Words are actions … and can be the seeds of growth

[This posted earlier on The Huffington Post HERE.]

I felt it before I saw it, sort of like when a basketball leaves your fingertips with perfect trajectory. But this felt bad, not good. Last week a gray Dodge Charger barreled toward my rented Toyota Camry at reckless speed. I was idle at a stop sign. From my rearview mirror I could see the driver, his eyes bugging, mouth agape. His expression didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I would be in a wreck. No way to avoid it. My evening was about to get complicated.

A dozen years earlier, a few months after 9/11 and in a crowded Cairo cafe, Egyptian playwright Ali Salem had leaned toward me through a haze of his own cigarette smoke. We were discussing the terrorist charges and countercharges being lobbed recklessly West to Middle East and vice versa — all the finger-pointing of politicians, preachers, imams and mullahs — when Salem told me something that applied to everyday life, something I’ve never forgotten:

“Words. Words are things.”

Salem, 66-years-old then, spoke with a deep baritone, and, much like actor James Earl Jones, the inflection of his rich voice conveyed as much as the English he spoke fluently.

“Good things begin with wooords. Bad things begin with wooords. So when we speak, we need to choose our words carefully.”

Going back even further, maybe five years before I’d interviewed Salem, I’d met someone else who had, in so many words, conveyed the same message. I’d just rear-ended her on Honolulu’s Ala Moana Boulevard. It was only a fender bender, but Hawaii uses an auto insurance law known as “no-fault.” What that means is that someone can rear-end you on Ala Moana and, in most cases, it’s considered to be no one’s fault. Legally speaking. The insurance company of the woman I’d rear-ended would assess the damage to her car and foot the bill. Mine would do the same for me. No fault. I know, right? Sounds crazy.

As I was apologizing profusely, she shushed me. Literally. Waved a finger in the air and told me, Shhhh.

“That’s why they’re called accidents,” she said, smiling maternally. “It’s okay. I’m okay. It was an accident.”

So, back to the Dodge Charger.

I’d flown into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport about 30 minutes earlier and rented my car from the same terminal where the Avis-rented Dodge originated. The driver of it, a water resources expert named Clay Landry, and I must have left at about the same time, both heading toward the Arizona 202 Loop via I-10 West. Roughly two miles from the airport there’s an awkward off-ramp to on-ramp combo that descends quickly toward an intersection. Too quickly if you’re pushing the 45-mph speed limit, and probably even if you’re not. Just before the stoplight a stop sign attempts to police four lanes of merging traffic. This is where I met Clay.

Funny thing about car accidents. Time is distorted. In the split second or less that I saw Clay’s crazed expression in my rearview mirror to when his Dodge plowed into the Toyota’s backside, I recall thinking: “Wow. No way to avoid this. It could be bad. Damn! I’m so hungry. I won’t be able to get dinner for another couple of hours.”

I probably looked angry as I climbed from the wreck. I wasn’t. I was hungry. It had already been a long day.

“Are you okay?” Clay shouted.

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I don’t recall thinking specially of the lady on Ala Moana Boulevard or of Ali Salem. Their seeds of humanity (owned by no religion and all religions) were planted more than a decade ago. However, I immediately felt compassion for Clay, who was uninjured but appeared to be rattled. I chose my words carefully and tried to reassure him.

“I’m fine. Really.”

I extended my hand.

“I’m Greg.”

“Clay.”

“It’s no problem, Clay. It’s okay. It’s why they’re called accidents.”

Americanized Democracy: Independence or Dependence?

Egyptians message to Americans during military coup.

On Facebook this sign is generating a lot of shock and awe from Americans. There is “Wow” and “Wow. Just Wow” and other expressions of speechless wonder. In light of Washington’s longtime backing of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and this week’s military coup, which keeps Egyptian “democracy” in limbo indefinitely, any show of Egyptian grace is, indeed, surprising.

But I’m not shocked or awed, just grateful. I’m grateful that Egyptian wisdom, grace and insight endures. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed their good character.

About eight months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I was dispatched to Egypt to report a series of stories about the view of Americans from the perspective of the Arab world. My “fixer” (translator, adviser, a journalist’s all-around go-to) and I came across a massive anti-American, anti-Israeli protest in downtown Cairo. There were hundreds of protesters and twice as many riot police.

Egyptian riot police by GNS photographer Heather Martin Morrissey, May 15, 2002

It was a strange sight because then-Egyptian President Mubarak did not allow public protests in “democratic” Egypt. My fixer, a wonderful Egyptian man who’s a Facebook friend but doesn’t like to be named much less tagged, said to me, “We have to get you inside of there.” He was referring to the protest and the bullring of police. I stared at him, unconvinced. I insisted that I could see things just fine from inside his Jeep Cherokee. He was persistent, with both me and the riot police, and within minutes we were in the bullring of Egyptian protests. Hundreds of angry Egyptians were burning flags of the U.S. and Israel, and, moments earlier, President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been burned in effigy.

As soon as protesters saw an American reporter with a notepad, they’d approach and ask me to put “facts to paper.” In other words, they wanted a genuine no spin zone. (Paying attention Bill O’Reilly?) Over and over again, in similar words and phrases, one Egyptian or another would say, “We love Americans but we hate your politics.” Among the grievances, they hated the way Washington propped up Mubarak’s regime in defense of Israel, and how it facilitated the spread of Wall Street franchises (Hardee’s, Radio Shack, Subway, KFC, etc.) through the Islamic world.

But “we love Americans.”

Maybe they loved Hollywood and Motown and Michael Jordan, but I thought it was strange for them to say they loved the U.S. electorate since Americans vote Washington politicians into office. But then I thought about Mubarak’s two-decade reign (it would last almost another decade) over a false democracy and realized that Egyptians understood American politics better than Americans did. Like Egypt’s, our democracy is not entirely genuine. It’s has never been as fake as Egypt’s was under Mubarak, but Washington politicians, to a large degree, are bought and packaged by Wall Street. The Egyptians didn’t hold us accountable for Washington because they knew we weren’t entirely accountable.

I’ve told this anecdote in a lot of my talks and wondered aloud: If I were in Cairo would Egyptians still give the American electorate such an easy pass.

I guess I have my answer.

A ‘Partnership with the Poor’ Turns Forty-Eight Years Old

photo by Nitaya Pakkeyaka

Father Joe Maier photographed 29 June 2013 at the Mercy Centre

This weekend Father Joe celebrates 48 years as a Redemptorist Catholic priest. More than 40 of those years have been spent living and working “in partnership” with the poorest of the poor in the port slums of Bangkok. Here’s a few paragraphs from my book explaining what happened when Mother Teresa crossed paths with Father Joe forty-two years ago:

Not long after Father Joe began sleeping on a Slaughterhouse cot, Mother Teresa visited Bangkok and ventured into Klong Toey’s hard middle. It was soon after the 1971 release of her biography, Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge, but before she was a holy icon. Had she already been famous, chances are that the elders of Holy Redeemer would not have risked putting her in the unedited company of Father Joe.

 

Together, kindred spirits in poverty, slum nun and slum priest toured Father Joe’s portside ghetto for three days, walking some of the same planks and catwalks I would walk with him a quarter of a century later. This was long before AIDS and yaba would mix and combust, and still, Mother Teresa pronounced the Slaughterhouse as sorrowful as anything in the gutters of Calcutta.

 

“Spend your life working with these poor … if you can,” she told Father Joe.

