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.

Warning: Read the fine print of Obama’s request to wage war

The wording of Obama’s AUMF allows for a broad use of military might at his discretion

See Huffington Post version of same blog HERE

There’s a lot more at play here (and many more players involved, e.g., Israel, I’d wager) than a U.S. “air strike” on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that the Obama administration will give to Congress this week uses typical Washington word-play:

“The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria…”

“Necessary and appropriate” is wildly subjective and open to interpretation, as is the second objective listed in the AUMF, “(to) protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.”

Also, the stated objective to protect or deter against “the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons” puts just about everything (well, yes, everything) militarily on the table.

In effect, the wording of the AUMF gives Obama and, by association and its outsized political campaign contributions, the entire US-Israeli-Wall Street Military Industry, permission to put American boots and bombs on holy ground from Iran to Lebanon, Palestine and beyond. That is, to wage war across the Islamic Middle East. All that’s needed? Obama must determine it’s needed in order to “deter” the movement of WMD (that ominous acronym preceding invasion and occupation of Iraq) or the “components and materials used” in WMD.

Do we even know for sure that it was the mad dictator Saddam (err, I mean, Bashar al-Assad) who used Sarin gas? As a publicist friend, Will Bower, astutely points out, “Every time John Kerry is asked if we have proof that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is responsible for the attack, he answers emphatically with ‘Yes, we have proof that Sarin gas was used!’.

He never answers the ~actual~ question being asked. Instead, he continues to employ this classic (and transparent [and weak]) case of misdirection.”

I’m not suggesting that the United States and the United Nations should sit idly as Syrians are killed en mass, but President Bush (err, President Obama) should not be given authority to rain bombs on the Middle East whenever and wherever he deems necessary. The Washington-Wall Street military needs a tighter leash.

The “cynical journalist” is a stereotype for good reason. We are. As a reporter in the belly of the empire there is one thing you learn to count on: Washington and its cronies (no matter if it’s GOP or Democrat) are never fully honest about intention.

Remember Iraq, people.

Heck, remember Congo (1965), Greece (1967), Laos (1968), Cambodia (1970), Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), Argentina (1975), Afghanistan (1979), El Salvador (1980), and Nicaragua (1980), to name just a few “interventions” and/or misdirections.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a dozen or so times, shame on me.

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.

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’


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

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


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?

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.

Hey, Middle East! Are you listening?

Here’s hoping/praying that the Middle East and all of its violent players (e.g., Israel, the United States, Iran, the Taliban, Palestine, Egypt, etc.) will someday grow the heck up and absorb life’s lessons.

For example, Ubuntu.

Ubuntu (“OO-boon-too”) is something Desmond Tutu preaches: “It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself.The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”

Of course we see a living example of this in Father Joe Maier in The Gospel of Father Joe. It’s the same sort of oneness that he discusses in James Lingwood’s documentary, “Father Joe and the Bangkok Slaughterhouse.”

So, yo, Netanyahu! Are you taking notes? Please, for the love of God, Allah, the Buddah and all of humanity, grow up.


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


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.



Priest walks the talk in Bangkok slums— lives to write about it

New collection of stories by Father Joe Maier

First, full disclosure. I wrote the book on Father Joe Maier, the cursing, curmudgeon, can-do priest of Bangkok. Literally. The Gospel of Father Joe, it was titled. But that 315-page effort doesn’t preclude me from being honest with you about his latest book, The Open Gate of Mercy: Stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey Slum. Frankly, if I didn’t keep it real he’d probably break my kneecaps. (That part is figurative. I think.)

Father Joe, who turns 73 on Halloween, is a native of working-class Longview, Washington, but he has lived among the poorest of the poor in Thailand for some forty years. In 1971, long before Mother Teresa was a holy icon and eight years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the great nun of Calcutta visited with Father Joe in Bangkok’s flood-prone shantytowns. Father Joe showed her the Klong Toey slums that house tens of thousands of homeless families, and as they walked the rickety catwalks that hold the poor aloft (barely) over dung-brown lakes of sewage, Mother Teresa fell quiet. Seeing mile upon soggy mile of the desperate poor she declared Bangkok’s abyss to be every bit as sorrowful as the squatter camps in Calcutta. Leaving, she made one request of Father Joe. It was a doozy.

“Spend your life working with these poor,” she told him. “If you can.”

For the most part, occasional churchgoers like myself and holy, holy praise the Lord types stay far away from any place where rats the size of house cats squat alongside  squatters. We stay even further away if snakes large enough to eat those rats loiter there. Instead, we pray on bended knee for the deity’s hand to knead the bread that feeds the poor. We tithe in the hope that our godly administrators will do the right thing and invest in people rather than church infrastructure. We might even (wo)man up and go on annual mission trips to the reeking other side of the economic divide, as if two weeks of sweat equity and the Good News of Jesus raises all boats. But these well-intentioned efforts, even when added all together, are relatively lightweight when you consider poverty’s toll and grueling duration.

In Thailand, a hub of global sex trade (“human trafficking” in politer circles), a majority of residents have long worked in the “informal sector” or black market, according to Kasikorn Research Centre, the economic analyst for Bangkok’s large Kasikorn Bank Group. That’s roughly twenty-two million people (about two-thirds of Thailand’s adult workforce) toiling in the black market without retirement plans, health insurance, and other social security benefits found in “formal sector” jobs such as doctor, lawyer, banker, bellhop, bartender, waitress, McDonald’s cashier. These “casual laborers,” as Kasikorn refers to them, include curbside food vendors, garland makers, fortune-tellers, card dealers, drug dealers, and the wretched dealers of flesh. The twenty-two million doesn’t include the nearly 2.5 million children listed by Thailand’s Office of the National Education Commission as absent from school; kids missing the roll call but not exactly missing in action.

