Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A God of Tolerance?

As Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq attack one another in an effort to avenge grave religious offenses, including the attack on the Askariya shrine, and as Muslims in many other parts of the world turn to violence to express their outrage over offenses against the prophet Mohammed, James Carroll reminds us that, "in history's supreme irony, holy war is the most savage war of all."

But, Carroll suggests, the haste with which believers of all kinds rush to defend God may come from a misunderstanding of the divine.

Believers--whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian--tend to view God as Someone like us--only much, much greater. In the words of a beautiful Irish hymn, God is the "High King of Heaven." In Arabic, the idea is expressed by the expression Allah akbar! (God is great!) In English (at least as spoken by Americans in the twenty-first century), the preferred expression may be "God is awesome!" (The state of Washington has allowed someone to reduce the phrase to license-plate English: AWSMGOD. I know, because I saw a car bearing such a plate parked on campus today.)

Carroll points out that the divine is more nearly apprehended in each of the great monotheistic religions through an awareness that God is beyond all human comprehension. God is, in other words, wholly other. This, according to Carroll, should make all of us--Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike--see belief in God as a reason for toleration.

In Islam, as much as Judaism and Christianity, as this Christian understands it, the core theological tradition so affirms such otherness of the deity that no merely familial, tribal, or national claims can be made upon it. Indeed, that the Holy One is wholly other is the first principle of human toleration, since no single person or group has an exclusive claim on the divine. The second principle of toleration is that God, as its author, belongs to the entire cosmos, not to any mere part of it.

God is other, yet, as each tradition affirms, God is also the creator, fully invested in creation. "I was a hidden treasure," as the Koran reports God telling the Prophet. "I loved to be known. Therefore I created the creation so that I would be known." God creates, that is, to be known by all that God creates. God's family, tribe, and nation--are everyone and everything.

Obviously, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have all had trouble keeping these principles of toleration straight, with each of the monotheisms having regularly reduced God to a tribal deity, and loyalty to God to a cause of war. We see just such a thing unfolding in the streets of Muslim cities today, as self-appointed defenders of the greatness of God are the ones, in fact, defiling it.

The brief version of the lesson is this: If God is beyond the comprehension of any one person or group or sect, then it is an offense against God to attack those who understand God differently.

The longer version of the lesson is in Carroll's column here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Birds and Humans

In today's Boston Globe, James Carroll considers what the spread of avian flu means for the troubled relationship between humans and nature. Here is his conclusion:

The deep memory of Genesis posits a human dominion over nature, but the banishment from Eden indicates an alienation from it. Today, the so-called environment is discussed as if it is a surrounding bubble, like a space capsule that can be replaced when it is trashed.

Judging from our reckless disregard, we humans seem to imagine that we can have a destiny independent of the earth on which live; even that word "on" suggests the problem, since the truth is that we humans are the earth. It is more than where we come from, where we go. Indeed, we get our name from "humus," the word for earth. Did we think we could forget that and not suffer for it?

If the worst case unfolds, and the dreaded transmission mutations occur, avian flu might be taken as nature's revenge for the human despoiling of the planet. The best case will be that this outbreak came as a timely reminder that the health of humanity and the health of nature, including beloved winged creatures, are the same thing.

Read the entire column here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Neocons' Mess

Francis Fukuyama, a professor at SAIS in Washington, D.C., has an article in today's New York Times Magazine on the neoconservatives and what should be done to clean up the mess they've created in American foreign policy. He argues for a "realistic Wilsonianism" that recognizes the important role the United States has played and should continue to play in support of human rights and democracy around the world while also recognizing that there are serious limits to the promotion of such values by military means.

As I have argued since November 2001, Fukuyama suggests that "war" is the wrong label for the struggle against terrorism. As he puts it,

we need to demilitarize what we have been calling the global war on terrorism and shift to other types of policy instruments. We are fighting hot counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against the international jihadist movement, wars in which we need to prevail. But "war" is the wrong metaphor for the broader struggle, since wars are fought at full intensity and have clear beginnings and endings. Meeting the jihadist challenge is more of a "long, twilight struggle" whose core is not a military campaign but a political contest for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims around the world.