 

And with that simple, direct charge, it was as if he’d been anointed.

 

“I remember thinking to myself that if this is what a Christian-Catholic saint is all about,” Father Joe said of Mother Teresa, “I could and would spend all my life trying to imitate her.”

Gay marriage issue is ‘manini’

Hawaiians have a great word for the gay marriage debate, a word I still use 14 years after moving from Oahu. Manini. In the Native Hawaiian language it means “small, insignificant.” Relative to trillion-dollar wars, untold civilian and military casualties, illegal drone attacks, the Israeli strangling of Gaza and occupation of Palestinians, a global economic divide that results daily in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of “the least of these,” gay marriage is manini.

So why is this — THIS —  issue so important? Why does it get so many Christian churches and their pastors riled up? It allows churches and pastors to armchair quarterback something and pretend to be doing the work of “God” — for which congregants tithe handsomely. Meanwhile, priests like Father Joe Maier and holy women like Kathy Kelly (another Catholic, by the way) are in life’s trenches doing all of the heavy lifting.

The only thing that upsets me about the gay marriage issue is that it’s an issue. Churches, media, etc., are lazily distracted by it at the cost of matters that are truly critical. And for what reason? Because of a sentence in a chapter of a book (Leviticus 18:22) that Moses may or may not have written? Same chapter that tells me in all seriousness to skip the whole kid-sacrifice thing because it shows contempt of God?

Oy vey.

Let’s please put this issue to bed. No pun intended.

Religions: For the love of shalom focus on learning rather than ‘The Truth’

READ HUFFINGTON POST VERSION OF THIS COLUMN (aka Blog) HERE

A friend of mine on Facebook lists as his Religious Views this:

“I don’t know and you don’t know, either.”

Exactly.

By some definitions (Merriam-Webster for these purposes) faith is “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Protestant faith, Catholic faith, Islamic faith, Jewish faith, your faith, my faith, devout faith, waning faith, it all springs from the same mindset. Uncertainty. Religious belief requires a “strong feeling” that something is true or real. That’s Macmillan.  And no matter the strength, feelings are not the same as facts. (For example, President Dubya could feel in his gut that Iraq had storehouses of WMD.) You can preach, scream and swear on your mother’s grave that your interpretation of, say, sixty-six books of translated ancient text is literally true and God-inspired, but that’s still just your belief.

And you might be correct. I believe that you are correct about many parts. But I don’t know. And you don’t know, either.

So it is mind boggling to me why some fundamentalists continue packaging their beliefs as The Truth. Always singular, forever uppercase. The Truth silences debate and discussion; it seeks no additional enlightenment or maturity, and, when confronted with biblical contraction it just shrugs its broad shoulders. To The Truth “biblical contradiction” is a contradiction. The Truth is the final and omniscient word. Thus sayeth The Truth. If something reads like a contradiction to you than you aren’t interpreting it properly. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

End of story.

Oy vey.

I write nonfiction, emphasis on the first syllable. As best as I can research, recall and later retell, the anecdotes in my books are entirely true; the quotes verbatim. If spoken words aren’t firmly planted in my memory, notebook, voice recorder or captured on film, they do not reside inside the hallowed quotation marks. Period. I’m a stickler for research. It’s why 69 pages of end notes complete my latest book, “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”

This Rutba book is built on an amazing and little-known Iraqi wartime anecdote, and to some fundamentalists the story can trigger a hiccup in The Truth. They might even dismiss it by placing emphasis on nonfiction’s last two syllables. But the truth is this: During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as a Christian-majority nation was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on an Islamic Republic, Iraqi Muslims from an embattled desert town saved three bloodied and broken Christian Americans. Rescued them from an overturned car, carried them into town, bandaged them in a barren clinic, stitched them, hugged them, and, even, refused payment. This all occurred on March 29, 2003, just three days after Special Forces accidentally bombed the town’s only hospital. I’m not speculating or translating or interpreting these events. They’re not part of my <em>belief system</em>. These are facts. Just as this is:

The Good Samaritans in the story of Rutba are Muslims. Forgiving, loving, compassionate, Allah-fearing Muslims.

In a profound way these Iraqis put into practice the lessons that Christians (fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists) are said to revere: do unto others as you would have others do unto you; treat your neighbor as yourself; turn the other cheek; love your enemy; and etc. All the important stuff that terrorists and warmongers frequently ignore, forget, or, maybe, never fully learned.

Turns out The Truth isn’t always sure what to make of this story. The Good Samaritans of Iraq sound like a contradiction. Like “Christian Muslims” or something. This muddles the proprietary narrative.

I’ve another friend on Facebook who’s an evangelical minister. A good, kind-hearted guy from everything I know. When I asked if I could bring the story of these Muslim Good Samaritans to his Church of the Nazarene congregation, he balked. In an email he responded:

“The challenge is to allow Christians to maintain their evangelism (ie: presentation of Jesus as the way, truth and the life, we are to make disciples). All while engaging in a world view that all men are children of GOD. I wonder if your message will allow for that. Love and compassion are Godly traits, not traits expressed by religions.”

I wholeheartedly agreed with his last sentence but questioned the wisdom of the first. Why would fundamentalists need to be allowed to maintain their evangelism? The Truth as packaged by fundamentalism is solid, immovable, omnipotent. Not fragile. But I assured him that my talks are not theology per se and should not be seen as a threat.

“These are true stories,” I wrote. “Listeners/Readers take away whatever resonates for them.”

I reminded the pastor of the New Testament verse (Mark 4:9) that some fundamentalists use to mute debate. It’s where Jesus explains why he delivers lessons in parables, like Morse code for the enlightened.

“And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

I’ve not received a response to that email.

At the start of a recent speaking tourfor the paperback edition of “The Gospel of Rutba,” I was invited onto a Christian radio talk show that is broadcast on The Truth Network. Singular, uppercase. I was one of three panelists discussing our books and other works, and toward the end of the show we were each asked to tell about our Come-to-Jesus moment. If you were raised in the South and went to church every Sunday as I did, you know what that means. Your Come-to-Jesus moment is the epiphany when you saw The Truth— the flash of realization that belief in Jesus (and all the baggage that religion saddles on him) is the only way to eternal salvation.

The question presumed far too much. I felt like a kid squirming in the hard pew of my Baptist upbringing. I told The Truth Network of how I’d been dunked in the baptismal of my town’s First Baptist Church at age seven or eight. And how, as soon as I’d changed into dry clothes and accepted my bounty of hugs, handshakes and back pats, my father kept his promise. He took me to Dairy Queen. But, I continued, my true spiritual awakening had been fired by something far more nourishing than a large chocolate malt. Any epiphany from my youth had only gained meaning and maturity after I’d traveled the world as a news reporter. In some of humanity’s bleakest corners (e.g., the slums of Bangkok where Christians, Buddhists and Muslims work together to help the shantytown poor; the western desert of Iraq where Muslims rescued Americans) I had seen how anyone of any faith (or of no faith) could breathe life into Jesus’ lessons and parables. The Truth doesn’t own God. As a wise slum priest working in Bangkok once told me, God (or Allah or Whomever) is like the rain and sun. H/She falls to everyone.

Evidently there is no place in The Truth (or on The Truth Network) for that kind of nonsense. The host felt pressed to confirm that I was, in fact, a fully indoctrinated member of his Christian fraternity. He gave me the modern-day fundamentalist litmus test.

