Friday, December 08, 2006

Beware of Mennonite Basketball

I am living this year in possibly the only place on earth that has a Mennonite church basketball league. I eagerly signed up when our church needed people for their team, hoping my slowly deteriorating body would still be able to compete against what I had hoped would be stout farmers in bib overalls and long beards clumsily attempting to both dribble and walk at the same time. No such luck.

Our team's goal on most days is to not have our score doubled by the other team, which we often accomplish. We are mostly a bunch of short, slow guards who hang out around the 3 point line, hoping that the other team gets bored or distracted enough to leave us open. If that happens, we launch a heroic shot that often bounces off the top third of the backboard, which the other team then easily rebounds, passes the ball to all five players without touching the floor and finishes with a no-look reverse slam dunk. Basketball is apparently one of the many things Mennonites have figured out how to do pretty well since leaving prayer caps and plain clothes behind.

Last week we were down by 25 points or so with about 4 minutes left in the game, so I was understandably trying very hard not to let them score on a fast break, lest they go up by an insurmountable 27 points. I stepped in front of a guy who was considerably taller than me. By how much taller I can’t really say because I wasn't vertical for any meaningful length of time after we collided. But I have evidence that his elbows were about as high as my forehead, as you can see from the picture below of where they made contact with my face:

Yep, that's 12 stitches all together, 4 of them underneath. Luckily no concussion was detected by the many fine machines that go whir at the hospital where I spent the rest of the day. I was disappointed that I didn’t develop any superpowers as a result of the sharp blow to my head, aside from my usual ability to cause sports teams I am rooting for to lose (sorry Colts fans!). Also, I still have my uncanny ability to know what time it is without using a watch, which is useful, but not a very cool way to fight evil.

Everyone has told me afterward that Mennonites do tend to get out their aggression on basketball floors, soccer fields and sometimes during combined-church hymn sings. In the end, I’m guessing the guy who smacked me feels worse than I do. Mennonites have an especially hard time when they are the cause of distress to others.

I am fine now, but while lying bleeding on the basketball floor and eventually losing a battle with consciousness, I vowed not to ever play again in a sport where other people are involved. God must be trying to tell me something, since my injuries keep getting worse. I broke my ankle playing soccer last spring and a few years I ago I broke my shoulder play touch football. If I keep doing this, I will eventually be sent off the field in a casket.

And yet, physical activity is only interesting to me if I can weave in and out of other people who are trying to prevent me from getting somewhere. Simply jogging from one place to another without any danger of being knocked down or stolen from is simply not interesting enough to do. So if I keep my vow I will not likely play sports again.

Luckily, vows made under duress, especially after a blow to the head, are easy to rationalize away. I’ll probably play again, but I’ll be taking a bit of break for awhile. If any superpowers do develop, I hope they are at least useful on the basketball court.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Global Oh

I saw this on Huffington Post the other day: World Peace Through Global Orgasm ( They are calling all people to have sex on Dec 22nd (the Winter Solstice, exactly one month from today) to "effect positive change in the energy field of the Earth through input of the largest possible surge of human energy".

Even though this is quite possibly the dumbest peace strategy idea I have ever heard (and believe me when I say there is never any lack of dumb peace strategies), my commitment to peace is so strong that I am going to recklessly agree to participate. Hopefully my wife’s commitment to peace will also be strong that day, but if not, I’m willing to go it alone if needed. Sometimes, you just have to do what you are called to do, regardless of whether other people join you.

Note that if it doesn't work, all we have to do is figure out who did not participate, and then blame them for the remaining violence in the world.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Department of Peace, Anyone?

Here’s a different perspective from the Fosdick quote I posted earlier. It is from J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite theologian, in an essay entitled “Which Religion Shall We Follow?”, written after 9/11.

It is unfair to assume that pacifists, who did not create the long buildup of frustrations that produces people with a feeling of hopelessness who do terrible things, can now be dropped into the middle of it with an instantaneous solution…The usual assumption is that because I and perhaps a few Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) reservists cannot parachute into a situation and resolve the problem on the spot, pacifism is proved irrelevant and misguided.

