Thursday, September 23, 2004

Judicial Review Under Attack, Redux

Having failed to get the Senate to move on the first absurd law that threatens judicial review for the sake of a little self-righteous posturing, the House Republicans are at it again. This time, they want to limit the Court's jurisdiction over the Pledge. Read the Post's editorial here.

And you can read my comments on the first exercise in anti-Court cruelty here.

Questions That Need Answering

The war on terror drags on, but we can all sleep safer now that the international terrorist formerly known as Cat Stevens has been deported. I mean, the guy put out a double-disc set of his greatest hits and gave all the proceeds to families of 9/11 victims. On top of that, he roundly condemned the Beslan attacks as against the word of Allah. Sounds like a dire threat to me.

We've all known that the no-fly list is severely flawed for quite some time now. When a list flags two prominent legislators - Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts - as terror threats, you know something's wrong. But this is easily chalked up to incompetence. The Cat Stevens incident is a symbol of a deeper problem.

As of now, there is no working definition of terrorism and terrorists. As a result, inconsistencies abound in our policymaking. Yaser Esam Hamdi is a grave threat one day and relatively innocuous the next. While a family making a vacation video of the Charlotte skyline is deemed a threat, Israeli spying is not really that dangerous. And Cat Stevens is deemed a terrorist threat for allegedly associating with terrorists, but we still maintain an alliance with Osama bin Laden's homeland of Saudi Arabia.

Several questions need answering, and need answering in a big way. For example, what constitutes a terrorist act? Does it have to involve a political or social ideology or can it be an act of anger? Do you have to be part of an organization to commit a terrorist act, or can lone wolves like the D.C. snipers be terrorists? Can national governments be terrorist regimes? If so, what makes a government attack an act of terrorism rather than an act of war? Can we differentiate Darfur and Chechnya?

And we have to deal with support for "terrorists" as well. What kind of contact with terrorists constitutes aid, and what constitutes innocuous contact? Is the simple act of talking to a terrorist tantamount to terrorism? How about befriending a terrorist, preaching to a terrorist, or writing a book that the terrorist reads? Should we be after those who talk a terrorist game but give neither financial nor material aid directly to terrorists? How about those who preach the ideologies that terrorists often use to justify their acts?

Again, we need to grapple with the idea of "state-sponsored" terrorism - i.e. terrorism not carried out by a state directly but with a state's aid. Should a state be responsible for the acts of all of its citizens - i.e. if a country gives citizenship but no material or financial aid to a terrorist, is that "sponsorship"? How about a state that spreads ideologies used by terrorists, like Saudi Arabia? Is official neutrality on terror - the Iranian tack thus far - the same as support for it, and should it be punished as such?

"Know thine enemy," it is often said. If we are to fight an effective war on terror, we need to understand the enemy that we are facing. We have avoided grappling with these questions for too long. Like any definition, the definition we come up with is bound to fall short. But by debating and answering these questions, we will get a better idea of who we are fighting and how we should fight them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A New Year's Resolution

There is a common saying in American culture: "friends don't let friends drive drunk." That is, if you're a good friend, you're not afraid to criticize your friend when he/she errs, and you'll even go out of your way to stop him/her from doing something destructive.

So when a nation allows another nation that it calls "friend" to sit idly by as its soldiers shoot innocent children for sport, one might say that this nation isn't doing its job as a friend.

But as journalist Chris Hedges reported in his book "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning," Israeli soldiers have been guilty of just that. Soldiers outside this one refugee camp have shouted insults and invective at Palestinian refugees, inciting the younger ones to come out and throw rocks over the fence at the soldiers. When the children do this, the soldiers open fire, wounding and occasionally killing the children. It apparently happens so often that the refugee camp has an ambulance anticipating the whole event. To my knowledge, Israeli army officials have done nothing regarding these brutal attacks.