Yes, yes, he said, allowing the Rutba story a begrudging nod, but you have to admit that the Muslims have gone astray, and until they accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior they will spend eternity in hell.

I questioned what he meant by “gone astray.” I recounted how a Christian-majority nation invaded an Islamic nation by dropping close to 1,000 American-made bombs per day on it. I reminded him of the Muslim Good Samaritans who had exemplified the best parts of the New Testament. The rescue, the forgiveness, the stitches, the love.

The interview turned awkward and we parted ways agreeing to disagree.

The Church of the Nazarene minister who declined my offer to speak to his congregation responded last week to a story on my Facebook page. It was about President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech and the need to close the US prison on Guantanamo Bay. Since 2002 it’s been used to skirt international law while the US detains and interrogates (or tortures) “suspects” in Washington’s war on terrorism. More than 100 of the camp’s 166 detainees are currently engaged in a hunger strike to protest years of indefinite detention without formal charges, and more than 30 prisoners are being force-fed.

“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said last week. “Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

The evangelical minister said yes.

“Guantanamo is the most humane thing we can be doing. It is who we are and it is who we should be. (Obama’s) speech had nothing to do with us and everything to do with who The President is. He uses our grace to enrich his power, that is all.”

Later, after some Facebook backlash, he clarified his beliefs: “We don’t create terrorists. They are a product of hatred which is a product of GODLESSNESS.”

I countered this Truth the only way I know how. With more truth as best as I can research, recall and retell it.

“In my travels and reports terrorists are also known as warmongers,” I wrote. “I guess it all depends on your perspective and nation of residence. As you say, terrorism might be a product of hatred and Godlessness … but it is in my opinion most definitely a product of fear and anger.”

I explained with this story:

In Basra in 2003 I met an Iraqi preschooler and his school-teacher mom several weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq. Four years earlier, in 1999, a US missile had gone astray in a Clinton-era no-fly-zone bombing near Basra. Mustafa, then age 4, and his brother, Haider, age 6, were outside playing when the bomb missed its target. It killed Haider and badly injured Mustafa. When I first met Mustafa he was missing two fingers and had more than thirty pieces of shrapnel embedded in him. One piece, the size of a knuckle, was near the base of his spine and caused him considerable pain when he walked.

About two months later, in April 2003, I met Mustafa and his mother again. This time in Ontario, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. They had been brought to the U.S. with the help of US Christian peacemaker Kathy Kelly, actor Sean Penn and several others. In California, Mustafa would receive free surgery and medical treatment. When I visited him and his mother in Ontario, they were living large compared to where they’d been living in Basra. His borrowed townhouse outside of L.A. was gorgeous, and the streets around it were trimmed and cleaned. He had all the comforts of a prosperous Western life. He smiled a lot, much more than when I’d met him in Basra.

On Mustafa’s eighth birthday his new neighbors, kind middle-class Americans, pooled their money and bought him a bike. A local newspaper reporter later interviewed him and asked a question that prompted an awkward but telling response.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?”

Mustafa answered from his heart while his mother translated.

“He said he wants to be a pilot,” Mom told the reporter.

Makes for a good script. The Iraqi boy who lost his brother and two fingers to an American bomb comes to California for healing, and now he wants to be a pilot.  Hollywood endings. Except his answer hadn’t ended there.

When I visited Ontario that same spring the mother told me that she had not translated Mustafa’s entire response. Maybe because she knew me or because Kathy, myself and others had shared a meal with her and her Iraqi soldier husband on the floor of their concrete home, she felt comfortable telling me the fuller truth. Mustafa, a little boy living in the cross-hairs and harsh consequences of the US military industry, had said this about his career path:

“I want to be a pilot when I grow up so I can fly a plane and drop bombs on Americans.”

Why wouldn’t he? Angry and frightened, much like the US after 9/11, he was declaring war on terrorism.

My evangelical minister friend responded with his hands over his ears.

“Let him who has ears hear. Godlessness is Godlessness. Those who don’t understand that do not have the ears to hear or the eyes to see.”

Say ‘Hell No!’ to the hell of Guantanamo

Sign here: http://goo.gl/U4HOm

Sign petition HERE.

Why you ask? Isn’t “Guantanamo” part of Washington’s war on terror? Don’t its prisons keep us safe?

[Insert here your favorite head-shaking, mouth-agape emoticon with befuddled expression.]

The “War on Terror” is terror. Terror today for innocent people targeted by Washington’s blatant violation of due process. Read Jill Lepore’s excellent New Yorker article (below), “The Dark Ages,” to learn more.

So why should you sign the petition (click HERE) to close Guantanamo? For your kids. The abuses in the so-called war on terror are creating terror and terrorists for future generations. Built into the “war” by its brilliant, wealthy military industrialists is perpetual warfare. Pretty smart, huh?

As is, we will never experience peace.

Please sign. It’s a start.

The New Yorker

March 18, 2013

The Dark Ages: Terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the law of torment.

BYLINE: Jill Lepore

SECTION: FACT; A Critic At Large; Pg. 28 Vol. 89 No. 5

On November 13, 2001, George W. Bush, acting as President and Commander-in-Chief, signed a military order concerning the “Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism.” Under its provisions, suspected terrorists who are not citizens of the United States were to be “detained at an appropriate location designated by the Secretary of Defense.” If brought to trial, they were to be tried and sentenced by a military commission. No member of the commission need be a lawyer. The ordinary rules of military law would not apply. Nor would the laws of war. Nor, in any conventional sense, would the laws of the United States. In the language of the order, “It is not practicable to apply in military commissions under this order the principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized in the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly said when he read an early draft, in which members of the commissions, as well as attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense, were to be selected by the Secretary of Defense. As Jess Bravin, the Wall Street Journal’s Supreme Court correspondent, reports in “The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantánamo Bay,” Ashcroft expected the prosecution of people involved in 9/11 to be handled criminally, by his department, as had been done, successfully, with earlier terrorism cases. Other senior advisers had not been consulted. Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell learned that Bush had signed the order only when they saw the news reported on television. In the final draft, the Department of Justice was left out altogether. Suspected terrorists could be imprisoned without charge, denied knowledge of the evidence against them, and, if tried, sentenced by courts following no previously established rules.

“Now, some people say, ‘Well, gee, that’s a dramatic departure from traditional jurisprudence in the United States,’ ” Vice-President Dick Cheney said the next day, “but there’s precedent for it.” Furthermore, “We think it guarantees that we’ll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve.”

This all happened not very long ago, but it can seem like something from another age. Beginning in the fall of 2001, hundreds of men were taken into custody and interrogated, all around the world, but especially in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military dropped flyers offering, in exchange for information about men with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, bounties of millions of dollars. “This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life,” one flyer read. Detainees later said that they were sold for between five thousand and twenty-five thousand dollars. (The average annual income in Afghanistan at the time was less than three hundred dollars.) The flyers fell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “like snowflakes in December in Chicago.”

Lakhdar Boumediene was arrested in Sarajevo. Boumediene, a thirty-five-year-old native Algerian, had once worked at an orphanage in Pakistan run by an organization whose leader had ties to at least one member of Al Qaeda. In 2001, Boumediene was living in Bosnia with his wife and two young daughters, and working as a director of humanitarian aid for the Red Crescent, a Red Cross affiliate. He was charged with plotting to bomb the U.S. and British Embassies. A Bosnian court, finding no evidence of this, dropped all charges and released him. Boumediene was then taken into American custody. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration prepared a document defining the procedures by which the military commissions would operate. In lieu of rights, the term of art was “Procedures accorded to the Accused.”

