Sunday, March 25, 2007

A War by Any Other Name Would Be as Horrific

Sitting in Barbara Lee's Town Hall Meeting in the Grand Lake Theater, next to me is an older gentleman. He did not know who Sean Penn was. But later on he shared with me that another speaker, Daniel Ellsberg, was someone he had shared a cell with for seven days, twenty years ago, protesting other political injustices.

All of us were showing our ages.

As I walked in, I wondered: where are the youth? They are the ones most affected by this awful situation (I feel it is unjust to call it a war...the "war" ended years ago, this is just an awful situation that has trapped our soldiers and all the iraqi civilians in an unending nightmare loop of killing and maiming and destruction.)

There were the youth working as volunteers in the lobby, clearly high school students. Where were the college students? So many grey heads have been fighting against this malicious, illegal occupation. They understand the history we are creating. We, we must take responsibility. We cannot blame a corrupt administration. We are the people of WE THE PEOPLE; we are responsible.

Then a young woman takes the stage. Ms. Martinez, from the Martin Luther King Freedom Center in Oakland, brought the house down, in my humble opinion. Mr. and Mrs. Martinez should be proud of their daughter and her ability to clearly breakdown what war and war mongering has wrought in all of our lives and the world it has created for our youth.

The price we pay for this action/inaction, for this war, for this "peace by any price," cannot be measured in gallons or barrels of oil.

It is the emotional toll we will spend a lifetime trying to heal.

When we say it's like Vietnam, that is what we mean.

Knight of the Living Dead

I am not taking any chances that you won't be able to read this from a link. Here is the entire text of Mr. Zizek's guest column regarding the reality we create by allowing torture for whatever reason we think is acceptable.

I wish I had the text of Ms. Martinez's eloquent speech at Barbara Lee's town hall meeting yesterday. She would definitely agree with Mr. Zizek's conclusions.

Knight of the Living Dead
Contributor, London
Published: March 24, 2007

SINCE the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s dramatic confessions, moral outrage at the extent of his crimes has been mixed with doubts. Can his claims be trusted? What if he confessed to more than he really did, either because of a vain desire to be remembered as the big terrorist mastermind, or because he was ready to confess anything in order to stop the water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.

While the scope of Mr. Mohammed’s crimes is clear and horrifying, it is worth noting that the United States seems incapable of treating him even as it would the hardest criminal — in the civilized Western world, even the most depraved child murderer gets judged and punished. But any legal trial and punishment of Mr. Mohammed is now impossible — no court that operates within the frames of Western legal systems can deal with illegal detentions, confessions obtained by torture and the like. (And this conforms, perversely, to Mr. Mohammed’s desire to be treated as an enemy rather than a criminal.)

It is as if not only the terrorists themselves, but also the fight against them, now has to proceed in a gray zone of legality. We thus have de facto “legal” and “illegal” criminals: those who are to be treated with legal procedures (using lawyers and the like), and those who are outside legality, subject to military tribunals or seemingly endless incarceration.

Mr. Mohammed has become what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “homo sacer”: a creature legally dead while biologically still alive. And he’s not the only one living in an in-between world. The American authorities who deal with detainees have become a sort of counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, they operate in an empty space that is sustained by the law and yet not regulated by the rule of law.

Some don’t find this troubling. The realistic counterargument goes: The war on terrorism is dirty, one is put in situations where the lives of thousands may depend on information we can get from our prisoners, and one must take extreme steps. As Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School puts it: “I’m not in favor of torture, but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval.” Well, if this is “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with hypocrisy.

Yes, most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture — to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle. In the unavoidable brutal urgency of the moment, I should simply do it. But it cannot become an acceptable standard; I must retain the proper sense of the horror of what I did. And when torture becomes just another in the list of counterterrorism techniques, all sense of horror is lost.

When, in the fifth season of the TV show “24,” it became clear that the mastermind behind the terrorist plot was none other than the president himself, many of us were eagerly waiting to see whether Jack Bauer would apply to the “leader of the free world” his standard technique in dealing with terrorists who do not want to divulge a secret that may save thousands. Will he torture the president?

Reality has now surpassed TV. What “24” still had the decency to present as Jack Bauer’s disturbing and desperate choice is now rendered business as usual.

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of “The Parallax View.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It takes all kinds...

Read the story very carefully.

For all of us who think we know how to take care of ourselves ...
and that most people are generally good, this is a cautionary tale.

It's disheartening to imagine a world in which we have to spend all of our time monitoring those around us for bad behavior and/or being convinced that the world is full of basically bad (rather than generally good) people. But, that might just be the world we live in.

Thank goodness that there are people like these two bartenders who are willing to act when they see something wrong going on.

This is a lesson for all of us, I am sure of that, I am just not sure what the lesson is.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

White Lies?

I seem to recall a few years back when Republicans were asserting that it was of UTMOST importance to pursue a perjury case against Bill Clinton, or, at the very least, impeach him otherwise we Americans would never be able to teach our children the importance of telling the truth.


