Friday, September 12, 2014

A Good Man Goes To Great Lengths To Avoid A War

There is a group, the "Islamic" State, that has decided that their brand of extremist Islam demands the "restoration" of a caliphate in the Middle East. They are willing to go to any length to make this happen. They carved a territory out of Syria and Iraq, declared it theirs, and imposed their brutal version of justice on the inhabitants. The brook no interference, to the point of beheading American journalists as retaliation for attempts by the United States to keep them from overrunning and slaughtering groups that do not meet with their fanatical approval.

Their existence is a product of the Cold War. The U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R. chess match shaped policies on both sides in the Middle East that led to a region rife with fanaticism, shot through with tyrannical dictatorship, and left some nations open to exploitation by dictators, religious fundamentalists, and terrorists. The Shah of Iran, Nasser, Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Qaddafi, bin Laden, Hussein... these are the products of a global tug-of-war that produced regional conflict, fair weather alliances, power grabs, religious oppression, and lethal dictatorships. The Middle East as it is now, was a product of the 20th Century version of The Crusades.

The "Islamic" State is only the latest mutated offspring of the undeclared war between Capitalism and Communism. As such, the blood is on our hands, like it or not. We may have moved a long way from the genesis of the current instability, but it is an albatross that casts its shadow on the deck of the ship of State.

It would be easy enough to claim that we have reached some moral ascendance, that with Gulf War II now nearly over in Afghanistan, we must strike the standards, fold the tents, and return to our homes, and banish from our minds any thought of returning to involve ourselves in the melees the region finds itself enmeshed in. Perhaps we could absolve ourselves that easily.

It doesn't work that way.

Our hand set the game in motion. The waves of dissent and ripples of instability were caused by the rock we heaved into the middle of that desert pond. The single greatest foreign attack on American continental soil, September 11th, was one of those ripples, rebounded from a cave in mountains in Afghanistan. We might wish to believe disengaging from the pageant keeps us safe from the repercussions of our actions, that our new found moral certitude in peace without superior firepower would insulate us.

It is true that, at some point, a nation must stand up before the world, say "we will not continue to live by the sword," and work tirelessly to foster peace. It is true that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, but within that is the implicit assumption that we were competent in the first place. Violence is not the ultimate solution to our problems; the Cold War was the greatest teacher of that lesson, for the mutually-assured destruction that might have been wrought had tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. escalated would certainly have extinguished us all. It took a tremendous effort to pull two great powers back from the brink of mass nuclear suicide. It was done. But the threat is still present even now.

It is hubris to believe that we can simply pick up our toys and go home. There is no reason to believe that the "Islamic" State will somehow see our withdrawal as a "get out of jihad free" card. Their rhetoric suggests they see the United States -- and all Westernized societies -- as their enemy. They are willing to die for what they believe and more than willing to take as many of us as possible with them when they do. Right now, they are confined to a home they have carved from other nations, but are we seriously going to bank on them staying there. within their Arabic playpen?

Ideology is the worst offender in war, for the ideologue believes so wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their cause, they are willing to immolate themselves and their brethren in its defense, even when their situation is hopeless. Hitler wrecked Germany rather than admit defeat. The Japanese were willing to hurl themselves at ships in order to prevent the hated enemy from setting foot on their shore. The suicide bomber destroys himself in the belief that self-sacrifice wins him a ticket to Heaven for obliterating his enemies.

President Obama is taking the prudent steps he must to ensure that the "Islamic" State cannot present a greater threat to the United States and the world, that an organized state with greater resources would pose when wrapped up in self-destructive fanaticism. The man will not go to war, casually or without deliberation, if at all. He has used the tools at his command to end the wars we have been involved in and to attempt to prevent new ones from starting. He is perched precariously at the apex of a pyramid of Western interference in the Middle East that stains our reputation among Arabic nations, colors even our well-meaning our actions as suspect, and leaves us no good options when it is clear that a situation is of our manufacture.

The man has stood before the flag-draped caskets. He knows what he asks of our military and the nation. He knows there is risk with every move he makes. But he also knows that we, the United States, owe this region for centuries of bloodshed brought about by our machinations. It is a debt not so easily written off, especially where the payment for it may come in the deaths of American citizens on their home soil. We take a grave risk in ignoring a threat that is so transparent, when we did not take seriously the last threat, and allowed almost 3,000 names to be added to the butcher's bill as a result.