For the “What-about” question to be fair, pacifists need equal time to prepare and equal numbers of people involved – say three peace academies (parallel to the Naval Academy, West Point, and the Air Force Academy) graduating several hundred men and women each year highly trained in nonviolent techniques, plus standing reserve companies of thousands of men and women trained in nonviolent tactics, all of whom have access to billions of dollars to spend on transportation and the latest communications equipment. Merely observing that compared to national military preparedness, the nation spends practically no money on nonviolence and has no structures in place even to think about it, makes it glaringly obvious that no serious attention was given to anything but violent responses to September 11. The nation’s response was far from a calculated decision based on careful consideration of a range of options. Quite transparently, it was shaped by – and is the current expression of – the national myth that shapes American identity. Both for government policy and in the mind of the public in general, violence was the only option considered, anticipated, and prepared for.

He goes on to say that violence, by definition, fails more than half the time, since both sides use it, and at most one side “wins” (and often both sides lose). He then lists the countries the US has used military force against since 1945 that did not produce democratic governments respectful of human rights as a result of our actions against them: China (45-56), Korea (50-53), Guatemala (54, 60, 67-69), Cuba (59-60), Congo (64), Laos (64-73), Vietnam (61-73), Cambodia (69-70), Grenada (83), El Salvador (80s), Nicaragua (80s), Panama (89), Iraq (91-present), Sudan (98), Afghanistan (98), and Yugoslavia (99).

I like the way he turns the question around here – why should we expect pacifism to have quick answers to complex problems when we don’t practice or prepare for peace? Why do we assume violence works when it has such a terrible track record?

I’m not sure that lets pacifism entirely off the hook – it still needs to make a case for how effective it can be as an answer to immediate violence. But pacifism is more of a way of life, a way to address the root causes of violence, to prevent violence from erupting in the first place. It may not always be able to provide satisfying answers. But violence rarely provides satisfying answers either, even though our national myth of benevolent redemptive violence tells us otherwise.

I totally agree with his call for peace academies. Americans, against overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary, believe ourselves to be a peace-loving people. We should make use of our desire to see ourselves that way, and push for a Department of Peace as a logical extension of our stated values.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Fosdick on War

As usual, I have a hundred ideas for blog posts, and no time to write them up. So, I'll cheat, like I often do, and post a quote I like. This one is from Harry Fosdick, liberal 20th century theologian, from an essay on whether Christians should participate in war.

Today when I picture Christ in this warring world I can see him in one place only, not arrayed in the panoply of battle on either side, but on his judgment seat, sitting in condemnation of all of us--aggressor, defender, neutral--who by out joint guilt have involved ourselves in a way of life that denies everything he stood for. The function of the church is to keep him there, above the strife, representing a manner of living, the utter antithesis of war, to which mankind must return if we are to have any hope. But the Christian ministry does not keep him there by throwing itself, generation after generation, into the support and sanction of the nation's wars. Rather it drags him down, until the people, listening, can feel little if any difference between what Christ says and what Mars wants. It is not the function of the Christian church to help win a war. A church that becomes an adjunct to a war department has denied its ministry. The function of the church is to keep Christ where he belongs, upon his judgment seat, condemner of our joint guilt, chastener of our impenitent pride, guide to our only hope.

I especially like the line about the "aggressor, defender and neutral" all being guilty. Pacifism isn't about sitting back and letting evil flourish, but about creating conditions for peace. Nonetheless, there are times when pacifism has no better answers than the soldier, and I think it is important to recognize that sometimes being faithful results in ineffectiveness, and requires both humility and penance. We are all to blame when conflict cannot be resolved peacefully.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Post-Election Musings

On a night when CNN was claiming that Democrats need to govern as conservatives (because some of their victories were in conservative districts) and FOX was claiming the election showed how *conservative* the country still is (apparently the transition from faith-based reality to reality-based reality is slow and painful), we must once again depend on Jon Stewart for the most incisive comments:

  • “Can Karl Rove’s tactical genius overcome, say … reality?”
  • “Democrats need 15 seats be the controlling party and allow themselves access to corruption and sexual perversity.”
  • And my favorite: “... the Democrats cunning strategy of slowly backing out of the room while their brother gets yelled at for burning down the garage”.
I’m glad my political compass is broken, and the Democrats did win. More specifically, I’m glad there will finally be some oversight and accountability for the Bush administration. I hope Democrats can develop some spine and redeploy troops in Iraq, and maybe even impeach Bush, but I’d settle for making him follow the law from now on.

