Fiction, violence, propaganda = War, war and more war


Huffington Post version of blog HERE

Red Letter Christians version of blog HERE

First it was Clint Eastwood and The American Sniper. For the sake of educating myself on all things mainstream I endured two hours of this peculiar Western devotion to fiction, violence and American exceptional-ism. As suspected, Eastwood stayed true only to Hollywood’s profit formula: Omit war crimes, illegal invasions, missing WMD, some 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and any truth that could dilute the endorphin rush of blind patriotism– and, therefore, the almighty moviegoer dollar.

I left the theater nauseous. Eastwood’s candy coating was too much. As film credits and real-life photos of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle crawled heavenward, moviegoers sat motionless or shuffled out in reverent silence. A woman next to me stared wide-eyed at the screen and whispered to her date:

“I didn’t know this was a true story.”

Two weeks later my tongue continues to heal. I bit it that hard.

Now it’s Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his Game of Thrones. More cherry picked storytelling, more simulated violence, more of the same tired narrative depicting Middle Eastern Arabs as Islamic savages intent on eradicating the Good Guys. In this case, Israeli Jews. To hear Bibi tell it, if not for the benevolence (read: fat wallets) of Washington and its Christian-majority electorate, Israel — cast as the best friend Americans have in the Middle East — would be wiped clean off the planet and the West would be further exposed to militant Islam.

At the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, with easy command over a glad-handling GOP, Bibi used the tactics of Hollywood and Washington to omit from his speech an uncomfortable all-important truth: If Israel is the best friend Americans have in the Middle East it’s only because Israel creates so many enemies for the United States.

Israel flaunts international law (e.g., collective punishment of the masses, illegal occupation of lands obtained in war; discriminatory laws based on national origin; to name just a few of the violations cited by the United Nations) by relying on Washington to provide cover on the U.N. Security Council and money militarily. The fact that Israel rides roughshod over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, most Palestinians, and a laundry list of international laws is the largest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It’s also the primary reason my dark blue passport can feel like a liability when I travel there.

This U.S. complicity with Israel’s crimes greatly erodes Washington’s influence for change in the region and helps drive the very thing Bibi crowed about on Capitol Hill:

“Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. … Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the entire world.”

He then evoked the dark violence of a fictitious HBO series with his sloppy blurring of fact and fiction. 

In this deadly ‘Game of Thrones,'” the protagonist Bibi declared, “there’s no place for America or for Israel. No peace for Christians, Jews or (for) Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed; no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.”

I’ve heard it said the best way for Washington to create peace in the Middle East is to stop providing U.N. cover for Israel and eliminate the U.S. money that fuels Israel’s defiant behavior (more than $20.5 billion given just during the Obama Administration). In effect, it’s Parenting 101: Make Israel responsible for its actions.

Before Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was killed Feb. 2, 2013 at a shooting range in Texas he’d said that most U.S. civilians were clueless about Iraqis, a people he painted in one broad brush. Savages, he called the Iraqis. “The public is soft,” Kyle told reporters. “They have no idea.”

And they still don’t– at least not about the true nature of Arabs and Muslims. For that we can thank Hollywood’s greedy devotion to feel-good narratives and the GOP’s propping up of an Israeli “protagonist.”

The Iraqis that Kyle knew from the scope on his rifle were defending a sovereign nation from an invading army. (Would Americans resist or roll over if, say, China stormed across their borders?) The Islamic nation(s) and militants that Bibi depicts as humanity’s biggest threat are, in large part, creatures of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli arrogance.

The other night at an Uno’s bar near Washington, D.C., the discussion turned to movies. I chimed in with “Kingsman” as my recommendation for the best movie I’d seen this year. Another patron voted for “American Sniper” and called it the greatest move ever made. Another patron and another and then the bartender all agreed.

My tongue hadn’t healed. I couldn’t bite it again. So, in an unpopular rebuttal, I argued against it for many of the same reasons I discuss here. I was immediately, politely dismissed.

“Okay, maybe the whole thing wasn’t entirely true and accurate and all of that,” a kindly woman offered, helping to ease me from the discussion. “But Kyle is still an American hero. You cannot argue that fact. He was over there protecting us!”

Oy vey.

Toward the end of his diatribe to the GOP, Bibi offered up a simple remedy:

“If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”

Presumably, that would include following international law.

Great plan, Bibi.

Heed it.

No Protagonists in War on Terror: Washington, ISIS, Israel, Hamas all antagonists

A memorial scene for slain American journalist James Foley, killed by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on Aug. 19, 2014.

On cue the feigned shock, manly thumping of chests and tribal war dance began anew.

The videotaped beheading of another U.S. journalist, this time Florida’s Steven Sotloff, two weeks after the execution of New Hampshire’s James Foley, predictably sent the White House’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate onto Washington’s moral perch and Israel’s propagandists into overdrive.

We know the script and its actors well by now.

Protagonists live in the West, or at least resemble Westerners in general skin tone and/or style of dress. They deploy working class soldiers and use expensive weaponry to shear, shred, pulverize, burn, incinerate and decapitate heads, flesh, bone, bridges, roads, electrical grids, mosques, schools, bunkers, homes, hospitals, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers. In other words, to kill en masse all enemy combatants and unfortunate civilians.* The latter is a well-documented result of dropping bombs into heavily populated areas, but it gets dismissed with a common impersonal euphemism: collateral damage. The good guys, Americans and Israelis, know full well that the “War on Terror” kills at least tens of thousands of civilians, injures and maims hundreds of thousands, and displaces families from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Guinea. But, since the protagonists know what’s best and they have us glued to CNN and Fox News, we view collateral damage as a penny-ante expense.