A day will come when the world will know true peace. To get there, we will still have to fight, until those who worship violence are vanquished. Human nature being what it is, we have a long road yet to follow.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Black Mark

"All men are created equal."

You don't realize how hollow that statement sounds until you see a picture of a Black man left dead in the middle of a street, surrounded by White police officers. The vaunted "equality" Thomas Jefferson espoused was not real; at the time, if you were Black and a slave, some did not even count you as fully human, closer to a farm animal than a person. For the stirring words of The Declaration of Independence meant nothing to those bound in chains.

It took The Civil War to break the physical chains, but such a bloody confrontation could do nothing to break the mental chains that held many Americans to the belief that Blacks were sub-human, and had "no rights which the White man was bound to respect." Freedom in law did not equate to freedom in society. Slavery in fact was replaced by slavery in deed. Jim Crow was as much a slave master as any White plantation owner had been before the war.

The modern Black person is the bastard child of a system that took natives of the African continent from their homes, worked them to death, cut loose those that didn't die, and claimed they were free because it said so on a piece of paper. Hundreds of years have passed and though the Black person is not bought and sold in the public auction house, their lives are still just a commodity to the White world. It is, as if, turning Black people from valuable property into human beings reduced their value to zero in White eyes.

So it happens that Blacks are marginalized, stigmatized, and pushed to the margins of American society. Even now, after wars, civil rights movements, legislation, and court cases, a Black person cannot walk down a street without the nagging worry that their presence will trigger events that will lead to their death. Perhaps many put it out of their minds and go about their business thinking it can't happen to them...

Then along comes a Mike Brown, an Eric Garner, a Renisha McBride, a Trayvon Martin.

As so often happens, there is a Black person in the "wrong place at the wrong time," as if there are only certain places and times a Black person is allowed to exist within. Armed with only cans of iced tea, bags of Skittles, a wallet, a cell phone, and walking down the middle of a quiet suburban street, breaking up trouble in their neighborhood, or simply looking for help, they are the victims of White aggression. A society built on White value systems reduces their value to zero and deems it necessary that they die.

The death of an unarmed Black person at the hands of a White person engenders rage, and why shouldn't it? Shouldn't we be past this now? Skin color does not alter a person's humanity; we have known this for so very long. Yet here we are, in a world of computers, the Internet, global travel, and still the Black person is looked down upon by a nation that spilled so much blood to free their ancestors from the bondage it first put them in.

Why should anyone be surprised when the Black community rises up in indignation, shaking its collective fists in earnest rage at a system that refuses to treat them as equal, refuses to respect their right to exist, let alone be free. Do you honestly believe nightsticks and tear gas and curfews can simply anneal a wound so grievously deep and so constantly fresh?

The Black person lives, not as a person, but as a stereotype, for far too many segments of the American landscape. They are couched as shirkers, deserters, layabouts, thieves, thugs, and animals, even though American history is replete with a procession of educated, hard-working, fierce Blacks who were there from the start to build, maintain, and defend the nation that treats them in such an egregious fashion. Even now, they are holding communities together, working to build up from the depths into which they have been cast time and again. Wracked with poverty, they struggle and fight and claw to make a better life.

And then they die.

Is it not enough that we deprived their ancestors their freedom and liberty through our colonial aspirations and greed, that we now plunge the children of the African continent into a crucible, seeking to burn them away as an impurity in our society? Is our land, so steeped in the values of freedom and liberty, still so shot through with callous disregard for Black humanity, that it must shoot them down in the street? Where is the breaking point? When does America draw a collective breath and shout "ENOUGH!"?

The Black community cannot be expected to continually suffer the depredations of White culture in silence. We cannot tell them, constantly, to "just calm down" or "let the system provide justice," when it is their blood being spilled in the streets so regularly, because the system of justice does not punish the perpetrators of the crimes against them. What White person would hold their tongue or keep their finger from the trigger, when time and again, few if any of their brethren have been punished for murdering a Black person in cold blood?

There was no reason for them to die. Plenty of Black people do commit actual crimes, but that is weak justification for the thinly-veiled genocide we see every day. Our system of justice in America has been primed to accept the guilt of the Black person before their innocence, all law to the contrary. A White person can slaughter a dozen people with a gun and they walk away in handcuffs; a Black person can walk home from the store and die for lack of any offense. Tell me again about justice.

