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

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.”

 

See video: JEREMY COURTNEY at 2012 Q CONFERENCE

Ten reasons why (more) war is inevitable

Damascus, capital of Syria. Photo credit, James Gordon, Los Angeles, Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Seems like just yesterday the United Nations and the world population appealed to the good sense of Washington … and then learned it had none. Good sense, that is. Today I feel as if we’re watching a sorry remake of Groundhog Day, except, unlike Bill Murray’s character, there is very little we can do to alter the foretold consequences. We’re trapped in a badly broken political system.

If not Syria this week or this month or this year, it will be next week or next month or next year. And if not Syria, it will be Iran, Lebanon or North Korea, or some other “threat” that needs eliminating.

Why am I so jaded and cynical about Washington and its motives? As a journalist who’s traveled through the Middle East a half dozen times in pursuit of interviews, perspective, news stories and books, I can immediately think of ten reasons:

1. Washington does not listen and respond to the general tax-paying public or world at-large. From my experiences and reporting it listens and responds foremost to deep-pocketed political donors and their lobbyists, e.g., Wall Street and K Street.

2. Wall Street and K Street are motivated primarily by self-interest and cannot be trusted by the general public in the United States or abroad. Why? The U.S.-Congressional Military Industrial Complex produces profits for the wealthy and jobs for key political constituencies. With those come job security for politicians and beach homes for the wealthy.

3. Washington has become a country club for Wall Street and K Street, and it is today a (willing) tool for repeated schemes of greed and deception.

4. This latest deception is no different than many others, e.g., the invasion of Iraq. The script depicts good-guy Washington standing on moral ground threatening to bomb an “evil” dictator because of unproven allegations. Yes, that’s redundant. For a reason. I’m stressing this point: These charges are unproven.

5. After dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs and ammo (many with depleted uranium) onto Iraqis (see HERE a declassified military count of just the first 30 days of the war), the only place Washington can successfully pretend to be moral is in the eyes of the U.S. media and electorate. The rest of the world knows better, especially citizens of the Middle East. To a person, every Middle Easterner I’ve ever interviewed is dumbfounded by Washington’s ability to fool its electorate again and again. (Remember, Dubya was reelected after botching the invasion/occupation of Iraq.) Yet, here we are. Again. Hooah! Go ‘Merica. Support the troops! We’ll be watching on CNN.

6. Twelve years ago when Washington ramped up its role as Middle East protagonist the stock dividends of the top five U.S. “defense” (aka war) contractors ballooned, e.g., Lockheed Martin’s per-share stock dividends increased 680 percent between 2001-2011; General Dynamics’ 336 percent; Boeing’s 250 percent; Northrop Gruman’s 250 percent; Raytheon’s 190 percent. (Those numbers are from my reporting in “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”) And, evidently, the war biz is still thriving. Read (HERE) a September 2013 report on record high profits and stock prices for U.S. military contractors.

7. In the United States there is an insane disconnect between the civilian population and its military, i.e., less than one percent of Americans served in uniform during the last decade, which was the nation’s longest-ever stretch of sustained conflict, according to Defense Department and Pew Research Center reports. In effect, if working class kids (in general) want the opportunity to go to college or find well-paying jobs they must first serve four years in the Washington-Wall Street-Israeli Military Industrial Complex because there are so few manufacturing jobs left in the United States. This arrangement serves the U.S. middle and upper classes (where I reside) very well. Our kids don’t have to put their lives and mental well-being on the line fighting the Crusades in the Middle East while trying to secure Israel’s “right” to ignore international law. (Anyone who thinks U.S.-Israeli politics do not travel hand-in-glove in the Middle East needs to climb off their Judeo-Christian air-conditioned tour bus and walk around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc.)

8. This comfy arrangement will remain intact indefinitely because it enables the rich to get richer (aka Wall Street and K Street) without the majority of the U.S. electorate having to worry about their sons and daughters dying in a far-off desert or coming home with PTSD. Meanwhile, the 99 percent of us who didn’t wear a military uniform during the last decade are too busy paying bills and/or managing our beach homes to give much attention to the Washington-Wall Street profit schemes.

9. Unless the United States reinstates a military draft — thereby forcing the overall electorate to examine the real motives that drive Washington’s warmongering — American military aggression will continue to spread regardless of the opinions/advice of the United Nations and the world at-large. Congress knows this. Therefore, I don’t anticipate the reinstatement of military conscription. Washington hasn’t used it since 1973.

10. I suspect Washington’s outrage about chemical weapons isn’t about dead Arab civilians or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have been killed by the U.S. military. In Iraq, the Pentagon claimed it wasn’t even keeping score. Washington’s shock and outrage over Syria is more about theater. War’s theater, specifically. (Ever read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine“?) Washington wants to get at Iran, Hezbollah, etc. To repeat, these allegations leveled at al-Assad’s regime are just that– allegations. It seems plausible that outsiders (the Mossad? Rebels? Terrorists?) could have deployed the Sarin gas in order to draw history’s mightiest and most gung-ho military deeper into the conflict.