Not so for the antagonists. In the Middle East the penny ante has become heavy and unforgivable. So the antagonists kill up close and in our faces; close enough to get our attention, so close they hide their despicable faces. Cloaked in black and wearing a robber’s mask, they crave the media attention and villainous role. Since they lack the West’s crazy expensive, imprecise “precision bombs” they can’t generate mass destruction. Instead, they kill in fewer numbers and exploit each for mass effect. Their psychological warfare is less about collateral damage, more about disturbing our sleep.

The protagonists curse them, threaten them, promise to hunt them and eliminate them, yet without the antihero we wouldn’t be fooled by the heroic costume of our protagonists. You see, ISIS (stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” but its Hebrew pronunciation is, apparently, “Hamas”), similar to Al-Qaeda and Cold War Communists, etc., plays the foil to the West and its heroic allies. These days, Israel.

So, same as last time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu will declare the villainous ISIS to be no different than Hamas, and then he’ll imply that black-clad killers are par for the course in Gaza and Israeli-occupied West Bank. It wouldn’t surprise me if he used the threat of ISIS to justify Israel’s arrogant theft this week of 990 Palestinian acres near Bethlehem. Evidently, heroes and their allies operate outside international law, accountable to no one.

Meanwhile, the Washington-Wall Street Military Industrial Complex will be doubling down on its Middle East expansion (aka imperialism). On Tuesday, President Obama approved the deployment of 350 more American troops to Iraq. Soon after the video of Sotloff’s murder was deemed authentic, Obama gave a stern message to ISIS, sounding very much like he was guarding Gotham.

“We will not be intimidated,” he declared, then warned Americans to brace for another long (read: costly) fight. These “horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight (to) these terrorists. … Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”**

In that way he has begun to sound like his predecessor “protagonist” and war industry pitchman, George W. Bush. Beheadings, after all, are good for business, all the more if they are captured on film. American outrage is a commodity famously leveraged for financial gain.***

Surely, ISIS knew this. Right? It had the script.

Last month, on cue after the beheading of Foley, Israel’s conservative English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post, stretched this headline across five columns of its front page:

“Obama calls Islamic State a ‘cancer’ after graphic beheading.”

In words measured and (self) righteous, Obama presumably spoke for Americans — and common decency — when he said that he and “all of humanity” were appalled by Foley’s murder. Later in the story, Secretary of State John Kerry played the role of a Judeo-Christian politician rushing off to do battle with Old Testament darkness:

“There is evil in this world, and we have all come face-to-face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil.”

This was the same day the Twitter account of the Israeli Prime Minister posted a still photo of Foley’s execution, as if it justified bombing the bejesus out of Gaza. “RT THIS: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They’re enemies of Peace. They’re enemies of all civilized countries.”

Followers did as ordered and retweeted Netanyahu’s propaganda 889 times before the post was deleted for its questionable use of Foley’s image.

Screenshot credit: Haaretz newspaper

Hours later it resurfaced with Foley’s picture replaced by the Arabic logo for ISIS. This tweet included an additional outrageous claim for any politician — Middle Eastern or Western — to make. It said the truth was simple (never the case in Jerusalem or Washington) and implied that Israel was on the side of it.

“The simple truth: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas.”

Screenshot credit: Haaretz newspaper

The following day Israel resumed bombing a dispossessed Muslim people with $110,000 American-made, American-bought Hellfire missiles fired from $20 million American-made, American-bought Apache helicopters. The casualties in Gaza had already exceeded 2,000, the majority of the dead civilian.

A week later, with Israel’s stock of American-made whoop-ass apparently running low and its Iron Dome draining military coffers, Washington routed a boatload of Hellfire missiles to its shore and put a rush on an extra $225 million for its Iron Dome missile defense. Just a little bump to cushion Israel’s annual $3.1 billion American allowance. (Another $126 million bump is due in November.)

Anything, it seems, for Washington’s heroic sidekick.

Or is that backward?

Is Washington the sidekick?

The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck, in an article aptly titled “Friends of Israel,” dissects the influence that Israel lobbyists exact on Washington. In the Sept. 1, 2014 story she describes a tail-wagging-the-dog scene where an influential cadre of senators — Democrats Harry Reid and Tim Kaine; Republicans Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham — work overtime in late August to ensure Israel is well stocked with U.S. money and missiles. Graham, a hawkish senator from South Carolina and a major recipient of pro-Israel campaign donations, was jubilant after the 11th-hour triumph. Speaking to reporters, he made the extra hundreds of millions of American tax dollars sound like a game of penny ante.

“Not only are we going to give you (Israel) more missiles, we’re going to be a better friend. We’re going to fight for you in the international court of public opinion. We’re going to fight for you in the United Nations.”



* If you count just the civilian deaths in Iraq, included in the field reports of U.S. soldiers dated 2004 to 2009, more than half (66,081) of the killed Iraqis were civilian. The dead do not include Iraqis killed during the war’s heaviest fighting in 2003 (when, for example, the U.S. dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq) or by most coalition forces other than the U.S. military. Iraq Body Count, the British-based nongovernment project that began tracking Iraqi deaths in March 2003, estimates that between 128,431-143,705 civilians in Iraq were killed from the ongoing violence that began with the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. A database of the deaths is available at Iraq Body Count.

** Lest we count, say, Israel’s attack by air and sea on the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967, killing 34 U.S. crew members and injuring 171. Or, maybe, Rachel Corrie, run over and killed by an armored Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer on March 16, 2003 in the Gaza Strip. She was attempting to block the demolition of a Palestinian home. Eye witnesses say the IDF crushed her on purpose; Israel disputes the claim.