Israel has been drunk behind the wheel more often than that. An exhibition staged by former Israeli soldiers in Tel Aviv has documented, sometimes graphically, the atrocities committed by some Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. An Israeli journalist wrote a Post column recently about a development plan that threatens to forever separate Palestinians from East Jerusalem. And yet, the voices in the government that speak out are muffled. We hear condemnations of Palestinian atrocities almost daily, but by their silence, they all but endorse the extreme actions of the few bad apples in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Some of my more skittish co-religionists often equate criticism against Israel with anti-Semitism. I say that right now, I cannot consider Israel under its current government a Jewish state. No Jewish state would sit idly by as members of its own forces kill innocents. No Jewish state forsakes the holy pursuit of justice and righteousness for paths of revenge and hatred. The extremist wing of Israeli society has hijacked the government, and as a result, the Israeli government has forsaken the commandments of God and the Jewish religion.

And yet America, and the American Jewish community in particular, has been woefully silent in the face of injustice. This is not the Jewish way, and I say: no more.

For I am not ready yet to give up on Israel, to say that "this is just the way things are over there," to dismiss the killings to a "cycle of violence" that can never be broken. It can be broken, and Israelis have it in them to break the cycle. I believe that the majority of Israelis want to live peacefully alongside their Palestinian brethren. There is, despite all evidence to the contrary, hope.

But for peace to happen I believe that as Americans, we must be good friends. We must wrest the keys from the drunk drivers behind the wheel of the Israeli government. We must tell our Israeli friends that we understand the pain and suffering that Palestinian terror attacks have caused, but revenge and retaliation is not the solution. We must remind the Israelis of their sacred duty as Jews to create a land where justice rolls down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. Our blind support for whatever the Israeli government is doing right now is not helping - it is only hurting.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year. In ten days it will be Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This is a time for all Jews to reflect upon the past, upon their sins against God and against others, and to pray for a good year and for the strength to follow God's laws in the upcoming year. It is the perfect time of year to ask ourselves: shall we continue to commit the sin of silence in the face of atrocity and injustice? Shall we watch as our friends take the path of least resistance into the darkness of revenge? Or shall we, by speaking out, give our Israeli friends the strength to make an improbable stance for justice and righteousness?

Barry's Back!

Yup - everybody's favorite cokehead, Marion Barry, is back on the D.C. City Council. And as Chris Rock demonstrated, that's one step away from running for President...

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Another Saturday...

I woke up at 9:30 this morning, got dressed, and went to football practice. I came home sore around 12, saw Danielle off to work, unpacked. I finished reading Malcolm X's autobiography (interesting reading which I'll comment on in another entry), cooked up some dinner. It was another Saturday, just like the rest, and the only thing that made it different was turning the page on my calendar to have it say "September 11, 2004."

Three September 11ths have now come and gone, and with less fanfare each year. This year there was almost none. My contact with the memorializing was nothing more than an article in the News and Observer. The normal crowd of people were shopping at the bookstore - apparently, we can't find anything better to do on a beautiful Saturday than shop.

It's now the middle of the first presidential election since 9/11. On the surface, nothing has changed. The negativity, the mendacity, the complete failure to discuss issues, the sensationalism of the media - it's all there. So why does it feel so different?

People say the stakes are higher now. It's true, negativity takes on a whole new meaning when the Vice President of the United States implies that a vote for the other guy is a vote for another terrorist attack. But even worse accusations have been made in the past; Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign famously ran an ad implying that should Barry Goldwater be elected, we would get nuked. And if the stakes really were higher, why haven't I heard an intelligent statement on anything approaching an issue in the past three months?

Garrison Keillor wrote that 9/11 "wasn't the 'end of innocence,' or a turning point in our history, or a cosmic occurrence, it was an event, a lapse of security." And he has points. Anyone with a working brain knew the dangers of terrorism long before 9/11. Terror has since struck devastatingly in Madrid, in Beslan, and every day in Iraq, and had previously struck Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Lockerbie, Oklahoma City, Beirut... the list goes on. But this time our geography, long our most stalwart ally, failed to protect us.

There was a greater importance to 9/11, greater than what it told us about our broken intelligence gathering system. What 9/11 did is imbued us all with a sense of urgency. Because who, during the oh-so-complacent 1990s, really got worked up over foreign policy philosophies or overseas troop distributions? And it spilled over into domestic issues too; we feel this sense urgency in health care, in education, in dealing with poverty. Finally, people are starting to realize that what happens in Washington affects us all. The high stakes were always there. We just understand it now.