Until the endemic racism that plagues this nation is brought to the surface and dealt with harshly by an outraged citizenry of every stripe, expect Mike Brown to have more company.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

You Cannot Whip The Lion

You have caged the lion and consider yourself its master for having "tamed" the beast. It stalks about within its cage, it may glower at you, and howl, but it is in there and you are out here, and you are its master.

Then, one day, it lashes out at you. You feel the hot rake of its claws, hear the terrible gnashing of its teeth, feel the press of its rage.

And you whip it. Again. And again. And again. You force it back. You consider yourself lucky, but once more, you are the master.

Until it does it again. And again. And again.

The caged animal, bereft of home, cut off from the world it knows, unable to move freely, kept behind bars... you may drive it back a dozen times, but each time you erode a little more of the fear, turning hopelessness into rage.

One day, the lion will best you. One day, it will corner you. One day, in your self-assured rush to show your power over it, the lion will strike with all it has left, released of the fear of dying because it is already dead inside.

If you are an Israeli, and you have watched the rockets arc away from Gaza on your television, or heard the boom of them thudding impotently, you may think, sitting there in the comfort of your couch, that you are masters of the Palestinians. And it's true... as far as it goes. With each year, they are more hemmed in, more penned up, stripped of freedom to move, to be, to grow, and that can be considered mastery.

But then the rockets come.

Or Jewish boys die.

Perhaps you should ask yourself: are we truly masters here?

When you hold a people down, when you corner them, corral them, sanction them, that is not mastery, that is inhumanity. You cannot expect a people to be reasonable, to act reasonably, when they are squashed down into fetid and squalid suffering. You can "cleanse" your soul by claiming they brought it upon themselves, but who holds the keys to cage and who lives in the cage?

It is safe to say that most Israelis agitating for action have never seen Gaza, been behind its checkpoints, roamed its crowded roads and seen the camps. They have never smelled the desperation of a people trying to survive on the scraps that are flung their way. When you turn a people into a caricature, when you deny them their basic humanity, it is hubris to believe that peace is ever attainable, even though you can have it any time you want simply by dropping the whip.

Hamas gets its power directly from the Israeli Prime Minister and Knesset, when they hoarily declare the intransigence of the Palestinian people, and trumpet the need to, once more, "cripple Hamas' ability to commit atrocities." Hamas, dripping hatred for the Jews and the State of Israel, drag "their people" into the fight, to splash blood upon the ground, so they can lustily decry the violence, even as they launch more rockets. And the people of Gaza, more pawns than players, go along with it, because they are tired of being penned up. Israel obliges Hamas by dropping bombs on women and children in the pen, in the name of pacification and the end of "terrorism."

It is a cycle of violence that will know no end until Gaza is but a smoking hole.

I know, what right have I, the non-Jewish American, to criticize. I, too, sit and watch the rockets fly and the bombs fall from the comfort of my couch. The distance, though, allows perspective, and paints the scene so clearly, that my human heart is bursting with indignation at Israel for their ham-handedness and Hamas for its stubborn foolishness. The only people who truly suffer are a people who have done nothing but suffer for decades, while this dance of destruction sweeps around them and deprives them of life.

Say what you will, defend your side as you choose, but all humanity loses where we stand by and say nothing. So I will have my say, I will condemn the Israeli bloodbath in Gaza, I will shake my fist at Hamas for their naked cowardice, and I will implore Israel to drop the whip, because you cannot whip the lion forever and hope to live in peace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

I let my daughter get away with a great many things.

Chocolate bars for breakfast. Endless hours on her iPad. I don't ask her to dress herself or feed the cats or any of myriad things someone her age could be doing. I take her to school every day, kiss her on the head, tell her I love her, and head off to work.

With a sense of foreboding.

I try very hard not to fight with her, but inevitably, when I put my foot down, there are heated exchanges. I let them cool off, then I apologize profusely.

I do all this for one simple reason: I don't want her last thought of me to be a negative one.

Oh no, it's not that I have cancer, or I'm planning on running off an leaving my family.

No. It's much darker.

