Government Policy

Drones, Brennan and the CIA

As a strong supporter of President Obama, I watched in dismay during his first term as Republican members of Congress continually attempted to derail the plans and policies of his Administration.

The stated position of the Republican leadership was to ensure that Obama was a one-term president. That failed. Dismally. The American people delivered Mr. Obama a decisive victory in last year’s election.

Still, there is a difference between obstructionism and oversight. The American system of democracy establishes checks and balances in an effort to insure that no element of the government runs amok. Unless these are exercised judiciously, the government cannot function properly. Striking an appropriate balance is not always politically easy.

Just as the Republicans cannot fulfill their obligations to the country by constantly blocking efforts of the Obama Administration, the Democrats cannot be faithful stewards if they never challenge the President. Congress has a perfect opportunity to meet its obligations as the Senate begins confirmation hearings on the appointment of John Brennan to head the CIA.

Everyone American citizen should be concerned about the U.S. drone program.

Although I am fundamentally opposed to violence, I realize that there are times when violence is inescapable. However, I find it impossible to justify the use of drones to kill people—even those who are deemed to be enemy combatants, or imminent threats to the United States. The use of drones is problematic, not only on legal grounds, but more so on moral ones.

President Obama has done much to restore America's standing in the world. The use of drones is not among them. These are not only legally tenuous, they also create a new wave of hostility, sow the seeds of future violence and breed new terrorists.

Like the atom bomb, we cannot unlearn this technology. Sadly, like weapons of mass destruction, other nations are now pursuing their own drone programs and we appear headed to a “drones arms race” that could, from a practical point of view, be more dangerous than the nuclear one. Drones are more likely to be used than nuclear weapons.

Brennan’s nomination is troubling on many fronts, but mostly because of his position on drones. The fact that they are effective is irrelevant, especially the “collateral” damage of hundreds of innocent dead. He has publicly argued that drones are both legal and moral. There is little support for the legality of this program, indicated by the opposition of nearly every other national government. What’s worse, are his statements that drones are a moral use of force. On this issue, Brennan is morally bankrupt.

Brennan’s confirmation hearing seems a good time for the entire country to confront the deadly reality of the drone program. It is a chance for the U.S. to step back from the policy that allows the use of drones and provide the necessary leadership that insures a peaceful future for all nations and peoples on this planet. This is a good time for the U.S. Senate to exercise its role in the system of check and balances in a thoughtful and responsible manner. If that means denying President Obama's choice of John Brennan to head the CIA, then so be it.
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America's Lost Gospel

Christianity dominates the religious landscape of the United States. Still, given the great diversity of religious belief in this country, it has always been inaccurate to refer to America as a Christian nation. Today it is also patently false, for America is home to the Lost Gospel.

The Gospel I refer to is not some archeological unearthing of the story of Jesus, like the Gospel of Thomas. Nor is it some discovered fragment like the Gospel of Peter. There were gospels that did not survive with the four canonical ones due to questions of theological accuracy, orthodoxy and history. No, the lost Gospel I refer to is a matter for the modern world and goes to the very core of American Christianity, even Christianity itself, for it is what the four canonical Gospels are collectively all about. It
IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in America today it has been lost. In spite of the fact that many on the religious right claim to be Christians, the Gospel is no longer being lived in the United States and hence, authentic Christianity holds less and less sway. Indeed, America is not a Christian nation.

The evidence has been growing for some time, but has now reached its apex with the deceitful shenanigans of (primarily) Republican members of various state houses. The focus has centered in Wisconsin, but is spreading to one state after another. It has to do with the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages, working conditions and benefits. These are core Gospel values.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his now seminal encyclical "Rerum Novarum", outlining the rights of workers and cautioning against unrestricted capitalism. In doing so he gave rise to the social teaching of the Catholic Church, recognizing that at its heart, the Good News of Jesus Christ is a "social" Gospel. That 19th century encyclical was only the first in a long line of unbroken teachings from successive popes. These teachings bring the Gospel of Jesus to bear on the increasing demands of a world shattered by injustice, violence and greed. So the ensuing encyclicals address issues of social order, peace, migration and human dignity.

It is not incumbent upon non-Catholics to embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice. But it might be wise for everyone to heed the warnings against an unbridled capitalism that places the financial bottom line above the good of human beings.

I am reminded of how the Reagan Administration heralded the neutron bomb. This is a weapon designed to do maximum damage to human beings, while leaving buildings and infrastructure in place. Could there be a more despicable and inhumane weapon of mass destruction? What does it say of the soul of a nation to place more value on buildings than human life?

Comparing the budget of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators in Wisconsin to the neutron bomb is not a stretch. What does it say about their soul, that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare, the very livelihood, of the people of their state for political and financial gain? Or that they would sacrifice the exact principles that have enabled working class peoples to rise out of poverty? Theirs is a contemporary example of "neutron" thinking.