Of course, all of this is from the admitted jaded perspective of a cynical Washington journalist. Me. So to add balance I sought the input of a more optimistic world traveler, a wise Catholic priest working on the gritty side of the world’s widening economic divide. Rev. Joe Maier was the subject of my first nonfiction book, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions & Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok.”

This is what he had to say on Monday about the “wisdom” of Washington bombing Syria:

“Pope Francis said (yesterday?), ‘Never has the use of force brought peace in its wake. War begets war. Violence begets violence.’ … One might write a piece about fasting and penance and prayer, and that the present solutions of the kingdoms of this world ain’t really working too well. … If you read or see the latest Hobbit movie, notice that when the dwarf king tells Gandalf that there is a terrible evil force lurking, and that they (the good guys) need a huge force to combat and conquer, I believe Gandalf tells the Dwarf king, ‘No … what we need are countless acts of goodness and kindness.’

“The world needs to make a huge statement about helping the (Syrian) refugees and starting schools and hospitals. I think that might do far better than bombs, etc.”

Speaking to my own cynicism about Washington and Wall Street, Father Joe added, “That’s what happens when you can no longer trust your sacred institutions such as government and church. Therein lies the crux of the matter.”


FOR MORE PERSPECTIVE ON WAR & PEACE, see the last minute of Greg’s speech in Boston HERE.

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.

Promises dashed, poster trashed, can hope in Obama be recycled?

FROM MY HUFFPOST BLOG:

This day four years ago I had a large poster of presidential hopeful Barack Obama tacked to my office wall. He’s wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and the candidates’ perfunctory power tie; this one is burgundy with silver pinstripes. His gleaming white smile looks airbrushed and his right hand is raised in salute to a tide of supporters. So powerful, so commanding, it seemed that with a simple wave he could quiet Washington’s roiling and partisan Red Sea.

“Yes We Can,” the poster reads.

Eleven weeks after the election he presided over an adoring audience of some 1.5 million people crowded onto Washington’s Mall for inauguration day. Freezing temperatures and icy gusts didn’t stand a chance in the face of his radiance. To a nation and a world desperate for change it was like Obama could have fed those masses with two fish and five loaves.

To me, a print journalist wooed by his magnetism the morning after his 2004 convention speech (see “Democrats’ brightest shine at national convention“) the United States had elected a world leader. Finally. Given his multinational upbringing, Obama would surely tamp down mindless rhetoric about “American exceptionalism” and advocate instead for a united world. The White House and Washington would no longer be owned by K Street, Wall Street and Israel.

So I too drank of the Obama Kool-Aid. Tasted like miracle wine. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about his middle name (Hussein), birthplace (Honolulu or Jakarta made no difference to me) or, even, his religious pledge. Give me an earnest and honest Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Atheist over a misled, hypocritical Christian any day. Just, dear Lord, give me a wise and righteous leader.

Five months later, when President Barack Hussein Obama flew to Cairo and addressed the world’s 1.5 million Muslims, he quoted from the Talmud, the Quran and the New Testament. Amen Brother. Woot-woot!

By now I was thanking the heavens for Obama’s mama. Literally. I bowed my head and gave thanks for Stanley Ann Dunham. When Barack had been a schoolboy in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation, Stanley Ann had sent him to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school. At one he studied the catechism; at the other he learned about the muezzin’s call. On Easter or Christmas she might drag him to church, but she also took him to Buddhist temples, Chinese New Year celebrations, Shinto shrines, and to ancient Hawaiian burial sites. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama recalled how his mother, a stubborn secularist, believed that a good education required a working knowledge of all the world’s great teachings and religions.

So his inclusive speech in Cairo shouldn’t have surprised me. But after eight years of a professed born-again Christian residing over American politics, it did. I’d forgotten that U.S. presidents could be great.

“I come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama said to a rapt audience at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Quran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.’”

From where her ashes had been spread along Oahu’s glorious Lanai Lookout, the late Stanley Ann (deceased for 17 years tomorrow) was living large in her son’s enlightenment. I was sure of it.

The election, inauguration, Cairo. Those were heady days. I was Obama intoxicated.

“Yes We Can.”

Of course we could. Why the hell had we waited so long?

Then, two years ago, I took Obama’s poster down. Rolled it up and put it away. No singular event  inspired the action. No fit of anger or irrational spontaneity preceded it. However, I had thought it odd that a Nobel Peace Prize winner was championing the unmanned drones that routinely killed innocents alongside the (alleged) guilty. No judge or jury for either. Also, I’d noticed how the National Debt Clock near Times Square continued ticking off inconceivable amounts of gross debt. And in the wake of his inauguration, Congress had remained as partisan as ever, even more so.

