Monthly Archives: September 2010

Unclear on the Concept

In college one of my favorite comic strips was Mr. Boffo by Joe Martin.  At that time the strip featured a series of cartoons entitled “People Unclear on the Concept.”  One entry depicts the interior of a passenger airliner.  On the starboard side all eyes are glued to the windows as the terrified passengers watch the engine burst into flames.  One man on the other side of the aisle, however,  seems unconcerned, even cocky.  He points to the intact engine on his side of the plane and, leaning over the aisle, taunts one of the horrified passengers. “Ha!  Ours is still good!” he laughs.

On Monday Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), often celebrated as a moderate among conservatives, addressed the American Enterprise Institute in DC and warned that the U.S. must be willing to use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  He also added that such an option must include as its goal a complete regime change in that country. Such an attack should not use ground troops, he said, but should be launched using air and naval forces.

One frightening fact is that Graham serves as a senior member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which helps to determine military policy.  Does he have any concept of what a combined air and naval bombardment can do to a civilian population?  Obviously, in not committing ground troops, he wants to spare us more American casualties at a time when a majority of us want the war in Af-Pak to end.  Thoughtful of him.  And what about the thousands of Iranian civilians who would die in such a conflict?  An estimated 6,600 Iraqi civilians died during several days of heavy bombardment during the 2003 Shock and Awe campaign over Baghdad.  Perhaps hundreds of thousands dead in securing the country over the past seven years.  Was it worth it?

Is this our answer to everything?  Bomb them first, negotiate later.  What gives us the right to inflict such suffering and mayhem on an Iranian population that only wants freedom– the same freedom we saw them fighting so bravely for in the streets last year. Did you see them on YouTube and Twitter?  These are the people who would form the collateral damage of Sen. Graham’s campaign.

And what makes us think they would want our brand of freedom?  Are the citizens of Iraq really so better off now than they were before?  Struggling to eke out an existence amid an infrastructure that was flattened by our bombs, terrorism that we brought in our wake, and political corruption and repression that are as rampant now as they were before.  The average Iraqi sees little good that we’ve brought.  Regime change, sure, but in name only.  The names and faces of the villains have merely changed.  Is this the blessing we want to inflict on the people of Iran, Senator Graham? 

Raptores orbis, postquam cuncta vastantibus defuere terrae, mare scrutantur: si locuples hostis est, avari, si pauper, ambitiosi, quos non Oriens, non Occidens satiaverit: soli omnium opes atque inopiam pari adfectu concupiscunt. Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.  (Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a wasteland and call it peace)  — the 1st-century British chieftain Calgacus, quoted in Tacitus, Agricola, xxx.

If history tells us anything, it’s that what goes around comes around.  The nation that murders, pillages, and oppresses others is eventually itself murdered, pillaged and oppressed.  And that is not merely because the universe has an acute sense of irony; it is because there is a God, and he is just.  Incredibly patient, but just. If you look today, you will not find a Roman Empire, merely the vestiges of one:  monuments she built to herself when drunk with empire.  Eventually, the day came when the city that terrorized and subjugated the world was herself terrorized and subjugated, stripped naked for all to gawk and laugh at.

Many are familiar with Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818), inspired by a fragment of a colossal statue of Pharaoh Rameses II in the British Museum.  Few may know that Shelley wrote the poem in competition with his friend Horace Smith, who published his version the same year.  It hasn’t the grace of Shelley’s, but it may perhaps hit closer to home: 

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

So I tremble for my country.  And I also pray that one day America will disenthrall herself, wake up from the intoxication and rapine violence called empire, to become the nation she was created to be.  A peacemaker in the world, rather than a troublemaker, one whose leaders are the envy, not the bane, of humanity, a country whose name is invoked as a blessing, not a curse, a source of hope, rather than  fear.  To become the generous and peace-loving America we think we are, but have never really been.  That we would not be like the cartoonist’s character on that airplane, mocking his fellow passenger as the plane goes down, as though we lived in complete isolation, instead of in a vitally interconnected world that must learn to live in peace.  Oh that we would be clear on this concept!


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September 14, 2010    

WEST ORANGE, NJ–  The peace of this normally quiet neighborhood was shattered early Monday morning when a Chinese predator drone dropped two bombs, destroying six homes and significantly damaging twelve others.  In all, 18 people were killed, 21 wounded. 

