal defense to a crime. And as Mr. Arnold points out, and the Levin report makes clear, all the useful information was gathered by regular interrogation; torture yielded nothing.

Even Robert Mueller has said so.

As Mr. "Alexander" said last night: if you have to do it 183 times, it's not working. Surely even Mr. Gerecht can understand that.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Ignorance is Strength"

When Orwell wrote it, it was a harsh indictment of totalitarian governments. But it is also the common coin of most public discussions. Richard Dawkins doesn't sully his beautiful mind with any actual knowledge of religion or theology, which makes him more expert on the subject than those who do (and he's proud of his ignorance). Such basic ignorance of science, of course, drives him to distraction. Teachers are rarely consulted by legislatures on what works in the classroom; they are told, instead, by those with no teaching experience because, after all, people with experience never know as much as the people who make the rules for them. And so today the New York Times offers a "news analysis" that considers the utility of torture from the point of view of those who directed it and who, surprise!, get to say "it worked!" Or maybe it worked; the NYT is cautiously uncertain. Perhaps we should consult someone with experience in the field:



Col. Kleinman's statements echo those of other interrogation experts: torture fails, non-coercive methods succeed. The FBI, as Ron Suskind said on the same show, had accrued expertise in interrogating terrorists. It was their non-coercive, non-torture investigations, that led to convictions in the WTC bombing case in the 1990's. The FBI walked away from the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah because they knew torture not only didn't work, but it was illegal. Who thought it did work? As Col. Kleinman says, all the people "at the top," people with no experience in interrogation, people who get their ideas for questioning suspects from TV and the movies.

So let's ask them, rather than the people whose job it is to interrogate suspects and conduct investigations, what works. Consider this discussion, where the interesting part is less Shepard Smith denouncing torture, than his guest trying to distinguish the Communist Chinese techniques of "brainwashing" which were meant to lead to false confessions, from the very same techniques, learned from those experiences, which in American hands lead to "true confessions":



I would say this man has as much experience interrogating suspects as those who formulated the torture policies do. And if you go here, and watch the second video, you'll hear it again: the argument is whether or not torture is "effective." Move the argument from law or morality to utility, and you win. Which bothers Shepard Smith; but not the New York Times.

Thus do our public discussions proceed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Evil Men Do



Utility, by the way, is a red herring in arguments over torture:
Leaked to the news media months after they were first used, the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods would darken the country’s reputation, blur the moral distinction between terrorists and the Americans who hunted them, bring broad condemnation from Western allies and become a ready-made defense for governments accused of torture. The response has only intensified since Justice Department legal memos released last week showed that two prisoners were waterboarded 266 times and that C.I.A. interrogators were ordered to waterboard one of the captives despite their belief that he had no more information to divulge.

But according to many Bush administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and some intelligence officers who are critics of the coercive methods, the C.I.A. program would also produce an invaluable trove of information on Al Qaeda, including leads on the whereabouts of important operatives and on terror schemes discussed by Al Qaeda. Whether the same information could have been acquired using the traditional, noncoercive methods that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the military have long used is impossible to say, and former Bush administration officials say they did not have the luxury of time to develop a more patient approach, given that they had intelligence warnings of further attacks.
This is where you always end up: arguing the woulda-coulda-shoulda of the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Anybody remember the original "Dirty Harry" movie? Our Hero has gunned down the Bad Guy (a raving psychopath, so you know he's Teh Evil!) in the middle of an empty football stadium, and holds the .44 Magnum to the bad guy's head while standing on his leg wound, demanding to know where the victim he's kidnapped and buried, is.

But she's already dead. He gets the information, which he argues he had to get through torture because a "more patient approach" would take too long. But she's already dead. And the killer is let loose again, because of Our Hero's actions, free to hijack a school bus and give the film its dramatic ending. So here's the moral question: is it morally justifiable if you think there's a greater good for a greater number, or if you just think the victim is less morally culpable than the perpetrator?

That's the "utility" problem: do you want to discuss the propriety of torture, or its efficacy? Follow that route, you go down the Dick Cheney rabbit-trail of "results" which can't or won't be revealed, or which can be argued over endlessly:

Whether the same information could have been acquired using the traditional, noncoercive methods that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the military have long used is impossible to say, and former Bush administration officials say they did not have the luxury of time to develop a more patient approach....
And the argument never gets beyond that undecidable proposition. Worse, it allows us to pass over the real reason to torture: because we can.

The response has only intensified since Justice Department legal memos released last week showed that two prisoners were waterboarded 266 times and that C.I.A. interrogators were ordered to waterboard one of the captives despite their belief that he had no more information to divulge.
What's unstated in that article is who gave that order. It's easy enough to speculate, though. And that's the real problem with torture: it is institutionalized and authorized cruelty. It is sadism. It is barbarism.

And we are supposed to be better than that.

The Fish Rots From the Head


That's the conclusion to be drawn from the Senate Armed Services Committee Report.

Conclusion 1: On February 7,2002, President George W. Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 ofthe Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Following the President's determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions, used in SERE training to simulate tactics used by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions, were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.
Interestingly, much of the report contains nothing we didn't already know. The use SERE technigues, originally used for military training and developed from methods used by Communist China in the 1950's, is documented in this report; as are concerns by various levels of the military about using techniques meant to train soldiers in resistance to interrogation, and derived from our enemies, as techniques for gaining information. All of these concerns are quashed directly from the White House. The Office of Legal Counsel, an office in the White House, becomes the source for all legal opinions governing "enhanced interrogation techniques" at both Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. But not just interrogation technigues; it becomes the authority for handling prisoners, period.