Finally, I must say that it still drives me nuts to hear CNN refer to pro-war, supply-side, gay-bashing christian conservatives as “value voters”, as if those who support ending the war, increasing the minimum wage, and having simple tolerance towards others are not votes based on values. Ironcially, these conservative values are usually in direct opposition to what Jesus taught, like their triumphalist desire to see a Christian America dominate the world, or their support for policies that increase disparity or turn their backs on poor and the sick.

In the end,Democrats are not going to make everything OK. I'm just hoping they can slow our descent into Armageddon.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day Musings

It’s Election Day, and I have a bad feeling that the Republicans are going to steal yet another election from the bumbling Democrats. There are just too many Diebold voting machines out there, plus the usual tactics for suppressing votes.

The October surprise ended up being the Saddam trial verdict. Gee, no political calculations there – just good ole American luck! I wonder why all those conservative pundits who were decrying the political timing of the Mark Foley scandal are not now harshly criticizing the politicization of the trial timing. I guess consistency isn’t a family value.

I realized yesterday that I can hardly even listen to Bush speak anymore without turning my stomach. I heard him on the radio last night whipping up a crowd of supporters. He said something about how Saddam has been found guilty and is now going to hang, followed by thunderous applause from the crowd. It was quite unseemly, not unlike a French Revolution mob’s bloodthirsty calls for beheading the King. We Are Barbarians! We Are Proud Of It! Yea For Us!

I remember six years ago when I was horrified about then Governor Bush’s glee in executing criminals, even mocking one of them. Many of them did not have fair trials and at least one of them was later found to be innocent. I thought this lack of concern for human rights would translate into the normal Republican disdain for civil rights and erosion of programs designed to help the least among us. That the anti-Christian values of helping the rich and protecting the privileged would win the day.

As someone interviewed on the Daily Show mentioned (I can’t remember her name), these fears were a major failure of imagination on the part of liberals. Who would have thought that six years later, this country would have embarked on an aggressive, unilateral, and unjustified war, killed hundreds of thousands of people, created chaos and strife abroad, legalized torture, illegally wiretapped Americans, and emptied the treasury in support of tax breaks for the wealthy. Ironically, none of this would have been possible without the help of conservative Christians at the voting booth, voting against the values of their very own founder.

I don’t know whether Americans are capable of holding this Republican administration accountable for their deeds. I thought it was obvious two election cycles ago that some accountability was needed, which is why my political predictions are pretty useless these days. I guess we’ll find out in a few hours.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What Jesus Meant

I read an interesting little book awhile back called “What Jesus Meant” by Gary Wills. It started off rather badly for me, by slamming the Jesus Seminar, which is a group of scholars who intend to “renew the quest of the historical Jesus”. Jesus Seminar scholars like Marcus Borg are one of the reasons I can now claim an authentic Christianity for myself after a very long separation. He goes on for 6 pages describing why they are misguided. So, I wasn’t terribly inclined to hear what he had to say after that.

Nonetheless, I trudged forward, and I am glad I did. He has a lot of interesting things to say, and makes a convincing case for a Jesus who is far more radical than most everyone is comfortable with. He also has fresh and vibrant translations from the Greek. It is good to be challenged like this. Here’s are some excerpts:

When pilate asks Jesus if he is King, he answers:
John 18:36 “My reign is not of this present order. If it were of this present order, my ministers would do battle to prevent my surrender to the jews. But for now my reign is not of this present order”
Many would like to make the reign of Jesus belong to this political order. If they want the state to be politically Christian, they are not following Jesus, who says that his reign is not of that order. If, on the other hand, they ask the state simply to profess religion of some sort (not specifically Christian), then some other religions may be conscripted for that purpose, but that of Jesus will not be among them. His reign is not of that order. If people want to do battle for God, they cannot claim that Jesus has called them to this task, since he told Pilate that his ministers would not do that.