Apparently Obama’s raised hand had quieted nothing. Perhaps no mere mortal could shed the weight of two wars, an economic collapse and Capitol Hill’s frat-house loyalties. Obama was human after all. Go figure. Maybe he was just another silk-tongued politician who had convinced us that he could work miracles. I suspect he’d even convinced himself.

So the poster came down. I was tired of looking at it and being reminded of the broken promise. Not the embellished campaign pledges that all candidates make; rather, the singular hope that had been fully inspired by our new multinational president. Obama inflated us and then let the air scream out. Nothing much changed under his watch. Looking at the poster every day only reminded me of that sorry fact. Of how the miracle wine had turned sour. Of how the hope that had risen in our throats as soon as McCain conceded began to taste like bile. Of how the post-election, post-Palin celebrations that flowed from Washington to London to Amman, Gaza, Baghdad and Tehran eventually went flat.

In Cairo, Obama had injected a decided sense of promise into global politics, Western, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern alike– Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, all of us.

“It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward. It is easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share,” he’d said, finishing his speech to a standing ovation. “There is one rule that lies at the heart of every religion– that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples; a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew.”

Then he’d corrected the behavior of our world’s three most warring faiths. Used their own words. Seared the lesson on them as if he were branding his mark on the world.

“The Holy Quran tells us, ‘O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’ The Talmud tells us: ‘The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.’ The Holy Bible tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’”

Recalling that, I dug out the poster from the closet this week. It’s ripped and wrinkled and doesn’t hold much promise. On Tuesday I’ll vote again for Obama. (What are my choices, really?) But this time there will be no Kool-Aid, no dreaming, no inflated sense of change.

The only hope I hold is that the second time is the charm– not only the charmer.

 

 

On 9/11, Remembering the Enemy Within

A Kindred World

Four years ago during the homestretch of the U.S. presidential election the Democratic and Republican nominees were asked about the existence of evil by an evangelical Christian pastor who supported the 2003 military invasion of Iraq.

At his super-sized McMansion church in Orange County, Calif., Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren quizzed Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain separately and in front of a live TV audience. Among other things, Warren asked each this question:

“Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? [How] do we defeat it?”

Two weeks ago, during another presidential homestretch, I sat on a 9/11 panel at a social-justice Christian festival in Oregon. Four other authors and speakers and I were asked to discuss, in effect, how our political and religious leaders could have better responded to the terrorism of 9/11. Of course hindsight, like insight, has its advantages. At least it should. But in listening to how our 2012 presidential nominees plan to fix an ailing economy I’m not convinced that Republican Mitt Romney has learned squat from history. Obama is reducing our gargantuan military budget and is making a light-hearted attempt to tame our Wall Street military. Romney, on the other hand, promises 12 million new jobs and an expanded military budget. (Mix those two promises together and see what explodes.)

So on Sept. 1 at the Wild Goose Festival in Corvallis, Ore., I recalled the very different and revealing responses given to Warren at the Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, 2008. In context and possible consequence it is important, I argued, because Obama’s perspective possesses a global breadth that eclipses any nearsighted nationalism expressed by hawkish Republicans.

Obama to Warren: 

“Evil does exist. I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. … [But] one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we’re trying to confront evil. … One thing that is important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.”

Then came McCain and the right-equals-might posture of the GOP.

Warren: “How about this issue of evil. I asked this of your rival. … Does evil exist and, if so, should [we] ignore it, negotiate [with] it, contain it or defeat it?”

McCain: 

Defeat it. Couple of points: One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow [Osama bin Laden] to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one — no one — should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. … My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century — radical Islamic extremism.”

The churchgoing crowd that had crowded into Saddleback Church exploded in applause for McCain. Woot-woot. It sounded like a Christian war cry (a contradiction in terms?)

You see, to McCain and profit-driven hawks, evil is the dark force that exists only as something out there. Something to call out, point at, condemn. Like gay marriage and atheists. Or religious extremism called by any other name than Christianity.

It’s this sort of spiritual myopia that keeps humanity locked in its primitive cycle of violence. Like an alcoholic who sees no problem with his drinking, Washington, Wall Street and our military industrial complex will never defeat evil because it lives and breathes on willful ignorance. Until we see the evil in capitalism infected by corporate greed and economic conscription we will continue to kill and be killed and sow nothing but violence for our children. Live by the sword, die by it.

Read the responses again. Now watch video of the nominees answering Warren’s question on evil: first Obama and then McCain.

One party’s candidate expresses an evolving perspective on evil and the role we all play.

The other party is doomed to repeat history.

This blog was originally published by The Huffington Post and on Patheos on Sept. 11, 2012 and Sept. 17, 2012, in that order.

Column published Sept. 11, 2012

Column published in Patheos, Sept. 17, 2012