*** For example, if you track the stock dividends of just the perennial top five “defense contractors” based on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) you find dizzying increases in the decade that followed September 11, 2011: Lockheed Martin (LMT) equals 680 percent increase in per-share stock dividends or 161 percent increase in Earnings Per Share (EPS); Boeing (BA) +250 percent or +635 percent EPS; Northrop Grumman (NOC) +250 percent or +187 percent EPS; General Dynamics (GD) +336 percent or +191 percent EPS; Raytheon (RTN) +190 percent or +400 percent EPS. Source: The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq

(Loud) Voices for Peace in the Middle East


                       Video of Peace Rally and Bassam Aramin’s Speech

Ten days ago Tel Aviv spoke in a loud and collective voice– Hebrew and Arabic, Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian.*  The night was electric and passionate. There was sweat and anger and frustration and loud demands for saner minds to prevail.

In the Middle East ten days can feel like forever.

On that balmy night of 16 August 2014 there was a fragile truce. Optimism had quickly swelled. In that moment Israel stopped obliterating all things Gazan; Hamas stopped littering Israeli skies with $800 rockets.

Ten days can feel like ancient history.

These are some of the headlines as the sun rose over the majestic Mediterranean on 26 August 2014 (Israel Daylight Time):

U.S. missile shipment delay over,” i.e., A boatload of $110,000 Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles (fired into Gaza by $20 million Boeing Apache helicopters) are en route to Israel, thanks to the eternal benevolence of the Washington-Wall Street Military Industrial Complex and the White House’s own Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

16 Palestinians killed, two Israelis seriously wounded as Gaza op continues,” i.e., The deaths of a Palestinian mother and her four children from an Israeli (Hellfire?) missile strike on Gaza marked the 89th Gazan family to be wiped out in Operation Protective Edge; meanwhile, facing another day of 100-plus rocket attacks from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force continued its escalation of strikes.

“There’s no way to completely stop rocket fire, top Israeli officer says,” i.e., Southern Israel’s kibbutzes will always be vulnerable to enemy rocket fire. So, similar to Washington-Wall Street’s vaguely defined “War on Terror,” Israel has an indefinite excuse to continue its military buildup and aggression.

UPDATE: Today’s headlines (28 August 2014) are more encouraging, but for how long?

“With Gaza war over, massive reconstruction awaits: Urgent tasks require $367 million; international private donors have already pledged $177m…”

Palestinians threaten to turn to ICC if date not set for return to 1967 lines: Netanyahu and Abbas held secret talks before Gaza truce signed; no official Palestinian, Israeli or Jordanian source confirms that meeting in Amman actually took place…”

Netanyahu gave up on defeating Hamas terror: If Israel had applied overwhelming force against Hamas at the start of the Gaza conflict, it could have proven more merciful and briefer for both sides than the demolition derby that ensued.”

* The peace rally on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 is believed to be one of the largest in Israel’s history. Local media estimated the crowd to be 10,000 to 15,000.


Ben Gurion Airport is safe? The Monday explosion that’s missing from the discussion

Moments after a rocket scare in Terminal C of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Monday, July 21, 2014)

See the Huffington Post version HERE.

TEL AVIV – At 11:50 on Monday morning a scrum of passengers jockeying to board United Airlines Flight 85 from Tel Aviv to Newark fell silent when a warning echoed in Hebrew and Arabic through Ben Gurion Airport. Heads, and then heels, turned. The scrum morphed into a herd moving away from Terminal C’s vast windows and boarding gates.

Two seconds later the message repeated in English.

A security warning has sounded! Please follow normal procedure!

When Israel’s Iron Dome missiles greet Hamas’ rockets there’s a distinctive resonance– the kind of rich baritone you hear and feel. Under present circumstances, it’s oddly comforting. In the 12 days I traveled around the West Bank and Israel (July 9-21), residing beneath the arc of Israel’s sophisticated $100,000 Tamir interceptor missiles and Hamas’ crude $800 steel-cylinder Qassam rockets, I lost count of the number of times I relaxed into the familiar thunder.

However, I clearly recall the last loud clap. It occurred just before noon on Monday and originated overhead. Above Ben Gurion Airport.

In the time it takes for a rocket fired from Gaza to reach Tel Aviv – roughly 90 seconds as the hoopoe flies – the herd in Terminal C had put about 30 meters between itself and Gate 8. Nobody panicked. The brisk walk seemed no more frantic than a last-minute gate change.

Then … boom!

The herd didn’t blink. It turned on its heels and returned to its scrum at Gate 8. Meanwhile, a dozen or so early boarders and business-class travelers had sat comfortably –and apparently clueless – in United’s wide-body Boeing 777.

“There was an alarm?” my Israeli seat mate in row 20 asked after I boarded. “I guess ignorance is bliss, yes?”

Apparently. At least that seems to be the thinking of the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and Israeli Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz. “Ben Gurion Airport is safe and there is no need to be worried about the security of airplanes and passengers,” Katz said on Tuesday, after a rocket landed one mile from airport runways and the FAA temporarily banned U.S. airlines from flying into or out of Tel Aviv.

Speaking into TV cameras and reporter microphones, Katz kept repeating himself, as if saying it enough times would make it true: “Ben Gurion Airport is safe. … There is no reason why airlines should stop their flights, handing a prize to terrorists.”

No reason? As Flight 85 ascended from Ben Gurion’s runway I could only hope it would not come between a missile and a rocket. This is safe?

According to The Washington Post, sometime on Tuesday night Netanyahu phoned Kerry to request help in lifting the travel banOf 3.54 million tourists to Israel last year, a record number that contributed $11.4 billion to its economy, 53 percent were defined by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics as “Christian.” The Holy Land of Jerusalem is Israel’s big draw.