If Jesus opposes wealth and power, hierarchy and distinctions, he must have opposed their invariable instrument, violence. And of course he did. More than any other teacher of nonviolence – more than Thoreau, than Gandhi, than Dr. King – he was absolute and inclusive in what he forbade:
Luke 6.27-38
I say to all you who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek. To one seizing your cloak, do not refuse the tunic under it. Whoever asks, give to him. Whoever seizes, do not resist. Exactly how you wish to be treated, in that way treat others. For if you love those you love back, what mark of virtue have you? Sinners themselves love those who love back. If you treat well those treating you well, what, what mark of virtue have you? Sinners too, lend to sinners, calculating an exact return. No rather love your foes, treat them well, and lend without any calculation of return. Your great reward will be that you are children of the Highest One, who also favors ingrates and scoundrels. Be just as lenient as that lenient Father. Be not a judge, then and you will not be judged. Be no executioner, and you will not be executed. Pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and what will be given you is recompense of crammed-in, sifted-down, overtoppling good showered into your lap. The excess will correspond to your excess”
Tremendous ingenuity has been expended to compromise these uncompromising words. Jesus is too much for us. The churches’ later treatment of the gospels is one long effort to rescue Jesus from his “extremism”. Jesus consistently opposed violence. He ordered Peter not to use the sword, even to protect his Lord – yet thousands, in the Crusades, would take up sword to protect the site of that Lord’s death. If one cannot use violence to protect the Lord, what can one justifiably use violence for?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Church You

Finally, some people who understand what it means to have God's blessing :)

More hilarious shorts available at:

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Amish Example

Apparently, there is no event in America so tragic that it can’t be quickly exploited by those who want to trumpet their own cause, regardless of how unrelated that cause may be. Witness the recent Amish school shootings:

  • The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas was going to protest the funeral because America is so homosexual-friendly. They are normally content to protest at military funerals (because America is so homosexual-friendly). If this doesn’t make any sense to you on several levels, then just be happy that you are still apparently sane.
  • A woman in Georgia is using the tragedy as fodder to ban Harry Potter books at her local school. She thinks school shootings are the result of JK Rowlings’ desire to indoctrinate children into witchcraft. As the comments on the link mention, it is fascinating how Harry Potter is famous all over the world, but school shootings by crazed citizens mostly happen in the US.

This is annoying to me because now I would look silly in trying to tie this to my own pet cause, which is the confluence of liturgical constantinianism and epistemological foundationalism as a corrupting influence on eschatological ecclesiology (and why it is ruining America). Like homosexuality and Harry Potter, the Amish have nothing to do with this. But I figure they had it coming, since we all know that God punishes random people when America doesn’t conform to the dictates of those Christians who are most in need of medication.

Instead, I guess we should grudgingly look to the Amish themselves for wisdom on the matter. They are heartbroken and grieving. And yet, shockingly, they remain faithful to their religious convictions. They invited the mother of the shooter to the funeral, as a way to extend forgiveness. They are quoted as saying “Forgiveness is a choice, but it is not an option if we want to be saved." Many even showed up to the funeral of the shooter. They extend grace far beyond what makes sense to the wider world.

I don’t want to sentimentalize the Amish, who certainly have human failings like everyone else. But geez. What a stunning example of how to be Christian. Imagine if we American Christians had all decided to be this grace-filled in response to 9/11. Imagine if we decided not to give in to fear and revenge, but to trust in God rather than Guns. We might not be fit to run the country, but I can’t help but think it would have tempered our national response in ways that would have made us stronger five years later. Instead, we are facing a world justifiably angry at our response to evil, since its main accomplishment so far has been the creation of new terrorists.

Given how interwoven the Christian message is these days with state power and domination over others, the Amish provide a healthy counter-example to aspire to. In this instance, they have provided a powerful example of Paul’s message to “overcome evil with good”. Too often we attempt to eliminate evil through violence and revenge.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Hauerwas on Worship and Murder

Stanley Hauerwas (Methodist theologian at Duke, admirer of John Howard Yoder, Defender of Church, Comedian) :

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.