74 school shootings in the time since the Sandy Hook Massacre have left me with the foreboding feeling that one day, I will drop her off... and that will be it.

My parents never had this worry. Their parents never did. And so on. But I... I live with the thought, brought more prominently forward in my mind every day. The thought that my nation, the one I am so proud of, has gone so far off the rails that hundreds of thousands of people have access to military-grade weaponry and ammunition, and when the pressure of their torment reaches a fever pitch, they will wander into my daughter's school and kill her.

What does that say about us? What has our nation become that the almost daily reports of people wandering into schools and malls and military bases and shooting themselves and others does nothing to bring our collective blood to a boil? What does it say, that we throw up our hands and continue to let legislators backed by the fear-monger, gun-worshiping groups in this land run the show?

It says we are in trouble. Unless we DO SOMETHING. NOW.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Worth In The World Of Surety

No one likes the idea of a soldier failing to do his duty. We imbue soldiers with an aura of respectability and integrity that is straight out of a WWII Hollywood propaganda film. We overlook their foibles and failures until they are lain at our doorstep and then we wonder how someone like that could be in the military. The uncomfortable truth often leaves us to simply ignore them once their duty is done, as if they will magically fade back into the soil on which so many bled and died.
I don't know what to make of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but I do know this: he did something I was unable to do, myself, in joining the Army and fighting in Afghanistan. Whatever personal flaws or failings he showed, he was there, he fought, and wrestled with what he was being asked to do, just as we wrestled with the war as it dragged on and on and on. His was a more personal interest than ours, for he stood in the teeth of the gale, and he saw the ruin it brought. We could only look from afar, knowing it all to be ill-conceived, but seemingly powerless to stop it.
The fact is, most of those now agitating for his head have not now, nor have ever had, the courage of their convictions enough to enlist to defend their home. They flail about, spouting the terms "duty" and "honor" like they are intimately familiar with them, when, in fact, they scarcely throw a glance in their direction at any time. They are willing to pound the pulpit to defend Constitutional rights, but cannot spare the time or their offspring when the hard, warm work of defending them is called for.
And the one chord I don't hear? If his compatriots were worried that he was a little "off," if they thought he might endanger the unit, why didn't they raise the issue with their CO? If they did, why didn't the CO take the concerns seriously enough to order Bergdahl out of the combat zone? If there's someone in your unit you don't fully trust, then why are they there? Maybe he wasn't cut out for combat duty. Maybe he was suffering the slow onset of PTSD. In any event, the road goes both ways, and if he failed his unit by his actions, they failed him by their inaction. But let us not pass judgment until all the facts are known, not just those spouted into a microphone.

Ultimately, that is what this is all about: conjecture and the need of some in our nation to be right. Not right in terms of factual accuracy, but in having their view validated as being the only true one. They see Bergdahl as they want to see him from moment-to-moment; before his release, they agitated just as strongly for that release as they do now to have him hanged. In fact, embarrassingly, many are having to try and cover up the tracks of their advocacy for his release, as if the hypocrisy were so easily erased in an age where, once something hits the Internet, it never goes away. Five years of vehement calls for action on Sgt. Bergdahl's behalf cannot now mysteriously vanish from time or consciousness. The hypocrisy is written and it is done.

The story of Bowe Bergdahl brings us face-to-face with the reality that now surrounds us - a vocal, energized minority in this nation wish nothing more than drag America back against the current of time to an era where things were black-and-white, where ignorant surety trumped change, where many set their heels in the face of change and pulled hard on the reins, hoping desperately to retard our progress as a nation. Their numbers continue to diminish over time, but we allow their voices to drown out those of us of more reasonable nature. We cede the field to them, allow them to impugn and denigrate everyone from our President and First Lady down to the poorest Americans, scooping up so many in between.

We stain a nation by leaving this whirlwind of inchoate rage to tear through the heart of it. We are a better people than these few who spew venom and bluster, whose words and precepts damn them as narrow-minded, foolish, and clownish. America, which prides itself on its place in the world, should not be allowed to devolve into the mire of ignorance because a fraction of us cannot tolerate change. This moment, and how we choose to deal with a single American soldier, may very well mark a page in a history book, where either it is written that we cast off the past and embraced the future fully, or the greatest experiment in democracy in the last three centuries finally came to an ignominious end. It is up to us to write that history for the better.