So, it came as no surprise, just hours after Kerry departed Israel today – declaring progress in securing a truce between Israel and Hamas – that the FAA cut short its 48-hour travel ban. I can’t imagine what Netanyahu offered behind closed doors. With no specific explanation or new evidence, the FAA adopted Katz’s oft-repeated (il)logic. Ben Gurion Airport was stamped “safe” again.

“[T]he FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel,” its press release stated, “and reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation.”

Oy vey.

Last Friday, as I was leaving a hotel in Jerusalem to travel to Tel Aviv, I ran into one of the last remaining Christian groups daring to tour Jerusalem even as Netanyahu promised an escalation in the ground fighting with Hamas. Tour members were with Snoqualmie Valley Alliance, a nondenominational church in Fall City, Wash., 30 miles east of Seattle.

“We’ve relied on our faith,” one member told me, explaining why the group had stayed its course in Jerusalem. “Plus, we knew Bibi would keep us safe.”



War, Religion, and the Israeli Rocket Dancers

Credit: Greg Barrett, Jerusalem, July 14, 2014

See the Huffington Post version HERE.

JERUSALEM (July 17, 2014)– The difference between wealthy and poor when you’re fighting in the Middle East? The former has the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system; the latter is near defenseless.

Sirens in Gaza send Palestinians scrambling for cover every day, yet at least 185 have died to date, e.g., cousins Mohammed Baker (aged 9), Ahed Baker (10), Zakaria Baker (10), and Mohammed Baker (11), killed late Wednesday afternoon. They were fishermen’s kids mistaken as “fleeing fighters,” an Israel Defense Forces official told Haaretz newspaper, following the two IDF airstrikes on a Gazan beach. The first explosion sent the children sprinting toward a hotel; the second targeted them.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times. The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times, July 16, 2014. The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, where the Iron Dome has received $720 million in American money since 2011, and, according to Foreign Policy magazine, will likely draw another $350 million in 2015, some Orthodox Jews dance in the streets. Sirens are celebrated. It’s a peculiar reaction to the shrill warning of rockets arriving from Gaza.

The video above shows them dancing earlier this week across from UN offices in Jerusalem along Route 60 (aka Way of the Patriarchs), a north-south thoroughfare connecting Israel and Palestine and stretching from Beersheba to Nazareth. The dance was followed by two thunderous explosions. Overhead. The Iron Dome works. Israeli peacemaker Rami Elhanan tells me that Orthodox Jews dance when faced with a threat to show the strength of their belief, i.e., God will protect them.

Of course if Gazans had the Iron Dome they might also dance.

Yesterday, Hamas urged (ordered?) Palestinians living on its borders to remain in their homes in defiance of Israel’s warning to evacuate ahead of its near-certain ground attack. The Hamas directive elicited an absurd comment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who implied that combat here occurs on an even playing field– as if hundreds of millions of American tax dollars (not to count the annual US $3 billion or so) and an Iron Dome are equally available to both sides.

“We are using missile defense to protect our civilians,” Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday, the same day four Gazan cousins died, “and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”

Yes, Hamas, poor choice.

Weapons of Mass Construction: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

[This week every year Graduation Day reverberates through the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok for hundreds of poor students (nearly 1,000 this year) who are completing the Mercy Centre’s three-year preschool program. Several years ago I attended the ceremonies. That experience became Chapter 1 in The Gospel of Father Joe. In honor of Father Joe Maier and Mercy it is excerpted below. The world remains indebted to Father Joe’s wisdom and his peaceful way of combating poverty, terrorism, and human trafficking.]

Father Joe delivering the commencement address to Mercy’s preschoolers, March 2007.

[For the Huffington Post version click HERE]

The story begins like the parable it’s become, in a no-man’s-land with the seed of dreams strewn in the most foolish of places: slum rubbish. This was the 1970s when few people believed anything good could grow from the backwater of the undeveloped world. There were no official addresses or property deeds in the cordoned-off corners of Bangkok, nothing much for the municipal books, just putrid ground so primal and bleak that land was free for the staking. It’s where squatters pretended to own real houses and children made do with make-believe.

But these seeds were sown by an angry young Catholic chased from finer society. A priest, stubborn and cursing. The local Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians nurtured that seed, and in time the people and the priest, the abbot and the imam, worked together, as though the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ were brothers and best friends. No doctrine, dogma, or creed was lorded. No growth tethered chapter to verse. The only belief that mattered was the one they shared. In the children. That was common, sacred ground.

Nourished like this, the seeds exploded with growth. There was a harvest, then another and another. The seeds grow still today, more than three decades later, a genus of hope thriving in the muck, as if it had been indigenous to the slums all along. Tales of it grow too, spreading from those roots in Thailand to the media of North America and Europe, and in the retelling, it can begin to sound legendary. How in Gideon’s name does something grow from nothing and multiply like New Testament fishes and loaves? But nothing about it is myth. Every tale is true.

You can see for yourself when a new crop is gathered each year just before the yearly monsoons. For two, three, and often four days, a cordoned-off corner of the world blossoms in a brilliant hue of graduation gowns.

So it was on the sun struck first week of March 2007– thirty-three years after the first seeds were planted.

The Mercy Centre preschool graduation was standing-room-only; moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, the neighbor next door and next door to that one. Seven commencements stretched half the week and through a half dozen slums in celebration of seven hundred graduates from thirty-two schools built “officially illegally,” as the priest says, on the Thai government’s squatter land. Children six and seven years old accustomed to flip-flops and hand-me-downs strutted around in black mortarboard caps and matching silk gowns trimmed in a shade of blue my folk back home call Carolina. And while girls and their mothers and aunts fussed with lipstick and rouge, the boys did what boys do: swirl their heads until the tassels on their caps whir like the blades of a helicopter. Dizzy, they fall to the ground.