He might be overstating it a bit, but I knew there was justification for hating those sappy love-songs-to-Jesus.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Greenwald on Foley

Another great post by Glenn Greenwald on the Mark Foley mess. Since he mentions God in it, I am justifying linking to it :)

Unclaimed Territory - by Glenn Greenwald: Does the Foley scandal prove the existence of a God?

My favorite line:
as Billmon wrote in comments here the other day, the relentless efficiency of this scandal is proof positive that Democrats had nothing to do with it...

Also, note that the question he is posing IS A JOKE.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Foley Scandal

Lately I’ve wanted to post fewer pure political stories and more issues related to religion, or at least a mixture of the two. But then some new scandal hits the news, and I get sucked back into the vortex. So, instead of “America Debases Itself On Torture”, this week we get “Republican Preys On Children While Leadership Sleeps”. Yet another example of how power corrupts, and why we desperately need checks and balances, even if those checks are just compliant Democrats.

What’s interesting to me about the Mark Foley scandal isn’t just that politicians can be sexual predators. It is the extent to which political calculation trumps basic decency among those minimizing what Foley did. Foley’s sins are inexcusable (that is, his predatory-ness, not his gayness), and when exposed to the light of day, he recognized that he needed to immediately resign. But it amazes me that many Republicans and conservative commentators are continuing to downplay the seriousness of what happened, or playing politics with the story because an election is five weeks away. Whatever happened to the Republicans being the “party of personal responsibility?”

Just so we are on the same page here: Rep Foley was caught seducing 16 year old pages who worked on Capitol Hill. The Republican leadership (Hastert, Boehner, Reynolds) knew about this since at least last spring, and possibly for years, and never opened an investigation into it. While many fair-minded conservatives are rightly calling for the resignation of those who knew about this and did nothing, there are also many for whom it appears no transgression is grave enough to risk losing power, or smear others in an attempt to get the focus away from you. Here is a sampling of what I have been seeing:

Tony Snow: “there have been other scandals, as you know, that have been more than simply naughty e-mails"

Hannity: Clinton was a sexual predator with a teenager [Ah, yes, change the subject to Clinton, and also lie about him as well]. Also, Democrats are just making this a political issue: [How is a congressman’s being a sexual predator and the leadership ignoring warnings about it NOT a political issue?]

Fox News: Put up a picture of Mark Foley saying he was a Democrat.

Tony Perkins
of the Family Research Council blames it on tolerance and diversity: [Yes, Foley’s sins are the result of liberal ideals. If only there were more intolerance of gays in this country]

Newt Gingrich: Republicans didn’t want to be seen as “anti-gay” for exposing this. [Yes, Republicans are very concerned about appearing to be anti-gay].

Hastert: “this is a political issue “ and “if they get to me” our country will be less safe. [So, we should sacrifice our pages in the interest of national security? Even though the NIE says we are less safe due to Republican policy?]

Limbaugh: Suggests the whole thing could have been setup and coordinated by Democrats. [It is probably unfair to include the crazy ravings of Rush, except that he continues to have a huge following]

Bush: : "Now, I know Denny Hastert, I meet with him a lot. He's a father, teacher, coach who cares about the children of this country”. [I guess the reasoning here is that because Bush knows Hastert cares about children, he could not have done anything wrong]

And, finally, according to Republican strategists, whether Hastert stays or goes depends on whether he can quiet the storm, not on whether he is guilty of protecting a sexual predator, precisely because it is bad politically to lose the speaker of the house so close to an election.

The simple facts are that a Republican was caught trying to pickup minors and was protected by House leadership. The honorable way to end this is for all those involved in both the scandal and the cover up to immediately resign. If House leadership is not going to follow up on these kinds of allegations, then how do we know whether other Republicans are doing the same thing?

Finally, it is amazing that a scandal that is entirely about Republicans can get some of them so worked up about…..Democrats. Normally, one would think that blaming Democrats and making excuses would be a ridiculous way of responding. But given the success of the swift-boat nonsense, it remains to be seen whether grass roots Republicans will fall for this kind of depravity again.