As this report makes clear, Abu Ghraib was not the fault of Lynndie England and Janis Karpinski. It came from the White House, and from the Secretary of Defense. Lower orders of lawyers and military officers were swept aside, objections were overruled, dissenting voices were stifled, concerns were ignored. Abuse and torture were directed, authorized, justified, from the highest levels of our government:

Conclusion 2: Members of the President's Cabinet and other senior officials participated in meetings inside the White House in 2002 and 2003 where specific interrogation techniques were discussed. National Security Council Principals reviewed the CIA's interrogation program during that period.
Note the careful circumspection there. There is no connection between Conclusion 1 and Conclusion 2, no drawing of a line from President Bush to his Cabinet, although the remaining 17 conclusions are clear in their implications, and summed up in the 19th:

Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2,2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were
appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.
Two years ago Wolf Blitzer was quite concerned that Seymour Hersh not implicate the President in this lawless and immoral operation without clear evidence. The Senate Commitee is almost as cautious, but the conclusion is obvious. Everyone in the White House, from the President down, knew what was going on in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, and probably the CIA "black prisons" ignored in this report. To this day, even in this report, we seem determined not to implicate them if at all possible. Can the Augean stables of our democratic ideals be cleansed? Will the money changers be whipped out of the Temple of the Republic?

We'll see....

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pandora's Can of Worms

Just to clarify (because this is not going to become apparent for some time yet), Rahm Emmanuel said on Sunday:

President Barack Obama does not intend to prosecute Bush administration officials who devised the policies that led to the harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Sunday.

However, by Monday:

On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program “This Week” that “those who devised policy” also “should not be prosecuted.” But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale.

Three Bush administration lawyers who signed memos, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, are the subjects of a coming report by the Justice Department’s ethics office that officials say is sharply critical of their work. The ethics office has the power to recommend disbarment or other professional penalties or, less likely, to refer cases for criminal prosecution.

The administration has also not ruled out prosecuting anyone who exceeded the legal guidelines, and officials have discussed appointing a special prosecutor. One option might be giving the job to John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor who has spent 15 months investigating the C.I.A.’s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations.
Why the confusion? To be fair, Emanuel was speaking before Obama went to the CIA to address "the troops." Fair enough, they didn't want mixed messages being heard as Obama reassured them prosecutions were not in their futures. And how absurd is this going to get? Cheney now says the memos recording what was learned from the torture should be revealed. Good ol' Dick! The ends justify the means! Yeah! And, of course, there'll be no complaints that Obama has breached national security if he releases that "exculpatory evidence," right? Right? (No; pretty clearly, not)

That's what I thought. I suspect Cheney's starting to feel some heat.

How to proceed from here? These are not context free considerations. Joan Walsh, for example, echoes the call of the NYT for the impeachment of Jay Bybee. And certainly, as the NYT says, the legal memos are "a journey into depravity." As the editors say:

These memos are not an honest attempt to set the legal limits on interrogations, which was the authors’ statutory obligation. They were written to provide legal immunity for acts that are clearly illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values.
No, they aren't; nor, apparently, are they being treated as such. But getting back to Cheney's defense, that "torture works!," we find the worms wriggling madly. Joan Walsh focuses her rage on the non-utility of torture, which we can consider the direct rebuttal of the "Cheney defense." But here, indeed, is the rub. Do we prosecute torturers because they were ineffective? Because they offend our sensibilities? Because we don't want to know how the sausage was made?

Or do we prosecute because it is a violation of law? The NYT editorial makes this argument:

Until Americans and their leaders fully understand the rules the Bush administration concocted to justify such abuses — and who set the rules and who approved them — there is no hope of fixing a profoundly broken system of justice and ensuring that that these acts are never repeated.
But then it lurches off to argue, not about torture, but about illegal wiretapping, "a program that has since been given legal cover by the Congress."

Oops.

This is not a distraction, however. For the NYT editorial, this is the point:

That is the heart of the matter: nobody really knows what any of the rules were. Mr. Bush never offered the slightest explanation of what he found lacking in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when he decided to ignore the law after 9/11 and ordered the warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ overseas calls and e-mail. He said he was president and could do what he wanted.
Well, yes, but you won't get answers to those questions by prosecuting Mr. Bush for committing the war crime of torture. And then we wander into the whole "government of laws, not of men" issue:

These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him.
I don't know what grounds for impeachment are, but I do wonder if these memos constitute a valid reason to remove a judge from the bench. If the elements are those outlined by the times, I can think of a few Supreme Court justices who could be removed; but I don't think that's going to happen, nor would the Times editorial board join me in my crusade. Seems to me Judge Bybee didn't get there without the help of Congress. Maybe his willingness to subvert legal ethics and reasoning wasn't clear without these memos but, frankly, I rather doubt that. I presume no one was simply looking very hard. Maybe the problem is less with Mr. Bybee's ideas, and more with how seriously the Senate takes its "advise and consent" role. Maybe Mr. Bybee should be removed from the bench; but the lawyer in me says that should be for reasons related to his fitness to be a judge, not to the passions of the crowd at the moment. There's a reason those appointments are for a lifetime, and I'm not anxious to toss the importance of that consideration aside without a better understanding of the consequences of an impeachment proceeding.

Which doesn't mean I'd defend Bybee's position on the bench, or his legal reasoning. Indeed, if there is still a reasonable recourse in this matter, this may be it:

And if the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. If that means putting Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales on the stand, even Dick Cheney, we are sure Americans can handle it.
If Congress were to pursue this, and then insist on prosecutions, it would be both politically and Constitutionally a sounder path than the Administration acting under its own broad and very powerful authority. But that something will be done, seems more and more clear.