But you'd never know it from the campaigns and the media. They, sadly, are the last to catch on to the urgency that emanated from 9/11. It is they that have failed the American people most egregiously, for in that horrific day lied an opportunity. It was an opportunity for a new day in politics, one of serious debates on the serious issues that faced us. We understand the gravity of those seemingly picayune policy points now. And that opportunity is being frittered away by a media more concerned with image, with who did what in the National Guard or on a Swift boat, with who is windsurfing and who is ranching, than with real issues.

(I admit, I've been guilty of it too. It is only now, thinking about it, that I realize it. The temptation to dwell on the unimportant is insidious. It sneaks inside you like a virus and multiplies until you are concerned deeply, almost religiously, with what someone said in anger thirty years ago.)

It frustrates me, because if 2004 passes us by without a serious debate on how to keep our country safe, we will inevitably fail in our efforts to tighten our security. If we fail to debate health care, we will continue to be stuck with the broken system we have now. If we fail to initiate a series of debates among all Americans now, we risk forgetting by 2008 that what happens out there affects all of us. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If not now, when?"

As we remember our dead from that day, let us also remember the sense of urgency that has filled us since then. And let us never lose sight of how important, how meaningful, those little details of policy are.

One major difference between this election and others. There is a sense on both sides that we can change the world. We may spout gloom and doom predictions at each other, but in all honesty, I don't think Americans as a whole have ever been more optimistic that we can change the world. Maybe, with any luck, we can.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Moral Welfare State

Conservatives rail constantly about the "handouts" that they claim government is giving the poor. Instead of making the poor work for their income, they are creating (as George Will puts it) a "culture of dependency" where the poor just mooch off the government. One conservative described it as "hard" vs. "soft" America, where the liberals were willing to coddle the poor while conservatives gave them "tough love," thus making them more likely to succeed.

I could spend a couple of columns arguing with this claim and its distortion of the liberal point of view. But let's ignore all that for the moment. There's a point here.

Keep in mind that these same conservatives are the people who believe that a constitutional amendment against gay marriage is a good idea. They are the same people who support government-sponsored prayer in schools. They scream and shout about the removal of "under God" from the official incarnation of the Pledge of Allegiance. In other words, they battle any effort to disestablish religion, despite the constitutional injunction to the contrary.

There's the major inconsistency in conservatism. Conservatives, through this so-called "moral" legislation, seek to establish a sort of moral welfare state. They exhort government to give religious "handouts" to people, whether they want them or not. While in their mindset it is bad to give people economic handouts, it is perfectly okay to tell them how to live their lives.

Conservatives are somehow deluded into believing that religious belief must be validated by appropriate government legislation. Somehow, removing "under God" from the official Pledge is an assault on the religious faith of people. Therefore, people must be coddled by putting religion in the Pledge. I think this is a severe underestimation of the religious willpower of the average American. I don't think that any of the religious people I know would be any less inclined to believe in God if God weren't in the Pledge.

The culture of religious dependency - the idea that the religious beliefs of Americans are dependent upon validation by the government - doesn't exist yet. But conservatives want it to exist. Their constant complaints about "taking God out of the public sphere" are evidence of this. A reasonable person recognizes that only Americans can take God out of the public sphere. But conservatives wish to attribute to the government a power which it does not possess - yet.

Continued unchecked, though, moral legislation will create a culture of dependency. By the constant government endorsement of monotheism, conservatives want to make people look to the government for help when determining what to believe. How is this any different than giving economic handouts - the very things that conservatives (wrongly) deride liberals for doing?

To use the language some conservative commentators use, liberals believe in religious "toughness." We believe that religion flourishes when people are forced to come about their beliefs on their own. Conservatives believe in religious "softness" - i.e. that religion is best given to people directly by the government. The choice is clear. Religious entitlements or freedom of conscience?