So, when the Vice President continues to assert that we are waging a war in Iraq as a way of avenging those who died in the Trade Center, he isn't damaging our image of the truth? He is in no way making it more difficult for parents around the country to hold their children to that high standard of truth telling?

Oh, and, if you happen to work for the Vice President, say, it would be a travesty of justice for anyone to hold you responsible for breaking that all important rule of not telling a lie?

I can see how if it's the President lying that is really WRONG, but if it's the Vice President, well, he is just doing what's best for the country.

He sold those stocks in Halliburton, right?

Just saying...

Monday, March 12, 2007


I have long been against any kind of GUEST WORKER program. This is not because I don't believe that folks should be allowed to enter our country to work as guests; but rather because we have a shameful history of dealing with these guests.

Others may have a short memory or even just believe some revised history, but I remember quite clearly how the brazeros were treated both while they were working and after they went back to Mexico. There is no reason to believe that we are more enlightened now. In an era of union busting in our own country, just how do you think we are planning to treat non-citizens in the guest-workplace?

Bob Herbert's column today lets us in on the latest from the Southern Poverty Law Center: “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.” I am glad to see that there are others in the country with some integrity when it comes to this issue. Take the time to read at least the press release or summary if you can't get through the 48 pages.

the wearing of the black

Funeral duty...
As a teenager I was devoted to the idea of suffering and delighted in reading dark literature: anything fraught with angst. I wasn't exactly goth, not sure any of us knew what that was, but death lived in my mind as a romantic ideal. I found a ring in my mother's jewelry box that looked like a coffin. I found out that it had been her high school ring, and immediately felt it expressed my high school experience perfectly and didn't take it off for several years!

At that time, I fantasized about my twilight years, when I would don a black hat, with a veil, of course, and attend funerals. I envisioned myself picking out funerals of people who seemed to have died with few friends and/or relations. I would be the intriguing yet familiar figure in black who grieved the lonely.

Reading obituaries is something of a refined habit of many of my family members. So it was not my twisted teenage sense of the world that led me to read them daily. Over the years, learning to read between the lines of the sometimes sparse death notices, I found I could discern much about the life of the departed. At least, I could make up any circumstance I desired and put to use my creative imagination.

I am not sure if it is a natural part of the aging process, but I don't derive the same pleasure I used to from reading angst-riddled literature, though I do still find myself more often than not watching dark movies. And, unfortunately, I don't enjoy attending funerals nearly as much as I imagined I would when I was a teenager.

In the past few years it has fallen to me to represent my family at funerals for people who might as well be strangers. Usually I am tangentially related to these folks, but I have been to several funerals where I had never met the dearly departed while he/she was still alive. Perhaps more unsettling, I was meeting the rest of this person's family at the funeral. I don't have a fabulous hat with a veil though I do own a fair amount of black.

Last week turned into another funeral week for me, so I dutifully found suitable black clothing and tried to steel myself for the experience.

The first one laid me low and it took several days to recover... I don't have time to discuss it here now, but perhaps, one day, I will have the emotional energy to capture the experience in words.

For now, let me say that I am looking forward to coming up with more cheerful ways to celebrate my retirement, someday, if I ever do get to retire!

Friday, March 02, 2007

the girls

Gilmore girls, that is. This is a malenting rant, so take it for what it is worth.

I have been guilty of persuading quite a few friends into watching GG. It used to be my favorite, must-see show. You know the kind, watch it live while taping it and then watch it a couple more times before next week's show. Ok, you may not be of the obsessive type that does this, but you get the gist.

One friend who I got hooked on GG said the other day, a Tuesday: "we get all excited for the next show, just to watch it and realize that it SUCKS again."

Maybe I am losing perspective or my standards, but I loved Lorelai this week... this is the kind of maturing I like to see in her...getting Mrs. Kim not to make mistakes Lorelai made in the past, much better than watching her fold up over whether or not she'll be alone or partnered.

Though, this morning on the bus I was thinking about how many of my women friends who are 35+ are musing about just that thing. I am busy still reveling in the notion that I don't have to live with that anymore or forever (that being my exhusband).

Alas...slightly off the subject, but back toGG -- I also had a small ever so slight flicker of hope that the gang-busting ever independent pishawing, needy goofy girl, Rory Gilmore, might be making a comeback...but then she just said, ok, to the latest jerk boyfriend.

No pluck left in her it would seem...what a shame because I really started watching the show because of the strength that she and her mother exhibited...very take no prisoners...

This little rant was prompted by this email from another GG fan who is weekly disappointed and frequently disgusted with the plotlines for the past two or three seasons:
EW cracked on Gilmore Girls. On the weekly TV-to-watch round up, they started describing the plot, per usual, the cut it off and said "What's the point? you're only watching out of habit anyway." Heeheehee