UPDATE: The GOP is very worried about the nomination of Dawn Johnsen (to the OLC; mentioned below). Specter remains undecided, and floats a filibuster trial balloon. Whatever they do, they are signalling their concerns and angling for some kind of concession; so it may be Obama is playing some very hardball politics with everything he's said recently.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Make the World Go Away


I just got through listening to Keith Olbermann's "Special Comment," and I agree with him.

I also listened to John Dean's comments, as a lawyer, on what the decision to not prosecute CIA personnel for committing torture, means; and I agree with him.

Which means I disagree with Keith; except I don't.

This is not an either/or; and it does not resolve by making it one.

The first line of assault, and the one consider the trump card, in this discussion, is the Nuremberg trials. Mr. Olbermann used it at the end of his comment, as the final, inviolable legal and moral truth by which all countries must abide. He's right. He's also wrong.

The problem with the "Nuremberg example" is that most of us know those trials from the movie, not from the trial transcripts. By the same token, we know the "Scopes Monkey Trial" from the movie, not from the court transcripts; and we are, by and large, wrong about that trial (and about the meaning of that movie). The trials at Nuremberg did not establish a higher moral authority that is sacrosanct and must be followed and adhered to by all legal systems. It did not put "God" into the legal system as the final arbiter of right and wrong, with a standard we all agree to and from which no one can aver without moving away from the Platonic "Good" that "Nuremberg" inevitably represents in these discussions. No, the judgment at Nuremberg did not establish a unitary moral standard which all legal systems are bound to obey. What it established was a humane and respectably systematic exercise of power by the conquerer over the conquered. Once upon a time in Europe, this was done by slavery and sowing the ground with salt, or simply destroying the indigenous government and annexing the property, or setting up a puppet regime. I'm no historian of World War I, but the received wisdom is that the Armistice led almost directly to Nazi Germany, and the Allied powers at the end of World War II were determined not to see that happen again. Thus Nuremberg, in part to remove the claim that the Allied Powers were simply punishing Germany...again.

At those trials, the defense of the vanquished was that, given this unique attempt to apply law to their actions, the law must shield them, since they were "only following orders." No, said the conquering powers, that will not defend you. But listen to what John Dean said, moments before Mr. Olbermann's "Special Comment." He said the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals remanded for new trial two of the Watergate burglars because H.R. Haldemann issued a legal opinion that what they were doing was a national security matter, and so "legal." That, the Court said, was a valid defense.

Why? Doesn't that violate the sacred principal of Nuremberg? No, it doesn't. Because that's not the sacred principal of Nuremberg. And it's not the principle any government has ever applied to itself since Nuremberg, or ever will.

When Augusto Pinochet was finally brought to justice, it was by Spain, not Argentina. Spain was applying Spanish law, in the precedent of Nuremberg, to a criminal. When South Africa imposed "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions" on the former employees of the former government of South Africa, they were applying new laws by a new government. They were applying them to criminals, but they were not applying them to members of their own government. No country since Nuremberg has ever applied the principle of "only following orders is no defense" to members of its own government, for a very simple reason: no government would ever so willingly commit such hari-kari.

Governments do not change when Presidents take office, anymore than they change when Britain or Israel hold parliamentary elections. We speak, especially in those cases, of a new Prime Minister forming a government, but we do not mean a government ab initio. We mean the leadership has changed; but the government has stayed the same. Nuremberg was not imposed by Germany on Germans; it was imposed by France, Russia, England, and America, against Germans. And it was imposed in lieu of more brutal punishments, perhaps because the destruction of Germany from Allied bombings was punishment enough. Nuremberg did not establish the principle that all governments must adhere to a moral model that means they cannot require their members to act in ways others will deem illegal, or that such members cannot defend themselves against their own government on the grounds that they were "only following orders." It established that countries can enforce universal standards against citizens of other countries, but it did not establish that as a universal principle all governments must adhere to, even at the risk of their own existence.

Governments simply will refuse to function that way.

If you knew, in your job, that you had to ultimately make a decision, every day, in every case, as to what would later be deemed legal, and what would not, or you would have to quit on a moment's notice or later be prosecuted for your actions, would you take the job? You may answer that lawyers do that; but they don't. Lawyers have an obligation as officers of the court to uphold the law; it's the price for being licensed, for being allowed to step "beyond the bar" of the courtroom and address the court on behalf of a client. Lawyers also have the power and training to interpret and understand the law, and so the obligation to apply it properly. Others, who rely on that lawyer, may be punished for their actions (the IRS won't let you off the hook because you have a legal opinion they disagree with), but criminal punishment will not be an absolute certainty, nor can it be. If it is, government itself grinds to a halt, and only fools work for the government. Lawyers, as I say, have a higher obligation; but with great power comes great responsibility. If a lawyer tells you, a CIA operative, a Marine, that it's legal to treat the prisoner that way, will you do it if you're thinking: "But what if it isn't later?" And it may be that it is, but how do you know?

That's the situation as the law sees it. These legal memos were, as John Dean said, terrible legal reasoning. But who determines that? The Marine, the CIA officer? Or the lawyer? If I tell you I've reviewed the memos, and there is no sound legal reasoning in them, how do you know I'm right, if you are not a lawyer? If you can't rely on a lawyer's opinion, what's the point of the law? It simply becomes what anyone says it is.

As it did in this case. Hard cases make bad law. And this is very, very bad law. But it isn't made better by prosecuting every CIA, or NSA, or Military intelligence, agent or officer or even grunt level Private, who can in some way be held culpable for doing what he or she was told was legal and permissible and even necessary. Nor is it a "defense" of torture to say so. But the government that told you the orders you followed were legally given, cannot later bar you from raising that point in your defense when that same government decides those orders were illegal. Indeed, raising that defense is not raising the Nuremberg defense. Because if it were, then you are indeed a helpless pawn in a game of Administrations. And no government will survive long that treats is employees, that treats essentially the government itself, in that manner.