The priest was there, of course, more bald with each and every harvest. He conferred the diplomas and delivered the commencement address wearing the black and burgundy of Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. Draped across his left shoulder was a velvet sash with white stripes of cotton, thick enough to brush and braid: three stripes in front, three in back representing the honorary rank of a Thammasat Ph.D. If you were new to the slums or to their graduation rituals, a sash like that in a place like that might stop you. It might even if you weren’t.

Arriving at each school, the American known by tens of thousands of Thai as simply Khun Phaw Joe (“Mister Father Joe”) would park down a ways and out of sight. He’d pull on the gown, fix the sash just so, and then begin “the Walk”– a purposeful stride intended to put education on parade. Each route was different but familiar: past walls of plywood, lopsided floors, rusty tin roofs, and bare-bottomed babies; through humidity flavored by garbage and a subsistence watched over by sun-wrinkled village matriarchs who smiled even as they spit pinpoint tobacco-brown streams of betel nut juice. Heads turned to watch. Motorbikes slowed in deference. Cars stopped to let him pass. Old and young joined in, falling in behind or alongside, knowing full well where he was headed, knowing it was time.

In a backwater where nothing good was supposed to grow, graduation today is a rite of passage.

Some of the hardiest seed will scatter and continue maturing. There are graduates thriving now in the high school and college classrooms of North America with majors in economics, business, biology, computer science, and neuroscience. It’s why Khun Phaw Joe gave the Class of ’07 the same speech he has given every class since the Class of ’95 , the same he will give the Class of ’08. Something about it seems to work.

As the Walk approached the first podium, the room fell silent. Pigeons gurgled their Rs, a mobile phone tweeted, somewhere a baby shrieked. Khun Phaw Joe waited. A small, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary sat in a May altar (on cloth surrounded by flowers) next to a Buddhist shrine of joss sticks and a portrait of the Thai monarch (Massachusetts native King Bhumibol Adulyadej) framed in gold leaf.

Fitted for kid-sized attention spans but fired like buckshot, the commencement address was aimed at everyone crowded into the ceremony.

Khun Phaw cleared his throat.

“If you don’t have anything to eat in the morning,” he began, speaking Thai and scanning his attentive audience of children, then go to school!”

Most of the students sat erect or leaned slightly forward on the edge of their benches or chairs.

“If you don’t have any shoes to wear … ,” he continued, pausing for effect, “go to school!”

“If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home … go to school!

“If your friends want you to sell drugs … go to school!

“If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk … go to school!

“If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch … go to school!

“If your house burns down and you don’t have anything or anywhere to sleep … go to school!

“Go to school! Go to school! Go to school!”

Children joined in, louder and louder, chanting what sounded to me like “Tong by wrong rain high die!”

Go to school! Dhong bai rong Tien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and the neighbor next door joined in.

Khun Phaw Joe directed the burgeoning chorus, his Thammasat gown waving until the bell sleeves billowed.

Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

And that’s the sprint from beginning to now, three decades of harvests. But in the journey, as in the parable, lie the lessons and wisdom of a social revolutionary who bucks convention, the law, and what the rest of us might consider common sense or self preservation.

Father Joe Maier

The Reverend Joseph H. Maier, the eldest child of a philandering Lutheran father and pious Catholic mother, survived his own poverty and dysfunction to become a throwback of sorts: the durable, American-made export. It should be no surprise, then, that he settled on the wrong side of our economic divide and discovered a comfortable fit.

The neglected children of Klong Toey (three hard syllables sounding like a curse but meaning “canal of the pandanus,” a plant growing near the water and cultivated for its flavorful leaves) would put a nice sheen of perspective on his own welfare beginnings.

Today, whenever Khun Phaw Joe feels a pang of self-pity, and often when he sees it rising in others, he quashes it with self-mockery and echoes of an earlier time: “Yeah, yeah, everybody hates me, nobody loves me, all I’m ever fed is worms. That’s my life story. Blah, blah, blah…. Well, guess what? The sun is rising, the rooster is calling, and another day is here. I guess ol’ Joe better get his ass out of bed and get going.”


One Texan’s remedy for War: ‘Preemptive Love’

Jeremy Courtney, Author of "Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time" and cofounder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo courtesy of Howard Books.)

Jeremy Courtney, Author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time” and co-founder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo by Abigail Criner.)

When a native Texan named Jeremy Courtney took the stage at the 2012 Q Conference he had no idea he would, in effect, be pitching his 2013 memoir, “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”

Q conferences are progressive yet evangelical (yes, both) Christian forums, similar in format to the more secular TED talks. This particular Q (stands for Question) occurred in April 2012 in Washington, D.C., seven months before President Obama was reelected. More than 30 speakers ranging from a peacemaking Palestinian Christian (yes, both) to a hawkish Southern Baptist firebrand descended on Washington to inform, influence and otherwise inspire the nation’s sagging Christian majority (not to be confused with Moral Majority). In talks scaled to fit the capital’s rushed schedule and attention span, each speaker was allotted slots of three, nine or 18 minutes.

Courtney, a slender, shaved-headed humanitarian who looks more like a Buddhist than his native Baptist, had scored one of the conference’s grande sizes. Nine minutes. He’d fly six thousand miles from his home in Iraq to speak for less time than it took to board any of his connections. In the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, three blocks south of the White House, he paced on the stage in front of 700 Q “participants,” as the conference refers to its influential attendees. Nine minutes gave Courtney no time for colorful narratives, long anecdotes or drawn-out punchlines. He hardly had time to clear his throat. He got straight to the point.

“It wasn’t an easy morning,” he began, “when I woke up in Iraq with my wife and kids and found out that a fatwa had been issued against us calling for our death(s).”