There remained the question of where to imprison the men. Sending them to Leavenworth and reopening Alcatraz were both considered but were rejected, because holding suspected terrorists on American soil might allow them to appeal to American courts and U.S. law. Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, was considered, too, but it is a British territory, and therefore subject to British law. As Jonathan M. Hansen explains in “Guantánamo: An American History,” the U.S. naval base, which occupies forty-five square miles on the southeastern end of Cuba, is an imperial leftover, a Cold War discard, a remnant. As a matter of sovereignty, it isn’t part of Cuba, and it isn’t part of the United States. It’s one of the known world’s last no man’s lands, an island out of time, a place without a state. Haitian refugees held there in the nineteen-nineties, pleading that their forced repatriation would be unlawful, brought their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled, 8-1, that, absent congressional action, people held at Guantánamo had no recourse to U.S. refugee laws. The case influenced John Yoo, the Bush Administration lawyer whose interpretation of American and international law lay behind the Administration’s counterterrorism policy. Guantánamo, one Administration official said, was the “legal equivalent of outer space.”

The selection of Guantánamo as the place to imprison men captured in the “global war on terror” was announced on December 27, 2001. The Administration’s attention then shifted from the prisoners’ detention to their treatment. On January 9, 2002, Yoo and a colleague submitted to the general counsel of the Department of Defense one of the first of what came to be called the “torture memos.” In the January 9th memo, Yoo concluded that international treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions, “do not apply to the Taliban militia,” because, although Afghanistan had been a party to the Geneva Conventions since 1956, it was a “failed state”; moreover, international treaties “do not protect members of the al Qaeda organization, which as a non-State actor cannot be a party to the international agreements governing war.”

Two days later, the first twenty prisoners, shackled, hooded, and blindfolded, arrived at Guantánamo. Their names were not released. They were confined in Camp X-Ray, which you could see right through: its eight-by-eight-foot, concrete-floored cages were made of chain-link fence, and the floodlights were never turned off. More camps were soon built to house more prisoners, eventually seven hundred and seventy-nine, from forty-eight countries. They weren’t called criminals, because criminals have to be charged with a crime. They weren’t called prisoners, because prisoners of war have rights. They were “unlawful combatants,” who were being “detained,” in what the President called “a new kind of war,” although, really, it was very old.

The military order, the location of the prison, and the memos all evaded a variety of legal instruments designed to protect prisoners from torture. But another obstacle remained: the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty that the United States had signed in 1988 and ratified in 1994. This objection was addressed in August, 2002, in a fifty-page memo to the White House counsel Alberto Gonzales-signed by the Justice Department’s Jay S. Bybee but reportedly drafted by Yoo-which attempted to elaborate a distinction between acts that are “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” and acts that constitute torture. “Severe pain,” a threshold for torture, was defined as pain like that associated with “death, organ failure, or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function.” (“If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong,” Jonathan Fredman, the chief counsel for the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, advised, according to meeting minutes later released by the Senate Armed Services Committee.)

Methods described in the torture memos include stripping, exposure to extremes of temperature and light, false threats to family members, and the use of dogs. Lakhdar Boumediene, who arrived in Guantánamo on January 20, 2002, said that, in one sixteen-day period, he was questioned night and day. (“I was kept awake for many days straight,” he later wrote. “I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.”) In the memos, these techniques have names like “Fear Up Harsh” and “We Know All,” and are daubed with the greasy paint of the bureaucrat. “Sleep Adjustment” is “adjusting the sleeping times of the detainee (e.g., reversing sleep cycles from night to day). This technique is NOT sleep deprivation.” Waterboarding: “the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are gently elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth.” In this fashion, “water is continuously applied from a height of twelve to twenty-four inches,” so that the individual experiences the sensation of drowning. After a break of three or four breaths, “the procedure may then be repeated.”

Many of these forms of torment, including subjecting prisoners to stress positions, sleep disruption, semi-starvation, and extreme cold, came from a 1957 study, conducted by the Air Force, called “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War.” It was an investigation of interrogation methods used by Chinese Communists, who tortured American prisoners during the Korean War. Bush’s top security advisers, including Rice and Powell, were consulted about what the White House called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Powell objected to defying the Geneva Conventions. Ashcroft urged discretion. “Why are we talking about this in the White House?” he is said to have asked at one meeting, warning, “History will not judge this kindly.”

The spread of such torture around the world is the subject of “Habeas Corpus After 9/11: Confronting America’s New Global Detention System,” by Jonathan Hafetz, who teaches at Seton Hall, and of “The Guantánamo Effect,” which is based on interviews with sixty-two former detainees, conducted by Laurel E. Fletcher, the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, at Berkeley, and Eric Stover, the director of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. In Afghanistan alone, procedures authorized in the torture memos were used by the C.I.A. at several sites, including a facility in Kabul known as the Dark Prison (where prisoners were not allowed to see the light) and Bagram Air Base, where, in 2002, two men were tortured to death: both died while chained to the ceiling of their cells. Eliza Griswold, writing in The New Republic, quoted a former interrogator who described Bagram as echoing with “medieval sounds.” The medieval dungeon: the scrape of shackles, the screams of agony, the groans of despair.

For a time, Americans interrogating suspected terrorists were not answerable to any rules, except those made, ad hoc, by the Bush Administration. The White House’s answer to terrorism, which is an abandonment of the law of war, was the abandonment of the rule of law.

“There’s precedent for it,” Cheney had said. In fact, the history of the trial is inseparable from the histories of evidence, torture, and punishment. An ancient form of adjudication known as trial by ordeal became commonplace after 500 A.D.; its heyday lasted from 800 to 1200 A.D. In trial by ordeal, a defendant submits to a gruelling physical test, the outcome of which is taken as a sign from God, an indication of guilt or innocence. In the end, man is judged by God alone. Trial by ordeal was practiced throughout Latin Christendom. It was a favorite device for trying traitors, slaves, and foreigners. In medieval English law, the ordeal was an appropriate trial for “the foreigner or friendless man.” It took many forms. A dispute between conflicting testimonies might be resolved by the trial of the cross: two men were ordered to stand with arms raised; he who could hold them up the longest was found to be telling the truth. Trial by fire involved grasping an iron bar. A plea was offered to God: “If this man is innocent of the charge from which he seeks to clear himself, he will take this fiery iron in his hand and appear unharmed; if he is guilty, let your most just power declare that truth in him, so that wickedness may not conquer justice but falsehood always be overcome by the truth.”

The Church’s sanction for trial by ordeal was withdrawn in 1215, by order of the Fourth Lateran Council. The legal historian John H. Langbein has argued that the abolition of trial by ordeal led to a judicial crisis: placing the fate of men in the hands of other men, rather than in the hands of God, proved to be a difficult adjustment. In Continental Europe, trial by ordeal was replaced by judicial torture: torture authorized by the court for the purpose of gathering evidence that could achieve a state of certainty. The jurisprudence of torture, which derived from Roman-canon law, was essentially a law of proof: a defendant could be convicted of a serious crime only if his guilt was “full proof,” which meant either that he had voluntarily confessed or that there were two eyewitnesses to his crime. In cases of “half proof” (for instance, one eyewitness, or two quarter-proof pieces of circumstantial evidence, added together), the defendant would be tortured. Because people who are tortured will confess to anything, many laws required that a confession extracted by torture include details that “no innocent person can know.”

