Congress

The Quandary of Strange Bedfellows

Although launching cruise missiles into Syria will not likely lead to all-out war, President Obama has correctly decided to seek Congressional approval before undertaking such action. There is, however, a caveat. And we should not confuse the issues.

Seeking the approval of Congress is in keeping with the War Powers Resolution of 1973—legislation specifically designed to keep military intervention in check. It was precipitated by the actions of President Nixon during the Vietnam War. Although Congress overrode Nixon’s veto of the legislation, thus making it law, there are legitimate questions as to the constitutionality of the Resolution. Nonetheless, that is not really the issue.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, used forceful but accurate language to condemn the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians. That same language would be justifiable regardless of who the victims were. But…

Truth and trust are preciously rare commodities these days. Thanks to President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the failures of the intelligence community regarding Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, many people are demanding more evidence before accepting the judgment against Syrian President Assad.

Also, and more to the point, the people of the United States are tired of war. And it does not matter whether we have a Democratic or Republican president. The people want to have a voice when it comes to military action abroad.

One might be tempted to argue that the people’s will is articulated by its representatives in Congress. However, at least in the House of Representatives, that is no longer the case. The present House simply does not represent the majority of the people. By every statistical analysis, it represents an ever-shrinking and extreme minority, the result of ideological gerrymandering. And yet, there’s no place else to turn.

Like many others, I trust, or at least want to trust, President Obama. I do not trust the House of Representatives, and I am ambivalent about the Senate. But I am also realistic enough to recognize that we have not yet emerged from the moral bankruptcy of the Bush Administration.

If the allegations against Assad’s government are true, the international community must respond. This is not merely a question of how history will judge us, nor can it be reduced to a measure of our war-weariness. If the world is to escape the ever-tightening grip of violence and death, there must be limits to how we resolve conflicts. To paraphrase President Obama, there are lines no one can cross. But how to respond? Thus, the truism about politics and religion.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (boldprogressives.org) is a prime example. This organization has fought against the House of Representatives’ attempts to dismantle the U.S. Government and its cold disregard for the common good. On more than one occasion it has sounded the alarm about the Tea Party’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, and it has documented the House’ failure to represent the majority of Americans. Today it has stated its support of President Obama’s decision to consult Congress over a response to Syria. It has, however, let the bedfellow syndrome cloud its language. PCCC’s Sunday email reads:


“Yesterday, the president made the right decision by asking the people's representatives in Congress to vote on whether our nation uses military action in Syria.”

Regardless of how one views the War Powers Resolution; regardless of one’s attitude toward war in general; regardless of one’s fatigue after more than a decade at war, Obama’s decision may, indeed, be the right one. The American people should at least have a voice in this and future military actions. But let us not conclude that the present House is the “people’s representatives”. It is not.

I applaud President Obama’s decision to consult Congress. But make no mistake. For anyone interested in “truth, justice and the American way,” getting in bed with the current House of Representatives is not good politics.

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Miscarriage of Justice? The Zimmerman Verdict

The old saying comparing opinions to the human anatomy is true. Everybody does have one. And when verdicts are handed down, as in the George Zimmerman case, the opinions fly. These trials create mirror-like reactions. Had the judgement been reversed so would have been the responses. There would still be an outcry.

One need only look at the O. J. Simpson trial to recall a miscarriage of justice. In the Zimmerman case, the jurors are being denounced as racist because he killed a young black man. In the Simpson trial, they were accused of pandering because Simpson, himself, is a black man.

We might do well to step back from the actual trials and verdicts and look at the broader picture. If any truth is to emerge from this case, it is tragically simple: The justice system in modern America is broken. At least the jury element. At least in Florida. And yet…

This goes way beyond Florida. It just seems that Florida has a perverse desire for headlines, which seems odd given its specific racist history. Mind you, I am not trying to say that George Zimmerman should have been found guilty of murder. The prosecution overreached in its initial charges, necessitating the late addition of a manslaughter charge. That prosecutorial decision had to have influenced the jury and raised doubts. Maybe the prosecutors were not so sure of their case and were just grasping at straws.

Nor am I saying that George Zimmerman is innocent. Certainly his intent and motives are questionable, if not despicable. He was told by a 911 operator to cease his pursuit and let the proper authorities handle the situation. But Zimmerman lives in a fantasy world and has long been an incident waiting to happen.

Nor am I passing judgment on Trayvon Martin. He may have been innocent enough, initially. He may have defended himself too vigorously after being accosted. He may have done nothing wrong whatsoever. We certainly know he was unarmed.

What I am saying, is that Florida is the latest--and perhaps worst--example of a justice system incapable of justice. One that is still mired in prejudice, because we, the people, are still mired in prejudice. We pretend that we have put the divisions of the past behind us. After all, we have a black president. But that reality has not buried racism nor healed the racial divide. In fact, at the risk of veering off topic, much of the opposition that President Obama faces in Congress is rooted in racism. There is honest difference of opinion on some policies, but he would not be facing the same obstruction and ad hominem attacks if he were white.

An honest evaluation of the Zimmerman trial must conclude that if Trayvon Martin had been white, Zimmerman would never have followed him in the first place, nor engaged him in a physical confrontation. Consequently, he would not have shot him and there would have been no trial.

The truth is, much of white America is threatened by black men--whether they be 17 our 52, slight or muscular, educated or not. The great paradox of this mentality is that it is delusional, yet very real.

Whether or not Zimmerman was innocent or guilty is almost beside the point. The inequity in the justice system can be demonstrated by looking at another, less publicized Florida trial that concluded two months ago, in May.

Marissa Alexander, a black woman, picked up a gun and fired two warning shots to ward off an abusive husband. She did not fire
at him. She had no intent to kill. He was not wounded. Marissa was clearly in physical, possibly life-threatening, danger. Not only was she arrested and brought to trial, she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

George Zimmerman provoked his altercation. At least initially, he had no reason to fear, other than what arises from his own racial prejudice. There was no evidence that he was ever in life-threatening danger, even during the scuffle. Yet, after killing Trayvon Martin, he was released by the police and eventually acquitted by a jury.

One often hears whites accuse black people of always claiming racism when things go wrong. That is too easy and simplistic. If blacks in America were accustomed to an equal share of justice, they would never have celebrated the Simpson verdict. If blacks in America were treated as equal persons, there would not have been a Zimmerman trial. If blacks in America were valued and treated like whites, Marissa Alexander would be free today.

I suppose we can continue to delude ourselves. But until we move beyond the ignorance that fuels the racism of people like Zimmerman, we will probably have to suffer more such trials, and justice will remain merely an illusion.
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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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