Monday, October 02, 2006

"Modern" Gives Way To "Minor"

When I started this blog, there were a number of identities and/or topics I could have chosen. White, middle-class, raving liberal, parent, transracial adopter, movie-holic, software manager, amateur history buff, argumentative Christian – all would have provided ample material for a once-a-week-or-so posting.

But I wanted to write about topics that could use more of a voice in our post-9/11 (or post-3/19) world. Given the power the religious right has exercised in its vision of a war-loving, unbridled-free-market Jesus, there needs to be more advocates for an alternative (or, as I like to call it, “more accurate”) vision of Jesus’ social teaching.

So, I chose my Mennonite identity for the blog, not because I am a representative Mennonite (who are all over the map politically), but because the seemingly monolithic “Christian = Conservative Republican” equation needs to be challenged. Christians who support peace and progressive social policies are actually more in line with Jesus' social ethic than those who, for example, support aggressive, unilateral war, torture, indefinite imprisonment without trial, or even large tax cuts for the wealthy. I don't claim to have a monopoly on the truth, but I do feel the need to be at least a tiny voice in this vast wilderness of the web to advocate for social policy that reflects what God might want for us lowly humans.

Since then, I have been spending a lot of time in the Elkhart/Goshen, Indiana area, taking classes at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. This is the Mennonite Mecca of Midwest, where you don’t have to worry about people mistaking your religion for a cult. Spending time among so many well-spoken and serious Mennonites, who represent the faith far better than I do, is a very humbling experience. My Urbana-Champaign congregation is also filled with well-spoken and serious Mennonites, but it is so much easier to feel like a representative Mennonite there than in Elkhart, where there is so much more heritage and diversity.

One of the things that I didn’t anticipate with a blog name of “Musings of a Modern Mennonite” is that the majority of people who reach it (who do not personally know me) do so via an internet search of the word“Mennonite”. Here is a list of recent searches for people who have found their way here:

  • mennonites torture
  • hate mennonite
  • mennonite bloggers
  • mennonite blog
  • mennonite blogs
  • illegal mennonite immigrant or immigration
  • mennonite standards
It is discomfiting to know that anyone interested in hating or torturing Mennonites (or maybe having Mennonites torture or hate them) is naturally led here. More importantly, I fear that without an additional qualifier, people will mistake my rantings as some kind of Mennonite standard, which is unfair to Mennonites as a whole.

So, I’ve decided to replace “Modern” with “Minor”. Minor, not in the sense that I can’t buy beer legally, but in the sense that I am far removed from any hierarchical Mennonite authority, and you could find heresy here just as easily as dogma. “Modern” was never really quite accurate anyway, as a friend pointed out that I am more Post-Modern in my outlook, even though I wasn’t really using the term in that way. And, “Minor” still fits, alliteratively, which is more important than it should be.

My wife claims this change makes me *more* Mennonite, not less, since it is a very Mennonite thing to claim unimportance. It binds us all together in one big, quiet mass of respectfulness. How perfect, then, to confirm my Mennonite identity in a way that makes it seem like I am being respectful and humble.

I proclaim to thee, My Blog, by the power vested in me of knowing the password to my blogspot account, that henceforth, thou shall be known as: “Musings of a Minor Mennonite.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The "Church of Fools"

For those of you who love both Jesus and The Sims, there is finally a way to do both at the same time: A virtual church called the Church of Fools, that exists entirely on-line.

You can pick an identity, go to sermons, invoke gestures, like genuflecting, kneeling, raising your hands, yelling “hallelujah” – everything you ever wanted to do, but were too shy or white to do in public with real people. It apparently has real sermons delivered by simulated preachers and allows real-time interaction with others who are logged in.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to actually load the software that lets me enter the church on either of my computers. I’ve long suspected my computers are demon-possessed, and now I finally have proof. Thanks, Church of Fools!

Despite the tongue-in-cheekness of it all, it is actually a serious effort by the Methodist church to examine whether an on-line community can do “church”. It will be interesting to see how the experiment develops.