In 2000, the first year I visited Father Joe’s Mercy Centre schools and orphanages in Klong Toey, nearly seventy percent of Thai children ages 11 to 14 were not enrolled in school. Then, like now, they were being educated in the street rather than the classroom. They earned their keep in Thailand’s underground economy, according to the UN’s International Labor Organization; and, more convincingly, according to Father Joe. With the help of Klong Toey’s Buddhists and Muslims, Father Joe and his Human Development Foundation had built thirty-two slum preschools in an effort to break the obvious cycle of poverty. Living in the abyss Father Joe had seen firsthand the root causes and consequences of economic injustice. Illiterate parents with no job or steady income would sell themselves or their children to the flesh traders. More often than not, the kids showing up at Mercy had been neglected, abandoned, abused and/or HIV-infected.

“It’s a totally different world where all the kids get hurt and no one gives a shit!” Father Joe had barked to me one day outside a catwalk shanty. We were standing in the gaping divide of our economy— two feet above floating raw sewage.

If, like Father Joe, you dare to reside in Bangkok’s port slums there is nothing underground about the economy. It’s right there; in your face, in the massage parlors, in the alleyways, and on Klong Toey’s hip-wide catwalks. Father Joe absorbed it like a daily beating. Living like this in the stories and their visceral consequences, downstream from downstream, he had to tell others. Had to. Upstream Christians needed to know. But writing for him was something more than a means to raise attention and charity funds. It was and is cathartic; a finger on the valve of his frustration.

Similar to his first book, Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse (Hong Kong: Periplus, March 2005), The Open Gate of Mercy (Bangkok: Heaven Lake Press, August 2012) is a collection of these real-life stories reported from inside Klong Toey’s inner sanctum. They were gleaned the only way possible. By living in the grind of it. Most of the forty stories were written initially for the English-language Bangkok Post, and, like the subject of my favorite piece in the book, “The Left-Handed Artist of Kong Toey,” Father Joe proves ambidextrous in his skills as both a priest and a writer.

For example, in a story titled “Miss Pim Gets Second and Third Chances,” he recounts the struggles and ultimate triumph of a Mercy Centre child with whom I’m familiar from my own book’s research. He writes:

Miss Pim had been with us for nine years. She was sixteen, third in her high school class, gentle as gentle can be, with a smile to warm the hardest of hearts. One Sunday morning about a year ago, she handed me a wrinkled piece of paper, a note she had written in her own hand. Pim’s note and her story are important because she is a “throwaway” orphan kid who made it. Lots of kids, but especially these so-called throwaways, need to be walked through the bad patches, not just once but many times before they reach adulthood.

Although I’d told the story about Pim and her miraculous niece, Miss Grasshopper, in The Gospel of Father Joe, my version doesn’t compare to Father Joe’s. His is better. He lived it.

On that Sunday when she handed me the note, I knew the contents were grave. Pim had that limp, wilted, beaten-up look of a teenager in mourning at a temple cremation, standing in front of the furnace when the temple manager zips open the red plastic body bag in the coffin to offer one last glance at a dead friend as the monks are chanting their final chant. Grieving for someone who has died before their time. Utter despair. Absolute misery. It was that kind of look she gave me. If you’ve seen it once, you never forget it.

I’ve never met a preacher, priest, rabbi or imam who’s not also a good writer. The talent comes with the trade. Or is it vice versa? Before most sermons are delivered they are reported, written, edited, and rewritten. And then, often, rewritten again. But Father Joe’s prose and preaching are notches above anything so rehearsed, edited and practiced. Exactly like his loaded cannon of a personality, his writing sounds candid never canned.  It’s as if he’s locked us into a conversation, and together we explore the nooks and crannies of slum life. Readers like myself, living on the consumption side of the economic divide, are taken on a tour of Klong Toey’s underbelly without having to assume any of its dangers and deprivation.

This is where Father Joe’s writing is both a blessing and a curse.

Reading about the slums of Klong Toey is a good start to understanding what life is like in third-world slums. But that’s all it is. A start, a glimpse, and maybe a nudge or shove to learn more. If we close the book or flick off our Kindles and Nooks, and then all we do is return to our iPhone lives, nothing much is achieved. To really understand the deep-rooted miseries caused by economic imbalances we have to go further along the journey. The start that Father Joe gives us needs to startle us awake.

So, at its worst, The Open Gate of Mercy, could serve as an enabler. Its stories allow us to stand off at a distance believing we see, hear, smell, touch, taste the slum life. Father Joe’s writing is that good. But we can’t see, hear, smell, touch, taste. We really don’t have even the first clue.

At its best, the book awakens us to that fact— and arouses our empathy. So in this election season when we American voters demand to know how Washington and Wall Street will improve our standard of living, let Father Joe show us the bigger picture. These stories filed from the other side should serve as an antidote to our myopia.

Through him, and through the people who spring to life in The Open Gate of Mercy, we can point to something far larger than ourselves.

For more on Father Joe and his charity visit www.mercycentre.org.

A younger Father Joe standing outside one of his first homes in the Slaughterhouse district of the Klong Toey slums in Bangkok. Photo by Jim Coyne, 1983.