It is no accident that the first great social encyclical should focus on workers' rights, for it reflected the growing poverty and destitution of the urban poor. As a first critical look at unbridled capitalism, it was nothing short of inspired--sadly, an inspiration that has not taken root in the hearts and minds of most government or corporate leaders.

Collective bargaining does not represent capitulation to every demand of workers or their unions. The emphasis on bargaining enervates a process that allows give-and-take for the good of all. Governor Walker suggests that he does not want to restrict workers' rights to bargain for wages, only benefits. This is disingenuous in the extreme. Wages and benefits are inextricably interwoven together. The wages paid to workers are meaningless if the workers are not provided a working environment that secures safety and provides for their health. Wages do not matter if workers are not provided lunch and work breaks or sick leave. These are but a few examples of what workers have been able to secure through the collective bargaining process. Walker, casting himself more in the role of an authoritarian, medieval prince than a contemporary governor, would have workers return to the days of serfdom, when the prince set the rules of labor--a labor that was characterized by slavery rather than freedom.

Workers have the "right" to collectively bargain. It is not a gift or privilege extended by a paternalistic government. As a moral right it cannot be stripped away by law or edict. The working class should not be used as political pawns in a vain attempt to control the reigns of government and power. Most especially, workers should not be pushed back into 19th century poverty for the financial gain of corporations or the advancement of the super rich.

Writing as I am about the social Gospel of Jesus Christ, I suppose I should say something about Glenn Beck. I am fully aware that he has counseled his audience to leave any Christian Church that preaches a social gospel. Although my readers are unlikely to be among his fans, it is high time for someone to point out that not only is Glenn Beck in no position to offer such advice, he, himself, is not even a Christian. It will probably require a different blog to explain that. For now, it is clear that anyone who would advise people to walk out of a church that preaches the authentic social teaching of Jesus, is an offense to everyone, not least of which, Jesus.

In the meantime, we as a nation must demand that the rights of workers be protected from the kind arrogant assault launched by Governor Walker, lest this neutron thinking take hold and spread even further.
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Innocent until...

There was a time when an elementary school child could complete the phrase above: Innocent until proved guilty. That time is long past, in great part, because today almost everyone accused of anything is presumed guilty. There are a number of contributing factors--crime dramas such as the long-running "Law and Order" being one of them. I confess that I am a fan of the original show. Still, I am keenly aware that many of the episodes were designed to commit the viewer to a presumption in favor of guilt. The prosecution did not always win, but when it did not, the viewer was manipulated into feeling that somehow there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the guilty had gone free.

The 24 hour news cycle has also contributed to the flip of the presumption principle. In a rush to scoop other networks and to cement the attention of the viewer, cable news, in particular, frequently and irrationally condemns and convicts persons accused of crime, leaving little or no room for the finding of fact. This finding of fact is what a public trial is supposed to be about, but cable news has become its own courtroom. When the jury pool is comprised of people who have already convicted the accused, how fair or just is justice?

A third, and even more insidious, factor originates in the halls of government. Ever since 9/11 various branches of the government have played on the nation's fear. No one wants to see planes hijacked, buildings blown up and innocent civilians killed. Terrorism strikes fear in the hearts of all. But should we also allow terrorism to strike paralysis in the mind? Our justice system is designed to protect the rights of all, the victim and the accused. When the pursuit of justice is slanted in either direction, the scales become unbalanced. When it is driven by fear, the collective mind becomes unhinged.

This past Wednesday, November 17, the first Guantánamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court was acquitted on 284 of 285 counts of conspiracy and murder. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. He was accused of participating the 1998 bombings of United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania--bombings in which 224 people were killed. Captured in Pakistan in 2004, Ghailani was held for nearly five years in a "black site" run by the CIA--far away from the peering and pesky eyes of U.S. justice--and then at Guantánamo.

Immediately following the verdict, pundits and politicians began parsing the trial and condemning the Obama Administration for proceeding in a civilian court instead of a military tribunal. It is much easier to admit illicitly obtained evidence in military courts. And, after all, everyone knows that Ghailani is guilty. Right?

Whoa! Back up a bit. Many, if not most, of those who are condemning the Obama Administration's decision are not at all interested in truth or justice. They are merely provocateurs seeking to capitalize on the fear of the American people. Even my friend David Kelsey over at Examiner.com got into the act with an article that was more inciting than informative. These critics seem to forget that there have been other civilian trials of suspected terrorists that have resulted in guilty verdicts.

In this latest trial could the unthinkable be true? Could Ghailani actually be innocent? Or on a darker note, could the unspeakable be true? Could U.S. agents actually be engaging in illegal torture to elicit information that they have already deemed as fact? This was the real problem with the evidence against Ghailani--much of it was obtained illegally and so was excluded from trial. There is a reason that not even the government is supposed to be above the law. The integrity of the justice system must be maintained at all cost. At this point I have to wonder if the Administration's critics are not simply driven by some kind of self-serving limelighting.