Any church that was able to banish Satan in its first week is off to a pretty good start, though.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Ignominious Close to Torture Week

Since this is "Torture Week" here at MMM, it is appropriate to close with the compromise deal reached yesterday within the Republican party. I had wondered about the term "compromise", and how that would apply to torture and secret evidence. Only torture people somewhat? Only sometimes admit secret evidence?

Unfortunately, that pretty much seems to be the deal that was reached. I don't pretend to know how the language of the bill is supposed to be applied, but I do know that the NY Times, the Washington Post, and various other observers see it as a bad deal.

Below is the NYTimes take on it. Their call to the Democrats to develop some spine on the issue is sorely needed. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that Democrats won't simply roll over again, like they usually do.

Here is a way to measure how seriously President Bush was willing to compromise on the military tribunals bill: Less than an hour after an agreement was announced yesterday with three leading Republican senators, the White House was already laying a path to wiggle out of its one real concession.

About the only thing that Senators John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham had to show for their defiance was Mr. Bush’s agreement to drop his insistence on allowing prosecutors of suspected terrorists to introduce classified evidence kept secret from the defendant. The White House agreed to abide by the rules of courts-martial, which bar secret evidence. (Although the administration’s supporters continually claim this means giving classified information to terrorists, the rules actually provide for reviewing, editing and summarizing classified material. Evidence that cannot be safely declassified cannot be introduced.)

This is a critical point. As Senator Graham keeps noting, the United States would never stand for any other country’s convicting an American citizen with undisclosed, secret evidence. So it seemed like a significant concession — until Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, briefed reporters yesterday evening. He said that while the White House wants to honor this deal, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, still wants to permit secret evidence and should certainly have his say. To accept this spin requires believing that Mr. Hunter, who railroaded Mr. Bush’s original bill through his committee, is going to take any action not blessed by the White House.

On other issues, the three rebel senators achieved only modest improvements on the White House’s original positions. They wanted to bar evidence obtained through coercion. Now, they have agreed to allow it if a judge finds it reliable (which coerced evidence hardly can be) and relevant to guilt or innocence. The way coercion is measured in the bill, even those protections would not apply to the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

The deal does next to nothing to stop the president from reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions. While the White House agreed to a list of “grave breaches” of the conventions that could be prosecuted as war crimes, it stipulated that the president could decide on his own what actions might be a lesser breach of the Geneva Conventions and what interrogation techniques he considered permissible. It’s not clear how much the public will ultimately learn about those decisions. They will be contained in an executive order that is supposed to be made public, but Mr. Hadley reiterated that specific interrogation techniques will remain secret.

Even before the compromises began to emerge, the overall bill prepared by the three senators had fatal flaws. It allows the president to declare any foreigner, anywhere, an “illegal enemy combatant” using a dangerously broad definition, and detain him without any trial. It not only fails to deal with the fact that many of the Guantánamo detainees are not terrorists and will never be charged, but it also chokes off any judicial review.

The Democrats have largely stood silent and allowed the trio of Republicans to do the lifting. It’s time for them to either try to fix this bill or delay it until after the election. The American people expect their leaders to clean up this mess without endangering U.S. troops, eviscerating American standards of justice, or further harming the nation’s severely damaged reputation.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When It Rains, It Pours

It has been a busy week for torture and secret imprisonment stories. Here's yet another one.

A Canadian man was stopped by US agents in New York while changing planes, and whisked away to Syria to be beaten and tortured because he was misidentified as a terrorist. He was kept in a coffin sized room for 10 months, and under torture, confessed to having been trained in Afganistan, where he had never been.

This story combines all the worst elements of torture with all the worst elements of secret imprisonment. I don't know what else to say. We are ensuring there will be a full pipeline of enemies for at least the next generation.

Update: Here's a much more impassioned response by Glenn Grenwald

So on top of operating secret torture gulags in Eastern Europe, we also kidnap people, charge them with no crime, give them no opportunity to defend themselves, deny them contact with their consulate in violation of international treaties (as the Canadian report complained about), send them off to be tortured for months, and then when it turns out that they are completely inncoent, we block them from obtaining compensation in our courts because our Government claims that national security would be jeopardized if they were held accountable for their behavior.

