Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Same as it Never Was

Woolgathering, again. Start with Bob Herbert's column from yesterday:

What’s needed is a paradigm shift. Society (and thus law enforcement) needs to view any adult who sexually exploits a child as a villain, and the exploited child as a victim of that villainy. If a 35-year-old pimp puts a 16-year-old girl on the street and a 30-year-old john pays to have sex with her, how is it reasonable that the girl is most often the point in that triangle that is targeted by law enforcement?

A measure of how far we still have to go is the fact that some enlightened officials in the state of New York tried to shift that paradigm last year and failed. The proposed Safe Harbor Act would have ended the practice of criminalizing kids too young to legally consent to sex. Under the law, authorities would have no longer been able to charge children with prostitution, but would have had to offer such youngsters emotional counseling, medical care and shelter, if necessary.

Legislative passage was thwarted in large part because prosecutors made the case that it was necessary to hold the threat of jail over the heads of these children as a way of coercing them to testify against pimps. In other words: If you don’t tell us who hurt you, little girl, we’re going to put you in jail.

It was an utterly specious case, filled to the bursting point with tragic implications and unworthy of a civilized society.
Then go here, as the Iraqi government proves it is becoming more and more like the U.S. Government, i.e., only react to a social problem when it becomes a security problem:

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has ordered police to round up beggars, vagabonds and mentally disabled people from the streets of Baghdad to prevent them from being used by insurgents as suicide bombers, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The decision came after a series of suicide attacks, including two female bombers who struck pet markets in Baghdad on Feb. 1, killing nearly 100 people. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said the women were mentally disabled and apparently unwitting bombers.

The people detained in the Baghdad sweep will be handed over to governmental institutions that can provide shelter and care for them, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.
Still, laudable, I suppose, whatever the underlying reason. Except the underlying reason may not be all that laudable. Toward the end of the article is this information, which I had not seen before:

The Iraqi claim that mentally disabled women were used in the pet market bombings was met initially with skepticism. Iraqi authorities said they based the assertion on photos of the bombers' heads that purportedly showed the women had Down syndrome, and did not offer any other proof.

The U.S. military later backed the Iraqi account of the bombings, which led U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call al-Qaida in Iraq "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements."

American and Iraqi troops later detained the acting director of a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of helping supply patient information to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Smith, the military spokesman, said at the time that the suspect was being questioned "in connection with the possible exploitation of mentally impaired women to al-Qaida."

The allegations fit into a wider campaign of confronting insurgents' changing tactics _ such as using women or children as suicide bombers _ as they seek to bypass stepped-up security measures and bounce back from losses in recent U.S.-led offensives.
There is nothing in those claims to prove the women used in the suicide bombings were, themselves, victims because of their mental capacities. Google "Baghdad suicide bombings down syndrome", and you'll get a lot of news reports repeating the same claims. This blog entry indicates the identification was made from the severed head of one of the bombers. This Baltimore Sun article indicates the US military showed some members of the press photographs of the bodies of the bombers:

The photographs showed the lifeless faces of two dark-haired women with oblique eye fissures, a wide gap between the eyes and a flat nose bridge - characteristics consistent with Down syndrome.
And there is this evidence, from an eyewitness to the bombing:

Ali Nassir, a 30-year-old day laborer whose hobby is raising birds, said people with disabilities often beg for food and money at the weekly al-Ghazl pet bazaar on Fridays.

"I saw the suicide bomber, and she was begging," Nassir said, adding the woman was known to the vendors. "The security guards did not search her, because she is a woman and because it is not unusual to have beggars, mainly women and children, moving around in the market."
Hardly conclusive, however, and all the military could offer was:

"There are some indications that these two women were mentally handicapped," said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. "From what I see, it appears that the suicide bombers were not willing martyrs - they were used by al-Qaida [in Iraq] for these horrific attacks."
"Mentally handicapped," however, has now become "received psychiatric treatment for depression and/or schizophrenia" (as of February 20, 2008). There is no indication either woman had Down's Syndrome.

So the concern for the homeless, the poor, the beggars and vagabonds, is not based on reality, but a story meant to shape our perceptions of reality. Now one has to wonder: what are they really going to do to, or for, those people? After all:

It is not clear, however, that such people would be safe in psychiatric hospitals. American and Iraqi troops recently detained the acting director of the al-Rashad psychiatric hospital in eastern Baghdad on suspicion of helping supply patient information to al-Qaida in Iraq.
But the military admits it can't make a connection between the women and al-Qaeda, even though it still insists al-Qaeda was behind the bombings. And, of course: why did it take an imagined threat to national security to make the government of Iraq care at all?

Now make the connection through Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."

In the Kubrick film Alex, the protagonist, is a sociopath, a monster. In the first third of the film he commits numerous assaults and one rape. He treats other people as either objects of his violence, and women as simply recipients of his sex drive. He control his small gang of "droogs" with violence and petty flattery and when he is finally arrested and imprisoned for murder, he shows his complete understanding of social order by obseqiously obeying, without question or contradiction, every order given to him by the prison guards and the prison governor. His only act of defiance is to speak up when the Home Secretary comes to inspect the prison, as he hopes to be selected for a new treatment program which promises his release in 14 days. He is unfailingly polite to those he thinks can abuse or control him, unfailingly sneering and authoritarian to his droogs, and dismissive of other people who serve only as objects of his violence.