“We heard nothing.  There was no warning. Just these huge explosions,” said Robin Maachen, a mother of three whose home suffered damage in the blasts. “We were asleep.  Everybody was asleep.  There was no time to prepare ourselves.  Everything just shook, and things started falling.  I can’t believe this happened.”

Among the dead were 9 children and 3 seniors, all of whom lived in private homes within a one-block radius of the blast site.  The search for survivors was called off yesterday when the last body was accounted for.

The Beijing government claimed success in killing at least one Chinese national, Ouyang Hsieh, in the 3:00 AM attack.  Hsieh had long been wanted in China on charges of drug smuggling.  West Orange police confirmed today that Hsieh, who had recently immigrated to the U.S., was among the dead. 

“While we regret the loss of life,” a Chinese official stated yesterday, “the world is a much safer place without Mr. Hsieh.” 

The U.S. State Department has declined to comment on the night bombing, but it is widely rumored in Washington that increasing financial pressure from Beijing is behind the recent White House decision to give Chinese predator drones access to American air space. 

[Sounds crazy, huh? Exactly. No, it’s not true.  But should we do elsewhere what we are not willing to have done to us?]

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Simplify, Simplify?

In a lecture entitled “Life Without Principle” (published posthumously in 1863), philosopher Henry David Thoreau warns us:  “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.”

Almost two decades earlier Thoreau had moved into his cabin on Walden Pond, embarking upon a two-year experiment in the pursuit of a more simple, quiet and pure life, in contrast, he believed, to that of the mass of humanity, who “lead lives of quiet desperation.”  “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” he asks in Walden (1852).

“…We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still…. Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose…. For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life — I wrote this some years ago — that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest…. To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure — news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy…. and as for England, almost the last significant scrap of news from that quarter was the revolution of 1649…. The preacher, instead of vexing the ears of drowsy farmers on their day of rest at the end of the week — for Sunday is the fit conclusion of an ill-spent week, and not the fresh and brave beginning of a new one — with this one other draggle-tail of a sermon, should shout with thundering voice, ‘Pause! Avast! Why so seeming fast, but deadly slow?'”(ch.2).

Thoreau lived in the middle of the nineteenth century, when America was rapidly industrializing as well as clearing and settling its frontier with an alarming mindlessness.  The materialism and hustle-bustle of the young nation filled the young philosopher with horror, as he saw that all this activity produced a great deal of heat and dust, but little light.  For him the various appurtenances and necessities of modern life had become an obstacle to “elevated thought.”  For Plato “the unexamined life was not worth living”; for Thoreau, it was no life at all.

What would the Sage of Walden think of our lives today?  We rise early to check our email, post vapid comments on our Facebook pages, check email again, then log in repeatedly during the day to see if someone has left an even more inane comment to our comment; watch our 24-hour news channels, then retire, but not before checking our email one last time.  Not to mention, of course, that we hold our smart phones next to our hearts, insuring that anyone on God’s decreasingly green earth can reach us at any moment of the day.  If that would not be enough to make old Thoreau disappear deeper into the woods, never to be heard from again, then I’ll turn in my English degree.

William Powers in his recent book Hamlet’s Blackberry, examines the way this technological revolution has made things like solitude and deep thought a distant memory.  As he described it on a recent PBS interview, “I was feeling, in my work, in my family life, and just really kind of inside my own head a crowdedness, a sort of never — never quiet time.”  With all the phone calls, email, Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, comments, etc. Powers feels he and his family had reached what he calls “digital maximalism.”

Powers is no Luddite, however, hurling execration on modern life, since as a confessed multitasker  he cannot do without the internet, email and cell phone himself.  The issue for him is one of balance.  The answer, he says, is to “do what Thoreau did, which is learn to have a little disconnectedness within the connected world… don’t run away.”  The Powers clan, who now live in a quiet corner of Cape Cod, practice what they call an Internet Sabbath, turning off the modem from Friday evening until Monday morning.  “What we saw in our family life was something was being leached out of our togetherness and our communication by turning away from each other toward the screen and even just communicating with each other on the screen. We were e-mailing across the house, you know, when we could walk a few steps and have a conversation.” [Hmm, come to think of it, we do that all the time at the office.]