Perhaps here I should point out that I agree with the comment made in the NPR story this morning, that these memos were not legal memos, but political ones. But how do you, as a layperson, know that if I, a lawyer, don't tell you? It's my legal opinion these are not legal memos, that they betray political, not legal, reasoning. 'Round and 'round it goes, and how do we get out of it? Perhaps by establishing universal jurisdiction and appealing to the example of the Nazis:
One former CIA official speaking on background said that level of detail shows how carefully tailored the program was.

"I agree with that," said former CIA official Hitz, "but so were all of the experiments that were done by the Nazi doctors during the time of the Holocaust. They kept excellent records of the body temperature of the prisoner and all that stuff; it didn't make it any less torture."
But the Nazis didn't prosecute the Nazi's for following orders. Governments don't punish their personnel for doing what they were told to do, unless those governments are functioning as dictatorships, where all the power of government accrues to the hands of a few, and the rest are at the mercy of those few. This doesn't excuse torture in the least. But it does point up the weakness in the system.

So how do I agree with the "Special Comment"? I agree that Obama's defense of his actions so far, "looking forward, not backward" is so paper-thin as to be transparent. It may be a feint, a way of putting off any more criticism from Republicans in the Senate (who are still blocking the nomination of Dawn Johnson to the Office of Legal Counsel. Ms. Johnson has been outspoken in her desire to see those who wrote these memos, and followed them, prosecuted. And the memos came from: the Office of Legal Counsel. Wheels within wheels? Perhaps. At least the GOP thinks so.). It may in, in other words, a recognition that the Office of President is not an office of absolute power, nor should absolute power ever be wielded against anyone. That's what torture, at bottom, is about.

We're back here again, where tygers roam. It is our righteousness which makes us so sure they must be punished; and the punishment must come from us. I was told yesterday it was my "theology" that was leading me to defend torturers. It is nothing of the sort, and I do not defend them. But I am mindful of the words of Jesus to his disciples:

Some who were there at the time told him about the Galileans, about how Pilate had mixed their blood with their sacrifices. he answered them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were the worst sinners in Galilee, because they suffered this? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, you'll all meet your doom in the same way. Or how about those eighteen in Siloam, who were killed when the tower fell on them--do you suppose that they were any guiltier than the whole population of Jerusalem? Hardly. However, let me tell you, if you don't have a change of heart, all of you will meet your doom in a similar fashion." (Luke 13:1-5, SV)
So, do I suppose the torturers were any worse offenders than I am? Hardly. Do I suppose the only punishment for them is one meted out by the government? Hardly. Do I even suppose that will redress their crimes, or prompt a change of heart in others similarly situated? Hardly.

But do I like this conclusion? Hardly.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The world is too much with us....



Or: Then I was inspired/Now I'm sad and tired....

This "pirate shooting" is starting to become extremely tedious. Lindsay Beyerstein gets the reaction to this exactly right:

I'm relieved that the Navy SEALs rescued the American hostage from Somali pirates. Their skill and professionalism was indeed impressive.

But really... Two days after the rescue, the banner headline on the front page of the Washington Post should not read "3 Rounds, 3 Dead Bodies." And if that's the front page headline, surely they don't need a second story about pirate-shooting in the same edition.

The American public is relishing the deaths of the pirates to a degree that's downright unseemly. Even Mother Jones has a post entitled "Obama is the pirate-killingest president ever."
Was the shooting justified? According to MSNBC, one "pirate" had a gun to the back of Capt. Phillips' head, and the other two popped their heads out of the lifeboat cover, making all three targets of opportunity. Fair enough. I'm relieved, too, for the sake of Capt. Phillips. Was there a real threat? Real enough, probably, though again, I agree with Lindsay: there should be a thorough investigation, as there would be with any police shooting in America.

But maybe it wasn't that simple. According to McClatchy:

According to Somalis with knowledge of the discussions, the pirates, who at one time had demanded $2 million for Phillips's release, had grown desperate with their situation — adrift under a searing sun in waters infested with sharks, staring at two massive Navy ships armed with guided missiles, running low on fuel and having spent their ammunition.

A relative of one of the pirates, who said he spoke with the men by satellite phone at about 3 p.m. — four hours before the Navy opened fire — said they "were getting scared" and trying to persuade the Americans to let them go in return for the captain's release.

"They were trying to save their own lives," said the relative, Hassan Mohammed Farah, speaking by phone from Haradheere, a coastal town in central Somalia where pirates are known to operate. "The only thing they could bargain with was the captain, but the Americans would not accept."

The pirates had appealed by satellite phone to other pirate groups to sail captive ships and hostages to the scene of the standoff, to put some pressure on the U.S. forces. But Guled Farah, who belongs to another pirate group that had hijacked a German ship last week, said that the presence of the U.S. vessels scared them off.

"Their little boat was surrounded," Farah said by phone from Haradheere. "We couldn't go to help them, and for that we are sorry."
Which is not to say the Navy SEALS didn't think an assault weapon pointed at the prisoner meant his life was in danger. But it adds to the issue exactly what Lindsay is calling for: a thorough investigation in which all the facts can be known. Sadly, judging from the comments to Lindsay's post, not everyone want to see that happen:

Are you crazy? By holding a weapon to an innocent hostage, these "pirates" forfeited any right to protection that may have had. The only issue the seals should have considered was whether they could end the situation without danger to the hostage. That the gunmen were teenagers is utterly irrelevant. They were old enough to wield AK47s, to engage in piracy, and to threaten an innocent man with death; they were old enough to be shot dead.
It's fair enough to question, as another comment does, the application of the term "teenagers" to people from Somalia. That is a term with a lot of cultural baggage around it, and while sounds very young to us, it may well be middle-age for Somalians. And still, it isn't about chronology, but about culture. Age in one culture may still mean immaturity, whereas in another it may mean adulthood.