You could have heard a phone vibrate inside the palatial seven-story auditorium. If he didn’t have them at fatwa (an official ruling given by Islamic clerics) he had them at death.  

It was an evocative beginning to an amazing story (and now book) about a modern-day Gospel. Courtney’s memoir is the Good News of how mending the bodies of children restores hearts— literally and figuratively; theirs, ours and across “enemy” lines. In a blurb I wrote months ago for “Preemptive Love” (Howard Books, Oct. 1, 2013) I describe how the work of Courtney and his upstart international charity could “rewrite the hard wiring that holds humanity hostage.”

The hard wiring, in this case, is the fear that fractures humanity and keeps us locked in our comfort zones. It poses as pride, prejudice, and, often, as absolute faith. It can pit nation against nation, religion against religion, and, ultimately, it’s what drove an Iraqi mullah to order the death of Americans who were saving the lives of Iraqi children.

Preemptive, what I mean by that is this act when we jump to help someone else, to serve another before they’ve done anything for us,” Courtney told to the Q audience. Early in his book he explains it this way:

“I had not named it yet— that passion and joy that caused me to suspend my questions and fears. My military friends had mantras like ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six’ and ‘Shoot first; ask questions later.’ But I had watched Iraq destroy nearly all the people who allowed themselves to live in a constant state of suspicion or cynicism. So I adopted my own motto: ‘Love first; ask questions later.’ Today I call it preemptive love.”

Without any medical training and very little prep, he helped start an Iraq-based international development organization, Preemptive Love Coalition, which facilitates the heart surgeries needed for a massive backlog of sick Iraqi children. Iraqis have suffered three decades of war (beginning in 1980 with Iran), Saddam’s chemical weapons, 13 years of economic sanctions (1990-2003), and countless tons of the depleted uranium and white phosphorus used in U.S. munitions. Its healthcare system is decimated, and, contrary to the controversial findings in a recent World Health Organization study, doctors from across Iraq report alarming increases in cancer rates and congenital birth defects.

Not long after moving to Iraq in 2006 to help rebuild it, Courtney, who’d earned a masters degree in international studies from Baylor University, heard about tens of thousands of Iraqi children suffering from heart defects. On average there are 30 new cases every day in Iraq, he said at the sixth annual Q Conference. But to get the children to surgery, he and his Preemptive Love cohorts took a road less (read: dared not) traveled. At the time, they had no other choice.

They sent Iraqi children to doctors in Israel. In other words, American Christians sent Iraq’s Muslim children to the Jewish state. To be saved. Literally.

In the fatwa, an Iraqi religious leader, or mullah, had used a phrase that immediately resonated with Courtney. “We must stop this treatment lest it lead our children to learn to love their enemies,” he recalled loudly at the Q Conference.

He paused, allowed the revelation to sink in.

“I was scared,’ he continued. “But I was thrilled by the mullah’s conclusion. We were saying the same thing: Be careful, preemptive love works.”

This threat from a high-ranking mullah was definitive evidence for him. It proved the efficacy of preemptive love. Hate could be recast by persistent, selfless acts of charity. War’s barbaric diplomacy could be repaired. Maybe, some day, an enlightened generation of Arab children would bridge the Middle East’s vast divide and make the region whole. Maybe the entire world could evolve.

“Every day in Iraq there seems to be an occasion to wake up again and make the decision to love indiscriminately,” Courtney said, describing for Q participants how his office had almost been blown up, his home broken into and bugged, his staff arrested on trumped-up charges. “Through these postures of preemptive love we’ve been able to go on and earn the trust of Muslims leaders across the country. We’ve made friends out of enemies.”

Eventually, a Muslim friend and sheikh in Iraq intervened on Courtney’s behalf and Preemptive Love continues its work in Iraq today. Better, it no longer needs to choose the road less traveled. Today it is helping to rebuild Iraq’s healthcare system by bringing surgeons into the country and training local doctors to perform the heart surgeries.

“I don’t have time to tell you all of the amazing things God is doing in the lives (of people) across Iraq,” he said, concluding his nine-minute talk, “but I’ll just tell you this: Violence unmakes the world but preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love remakes the world.”

As he exited the Q stage and spoke with participants, a woman asked if she could buy a copy of his book in the store there in the Mellon Auditorium.

“I’ve not written a book,” he said. “I don’t have one in the store.”

She smiled confidently. “Would you like to have one in it?”

Turns out she was an acquisitions editor for a publishing house. That conversation led to others, which soon led to a top-tier literary agent (Chris Ferebee) and, several months later, Courtney signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint, Howard Books. He was given five months to write the manuscript’s first draft.

Between frequent trips to his home near Lubbock, Texas and Preemptive Love’s work in Iraq, Courtney, now 34, expounded on his theology of preemptive love. His nine-minute Q talk quickly blossomed into an inspiring 230-page memoir. At its conclusion, near the end of the Afterword, he writes:

“Where you are sitting in the world as you finish this story may influence how you interpret my idea of preemptive love. If you are in the States, you may think first in terms of American kindness toward enemy Iraqis. If you are in Iraq, however, you may be more quick to see the countless times in this story in which the Iraqis acted first, offering protection, intervening, or taking a risk to welcome us in, even though we were often cast as their enemies. The truth is, preemptive love does not begin in the heart of humanity. Neither Americans nor Iraqis are inherently better at loving first than the other. We are all tribal, programmed to protect our own.


Instead, preemptive love originates in the heart of God. The one who made the universe and holds everything in it— the one to whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all ostensibly pointing— is the first and the last enemy lover.”