It is not extreme to suggest that the country itself is at stake in these proceedings, and not because terrorists might be set free. The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document that stands as a model and example for all. If its guarantees are restricted only to U.S. citizens, it becomes capricious and arrogant and our moral standing in the world is diminished.

The concept that a person is innocent until proved guilty is not uniquely American. It is foundational law in many countries including Canada, England, France, Brazil and Russia. It is also enshrined in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the United Kingdom and the United States have chipped away at the presumption of innocence, it must remain a bulwark in our legal system, regardless of what various commentators might suggest.

The Bush Administration led the American public into a legal tunnel. Unlike the carnival, however, this tunnel was not filled with artificial amusement. It held real dangers and it did not exit to the lights and thrills of the amusement park.

Rather than being pilloried by the press and other right-wing critics, the Obama Administration should be heralded for having the moral integrity to restore justice to its rightful place in the fight against terror. As a country we must have faith in our Constitution and the courage of our convictions. In the end, the loss of truth and freedom is greater than the loss of life.
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Don't Ask, Don't Tell Ruling

Somebody must be reading these blogs, because several people have asked me to write about the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Then, today came the ruling from U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips, ordering the military to cease enforcing the 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. At this writing it is not known if the Department of Justice will appeal. As always, in cases like this, Judge Phillips will draw both supporters and detractors, and they will come from the predictable quarters.

What is most tragic about this ruling is that it had to made at all. Politics has often been described as the art of compromise. In the case of the DADT policy, it would be more accurate to describe it as a remarkable demonstration of political cowardice. Instituted under the Clinton Administration, DADT was compromise on an issue that needed leadership, not cowardice. At that time, there were already mountains of evidence from psychologists that people do not choose to be gay or straight. Sexual orientation is a matter of birth.

I realize that not everyone agrees. Just witness the irrational rant of Boyd K. Packer, the second highest ranking official in the Mormon Church and his claim that same sex unions are morally wrong and against God's law and nature. I imagine God is just as surprised as I am that Packer seems to know more than God himself about God's own laws! But then again, Packer probably believes the earth is flat! Perhaps his worm's eye view of reality is to blame, but until he can see the world as it truly is, he should keep quiet. He is the perfect example of how ignorance, fanaticism and prejudice are forever busy and need feeding.

Yes, I know that there are other religious groups besides Mormons that object to homosexuality and consider it unnatural. These include some Muslims and some Jews, and also some Christian churches. Even the Catholic Church is on the list and embraces a now-discredited approach. It views homosexual acts as sinful and refuses to accept the morality of same sex unions. But at least the Catholic Church does not condemn a person just for being gay. Neither does it support discrimination against gays and lesbians.

It is instructive that the most vociferous opponents of DADT, same sex marriage or any other homosexual issue are religious people who seek to impose their limited vision and religious agenda on all of society. However, unencumbered by truth or reality, they continue to use arguments that can no longer be sustained. A major truth behind homosexuality is that it is not an article of faith, regardless of what any religion might claim. The sciences, in particular psychology and zoology, have demonstrated that homosexuality is a natural sexual orientation, not a chosen way of life.

It seems to require reflection far beyond the ken of many religious people, but homosexuality is just as part and parcel of God's creation as is heterosexuality. The fact that it is less common, does not make it less real--or even less divine. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. If Christians truly believe that we are all created in God's image, then they must accept that homosexuality is part of God's plan, even it we do not fully comprehend what that plan is. A more enlightened approach might eliminate the severe suffering currently inflicted on gays and lesbians who are forced into secrecy or who feel forced to live false, and ultimately, unfulfilled lives.

Homosexuality may be the last, great prejudice. It certainly is the great current prejudice. Unfortunately, most prejudices are never truly eradicated. They subside only to await the resurgence of ignorant voices. There is no other way to explain the comments of people like Packer. Sadly, his voice is part of a growing pack of fringe politicians and other groups.

What I find of note in today's ruling is that one jurist, at least, possesses the courage that is sorely lacking among our political leaders. This issue should have been resolved in legislation, not in the courts. After all, one of the responsibilities of constitutional government is to secure the rights of minorities. Democracy is fine as far as it goes, but by definition democracy never threatens the rights of the majority. Constitutional government, on the other hand, has the task of ensuring that the majority does not infringe upon or deny the rights of the minority. In theory, minorities have no greater ally than the constitution--it is the only guarantee that their voices will be heard and their rights preserved. This is especially true today when extremism and ignorance are defining characteristics of many a modern politician.

In the absence of political leadership anchored to the Constitution we, as a people, are indebted to the wisdom and courage of Judges like Virginia Phillips.

(For further treatment on same sex marriages, I refer readers to Same Sex Marriage: A Theological Reflection)
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