In England, trial by ordeal was replaced not by judicial torture but by trial by jury. Why this happened isn’t quite clear; possibly, it had something to do with limits placed on English monarchs, especially those relating to what’s now called due process. In 1215, the year the Church effectively abolished trial by ordeal, King John signed the Magna Carta, pledging certain liberties to the people, including that “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned . . . but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.” Also codified in thirteenth-century England was the writ of habeas corpus, an order requiring a jailer to bring a prisoner before a court and explain the cause of his imprisonment. (At first, the writ was chiefly used by the king, to establish his jurisdiction, rather than by prisoners.) The first criminal jury trial took place in Westminster, in 1220. It included elements of ordeal. Swearing an oath was a means of bringing God’s judgment into the proceedings. And there remained the threat of pain. The accused had to consent to trial by jury. The other choice, according to a thirteenth-century treatise, was prisone forte et dure: “let their penance be this, that they be barefooted, ungirt and bareheaded, in the worst place in the prison, upon the bare ground continually night and day, that they eat only bread made of barley or bran, and that they drink not the day they eat; nor eat the day they drink, nor drink anything but water, and that they be put in irons.” Most people chose trial by jury.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a revolution in punishment: blood sanctions (maiming and execution) began to be replaced by forms of bondage (galley slavery and indentured servitude) and of confinement (short- and long-term imprisonment). The availability of punishments short of corporal and capital punishment gave courts far more discretion in handling evidence. Defendants for whom evidence was something less than full-proof could be given lighter sentences: shorter terms of bondage or imprisonment. Judicial torture was abandoned. Meanwhile, in England, habeas corpus became a remedy for prisoners seeking relief for arbitrary imprisonment, even in times of war. Five noblemen imprisoned by Charles I for refusing to lend the king money to pay for the Thirty Years’ War sought writs of habeas corpus; they argued that, without charges, “imprisonment shall not continue for a time, but for ever.” The Five Knights case led to the 1628 Petition of Right, which turned habeas corpus from a privilege to a right and then, in 1641, Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act, whose power was expanded in 1679 in a piece of legislation that William Blackstone called a “second Magna Carta.”

The law of nations is the rule of law over war. Its most influential theorist, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, wrote “On the Law of War and Peace” (1625), during a time of political and legal ferment that saw the end of judicial torture, the yielding of blood sanctions to bondage and imprisonment, and a revolution in the law of evidence. Holy war was said to have ended with the Middle Ages. In time, the rule of law, revulsion at torture, the abolition of blood sanctions, and the law of evidence became the means by which the nations of the West came to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world (including, not least, non-states like the Taliban insurgency and terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda). Nobody, not even a king, could imprison someone without cause. Torture wasn’t a form of jurisprudence; torture was a species of obscenity. War could not be justified by mere appeal to God, and waged by any means, but must be justified by law, and waged with restraint. War, like crime and punishment, was to be ruled not by God, not by men, but by law.

Or so the story goes. In seventeenth-century New England, English colonists ruled that “lawful Captives taken in just Wars” could be sold into slavery. In practice, this meant that, so long as you called a war you waged just, you could enslave your enemies at the end of it. At the close of King Philip’s War (1675-1676), in which Algonquian Indians had tried to oust the English from New England, governors sent signed certificates on ships that conveyed prisoners of war to islands in the Caribbean, to be sold as slaves, explaining that they had “perpetrated many notorious barbarous and execrable murthers, villanies and outrages . . . without giving any account of their controversys and refusing (according to the manner of civill nations) an open decision of the same.” They had been declared, in effect, unlawful combatants. In 1741, when New Yorkers suspected that the city’s slaves were plotting to burn the city down, and murder all the free men (at the time, one in five New Yorkers was enslaved), more than a hundred men in the city were arrested and thrown into a dungeon in the basement of City Hall, where they were interrogated, for months. Under duress, most confessed; those who didn’t were brought to trial. Nearly all the evidence against the accused came from statements extracted from other slaves, which were admissible in court only because a long-standing ban against “Negro Evidence” had been lifted, to cover just such cases of slave conspiracy. Seventeen men were found guilty, and hanged; thirteen were burned at the stake. Most of the rest were shipped to the Caribbean, to islands known, at the time, as graveyards.

The laws of war can be debased and made, even, into weapons of war. The rule of law can be made a travesty. Still, sometimes laws are all that stands in the way of imprisonment, torture, trials, and executions conducted at the king’s pleasure.

In 2001, when the Bush Administration talked about precedent for the military commissions, it meant the Second World War. Yoo, in his memos, cited a case involving a military order signed by F.D.R. in 1942, providing for the establishment of a military commission to try eight Nazi saboteurs who had entered the United States; the order’s constitutionality was upheld in a Supreme Court case known as Ex Parte Quirin. Felix Frankfurter called Quirin “not a happy precedent.” The reason for the 1942 military tribunal appears to have been that the F.B.I. bungled the prosecution of the sabotage: a military commission was meant to provide the agency with cover. In any case, a number of features distinguish Roosevelt’s military order from Bush’s. F.D.R.’s was backed by legislative authority, during a declared war, and the prisoners were held and the trial conducted in the United States. None of these conditions applied to the Bush order. And, as Neal Kaytal and Laurence Tribe argued in the Yale Law Journal in 2002, the Bush order “makes the jurisdictional question (whether someone is subject to a military trial at all) the very same one as the question on the merits (whether the person is guilty of a war crime).” The Nazi saboteurs were tried immediately, in a single trial. But, as Bravin writes in “The Terror Courts,” “the Bush administration envisioned creating for the first time a permanent legal structure under the president’s sole command.”

Among the strongest protests lodged against the commissions and the use of torture were those from members of the military. Bravin profiles Stuart Couch, a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, who in late 2003 joined the prosecution staff. While preparing cases, Couch grew concerned that most of the evidence in the files he saw was paraphrased from detainees’ statements. Many of the prisoners at Guantánamo seemed to be ordinary men caught in a dragnet that trained fighters-Al Qaeda’s leaders-had been able to escape. “The joke we used to have at commissions is, we’d call them the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker,” one prosecutor, Air Force Major Rob Preston, said. Couch and others worried that men who were guilty and dangerous either had got away or couldn’t be convicted, because the evidence against them was limited to confessions and accusations extracted during brutal interrogations. Then there was the matter of the commissions. Military prosecutors began formally stating their objections. “I sincerely believe that this process is wrongly managed, wrongly focused and a blight on the reputation of the armed forces,” Preston wrote in an e-mail, in 2004, the year the first military commission met. Couch refused to participate in the prosecution of cases in which, he believed, the evidence had been obtained through torture. “As an ethical matter, I opine that the interrogation techniques utilized with this detainee are discoverable by defense counsel, as they relate to the credibility of any statements given by him,” Couch wrote to his superior. “As discoverable material, I have an ethical duty to disclose such material to the defense.”

Meanwhile, reporters, lawyers, and human-rights activists had been investigating the conditions under which the prisoners were being held. “The Guantánamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison, Outside the Law,” edited by Mark P. Denbeaux and Jonathan Hafetz, is an anthology of reminiscences by more than a hundred lawyers who defended the detainees. “I would have confessed to anything to get my leg back,” a prisoner named Abdul Aziz Naji told his attorney, Ellen Lubell, “but I didn’t know what they wanted me to say.” Naji lost his leg to a land mine, and his prosthetic was broken by U.S. soldiers at Bagram. At Guantánamo, he was given a replacement that didn’t fit; he pulled his stump out of it, to show Lubell, leaving the prosthetic, outfitted with a white sneaker, still shackled to the floor. “I knew I had come to the heart of a new kind of irony,” Lubell writes.