But the comments don't dwell on such considerations, and only get worse:

This article is is a waste of server space. Pirates (in reality terrorists - we don't call people who commandeer airplanes "pirates" how is a ship any different) don't have rights. They aren't US citizens, they sure as hell don't afford us or their own countrymen any rights for that matter. I would imagine in a rugged place like Somalia, your middle-aged at 15 so I don't think age is a valid consideration here. Even in the United States minors who undertake "adult-like" endeavors are treated as such by the justice system. Regardless, it is open season on pirates. I and I would argue many others (unless they're winy "cause-heads")likely feel as though there would be no need for explanation if the Somali pirates were replaced with Americans under these EXACT circumstances. It is cause for celebration - America finally did something right.
This would be a good place to consider why so many Somalis turned to piracy. Because they have a weak central government? Because without a Hobbesian ruler, we have a Hobbesian state of nature, a "Lord of the Flies" nightmare?

Nope:

In the past few weeks, a failed state that was forgotten for more than a decade once again made the world take notice. While Somalia's weak transitional government fails to assert control on land, a band of highly organized pirates have taken firm control of the country's sea lanes.
How long has this been going on? Well, Somalia's been a failed state for over a decade. The article quoted is from November, 2008. How did a "weak transitional government" lead to piracy? Well, because people are evil and vicious brutes, right? Nope:

The problem of piracy in Somalia originated about a decade ago because of disgruntled fishermen.

The headless state had no authority to patrol its tuna-rich coastal waters and foreign commercial vessels swooped in to cast their nets. This proved a slap in the face for Somalis, who saw these vessels as illegal and raking in profits at the expense of the local impoverished population. To make matters worse, there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters.

That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s. Making the coastal areas lucrative for local fishermen again could encourage pirates to return to legitimate livelihoods.

Second, a fishery protection force will eliminate the pirates' source of legitimacy. The pirates' spokesman, Sugule Ali, told the international press last month that his men executed attacks to prevent illegal fishing and dumping in their waters.

Although this claim may seem thin, it matters to the pirates' public image and sense of legitimacy. If the international community steps in to address their concerns, they will lose the one pretense they continue to stand upon for internal support and credibility.
Now, if that analysis is anywhere near right, the solution to this problem would not be (surprise! surprise!) military, but simply regulatory. Attack the root of the tree of evil, rather than hack at its branches (like three men in a lifeboat, adrift at sea). Would it be better to attack Somalia? Or to protect it from foreigners, so the people there can make a living, marginal as it may be? Is it better to label them "terrorists" and so beyond the pale of human consideration? Or to consider alternatives that won't get anybody killed, and just might work. At least we should learn a bit more about the history of this problem:

Skeptics could argue that intimidation is just what these lawless bandits need. However, temporary crackdowns have not uprooted the problem yet. The Union of Islamic Courts brutally suppressed piracy during the brief period they controlled the Somali capital in 2006, but the pirates waited them out and resurged stronger than ever.
2006? Piracy in 2006? Did you know that? Did you know this had been going on for over a decade? Have any of us ever thought to treat these people as human beings, rather than as "criminals," as "pirates," as "terrorists"?

I think Dennis Perrin may be right: we prefer the Democrat's Michael Corleone to the GOP's Sonny. So much easier to cast ourselves as the ones who must use violence although we don't want to, than to consider solutions that don't require violence at all.


(links via Empire Burlesgue, which link was courtesy of moonbootica.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"But we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye..."



So I'm listening to a scientist on the radio tell me that genetics will one day allow parents (with sufficient access to $$ and technology, of course!) to alter their child's IQ, raise it by as much as 20 points. And I'm wondering: why just IQ?

IQ, of course, is supposed to be a measure of reasoning power. But "reasoning" is not so univerally defined, as various critiques of the cultural bias of "IQ tests" have shown over the past decades. It's also one of those things that sounds scientific but for which we have no real unit of measure (is the difference between 100 and 110 on the IQ scale geometric? Arithmetic? Functional? Grab ass?). We forget that when Oliver Wendell Holmes approved enforced sterilization on the basis of IQ scores, and said: "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!", he was using a scientific, as well as legal, term, for classifying persons based on: IQ tests.

We also forget there are other measures of reasoning in other cultures, even within Western culture. Would the reasoning that benefited Einstein or Godel have served Davy Crockett at all? Would Jefferson's reasoning have been any good for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or T.S. Eliot? Would Aquinas' reasoning have served Shakespeare's ends, at all? And yet "IQ" is taken as the definitive measure of cognitive ability, of what the human brain is, and should be, capable of.

So, I wondered, why are we so anxious to enhance "IQ" if, in truth, we can't even define what it is, can't even settle on how, and with what cultural markers, it should be measured? If, in fact, we "enhance" IQ in embryos, in children, what advance would we see? And why is there no scientific interest in enhancing empathy, or compassion? Appreciation for beauty, or creativity? Ability to compose music, to work in the plastic arts, to be a good listener? Can we enhance social ability/ appreciation for others, openness to the "other"? Can we enhance capacity to love and care for one another?