Friday, September 03, 2004

The Post Takes On Some Kerry-Bashing Claims

In an excellent article, the Post explains how some of the Republican claims about Kerry's voting record are complete bull. Read and enjoy.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

I Can't Believe I Have To Share A State With That

A couple of days ago, the television was on behind our couch. Dani was looking for news about Frances, and we were hearing clips of the Republican Convention. That's when I heard Elizabeth Dole, Senator from the great state of North Carolina, say something that made me very ashamed of my Tar Heel sister.

Her comment went something like this: "The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

It would be alright if she had said it in the context of denying people the right to express their religion publicly. But she didn't. She said it in the context of the traditional religious demagogue issues - the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, "under God" in the Pledge, etc. etc.

Um, what Constitution are you reading, Libby?

The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Which means that we have freedom "from" religion in two ways: one, the government may not endorse any religious belief, and two, we have the freedom not to be religious if we don't want to.

Besides, unless we have freedom from religion, can we have freedom of religion? The right to worship as we choose necessarily implies the right not to worship - if we are required to worship, it is a breach of freedom of religion - what about those whose religious beliefs tell them not to worship?

Sad to say, people eat up this line. It got wild applause. I feel, at times, like Inigo Montoya while on top of the cliff, telling his compatriot: "You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." People like Elizabeth Dole keep on using that "freedom from religion" line. It doesn't mean what she thinks it means.

Dole is convinced that if the government is not establishing religion, it is condemning it. What she fails to realize is that the idea of freedom of conscience is central to the American attitude towards religion. It's even somewhat rooted in Christian theology - religious freedom pioneer Roger Williams said to his Puritan persecutors that Christian ideas benefit from a freedom of conscience. Indeed, our church-state separation is one of the main things keeping the religious life of this country as vital as it is.

So Libby, I'll take my God not forced down my throat by the government, thank you. That whole freedom from religion thing sounds like a good idea to me. And no one will stop you from saying "under God" in the Pledge if you damn well please. The great thing about our Constitution is that you can have it both ways. Don't sell that out for a cute bit of rhetoric.

Republican Convention: Zell's Bells

I have to confess, I haven't seen much of the Republican Convention. This may be because I know that if I watch it for too long, I'll start throwing things, and I like having my TV in one piece. (Also, the new cable jack only got here today, so I would have been sitting behind my sofa watching it.) But I've been reading it.

This morning I read Zell Miller's keynote address. Miller is a retiring Georgia senator and possibly the only Democrat alive to support Bush. Surprisingly, though, he had very little positive to say about Bush - it was more negative towards a party that he felt was playing partisan politics with national security and a candidate that he feels has no guiding principles.

It has been well chronicled among the pundits that the same vitriol he used in eviscerating Kerry was present when he eviscerated Bush 41 at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. But it's funny that Miller would accuse Kerry of waffling, and very odd indeed that he would criticize Kerry on his past record. It seems like Miller has pulled off the mother of all waffles.

Nowadays, Miller likes to fancy himself a conservative Democrat. He even wrote a book that he subtitled "The Conscience Of A Conservative Democrat." But as Governor of Georgia, he was anything but conservative. He launched an ambitious scholarship program that promised to send any Georgia high school student with a B average to a state-run college. He brought the Gay Games to Atlanta in 1996. He was a strong proponent of abortion rights. Some conservative. It is absurd that he changed so much since 1999 and fails to afford Kerry the same luxury.

What changed Zell? He claims that September 11th did part of it, and that's respectable. But his blind adherence to Bush's agenda does not serve our national security. He is falling victim to the classic "with us or against us" fallacy that Bush and his administration has put out. He seems to have forgotten the importance of the dialectic in our national politics, instead buying into the cult of personality around Bush. That's not strong on terror, that's insanity.

But many of Miller's position changes had nothing to do with September 11th, and everything to do with the Georgia political climate. He realized that Georgians were moving farther and farther to the right, and he followed them. This is a reasonable decision to make as a politician, and I respect him for it. But Zell turned around and accused Kerry of prevarication, and took Kerry to task for things he did long ago. That's not reasonable. That's hypocrisy. And even if you are responsible for the Hope Scholarships, hypocrisy is inexcusable.