Stories began to emerge about the abuse of prisoners. Photographs from Abu Ghraib were broadcast on “60 Minutes II” on April 28, 2004, eight days after oral arguments were heard in the Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush, a case concerning the jurisdiction of the federal courts over the habeas claims of fourteen Guantánamo prisoners. Opposition grew, especially after the Bush Administration memos were published in “The Torture Papers,” edited by Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, and the chilling story behind them was reported by Jane Mayer in her book “The Dark Side.” Doubts were raised about whether many of the men sent to Guantánamo should have been arrested at all. In 2006, a team from Seton Hall School of Law released a study of the five hundred and seventeen prisoners then remaining at Guantánamo; according to Department of Defense data, only five per cent of these men had been captured by U.S. troops; at least forty-seven per cent had been arrested by Pakistani or Northern Alliance forces during the months when the U.S. government was offering bounties.

“The military commissions were a crude parody of a justice system,” Muneer Ahmad, a defense attorney, wrote. “The rules changed constantly.” In June, 2006, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court ruled that, without congressional authorization, the President lacked the power to establish the military commissions, which violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Three months later, Congress reauthorized the commissions under the Military Commissions Act of 2006. A habeas petition filed on behalf of Lakhdar Boumediene was rejected by a lower court, a district court, and an appeals court. In 2006, Boumediene began a hunger strike. (By now, prisoners had begun trying to kill themselves. In 2006, three deaths were declared suicides.) Like other hunger strikers, Boumediene was force-fed through the nose, twice daily. His appeal, Boumediene v. Bush, was decided by the Supreme Court in 2008. A 5-4 majority struck down part of the 2006 Military Commissions Act, and ruled that all prisoners confined at Guantánamo had a right to habeas recourse through the U.S. courts.

In 2009, two days after Barack Obama’s Inauguration, the President released a directive ordering the closing of Guantánamo and issued executive orders banning torture and mandating adherence to the Geneva Conventions. On May 15th, Lakhdar Boumediene, who had been imprisoned for seven and a half years, was released, and flown to Paris, where he went out for pizza with his wife and two daughters, and cried.

On January 28, 2013, a week after Obama began his second term, the State Department shut down the office of Daniel Fried, whose job had been to close Guantánamo. A hundred and sixty-six men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo, and, until their release into the hands of Afghan authorities during the past year-the last slated for transfer just this month-many more were held, some for years, at Bagram. Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported that the Obama Administration holds “Terror Tuesdays,” meetings in which the President and his national-security advisers discuss which suspected terrorists, remaining at large, should be assassinated by drones. In about a third of these cases, the President alone takes responsibility for naming the targets, which have included American citizens.

In February, NBC News released a confidential, undated Justice Department memo, titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or an Associated Force.” It explains, in sixteen pages, how it is that the President of the United States has the power to order not imprisonment without charge but the killing of men without anyone bringing evidence before any judicial body, not even an unconstitutional military commission.

There were no unmanned aerial vehicles in the Middle Ages; a drone was a honeybee. But there were assassins. “Assassin” is, in fact, a medievalism; the word gained currency during the Crusades; it derives from “hashish.” It meant a Muslim sent on a mission to kill.

The past is often figured as dark, a prison, a tomb; the future, bright, blue sky, a spaceship. This is an inheritance of the Enlightenment, with its faith in progress and reason and law. Part of the terror of September 11th was the gleaming skyscraper become a tomb, the seeming backward march of time, the horror of the unreasonable. What, then, of the assassin become an unmanned flying machine?

Avery’s Run to Freedom (or Our White Noise of Modern-day Warfare)

NOTE: Avery Bargar, age 23, delivered the scripture reading before I spoke on Sunday, March 10th at First Baptist Church in Newton (MA), eight miles southwest of the Boston Marathon finish line. Five weeks later he was near that finish line at about 2:50 p.m. when he felt two explosions. He sent me this essay. The insight he shares about the “techno-media echo chamber” is especially valuable. Please read to the finish. And please circulate. 

Guest Blogger Avery Bargar

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

By Avery Bargar

BOSTON— On the morning of the 117th Boston Marathon, I opened the Lindt Chocolate Store in the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square, right at the intersection of Boylston and Exeter Street. There were thousands of people lining both sides of Boylston as I squeezed my way through the crowd to work. In the store, our view of the race could hardly have been better — we were a hundred yards or so from the finish line — so as the front runners of the women’s and men’s races took the title, we watched. My coworker and I both marveled at the feat of will, determination, and faith that it must take to make it to the front of the Boston Marathon.

I left work at 2:40 to jam with someone at Boston Conservatory. Outside of the store, I found myself instantly amidst an enormous crowd. I had to walk slowly away from the finish line, bumping my backpack filled with sheet music into everybody on either side of me. I laughed a bit at the pomp of this whole event—thousands of people; cameras and corporate advertising everywhere—New Balance having cleverly co-opted the themes of social upheaval of the last two years into several historical, Boston-related slogans, including “Run to Freedom”—and in the middle of it all, runners streaming by, pumping their fists in the air. Ten minutes later I had barely made it a few hundred feet from Lindt when I heard a massive BOOM.

Instantly the tone of the crowd changed. Cheering stopped. I turned to face the street, confused, noticing bewilderment and disorientation on a thousand faces. I saw a large plume of white smoke rising a couple hundred feet down the street. As soon as this registered, there was another explosion, and people began to scream. The shock tore us away as fast as possible. Let me make this clear— I was not one of the extremely brave people who ran into the heart of the attack to help the wounded. I was a couple hundred yards from the explosions, amid an enormous terrified throng. We ran south, fast. I alerted other pedestrians and drivers along the way, lent out my cell phone, donated blood an hour later, and I tried to call my coworkers, but I did not double back into the heart of the carnage to help. I did not notice that as a possibility, and I am in awe of those who did. There was intense confusion from the start; the immediate experience of it was obscured by this odd emerging technological phenomenon that is both a web and a barrier; connecting yet dividing us.

A week later, this is one of the hardest things for me to unpack about my experience of these attacks— the use of what I’ll call the “post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber” as a political medium. We carry it with us everywhere, even if we don’t have a smartphone.
As I ran away from Boylston Street with thousands of other frightened Bostonians and tourists, I noticed the waves of communication unfold. The first was with the emerging reality— we all witnessed two violent explosions.

“Get away, fast. There could be more.”

The second wave was with the other people in the area.

“Are you ok? Let’s go, keep running.”

I saw a mother and two boys weeping in fear. I lent my phone to a woman much closer to the blasts than I was— right at the finish line when they went off. She was traumatized from what she had seen, which has already been repeated in what will probably be weeks of reports. Which brings me to the third wave, brought through digital devices— calls and texts with family and friends. I tried to call my coworkers to see that they got out.

And in the fourth wave, we distanced ourselves just a bit from the immediate moment, those around us, and our friends and family, and focused on information. We wanted the facts. As we wandered away from the blasts, the sounds of police and ambulance sirens screaming through Back Bay, we became the second hand consumers of our own experience. We turned to our electronic media to help us interpret our confusion and terror, and joined the intended audience of these attacks. Because the key to the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber is this: the attacked and the witnesses are not the intended audience; we were simply players, acting out the role thrust on us. The real audience is you, out there, watching on your now unavoidable screen— which has followed you from your local cinema into your living room, then into your businesses and restaurants, your lap, and now your pocket.