Preemptive war opened a Pandora’s box in Iraq


Lt. Marcus Amar of Rutba, Iraq, January 2010. Photo by Jamie Moffett

Thoughts, concerns, prayers go out today for the people of Iraq’s western Anbar province, where the BBC is reporting (see HERE) that a suicide bomber rammed a checkpoint leading into downtown Rutba.  At least 19 Iraqi police are dead. It’s the same checkpoint several of us cleared three years ago (see a video HERE), and, probably, some of the same police.

Checkpoint leading into downtown Rutba, Iraq. Photo by Jamie Moffett.

I’m hoping to hear soon about the status of the Iraqis that helped protect us in 2010, especially police officers such as Lt. Marcus Amar.

“Marcus,” nicknamed by the U.S. soldiers who’d trained him in police tactics, was one of the locals appointed by Rutba’s mayor to guard myself, Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli, the Simple Way’s Shane Claiborne, Christian Peacemaker Teams veteran Cliff Kindy, and Seattle Mennonite minister Weldon Nisly, among others, when we traveled through war-torn Al Anbar in January 2010. In the interview below, filmed in a darkened Rutba General Hospital after the town’s electricity shut off for the umpteenth time on that day in January 2010,  Lt. Amar tells me and filmmaker Jamie Moffett about the violent transformation of his country, and how he’d reluctantly had to kill a childhood friend.

Before the U.S.-led military invasion in March 2003, Iraq was a mess, for sure. Ba’athist dictator Saddam Hussein was maniacal and merciless. But with last week’s report of 461,000 Iraqi deaths attributable to the war (see HERE), and with ongoing carnage so routine that western newspapers rarely give it significant coverage, even hawkish Americans have to rethink the “wisdom” (if not spirituality) of preemptive warfare.

This is from my interview with Lt. Marcus Amar:

Excerpted from The Gospel of Rutba, pp. 126-127

In his stories, in his eyes, and in the way he chain-smoked a favorite brand of French cigarette, Lt. Marcus Amar looked and sounded far older than his twenty-one years. After Major Gavrilis’s Special Forces had driven out the Fedayeen in spring 2003 and disbanded the Ba’ath Party, Lt. Amar said life was “going well” in Rutba, especially if your family had been living on the wrong side of the Sunni Ba’athists. But beginning in the fall of 2004, an influx of foreign fighters flowed into Rutba from Jordan, Syria, and, especially, from Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Muslims are a vast majority.


These holy men ignited a holy war, Lt. Amar said.


He was in high school at the time and the insurgents offered him and his teenage friends large sums of money to kill “the enemies” of Sunni Islam, he said. But the armed Americans and Brits were not the only targets. The prey would also be Iraq’s Shia Muslims. If you killed Shia (Iraq’s new political majority), you would be paid, Marcus explained. Even if you killed them randomly and for no reason.


“Some of my friends, they join with these guys,” he said. “They train [them] on the snipers and the guns.”


The recruits were ages sixteen and seventeen, he said, too young to understand fully what they were getting into. But, he added, “If you have a gun at that time, it means you’ve got the power.”


So everyone wanted a gun. That alone was enticement. Lt. Amar had a friend who was forced to murder Shia locals immediately after he’d watched insurgents killing them. The friend said they told him to try killing a Shia and get the taste of it. Just try it, they’d insisted, like it was a sport or an initiation. They promised it would be easy.


“And when he did, he said it was easy— it was too easy,” Lieutenant Amar recalled.


Soon after, his friend came to him crying. But not crying about the murder, per se. He was crying about his lack of remorse.


“I should feel bad,” he told Lieutenant Amar, who wasn’t a Rutba policeman yet. But he didn’t. The friend confessed to his Sunni sheikh, told him how the worst part of the killing was his lack of remorse. According to the friend, the sheikh had responded, “No, that is not what you should feel. You did the right thing.”


When Lieutenant Amar began working as an interior ministry policeman in Rutba, he  says his circle of friends changed. It had to. Some of the guys he’d been running with in high school were now “bad guys.” And the friend who had lacked remorse, he’d become “a really bad guy,” he said.


One night after Lt. Amar was given a badge and a gun, the friend asked him what he would do if he found him in Rutba carrying a weapon illegally. The question sounded like a challenge.


“I would shoot you,” Lieutenant Amar said.


Two weeks later, he and another officer responded to a call about two men with weapons outside of Rutba’s only hotel, a mud-brick mom-and-pop on the main drag near Rutba General Hospital. Police and the “bad guys” ended up in a gunfight, and the bad guys lost. When Lieutenant Amar went closer to collect their weapons and see who he had just shot, he recognized one of the dead.


“He’s the same one,” he said many months later, playing cards near the end of a midnight shift in Rutba General. “He’s my friend.”


As usual, the electricity had gone off in the hospital when he recounted the story. It was cold and dark. Lieutenant Amar looked away for a second, sniffed, studied his fanned-out hand of cards.


“So,” he finished, looking up and forcing a smile, “it’s the life.”



Click HERE to watch video from some of my interview with Lt. Amar.

Washington Politics: ‘It’s all a game.’

You can read the Huffington Post version of this blog by clicking HERE

To anyone who thinks American politics will rise to meet the threat of debt default with any sort of genuine compromise serving the best interest of normal folk, think again. Washington politicians are not particularly loyal to the U.S. or to us (unless “us” is a major campaign donor and corporate player). They are loyal to political parties. Washington is Republican versus Democrat, Red versus Blue, Delta Tau Chi versus Omega Theta Pi. In the Belly of the Beast it’s about teams and games and political hazing.

In effect, the once-gilded streets of American democracy are run amok by the pledges of, say, Delta Tau Chi Capitol Hill.