The entire article, entitled "After Neoconservatism," is well worth reading not only for its policy prescriptions but for its brief description of what it is that animates the neoconservatives.

[UPDATE: Over at Balkinization, Jack Balkin has a few interesting comments about Fukuyama's article, including this one: "What struck me . . . was how many of his claims about what was wrong with the Bush Administration's policies were available in 2001, and, indeed, were stated over and over again by critics of the Administration in the run up to the Iraq war."]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Indian Reservations as Weak States

In Seeking Security in an Insecure World, Dan Caldwell and I note that "by failing to extend the rule of law over all of their territories, weak states may provide safe havens for terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, international fugitives, and other actors that are a menace to international society" (p. 124). The role played by weak states in international drug trafficking illustrates the point very well.

In Afghanistan, opium production is booming as a consequence of the inability of Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul to control the country's hinterlands where warlords and tribal leaders hold sway. In Colombia, narcoterrorists and revolutionaries who support themselves by trafficking cocaine have long operated beyond the reach of the government. And in Nigeria, corrupt officials and a weak central administration have made that country a major hub of drug trafficking in spite of the fact that few drugs are actually produced there.

Many of the same conditions that afflict weak states around the world--dire poverty, high rates of unemployment, weak law enforcement, and failing social services--are present on Indian reservations within the United States. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that reservations have become the newest hubs of international drug trafficking. According to this story in the New York Times, "large-scale criminal organizations have found havens and allies in the wide-open and isolated regions of Indian country." The comparison between Indian reservations within the United States and weak states around the world seems inescapable:

For traffickers of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, painkillers and people, reservations offer many advantages. Law enforcement is spotty at best. Tribal sovereignty, varying state laws and inconsistent federal interest in prosecuting drug crimes create jurisdictional confusion and conflict.

The deep loyalty that exists within tribes, where neighbors are often related, and the intense mistrust of the American justice system make securing witnesses and using undercover informants extremely difficult. And on some reservations, Indian drug traffickers have close relationships with tribal government or law enforcement officials and enjoy special protection that allows them to operate freely, investigators say.

At home and abroad, promoting good government, meeting human needs, and building capacity in weak states are all essential elements in any effort to address the problem of drug trafficking.

Means and Ends

"As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy."

--Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (1942)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Arar's Suit

A federal judge in Brooklyn has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Maher Arar under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was detained by Homeland Security officials at New York's Kennedy International Airport in September 2002 and sent to Syria where he was tortured for a year before being released without having been charged.

For more on Arar's story, see this post from February 2005.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The New Abu Ghraib Photos

The Sydney Morning Herald has fifteen of the Abu Ghraib photos shown for the first time on Australian television last night. The SMH also reports that, according to a recently released poll, 60 percent of Australians now have a "mainly negative" view of the United States.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Still More Abu Ghraib Photos

Dateline, an Australian news program, has sixty of the Abu Ghraib photos that, up until now, have been suppressed by the Pentagon. The program airs soon, so expect extensive news coverage tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Daily Kos has some of the new photos here. (Warning: The images are disturbing.)

[Via Kevin Drum.]

Misunderstanding Muslims?

According to James Carroll's column in yesterday's Boston Globe, both the cartoon controversy and the war in Iraq indicate that we are.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Okay. You know what this post is going to be about.

I genuinely believed that Dick Cheney's "hunting accident" over the weekend would be beyond satire. One-liners? Not a problem. There will be a million of them floating around by the time the late-night comics have finished with the story. But some things (like Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize, at least according to Tom Lehrer) just appear to be beyond satire.