Having hit bottom, the author began a search of the great thinkers of the past (such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, and Thoreau), and found they each had confronted similar technological challenges.  Socrates, for example, bemoaned the advent of the written alphabet since people no longer had to remember anything; they could just look it up.   The Stoic philosopher Seneca, who also had a role in the Roman imperial government, complained that he and his colleagues were absolutely inundated with mail, with people constantly checking for the latest dispatches from overseas.  Pulled in so many directions by his responsibilities, he realized he had to find a tranquil place he could retire to, even if it was only in his mind.  Ben Franklin, too, knew the power of staying connected, but also the need for moments of quiet reflection.

These days Powers tours the country talking about the importance of “selective disconnecting.”  “One of the first talks I gave about the book,” he says, “was in Los Angeles to a fairly large audience, people of many different ages. And after the speech, the people who came up to me and really buttonholed me most urgently were — tended to be younger people. And a few of them really had tears in their eyes and said, you know, I have never — I didn’t even know this was an option.”

As I write this blog, dear reader, I have just realized that my wife left several minutes ago saying she was going to take our 2-year-old daughter out for her first tricycle ride.  What in the world am I doing here?  What would Thoreau say?  I’ll see you later.  “Honey, wait up!”

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The Global “War on Terror”:  It’s Not Really 
About Terrorists Because It’s Not About People

Last month the Washington Post reported that the Pakistani government had implored the U.S. military in Afghanistan for more helicopters to use in flood relief efforts.  With over a fifth of Pakistan under water, tens of millions of people affected, and international aid trickling in like ketchup from a bottle, the Pakistanis were desperate to avoid a massive humanitarian crisis.  But helicopters are in short supply, said a senior U.S. military official.  “Do they exist in the region?  Yes.  Are they available?  No.”  And nothing short of a direct command from the White House could divert them from their appointed mission.

An August 20 report by the Asian Human Rights Commission details a decision by the Pakistani government, presumably under U.S. pressure, to divert flood waters away from a U.S. airbase in Shahbaz and toward nearby towns and villages where, as a result, over 800,000 people were displaced.  As one minister admitted, “If the water was not diverted, the Shahbaz Airbase would have been inundated.” This landing field was given to the U.S. by former President Musharraf as a base from which to launch aerial attacks against terrorist targets.  In order to spare the base, a local bypass was demolished, which diverted waters toward hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis instead, who are now stranded without homes, food or water.  With no other airbase in the area from which to launch relief efforts, the situation of those affected remains extremely dire. Couldn’t the U.S. base be used for the relief effort?  No.

Hey, we’re fighting global terrorism.  We don’t have time to care about abstract things like Humanity.  We’re spending trillions killing Muslims.  Do we have to show we care about them, too?

So once again we have clearly demonstrated the terrorists are right:  we don’t give a tinker’s damn about the followers of Islam.  Apparently, our policy is “the only good Muslim is a dead one.”

One other thing is abundantly clear from our response to this crisis:  this so-called War on Terror is not about terrorism. If it were, we would immediately stop what we are doing, put down our weapons and devote our time, treasure and technology to relieving the suffering of the very people who hate us.  Why?  To show them they are wrong.  But clearly, and sadly, they are not wrong.

This endless war is not about terrorism; it never was. That was just the pretext.  As with Iraq, it is and has always been about greed:  about the potential billions of dollars of oil that should be flowing from countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Russia, through our pipelines, through Afghanistan, through Pakistan, and into our waiting tankers.  Ours.  Ours.  Ours. And about the billions of our tax dollars and borrowed money being shoveled into that insatiate Plutonian furnace ycleped the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”

As our government, along with others’, under the spell of petrodollars, continues to stonewall development and conversion to clean energy, the race to tap the world’s yet untapped oil reserves becomes even nastier.  And we must have it.  All of it.  It is ours.  And why not?  We have, after all, sacrificed a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives, not to mention hundreds of thousands of other lives (no, we won’t mention that) to insure we can fill up our tanks (both automobile and the military kind).

Well, what about freedom?  Yes, this war is about freedom.  Our freedom to get oil, our freedom to get what we want, to invade whom we choose, all to line the pockets of powerful companies, even though that addiction is killing us, the rest of the world and all that dwells therein.

But no, don’t say this was ever about terrorists, please, because it was never ever about people.

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