True story: In May 2008 my wife and I were invited to a dinner hosted by some visiting Republican friends. We met at a fancy D.C. restaurant where we were seated with well-heeled donors from both sides of the political aisle. Two months earlier Sen. John McCain had defeated former Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Democrats were still deciding between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The election was six months away.

Arriving late to the table was an affable, well-dressed guy introduced to everyone as “Romney’s right-hand man.” He’d come to the dinner straight from Republican headquarters where he was campaigning for the party’s nominee.

Conversation turned inevitably to the upcoming 2008 election when Romney’s guy shared a GOP confession: McCain scared the daylights out of him. The senator’s infamous quick temper was real, he assured us. Republicans, such as himself, were concerned about what McCain might do if elected to the White House. Hotheads and nuclear codes make for a dangerous mix.

“It’s truly frightening,” Romney’s right-hand said. “The guy is scary.”

But as a Republican loyalist he was now charged with helping elect McCain.

“If McCain is so frightening, what will you do on November 4?” I asked.

He didn’t immediately understand the absurdity of my question.

“When you enter the voting booth, close those curtains behind you and choose between a hothead being named Commander-in-Chief or a Democrat being elected, how will you vote? Isn’t it more important for my children and yours, and for the future of the nation, if you make a responsible decision to vote outside the Republican party? Isn’t it best if you vote to keep someone hotheaded and dangerous out of the Oval Office?”

He looked at me as if I’d thrown back far too many beers.

“No way!” he responded immediately. “I’m Republican. I’m voting McCain.”

I shook my head and feigned shock (I wasn’t surprised.)

“You gotta understand, man,” he said, shrugging and sounding flippant, “it’s all a game.”

The Ideal Speech? Obama’s Extraordinary Opportunity

Jerry Casagrande is a writer focusing on issues about the environment and poverty. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children.

GUEST COLUMN by Jerry Casagrande

President Obama has an enormous decision to make regarding our country’s response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons that killed 1429 innocent citizens on August 21. I hope President Obama will have the courage to break from our militaristic past and forge a new future. With public opinion polls and Congressional opinions moving against any form of strike, this may be an excellent opportunity for genuine change.

Although the evidence is still being debated, the Obama Administration says that more than 1400 Syrians died painfully at the hands of what one could only call a war criminal, if the claim is true. And yet, around the world that same number of children die every four hours from malnutrition.

Even in our politically divided country, we can all agree that these deaths — from hunger and from chemical weaponry — are tragic and unnecessary. So here is what I ask President Obama to say in his speech this week:

My fellow Americans, I have looked at the options presented to me by my advisors on how to deal with the Syrian tragedy. I have determined two things:


First, that we have very little power to reduce violence in Syria without fully involving ourselves in a war there. And, of course, involving ourselves in a war will greatly increase the violence before it reduces it.


Second, as have others before me, I have reached the conclusion that violence simply begets more violence. Imagine if you will that we attack Syria in retaliation for its chemical weapons attack. We will kill men and women who are working at weapons warehouses or factories. These men and women will have children who we will orphan. If our missiles go astray, we may kill children, or the elderly. We will not kill President Bashar Assad, who I believe is most responsible for the 1429 deaths. And, he will use our attack to instigate his own people against us. There will inevitably be more violence and more deaths as a result of our actions. I have no doubt of this.


And, so I am embarking our country on a new path. In honor of the 1429 innocents who died on August 21 in Syria, we will spend the same amount of money that a retaliatory attack would cost — let’s call it $50 million — to save thousands, or tens of thousands, elsewhere. We will meet President Assad’s violence with an equal or greater measure of compassion towards the world’s least advantaged people.


Children are hungry and dying because of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, in India and Bangladesh, in Mongolia. In places that are at peace and where we can save lives without endangering American lives or creating a backlash of further violence.


What will Assad do in response? I don’t know. He might attack people with chemical weapons. In which case, we will mourn their deaths and respond with equal strength to save even more of the world’s poorest from a premature death. Each attack Assad makes, we will respond with kindness to the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

Or he may, eventually, be embarrassed and pressured into reducing his own violence. He might, like the South Africans who dismantled Apartheid after years of the world’s disdain, relent and rejoin the world community of peaceful nations.


I don’t know. But I do know this: Our action will save destitute children from death from malnutrition and it will lift up the name and reputation of these great United States as not just the most powerful country on earth, but also the most compassionate.

Tonight, I am directing my staff to prepare a list of sites where we can provide immediate assistance — to improve water access, improve agricultural yields, improve long-term access to food — to save the lives of thousands of children.


President Assad, the people you have killed have not died in vain. The United States honors their deaths by reaching out to save others from the death sentence of poverty and hunger. 

Some may say that this approach has us turning our backs on the Syrians. But, both an attack on Syria and a non-response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use has us turning our backs on the children dying of hunger. We live in a world of limited resources. Let us use our resources where we can to peacefully save lives rather than to violently act out in ways that may only increase the death toll.

Others with a practical bent will argue that this approach can’t happen because it requires us to turn our backs on the military-industrial-political complex, that lives off the teat of the Pentagon and that pays dividends to America’s wealthiest and most influential.

But, what if that complex can be co-opted ? What if there are profits and jobs to be had doing the good work of saving lives rather than the work of taking lives in the name of peace? What if contracts for building hospitals, providing farm equipment, building wells and cisterns, are open to the likes of Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglass, or a host of other defense industry corporations?

And, what if our good men and women of the service are sent to build rather than to destroy? Sent to do so in places that are already peaceful? They would not lose a paycheck. And one wonders, would they return from those places with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or would they return feeling fulfilled?

America does not want another war. And, we really do not even want an attack for fear of the war it may lead to. Now is the time to do real good in the face of extraordinary violence.

I hope the President is wise enough to see his opportunity and brave enough to take advantage of it.