Clearly, I underestimated Tom Borowitz. His column today begins with these words:

Vice President Dick Cheney revealed today that he shot a fellow hunter while on a quail hunting trip over the weekend because he believed the man was the fugitive terror mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Mr. Cheney acknowledged that the man he sprayed with pellets on Saturday was not al-Zawahiri but rather Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old millionaire lawyer from Austin, blaming the mix-up on “faulty intelligence.”

Go ahead. Read the whole thing. Then come back. I'm not done with this yet.

Here are my modest contributions to the Cheney-palooza:

  • So Cheney shot a lawyer. What's the big deal? The legal limit in Texas is ten.
  • In spite of the fact that there was an ambulance present in the vice president's entourage, Cheney insisted on carrying Whittington to the hospital strapped to the hood of his pickup truck.
  • Of course, most Americans were simply relieved that Cheney wasn't the one shot. If anything were to happen to him, George Bush would become president.
  • Before Whittington was taken to the hospital, Cheney insisted that the ambulance driver stop at a taxidermist's so he could get an estimate.
  • I'm not suggesting anything, but doesn't Dick Cheney sometimes go hunting with Antonin Scalia?

Foreign newspapers and on-line news sites got a little more creative with their headlines about the Cheney story than most American papers did, but it's worth noting that the Washington Post seems to have loosened up a bit. Columnist Eugene Robinson's comment on the episode ran under the headline "Ready, Fire, Aim." Dan Froomkin criticized the slow response of the White House in a column entitled "Shoots, Hides and Leaves."

Care to see what the professionals said? Read on.

Jon Stewart: "Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a man during a quail hunt ... making 78-year-old Harry Whittington the first person shot by a sitting veep since Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, of course, (was) shot in a duel with Aaron Burr over issues of honor, integrity and political maneuvering. Whittington? Mistaken for a bird."

Jay Leno: "I think Cheney is starting to lose it. After he shot the guy he screamed, 'Anyone else want to call domestic wire tapping illegal?'"

David Letterman: "But here is the sad part: before the trip Donald Rumsfeld had denied the guy's request for body armor."

Jon Stewart (again): "Now, this story certainly has its humorous aspects. . . . But it also raises a serious issue, one which I feel very strongly about. . . . Moms, dads, if you're watching right now, I can't emphasize this enough: Do not let your kids go on hunting trips with the vice president. I don't care what kind of lucrative contracts they're trying to land, or energy regulations they're trying to get lifted, it's just not worth it."

The Nation notes that it is now obvious that Cheney's five draft deferments were a good thing: "It has become clear that Cheney was doing the country a service when he avoided service."

Just don't forget to read Borowitz.

[Update: Borowitz does it again. Here's the opening line of his second Cheney column: "Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced today that his department would immediately implement a “Cheney Alert” system to warn Americans if an attack by Vice President Dick Cheney is imminent."]

Friday, February 10, 2006

America's Shame

An investigation by the widely respected National Journal of government records relating to 446 detainees at Guantanamo has uncovered a shameful story of official lies, routine abuses of due process rights, and, not surprisingly, the long-term detention of many innocent people. Stated briefly, the facts are these:
  1. Contrary to frequent assertions that the prison at Guantanamo holds only the worst terrorists--those who would be killing Americans in Afghanistan or plotting the next 9/11 if freed--most are victims of mistaken identity or are, at worst, low-level Taliban or Al Qaeda soldiers with no knowledge of operational issues.
  2. Due to the frustration that Pentagon officials felt over their inability to gain information from these prisoners (who, of course, had no useful information to provide in the first place), increasingly harsh interrogation techniques were authorized by the Pentagon and employed at Guantanamo.
  3. Torture produced information--almost all of it false.
  4. On the basis of false accusations, innocent people being held at Guantanamo were "proved" to be dangerous terrorists.

If this sounds far-fetched, please read the story. Or at least consider some of these excerpts, which, I remind you, are based on government files and Combatant Status Review Tribunal records:

A. False Accusations

Much of the evidence against the detainees is weak. One prisoner at Guantanamo, for example, has made accusations against more than 60 of his fellow inmates; that's more than 10 percent of Guantanamo's entire prison population. The veracity of this prisoner's accusations is in doubt after a Syrian prisoner, Mohammed al-Tumani, 19, who was arrested in Pakistan, flatly denied to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he'd attended the jihadist training camp that the tribunal record said he did.

