Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Can I get a Witness?

The Babylonian Exile is the decisive event of the Biblical record. The Hebrew Scriptures divide between the pre-Exilic, and post-Exilic, documents. All of the prophecies of the Messiah found in the Gospels date from the period of the Exile itself. The very concept of the Messiah, is a concept that comes out of the experience of Exile. Keep that in mind when you read this from Deuteronomy:

[God]secures justice for the fatherless and the widow, and he shows love towards the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must show love towards the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt. (10:19)
The reminder that the Israelites were "aliens in Egypt recurs in chapter 16, chapter 24 and chapter 26. It is a solemn reminder that they were strangers once, and could be again. The echoes of the experience of the Exile are unmistakable. And the fate of the individual and the nation are undeniably bound to how the aliens among them are treated:

You must not keep back the wages of a man who is poor and needy, whether a countryman or an alien living in your country in one of your settlements. Pay him his wages on the same day before sunset, for he is poor and relies on them; otherwise he may appel to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. 24:14-15.
Not exactly an exclusionary text, either, when an alien, one who is not a son or daughter of Abraham, can appeal to the God of Abraham against one of the "chosen."

The ritual blessing in Chapter 26 drives the point home:

Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: 'My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful, and large nation. The Egyptians treates us harshly and humiliated us; the imposed cruel slavery on us. We cried to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us, and, when he saw our misery and hardship and oppression, the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds,a nd with signs and portents." 26:5b-8
Imagine that language being recited by people who had returned to Jerusalem after life in Babylon. "Deuteronomy" is Greek, not Hebrew. The title comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, and literally translated yields "Twin" or "Second" law. The concept is known to American lawyers, where the English and later American common law principles are gathered together in a "Restatement" of the law of Torts, for example. That text, then, is the restatement of the law of Moses after the Exile; after the return to Jerusalem, to the process of rebuilding a country on the foundations of the word of God. The Exile was a shattering experience. It was the very reality of God seemingly abandoning the people and their covenant and the promise to Abraham. It was quite literally the loss of everything, a loss only restored by Cyrus of Persia. Keep all of that in mind, and consider this:

"I don't know much about [waterboarding], but I know we're dealing with terrorists who do some very awful things to people," [Army General Russell Honore] said after Friday morning's speech to about 900 students at Flat Rock Middle School in Tyrone. "I know enough about [waterboarding] that the intent is not to kill anybody. We know that terrorists that we deal with, they have no law that they abide by. They have no code, they kill indiscriminately, like they did on 9/11."
The first response, of course, should be: if you don't know anything about waterboarding, you should keep your mouth shut. Four retired high ranking military officers do know something about waterboarding, and they've declared it reprehensible:

Two retired generals and two retired admirals have written a letter (pdf) to Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating that “waterboarding detainees amounts to illegal torture in all circumstances. To suggest otherwise — or even to give credence to such a suggestion — represents both an affront to the law and to the core values of our nation.”
But set that aside, and consider the "ticking bomb" scenario Gen. Honore refers to. Some in the military blame the popularity of that scenario on "24," but it's an old theme in American movies. Anybody remember that scene from the first "Dirty Harry" movie, where Eastwood drives a knife into the killer's leg and tortures him until he reveals where the victim has been buried alive? Harry finds the victim, already dead; and the murderer is released, because Harry tortured him. Which brings us to the fundamental question: what's the difference between a "terrorist" and a "criminal"?

"If we picked up a prisoner that could tell us where the next 9/11 plot was, we could sit there and treat him nice, and that may not work," he said. "We could sit there and give him water and we could be politically correct.

"But if we have to use sources and methods that get information that not only save American lives, but save other people's lives or could prevent a major catastrophe from happening, I think the American people can decide [whether to allow waterboarding]."

"As long as we're responsible for hunting those SOBs down, finding them and preventing them from killing our sons and daughters," Honore said, "I think we've got an obligation to do what the hell we've got to do to make sure we get the mission done."
So far, the answer has been: criminals are "white," terrorists are foreigners. If anyone can name an individual arrested or detained since 9/11/01 as a "terrorist" who was not of non-European (i.e., "Caucasian") appearance without resorting to Google, I'd be surprised. I can only think of the Australian who was detained in Gitmo and finally released. Other than that, every alleged terrorist or detainee I know of in no way resembles Timothy McVeigh, at least in appearance. Serial killers and gang members and plain, ordinary mean and sociopathic and drunk people continue to kill other Americans at an alarming rate, and yet no one advocates going "Dirty Harry" on them for any reason. They are, even more than the "terrorists" we are told constantly to fear, killing our sons and daughters. The only difference is, we don't send our sons and daughters into their countries and knowingly put them in harm's way. But here is an Army general, one with political ambitions based on his performance in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, advocating a completely lawless approach to a criminal problem. And the only distinction between criminals in the US and terrorists, is that the latter are always and uniformly assumed to be not only foreigners, but non-whites.

If that isn't racism, what is it?

When the Hebrews included the "alien" in their law, they meant something actually beyond the 19th century European concept of "race." They meant people not of their tribe, people outside the reach of family, people who could in no way be considered trustworthy or even loyal without some distinct evidence. Consider the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wife's Lament." She laments because her husband has died and no one in the tribe will accept her; she ends her days living in a hollow tree in the forest, foraging for food, trying to survive the Northern European winters. In this context, care for the alien is not only radical, it's fundamental to the Middle Eastern notions of hospitality. But considering the fights between tribes recorded just in the Anglo-Saxon poetry, or the Greek epics, or the history of the "Middle East," exclusion of the alien would make a great deal of sense.

So where is America? Proclaiming itself a bastion of liberty, a beacon of freedom, a stronghold of Christian faith? And yet fearing the alien, the "existential threat" which only exists among a few thousand people out of the world's billions, stateless groups with nothing more than determination and suicide bombers to attack us with? Israel during the Exile faced a true "existential threat," and they understood that the only way to survive it was to not abandon their fundamental laws. Our leadership, on the other hand, seems ready to abandon it and excuse it on any percieved expediency it can come up with. Well, some of our leaders. But in this crisis, "some" continue to equate to "just enough."

On the other hand, "just enough" is never quite everybody, either. The Deuteronomists spoke to the people; which is not to say all the people of Israel always listened and agreed and obeyed. Their restatement of the law, however, still stands as witness. And that is saying something. A very strong "something," indeed.

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