And if we can't, how do we know we can enhance "IQ"? What, in fact, would be the point of enhancing IQ? To create more and better scientists, so we can enhance more and better the IQ of the next generation? "IQ" is a wonderful concept for scientists, because it sounds so much like them. They reason, so reasoning as they do it must be the ultimate good, the ultimate goal of all human kind. The world needs another Godel, not another Goethe; another Einstein, not another Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. And, of course, scientists would make this "enhancement" possible for the rest of us, and would also be the people advising us on whether or not to make it in our children, and assuring us this enhancement is best because, not only can they do it, but it's good that they can do it! It's the best enhancement there is!

And so far, and into the future, the only enhancement there is. Well, that and making better, faster, more muscular athletes. That, according to this scientist, is the other option.

But if to the man with a hammer the whole world looks like a nail, what kind of nail do we want to live on? And who do we want to be handing the hammers to? And what kind of hammers do we want to hand them?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eastertide 2009

The church year begins with Advent, a kind of "little Lent" that is supposed to prepare us for the year and for the arrival (adventus) of the Christ child. The year grinds to a halt and all but starts over almost immediately, as Epiphany crashes into Lent, and Lent after 40 days in the wilderness finally leads us to an empty tomb and a glorious resurrection, a mystery we still grapple with 2000 or so years later.

The secular New Year marks a time for resolutions, as Lent is supposed to do, as Advent is supposed to do. Maybe Easter is a good time to put some resolutions into effect.

In any case, for now and the remainder of the year, whether you observe Easter or not, this seems like good advice.

(With thanks to russell.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday 2009


And when the sabbath day was over, Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices so they could go and embalm him. And very early on the first day of the week they got to the tomb just as the sun was coming up. And they had been asking themselves, "Who will help us roll the stone away from the opening of the tomb?" Then they look up and discover that the stone has been rolled away! (For in fact the stone was very large.)

And when they went into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right, wearing a white robe, and they grew apprehensive.

He says to them, "Don't be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He was raised, he is not here! Look at the spot where they put him! But go and tell his disciples, including 'Rock,' he is going ahead of you to Galilee! There you will see him, just as he told you."

And once they got outside, they ran away from the tomb, because great fear and excitement got the better of them. And they didn't breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified. . .
Mark 16:1-8, SV

The canonical gospels agree on one point about that morning after the Sabbath: the empty tomb. They don't agree on what happened next. Mark doesn't even mention it, ending with the terrified women running from the empty place of death. Matthew has Jesus speak to his disciples in a final "Great Commission." The last words of the Gospel are Jesus speaking. What comes after that is the next story, but what Jesus does is unsaid. Luke has Jesus appear first to otherwise unknown disciples, who don't recognize him, and then he vanishes when they do. He appears again, in the middle of the disciples, but he has hands to touch, and he eats their food, proving he is not a ghost. Luke's Jesus ascends into heaven, not once, but twice, at the end of the gospel, and at the beginning of Acts. John's Jesus appears to Mary at the tomb, as a gardener, then in a locked room of disciples, but this time with wounds that can be probed; and finally on the lakeshore, grilling and eating fish with Peter and the others. About the resurrection, they all agree: the tomb was empty. What the resurrection means, they left largely to Paul, who had already worked that out before the first of the canonicals was written. What the resurrection was, none of them can quite agree.

Isaiah 25:6-9

25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

118:1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

118:2 Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."

118:14 The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

118:15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: "The right hand of the LORD does valiantly;

118:16 the right hand of the LORD is exalted; the right hand of the LORD does valiantly."

118:17 I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.

118:18 The LORD has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.

118:19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.

118:20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.

118:21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

118:23 This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,

15:2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain.

15:3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

15:4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,

15:5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

15:6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

15:7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

15:8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

15:11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Now I'm sad and tired:" Holy Saturday 2009



Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. (These women) had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.
In the canonical gospels it is consistently the women who pay attention to the body of Jesus. They appear in the Gospel of Mark for the first time, here; but they are two of many, we are told. The irony is not lost on Matthew, who records the days before Jesus' death this way:

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.
And yet to this day, we don't know who she was. Most memorials are like that, though. We see the statue but have no idea who the person was, or what they did. Or we hear the stories, yet misunderstand them or lose their meaning over time. The crucifixion stories are especially subjects of this problem.

And when it had already grown dark, since it was preparation day (the day of the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimethea, a respected council member, who was himself anticipating God's imperial rule, appeared on the scene, and dared to go to Pilate to request the body of Jesus. And Pilate was surprised that he had died so soon. He summoned the Roman officer and asked him whether he had been dead for long. And when he had been briefed by the Roman officer, he granted the body to Joseph. And he bought a shroud and took him down and wrapped him in the shroud, and placed him in a tomb that had been cut out of rock, and rolled a stone up against the opening of the tomb.
The writer of Mark's gospel is especially concerned to allay stories that Jesus of Nazareth was not dead, and so never rose from the dead. Skepticism abounded, then as now, to such a claim. Joseph of Arimethea is a wealthy follower of Jesus, another unknown person in Mark's gospel until this point. He appears in order to make the burial in a tomb of a Nazarene peasant executed for sedition, for threatening the Pax Romana, credible. Dom Crossan argues it is more likely such a criminal was removed from the crucifix when dead, and tossed in a shallow pit, to be devoured by dogs and carrion eaters. It is not, on the other hand, impossible that a person notable enough to leave such a following behind, would be notable enough in his lifetime to have rich followers who would wish to honor their teacher in death.

But Crossan's version helps us strip away from of the patina of the story after 2000 years, to see it as less an inevitabilty leading to Easter morning, and more as a finality ended before Holy Saturday.