But how did this echo chamber come to be?

I walked through Boston and into Cambridge, then took a cab to Medford. Stopping at a pizza shop, I saw coverage on the TV of what I’d just seen firsthand three hours earlier. One thing nearly as traumatic as escaping bombs is having them follow you on screens for hours. Here I was in Medford, tired, shaken, hungry, confronted with four new angles of the blasts I’d just run from.

“And look, there’s a scared crowd running for their lives; how awful!”

Within a matter of hours, I’d gone from running for my life to watching my performance on screen, playing a young man running for his life from the danger and bewilderment of a Postmodern Nightmare. Except it’s a nightmare within a nightmare, because the techno-media echo chamber follows us everywhere we go. And this brings me back to that first point— the use of the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber as a political tactic. Indulge the digression, please. It is relevant.

The assumption I learned in high school history was that World War II was the last World War due to the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. World War III could only be nuclear, and since there has been no nuclear war, we’re not there yet. YET! Which is why we took out Saddam! And bin Laden! And Gaddafi! And are looking out for Ahmadinejad! And Kim Jong-Un!

But what about the “Cold War?” Where was it cold? The US, USSR, UK and Western Europe, all sites of World War II. Where was it hot? South America, South East Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, ending with the disintegration of the USSR, and resulting in regime changes the world over. The difference here is that the media learned to bring the spectacle from American cinemas on news reels into American living rooms on TVs, with spin. A hot war in a cool package. Could this be a candidate for the title of World War III?

But what about the “War on Terror,” or the “Long War?” This one has been pretty well hidden, and yet, “terrorist attacks” and American invasions and interventions made the evening news, the papers, and online news sites; there’s leaked video on Youtube and Vimeo— Twitter, Facebook, and the blogospohere offer platforms for sharing information and perspectives unavailable from the mainstream media. The justifications for this war crumbled under international scrutiny years ago, and yet the drones fly forward, largely un-examined by the mainstream. Could this be another candidate for the title?

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

 

The normalization of violence through movies, video games, TV, and the news is part of this war, and the techno-media echo chamber, which evolved again on 9/11, has been essential to this process. And further, since five years ago, we carry it with us everywhere! At all times we can access a wealth of perspectives and contacts, yes, but the echo chamber has one main message: DANGER, AROUND THE CORNER— Stay Tuned! From the very format of the Hot Leading Story — “Now to you Tom, at the scene of the blast”— the media feed us the same formats again and again. Tragedy is our New York Times Bestseller, America’s Greatest National Export. And the antidote? “Security.”

In other words, the techno-media echo chamber co-evolved with a culture of international violence, and in shaping our perception of that violence it became a political medium. But it is a battleground only because it insists on being simplistic. It refuses to ask hard questions. And since World War II it has so succeeded in branding and re-branding war, and has amplified itself so absurdly, that we now carry it in our pockets. As a friend told me, “It’s like there’s a town crier at every corner.”

People have learned how to use it against us, and this has only gotten worse since 9/11. It is a crucial tool in modern warfare— whose home front is not a nuclear battle ground or worse, if possible; it is simply a battle against consciousness, against possibility.

As I ran away from this attack, I was in shock, jolted totally awake, and in that state, I was not surprised, to be honest. This is what happens when we live in ignorance. The victims are not at fault. “At fault” is not the right term. “Collateral damage” is closer. I don’t know why this happened, but my main point is that civic dialogue, a practice of open discussion and patient engagement, has gradually been lobotomized. The spaces where it happens are few and far between, increasingly de-funded, or expensive. The intended audience of these attacks is all of us caught in the din of this post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber.

I bring up the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” and “Terrorists” because they are misleading labels, propagated via the echo chamber, that reduce a few perspectives into “facts” to be memorized and regurgitated,and  then sold in textbooks and on TV, erasing other more nuanced interpretations, and concealing violence.

“Cowards ruined a great event.”

“A tragedy in Boston’s fine history.”

“Increased security will of course be necessary.”

We have to step back and ask the question: WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? We have to ask! “Random, senseless violence” is insufficient.

Further, I’d like to know more about all of this military equipment local and state police forces have rolled out. How much did it cost? Where else could that money have gone? Now that a precedent has been set to use hundreds, if not thousands of high-tech weapons to catch one man, what limits will be put in place for future use?

We have been unconscious as this behemoth has grown.. It has lured us into its den. It spins half-truths and lies, and coins terms that force their way into our language, cannibalizing many more specific terms. It demands that we watch.

My sympathies to the victims and their families. I won’t be forgetting what I saw and heard at the Marathon, and how totally it fit with the logic of Postmodern America.

As bombs fell, Iraqi Good Samaritans rescued American Christians


At the rebuilt Rutba General Hospital in January, 2010. Back row, left to right, nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq and physician’s assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil, Rutba local, Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli, and the rest are Rutba locals. Front row, kneeling left to right, Rev. Weldon Nisly, Cliff Kindy, and Shane Claiborne.  

The synopsis below was published by The Albany Times-Union in advance of an event where I’m speaking on Saturday, March 16. The event, hosted by the Capital Region Theological Center, is titled, “Finding Your Calcutta: Where Does God Call You.” You can register and/or read more about it HERE.


On a sunny Saturday 10 years ago this month three Christian peacemakers from the United States were injured in a car accident that ended violently in a remote desert ditch of war-torn Iraq. It was March 29, 2003, nine days into the Pentagon’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The U.S. Air Force was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on a sovereign Islamic nation, according to data I gleaned from an April 30, 2003, military report titled, “Operation Iraqi Freedom: By the Numbers.” Those numbers don’t even include ordnance fired by ground troops or allied air forces.

The Christian peacemakers squeezed into a taxi that morning had chosen to reside in this bombardment with the war’s most obvious victims— everyday Iraqis caught in the cross fire between a dictator and history’s most powerful military. Some labeled the peacemakers “human shields.” Others wrote them off as suicidal. They were neither. Simply, their profound spirituality would not allow them to sit idly while their government killed innocent people. In the purest (read: apolitical) sense of the word, they were diplomats. For Christ.

Before going to Baghdad in March 2003, Philadelphia peacemaker Shane Claiborne had explained his motivation in a letter penned like a last testament. In part, he wrote:

“I am going to Iraq to stop terrorism. There are Muslim and Christian extremists who kill in the name of their gods. Their leaders are millionaires who live in comfort while their citizens die neglected in the streets. I believe in another kingdom that belongs to the poor and to the peacemakers. I believe in a safe world, and I know this world will never be safe as long as the masses live in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish. … May we stand by those who face the impending wrath of empire and whisper, ‘God loves you, I love you, and if my country bombs your country, I will be right here with you.’”

Weeks later, the Americans found themselves stranded and bloodied in a highway ditch. Indiana organic farmer Cliff Kindy’s scalp was split open and gushing blood. Mennonite minister Weldon Nisly from Seattle had a fractured sternum, shoulder, ribs and thumb. Claiborne, with a separated shoulder, was the least injured. But he felt sick with dread. In the Pentagon’s War on Terror, he feared that Iraqis would see the Americans as the terrorists.

When three Iraqi men in the first vehicle that came to the scene helped the Americans into their truck, Claiborne couldn’t decide if he was being rescued or kidnapped.