How can you be an American citizen and not be completely outraged, embarrassed, and disgusted by this conduct? What the Bush administration is doing on so many levels is a grotesque betrayal of every national value and principle we have always claimed to embrace and for which we have fought, and which we claim we are defending as part of our current "war".

Can it even be debated at this point that the Bush administration has so plainly, as Billmon described it the other day, "forfeit(ed) forever its ability to chastise the human rights abuses of others without triggering a global laughing fit"? Who would ever take seriously the notion that a Government that engages in this behavior can lecture anyone on human rights abuses or import democratic values around the world?

Trust Us, He's Guilty

Full story at

The US military has been secretly holding a Pulitzer Prize winning Iraqi AP photographer for five months, and have not officially charged him with anything. He had published a lot of photographs of the destruction of Fallujah, and was also able to photograph insurgents.

His crime? The US military believes he has “close relationships” with bad guys.
Are his pictures evidence of collusion with bad guys? Or, is he locked up because he takes pictures that embarrass or undermine the US Military?

This is exactly why secret detentions and secret evidence are so insidious. People can be locked up forever for pretty much any reason, and we’ll never know whether it is an abuse of power or a legitimate security concern.

After the WMD rationale fell apart, secret detentions and torture was the given reason we invaded Iraq. We used to call the Soviet empire evil because of it. It is a defining characteristic of totalitarian government.

Why do we continue to fight for values that we no longer uphold?

This also underscores how far Iraq has to go before it really has sovereignty. I presume the Iraqi constitution doesn't allow foreign soldiers to imprison their own citizens in their own country without the benefit of the rule of law, and yet that is where we apparently stand today.

<snark>If we are now going to start locking people up for having relationships with bad guys, maybe the guy shaking hands with Saddam in this picture should be locked up too.</snark>

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Party of Torture

Torture is back in the news this week, with Democrats opposed, and Republicans mostly in favor. Bush is essentially saying: We don’t do torture, but we vitally need legislation that gives us permission to do it. Trust us when we say these techniques have borne fruit – after all, we’ve never exaggerated things that were untrue for mere political convenience.

Actually, some military-minded Republicans (McCain, Warner, Graham, Powell) are against it, while civilian, never-personally-been-in-war administration leaders remain very gung-ho. This makes sense, since torture as policy ends up hurting our own soldiers in the end, and those with actual experience in war would be more attuned to the issue.

It is fascinating that we continue to debate this. The only way for Republicans to justify it is to believe it is not torture. Simulated drowning, stripping people naked and exposing them to extreme heat or cold, sleep deprivation, hooking electrodes up to privates, extended periods in “stress positions” – these are merely “fraternity pranks”. Deaths that happen during interrogations are merely mistakes, not torture. Inmates suicides are “asymmetrical warfare”. One wonders if there is any depravity we could commit that would not be immediately rationalized. Ideology is indeed a powerful thing.

But pictures are worth a thousand words. I don't mean to be crass by printing these, but it is vitally important that we understand what we are talking about here. These are the kinds of behaviors that so many Republicans consider “fraternity pranks”:

Here’s a good test to determine whether something is torture or not. It is torture if we would call it torture when applied to our own captured soldiers. Because that is what it comes down to – whether we are willing to live by our own standards. Imagine our own soldiers being stripped naked, beaten, put into stress positions for long periods of time, and almost drowned, and then try to argue that it is an appropriate method of interrogation.

I seem to remember Jesus saying something about treating others like we would like to be treated. He also knew a thing or two about torture. It isn’t very politically correct to follow his advice these days, but I honestly can’t see how Christians can support policies like the ones Bush is advocating.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

My Pal Gandhi

I usually don't take much stock in internet quizes, since they usually reveal some secret shame, like I'm an Eeyore and not a Pooh or a Tigger. Nonetheless, I will risk it in this case, and share my results from the Political Compass quiz:



Now, before you deride me as the pinko-liberal-commie-anarchist that I am, please note that I am actually in some pretty good company:

Any quiz that puts me in the same quadrant as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama, and opposite quadrants from George Bush, is obviously a wise and truth-telling quiz.