Versions are important here. One version of the Easter story relates it to Ishtar and Sumeria, "[i]n the Sumerian tradition, in which much of the Bible is rooted." The Gospels, however, are also rooted in Greek traditions, no surprise as they are written in Greek, not in a Semitic tongue like Aramaic or Hebrew. Stories of resurrection of heroes are not unknown in Greek literature; they reflect the special favor of the hero by the gods. Paul's account of the resurrection (which, aside from the eucharist, is all Paul ever tells about the life of Jesus of Nazareth) reflect this understanding of the resurrection. Is the story related to that of Dumuzi and Ishtar? Frankly, that one sounds more like Persephone than Jesus of Nazareth, especially as the "descent into hell" and the "harrowing of hell" are not mentioned in the gospels at all, and come much later in Christian doctrine. But again, versions and interpretations highlight the humanity of the stories. These are myths, perhaps, but "a myth traditionally is not just a false tale. Rather, it is a story that, at least at one point in time, had a very powerful spiritual resonance. The story of death and resurrection is one such story." Restoring the power to that story is ever the task of the body of believers.

And Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joses noted where he had been laid to rest.
It is a woman who anoints Jesus in Matthew, in Luke, and in John. And in all four stories, it is women who come to the tomb first. Women care for the dead as if they were living; or, more importantly, as if death really meant something.

2000 years later, it still does, and still should. We gather to worship and pray at the tomb of a crucified god.

Job 14:1-14

14:1 "A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,

14:2 comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last.

14:3 Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you?

14:4 Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can.

14:5 Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass,

14:6 look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.

14:7 "For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease.

14:8 Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground,

14:9 yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant.

14:10 But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?

14:11 As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up,

14:12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

14:13 Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!

14:14 If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.

Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24

3:1 I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God's wrath;

3:2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;

3:3 against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.

3:4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones;

3:5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation;

3:6 he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.

3:7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me;

3:8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;

3:9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.

3:19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!

3:20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16

31:1 In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.

31:2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.

31:3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name's sake lead me and guide me,

31:4 take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

31:15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.

31:16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

Holy Saturday 2009


Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. (These women) had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.

And when it had already grown dark, since it was preparation day (the day of the Sabbath), Joseph of Arimethea, a respected council member, who was himself anticipating God's imperial rule, appeared on the scene, and dared to go to Pilate to request the body of Jesus. And Pilate was surprised that he had died so soon. He summoned the Roman officer and asked him whether he had been dead for long. And when he had been briefed by the Roman officer, he granted the body to Joseph. And he bought a shroud and took him down and wrapped him in the shroud, and placed him in a tomb that had been cut out of rock, and rolled a stone up against the opening of the tomb. And Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joses noted where he had been laid to rest.

Mark 15:40-47, SV

"Then I was inspired:" Holy Saturday 2009



And they tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn't take it.
"Myrrh" shows up three times in the Gospels: most famously, in Matthew 2:11, one of the gifts of the Magi. And again in John 19:39: "Nicodemus--the one who had first gone to him at night--came too, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds." Scholars agree this is a "wildly extravagant amount," meant to indicate devotion, not history.

And they crucify him, and they divide up his garments, casting lots to see who would get what.
Psalm 22:18-"They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture."

It was 9 o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. And the inscription, which identified his crime, read, 'The King of the Judeans.' And with him they crucify two rebels, one on his right and one on his left.
Mark's gospel more clearly identifies Jesus' "crime" as treason against the Pax Romana, a direct connection to chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple at Passover, something sure to stir the populace too much at a politically charged time (Passover being the central recognition of the creation of the nation of Israel). "Judeans" is a Roman word, referring to the area Rome called "Judea."

Those passing by kept taunting him, wagging their heads, and saying, "Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!"
"Why did you not tear asunder the heavens and come down, that, when you appeared, the mountains might shake, that fire might blaze as it blazes in bruswhood when it makes water boil?" Isaiah 64:1. No, not necessarily what the author of Mark had in mind; but the sentiment is an old one, indeed.

Likewise the ranking priests made fun of him to each other, along with the scholars; they would say, "He saved others, but he can't save himself! 'The Anointed', 'the King of Israel,' should come dwon from the cross here and now, so that we can see and trust for ourselves!"
Again, with the sentiment. And "The Anointed One" is, in Hebrew rendered into English: "Messiah."

Even those being crucified along with him would abuse him.
Psalm 22, again. "But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying: "He trusted on the Lord that he should deliver him; let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him." Psalm 22:6-7

And when noon came, darkness blanketed the whole land until mid-afternoon. And at 3 o'clock in the afternoon Jesus shouted at the top of his voice, "Eloi, eloi, lema sabachtani" (which means, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?").
Psalm 22:1, verbatim. Notice that none of the Jews standing by recognize the language. It being Passover, they immediately think of Elijah.

And when some of the standing nearby heard, they would say, "Listen, he's calling Elijah!" And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, fixed it on a pole, and offered him a drink, saying, "Let's see if Elijah comes to rescue him!"

But Jesus let out a great shout and breathed his last.
This is the first canonical telling, and the most human description of the crisis.


And they tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn't take it. And they crucify him, and they divide up his garments, casting lots to see who would get what. It was 9 o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. And the inscription, which identified his crime, read, 'The King of the Judeans.' And with him they crucify two rebels, one on his right and one on his left.

Those passing by kept taunting him, wagging their heads, and saying, "Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!"

Likewise the ranking priests made fun of him to each other, along with the scholars; they would say, "He saved others, but he can't save himself! 'The Anointed', 'the King of Israel,' should come dwon from the cross here and now, so that we can see and trust for ourselves!"

Even those being crucified along with him would abuse him.