And by the end of the film, it is clear the state, which is to say society, thinks of him in precisely the same way.

After his "treatment," he is put on stage for the Home Secretary to prove the efficacy of this penal reform the Government has championed. First a man comes out and verbally, then physically abuses, Alex. While Alex would like to respond physically, the thought of it makes him ill and renders him helpless. When he's recovered from that, a naked woman comes onstage and stands calmly before him. Though he reaches out to touch her, even the attempt, the thought of what he considers sex, again makes him violently ill. Notably, when each of these person leaves the stage, they ignore Alex's pathetic state, and bow to the applauding audience like a Shakespearean actor accepting plaudits for a particularly fine pass at a soliloquy. At the end of the film Alex, having suffered retribution from the victims he tormented in the first third of the film, is in a hospital bed being hand-fed by the Home Secretary as the Secretary explains that the Government was misled about the treatment, and an investigation will affix blame on those responsible (who will not be the Home Secretary nor anyone else in Parliament). Alex, having become the poster child for this treatment, has tried to commit suicide, and the attempt is linked to his treatment, so what was first trumpeted as humane reform is now seen as inhumane. All is well, though, because the Home Secretary is going to give Alex a job, a house, all that he needs to reintegrate into society, and thus prove the compassion of the Government. All Alex has to do is go along with it, something he is, of course, quite happy to do.

Power is once again supreme, and everyone is gratified at its ability to bring about a happy ending. In the end, that is all governance is about: the effective use of power. Alex is a pawn in the game, a token on a board. He is not deserving of sympathy, because he is a monster. But the government is a monster, too, and which is more monstrous: the sociopath, or the society that defends itself by using the same reasoning as the sociopath? The story ends up raising a very interesting question, at least an interesting one for Christians. (There is a chaplain in the prison, and while he is introduced berating the prisoners for their crimes and assuring them of a warm place in hell if they don't repent, he is the only person to point out how inhumane the treatment has been, to reduce Alex to a creature who has no free will, no choice in how he behaves. Choice, of course, is the last thing the Government is interested in encouraging.) That interesting question:

How do you love your enemies?

It is, of course, a personal question. You cannot expect the government to love your enemies on your behalf. That is tyranny of a truly monstrous kind. But the film is an object lesson in power, and in having enemies (as I think about it, all of Kubrick's films can be seen as meditations on the use and abuse of power. Hmmm.....). At one point during his treatment, Alex screams in protest because the soundtrack to the film he's forced to watch is his beloved "Ludwig Van". It's the 9th Symphony, the same music he is tortured into a suicide attempt with. Indeed, in both cases his tormentors are gleeful at his anguish. In the latter case, it is the man Alex has beaten into a wheelchair; in the former, the doctors who are subjecting him to their correctional regimen. They are obviously delighted by Alex's screams, and remind him the treatment is for his own good, and he'll just have to accept it, like it or not. Everyone in the film, in other words, is a monster, when they are given the chance. Except for the chaplain, who only breates the prisoners, and the guards, who only enforce discipline with shouts, every character in the film is happy to use what power they have to make someone else suffer. Much easier to have enemies; it allows you to justify the violence you want to do.

I'm not unmindful that there is a violence inherent in Christianity. Indeed, Christians place the crucifix and the crucificion at the dead center of the faith narrative. But even then, we clean it up as much as we can, and try to scrub away suffering and replace it with love and compassion and softness. Still, the violence in the scriptures persists. I've read a quote from an unnamed Benedictine monk: "If you can't deal with the violence in the Psalms, you can't deal with the violence in your heart." Searching Google for the source, I found this wonderful passage:

First, these texts force us to be honest with ourselves. Once when I was teaching a class to our older sisters one of them said, "I cannot pray those violent psalms." I was edified, thinking that years of monastic life had rooted the violence out of her heart. But another older sister said, "I don't know why you can't say those things in church. You say them in the hall!" I have been pondering that ever since.
The writer goes on to use St. Benedict's comparison of the babies to be bashed against the rocks in Psalm 137 with our own cherished thoughts, the wicked thoughts we must smash against the rock of Christ, in order to destroy them. It's a bit metaphorical for me (although on another day it might not be), but the point is the same: we cannot banish violence from our hearts and our lives any more than we can banish our breathing or our hunger. The question of violence, like the question of suffering (I promise to come back to that one!), is not how do we do away with it, but what do we do with it? Bob Herbert and the government of Iraq and the vision of Stanley Kubrick's film show us how power can be abused to bend others to our desires. How can we use our tendencies, our nature, the way we are, to love our enemies? How can we turn our violence, in actions or in words, to peace?

Call it another Lenten meditation.

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