Tumani's denial was bolstered by his American "personal representative," one of the U.S. military officers--not lawyers--who are tasked with helping prisoners navigate the tribunals. Tumani's enterprising representative looked at the classified evidence against the Syrian youth and found that just one man--the aforementioned accuser--had placed Tumani at the terrorist training camp. And he had placed Tumani there three months before the teenager had even entered Afghanistan. The curious U.S. officer pulled the classified file of the accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical, pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them at the camp.

The tribunal declared Tumani an enemy combatant anyway.

B. Flimsy Evidence

"There is no smoking gun," said John Chandler, a partner in the Atlanta office of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. One of his Guantanamo clients, picked up in Pakistan, is designated an enemy combatant in part because he once traveled on a bus with wounded Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan. The prisoner denies it, saying it was only a public bus. But then there's the prisoner's Casio watch. According to the Defense Department files, his watch is similar to another Casio model that has a circuit board that Al Qaeda has used for making bombs. The United States is using the Qaeda-favored Casio wristwatch as evidence against at least nine other detainees. But the offending model is sold in sidewalk stands around the world and is worn by one National Journal reporter. The primary difference between Chandler's client's watch and the Casio in question is that the detainee's model hasn't been manufactured for years, according to the U.S. military officer who was his personal representative at the tribunal.

C. Coerced Statements

One man slammed his hands on the table during an especially long interrogation and yelled, "Fine, you got me; I'm a terrorist." The interrogators knew it was a sarcastic statement. But the government, sometime later, used it as evidence against him: "Detainee admitted he is a terrorist" reads his tribunal evidence. The interrogators were so outraged that they sought out the detainee's personal representative to explain it to him that the statement was not a confession.

A Yemeni, whom somebody fingered as a bin Laden bodyguard, finally said in exasperation during one long interrogation, "OK, I saw bin Laden five times: Three times on Al Jazeera and twice on Yemeni news." And now his "admission" appears in his enemy combatant's file: "Detainee admitted to knowing Osama bin Laden."

I continue to wonder why Americans aren't outraged. More and more, I'm being forced to conclude that Americans' commitment to human rights may be, on the whole, very weak.

(For two appropriately outraged reactions, see Stuart Taylor's editorial in the National Journal and this commentary at Body and Soul, where I first saw the story.)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Muslim Protests

Muslims all over the world have joined in an increasingly violent series of demonstrations protesting a set of cartoons that depict the prophet Mohammed. The cartoons, which originally appeared last September in a Danish newspaper, have recently been reprinted throughout Europe and elsewhere.

One explanation for the spread of the protests was offered by an unidentified government official in the United Arab Emirates: "You have no choice but to join the chorus. Anyone who doesn't speak up will look as if they tacitly accept the prophet to be insulted."

This situation brings to mind Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington, arguing that conflict between Christians and Muslims has very deep roots, states that conflict is "a product of difference, particularly the Muslim concept of Islam as a way of life transcending and uniting religion and politics versus the Western Christian concept of the separate realms of God and Caesar" (210).

However offensive the cartoons may be, the Muslim world's reaction can't help but baffle most Westerners. Muslim anger and Western bafflement together lend support to the notion of a "clash of civilizations." And that, in turn, lends support to the forces of reaction on both sides.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Bono in D.C.

In a sermon--yes, a sermon--reminiscent of the speech he gave at the Labour Party Conference at Brighton in September 2004, Bono yesterday challenged an audience that included President Bush and many members of Congress to view aid to Africa as a matter of justice, not charity:

Justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.

Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.

Take a few minutes to read Bono's sermon. It's important. It's what we once called "speaking truth to power."

[Via Sojourners.]