A half-dozen miles southeast of that hard ditch, 270 miles west of Baghdad, is a desert town named Rutba. It was the westernmost outpost for Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. Three days earlier, on March 26, 2003, a Special Forces unit from Fort Campbell, Ky., had bombed a suspected ammo depot adjacent to the region’s only hospital. Rutba General Hospital had burned to the ground. So the Americans were taken to a squat building with no electricity and no running water. It’s where Rutba General Director Dr. Farouq Al-Dulaimi, physician assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil and nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq were treating Rutba’s sick and wounded, and where they would patch up the Americans.

Hearing that the Americans were similar to the Rutba townspeople —peaceful and unarmed — Dr. Farouq told Claiborne, “You are safe in Rutba. We will take care of you. We take care of everyone — Christian, Muslim, Iraqi, American. We are all human beings. We are all sisters and brothers.”

Seven years later, when the peacemakers returned to Rutba to find the Good Samaritans and medical staff who had saved them, Jassim told them that when he heard they had returned, he thought they had left something and wanted to reclaim it.

“I never thought that you came back to say thank you,” he said. “Is it possible that you came back for a simple service [we] provided?”

He later remarked at how the American Christians were behaving like good Muslims, only without the daily prayers.

When the peacemakers left Rutba and the reunion in 2010, they promised to keep telling the story of Rutba’s Good Samaritans. Hearing this, Tarik and Jassim offered to also do their part to bring peace and reconciliation.

“As you do when you go back and you tell your people about Rutba,” Tarik said, “we also are committed to tell our people about your visit and your noble mission.”

Greg Barrett traveled to Iraq in 2003 as a correspondent for Gannett News Service and is the author of “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.” He is speaking Saturday, March 16, at the Capital Region Theological Center’s event, “Finding Your Calcutta” at Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church, 2131 Central Ave., Schenectady. For more information go to http://www.capitalrtc.org.

Voice of America Interview Part I

The tenth anniversary to a war we all want to forget is fast approaching. Let’s not forget it. History forgotten becomes history repeated (read: Iran). Let’s examine and then reexamine our mistakes, blunders and bone-headed thinking and learn from our errors.

Now repeat after me:

Peace (English). Salaam (Arabic). Shalom (Hebrew). Hasîtî (Kurdish). (Hawaiian). Santipap (Thai). La Paz (Spanish). Rangima’arie (Maori). (Korean). Ashtee (Farsi). Pingan (Chinese). Eace-Pay (Pig Latin).

Below is the first part of my two-part interview with Voice of America.

Voice of America interview Part I from Greg Barrett on Vimeo.

Week 1 of Resolving to ‘Post-it’ for 365 Days

From my Huffington Post column/blog

As a renovator the 3-x-3 Post-it note can restore a home better than paint and new siding. It can repair more things than duct tape. As a daily supplement — given (not taken) daily like a multivitamin — it fosters growth in the relationships of spouses, lovers, parents and their children; it can nourish souls; and, in my case, correct poor vision.

Story goes like this: One day a few years ago I told my wife, “I love you.” Nothing unusual there. During 15 years of marriage (20 now) I’d said those three words to her 5,475 times (365 x 15 minus a dozen or so arguments each year offset by extra sentiments added like sweetener each anniversary, birthday and Valentine’s).

This time, however, my wife’s response was unusual. Maybe we’d been arguing and/or drifting into our separate work and projects. I honestly don’t recall.

“Why?” she responded, hugging me.

“Why what?”

“Why do you love me? Why me?”

Her question wasn’t rhetorical. There were many reasons I loved her, but I couldn’t recall the last time I’d bothered to articulate many or any of them. Put on the spot, I waved her off, used a question to fend off the question.

“Why? What do you mean, ‘Why?’ Why do you love me? That’s the harder question.”

I’m an early riser, always first in the house. The next morning, before pouring my second mug of coffee, I repeated her question by writing it on a yellow Post-it note. I then answered it in a sentence or two. In order to tell you exactly what I wrote (assuming I would) I’d have to dig through an unsorted, sticky pile of 365 Post-its. But my response isn’t the point.

The next morning I repeated and answered her question again. I scribbled “Day 2 of 365″ on top of the Post-it, pretty much committing myself to a year of responses. No big deal. Restricting my thoughts/observations/praise to a 3-by-3 inch yellow square meant I had to be succinct. Each note consumed less than a minute.

However, the legwork that went into each note required a shift in my perspective.

By the time I wrote Day 7 of 365 my gratitude had begun sounding like platitudes. “I love you because you’re a good mother to our two sons” is nice, but trite. To keep the notes fresh I had to glean new material each day. I had to keep my eyes peeled for good anecdotes and things to praise. That is, instead of reacting to petty things that irritate every long-term relationship, I began noticing the simple things that sustain them. For example, the way she spent twenty minutes each day watering our baby pear tree. I’d never even known. Or the way she was the first to volunteer to keep stats for my Little League team when the regular scorekeeper was absent.

So by Day 33 of 365 I clearly understood why she was bedridden. She had caught the flu from our oldest son (then age 10) because she was a good mother, i.e., loving, empathic, selfless. Her immune system hadn’t stood a chance in the face of her hands-on care. The day her fever peaked at 102 my Post-it read, “… [Y]ou loved our eldest and loved on him so much you made yourself sick. Even our 8-year-old (now 13) saw it coming. ‘What is Mom thinking?’ he asked me. ‘She isn’t,’ I said. ‘Sometimes love doesn’t think. It just does.’”

Winter turned to spring and spring to summer before I realized that my wife and I weren’t arguing as often. The habit of recording her qualities had made my gripes seem trivial. In return, my daily appreciations had encouraged her to give me more slack whenever I screwed up. It was a win-win.

A year later I was telling this story to my first book editor (Sheryl Fullerton of Wiley) in a crowded restaurant in Half Moon Bay, California. Before I could finish it I felt someone standing over my shoulder, like a waiter or waitress. I looked up and it was a young man, a customer from a nearby table. When he spoke his voice trembled.

“I’ve been listening to you and I just want to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Tears pooled in his eyes. He explained that he was semi-estranged from his parents, and, while listening to me describe my Post-it therapy, he’d realized how much he had failed to appreciate his mother and father. Like most parents, his were selfless but imperfect. He now wished that he had focused on the former rather than the latter.

Me too, again, and before it’s too late. But my regret tracks in the opposite direction of his.

A loved one told me recently that I can be too critical of my sons. They are now teenagers, with all of the computers and video games and iPods that come with that age. Screens, screens, screens, it seems I am always screaming about screens. That’s not likely to change.

However, I need to focus on the larger picture. I know this. I just forget. So on New Years Day I filled out a Post-it appreciation for each son. On one, I mentioned how much I love that he is patient and tender with our dog, Kona. On the other, I mentioned how much I enjoyed his thought-provoking insights on politics and war.

Both of my kids have huge hearts and engaging minds. But those descriptions are vague, trite. If I hope to get a year’s worth of material, I need to be specific. I need anecdotes and things to praise. I need an open mind and eyes that stay open. I need to pay better attention.

I’ve always liked Apostle Paul’s advice in First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” I’ve never understood that to mean that we should go around with our heads bowed and eyes closed. Just the opposite. We should always be aware and alert to the miracles and blessings in our life. To my sons.

So, wish me luck. It’s Week 1 of 52 in 2013.

Please check out my upcoming book/film tour and Indiegogo campaign HERE.