And when noon came, darkness blanketed the whole land until mid-afternoon. And at 3 o'clock in the afternoon Jesus shouted at the top of his voice, "Eloi, eloi, lema sabachtani" (which means, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?").

And when some of the standing nearby heard, they would say, "Listen, he's calling Elijah!" And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, fixed it on a pole, and offered him a drink, saying, "Let's see if Elijah comes to rescue him!"

But Jesus let out a great shout and breathed his last.

Mark 15:23-37, SV

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Grief Friday


Rick Perry, Gov. Goodhair of Texas, yesterday:

“I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state,” Gov. Perry said. “That is why I am here today to express my unwavering support for efforts all across our country to reaffirm the states’ rights affirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I believe that returning to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution and its essential 10th Amendment will free our state from undue regulations, and ultimately strengthen our Union.”
Rick Perry today:

Gov. Rick Perry is asking FEMA to issue an emergency declaration for 199 Texas counties dealing with wildfire threats.

A FEMA declaration would provide federal assets and firefighting resources to assist in battling the blazes that have burned more than 100,000 acres since Thursday.
I feel compelled to point out, in his defense, that Gov. Goodhair is also a good Aggie.

Carry on.

Good Friday 2009

The music for today should be silence, and darkness the visual. Or Bach, Penderecki, or Ligeti. This is the next best thing:

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Apres moi, le deluge...?



I'm listening to Richard Wolff on Casino Capitalism on the local Pacifica station. His thesis is that American economic history from 1820 to 1970 reflects a rising standard of living, due to rising wages, for every decade of those 150 years. He points out this includes the decade of the Great Depression, because while wages fell in that decade, prices fell faster. This, of course, created an expectation of rising wages and a rising standard of living on into the future. But it ended in the 1970's, due to a confluence of events (two of which, as I can recall, were the advent of the computer, which replaced workers, and the return to full industrialization of Europe and Japan, both of which rebuilt with "Competing with America" in mind. That first might seem less relevant than the latter, especially since the PC didn't come along for another decade, but I recall the stories of people hired to crunch numbers for the Manhattan Project, people replaced now by computers. So there's something to it, in the Big Picture.)

In the '70's, then, that stopped, and the question was: will people adjust? Will they decide to lower consumption, expect less, be happy with what they have, rather than what they can have? (This 150 year period also created the understanding that we are what we own, or what we'll be able to own. A sort of Midas Plague, as it were.) Or would they borrow themselves into a position where debt now equals, even exceeds, income?

I think we know the answer to that one. The question now is: is that about to change, again?:
Ed Kerschner, chief investment strategist at Citi Global Wealth Management, says the US has passed an “inflection” point, marking the end of an acceptance of conspicuous consumption that he traces back to the Reagan presidency of the early 1980s. The end of easy access to consumer credit will, he argues, lead to “thriftiness” focused on “value”, rather than “frugality” focused on low prices.

“It’s going to be about thrift...it’s not about being frugal or cheap,” he says.

Context-Based Research, which sent its cultural anthropologists out to US cities in December, said it heard consumers talking of “community”, “hard work”, and “taking responsibility”.

Robbie Blinkoff, Context’s principal anthropologist, says he expects to see the emergence of a new “reflective consumerism”.

He also says it is still hard to gauge the inevitable impact of the recession on young people. “When I pull out a credit card, my eight-year-old daughter says, “you are using debit, not credit, right, Dad?” It’s funny. But that will stick with her for the rest of her life.”
An Iowa state Senator, on NPR last night, said his mind started to change on the subject of gay marriage when his daughter told him her generation just didn't care who was married to whom. My daughter is studying transgender issues in her high school class, concepts not even spoken of in my high school 35 years ago. In some sense, our children pull us into the future now. In another sense, the future may be here.

I remember the 1970's well. The remarkable economic feature of it was inflation, which fueled credit card purchasing, because you could by today and pay in 30 days, and actually make money, because in 30 days your purchasing power had actually declined, due to inflation. Everybody caught on to this very quickly. I also remember the "new frugality" this supposed imposed on us, because it became too expensive to buy what you didn't need. I was taking TIME Magazine at the time, and the story on the change in consumption stuck with me. This, TIME said, marked a return to a frugal America, to a (they didn't put it this way, but) pre-1820's America, an America before expectations of rising wages and rising living standards created the expectation of the "American Dream:" "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." That was the America we were supposed to become.

Instead, Whole Foods Market, which started in Austin as an "alternative" grocery store run by hippies, became "Whole Paycheck," an upscale grocery store you at least wanted to be seen in, whether you could afford it or not. When NPR ran a story last Fall about an upper-income mother who'd stopped shopping at Whole Foods because of the expense, I knew something was coming. But has it come now? We thought it had in the '70's; but "easy credit," according to Mr. Wolfe, was just gearing us up for the Reagan '80's, which even financial leaders now saw is the period of excess we are just seeing ended.

So has it changed? I don't know. But the idea of responsibility, of hard work and community? That sounds exactly like the ideas of Barack Obama. Is he shaping the times, or reflecting them? We were supposed to have seen a sea-change in America after 9/11, but did we? We aren't supposed to be seeing a sea-change in America now; but are we?

I think so. I honestly think so. As Mr. Wolff says: "There's nothing left to bubble." The Internet bubble, the marketing bubble, the real estate bubble: all burst. Will we rush to do this again?

No. No, I think our kids are changed, and we are going live into that change.

“When I pull out a credit card, my eight-year-old daughter says, “you are using debit, not credit, right, Dad?” It’s funny. But that will stick with her for the rest of her life.”
I think it's going to stick with a lot of us; especially those whose lives are just beginning and, God willing, are going to be long and full indeed.