US war crimes

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment

According to a report in Harpers (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic), a former guard at Guantanamo Bay has admitted that US soldiers there tortured three men to death in 2006. Please read the entire thing. My thoughts:

1. I can’t wait to hear Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and other pathetic Jack Bauer wannabes try to defend the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that led to these deaths, and/or smear this brave whistleblower as a traitor.

2. I can’t wait to hear President Obama come up with a reason why, even in light of these revelations, he is still refusing to support an investigation of any high-ranking Bush Administration officials for possible war crimes.

And please, let’s be clear: what this soldier describes was a war crime under every possible definition of the term. It is time to stop making excuses and recognize the fact that the United States of America, under the administration of President George W. Bush (who, by the way, is about to receive a major pro-life award from a supposedly Catholic organization), tortured people to death and then covered it up. Of course, within the next week, almost every so-called “conservative” will insist that anyone who thinks that this is a bad thing is a liberal sissy who is insufficiently tough on terror. God save us all.


The whole affair reminds me of this classic interview from The Daily Show with John Stewart.

Jon Stewart: “How is fake drowning, sleep deprivation, how isn’t that torture?”

John Oliver (“Senior Interrogation Analyst”): “That is not torture.”

Jon Stewart: “Why?”

John Oliver: “Because we don’t torture.”

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Faith in Haiti

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment has a home-page article headlined, “Many Haitians’ religious faith unshaken by earthquake.” It’s really quite an interesting read. A snippet:

“A lot of people who never prayed or believed — now they believe,” said Cristina Bailey, a 24-year-old clerk.

In parks and backyards, anywhere a group gathers, the prayers of the Haitians can be heard. Last week, the call-and-response chanting and clapping that accompany those prayers pierced the darkness of night and the pre-dawn hours — sometimes as early as 4 a.m. The singing and praying was particularly intense in Champs de Mars plaza, where hundreds of people have taken refuge. But the scene was repeated throughout the city, with preachers on megaphones exhorting the faithful, who responded with lyrics like “O Lord, keep me close to you” and “Forgive me, Jesus.”

Many preachers are telling followers not to lose faith, that God remains with them regardless of what’s happened.

Most Haitians don’t feel abandoned, Bailey said.

“People don’t blame Jesus for all these things,” she said. “They have faith. They believe that Jesus saved them and are thankful for that.”

erhaps few personified that deep belief better than 11-year-old Anaika Saint Louis, who was pulled from the rubble Thursday night and later died. Her leg had been crushed, and doctors thought they might have to amputate her feet. She said she didn’t care.

“Thank you, God, because he saved my life,” she said. “If I lose my feet, I always had my life.”

Jean Mackenle Verpre also suffered a crushing leg injury and was freed after 48 hours underground.

Asked what kept him going, he answered without hesitation: He believes in Jesus Christ and put his life in God’s hands.

I’ll be the first to say that I find this surprising, and that I don’t really understand it. Though I do share the same faith (Christianity, specifically Catholic Christianity) as 80% of the Haitian people, mine is a faith that has never been tested by adversity. I always thought that perhaps the worst thing I could say to someone who has experienced a tragedy is, “Don’t worry, it’s all part of God’s plan.” The apostle of New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, always says that the death of a single child should cause us to doubt the existence of a benevolent deity, and I cannot deny the emotional strength of that argument even as I reject it intellectually. Let’s be realistic: intellectual arguments don’t help someone who has lost their family in an earthquake. The last thing that a suffering person needs is a theological lecture on how their suffering is really the door to glory, no matter how true that may be.

Or so I thought. It appears that for many Haitians, their Christianity has given some sort of meaning to their suffering, and provided them a strength upon which those of us who will never experience what they went through can only look in awe. It’s not something that I understand. All that I can conclude, from my perspective as an American Catholic, is that the priest who led Adoration in Caldwell Chapel last Wednesday was correct. In his homily, he said that “Jesus Christ is as present among the ruins of Haiti as He is in the Blessed Sacrament upon the altar.” In some mysterious, incomprehensible way, the people of Haiti seem to have felt that presence.

So, for those who survived, may God continue to give them strength as they prepare their dead for burial and begin to rebuild their country, and may He inspire us to provide them the support that they need. And for those who died:

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

“May angels lead you into Paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.”

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My pitch for STAND

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment

In my initial post, I mentioned that I do a lot of work with STAND, the student-led division of Genocide Intervention Network. Since then, I haven’t talked about it at all. I never intended for this blog to focus on STAND-related issues; this is a blog about the “forbidden topics” of politics and religion, and our Education Team does a much better job with our official blog than I ever could. Nevertheless, because it is such a large part of my life, and a cause I care deeply about, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain briefly why I am so invested in this organization and its mission.

Simply put, STAND is unique in that it is quite possibly the only student-run organization that seeks long-term, proactive policy solutions to a complex international issue. Most nonprofits that are administered in whole or in part by students focus on one of two areas: responding (primarily through fundraising) to hot-button, late-breaking, high-visibility events like the recent earthquake in Haiti; and campaigning for political candidates (usually popular, charismatic ones like Barack Obama). Now, before you accuse me of being an insensitive asshole, let me hasten to note there is nothing wrong with responding to crises; obviously, events of the scale that we saw in Haiti, or before that in New Orleans and Southeast Asia, demand an immediate and overwhelming public response, and student groups on campuses around the country form an important part of that response. Nor is there anything wrong with campaigning for political candidates; on the contrary, the increased youth interest and participation in our political process over the past few years is a very positive trend.

However, positive, lasting solutions to the problems of our world require more than fundraising for humanitarian aid in the latest hot spot, and more than the election of candidates who claim to share your vision of change (as many young activists have found, to their great chagrin, after a year of President Obama). Positive, lasting change requires smart advocacy in favor of a set of carefully-designed policies intended not only to resolve current problems but also to prevent future ones. This type of advocacy is almost exclusively the domain of adult organizations staffed by full-time professionals. I say “almost exclusively” because there is one exception: STAND.

To be sure, many of our individual actions are somewhat reactive. After all, genocide and/or mass atrocities are ongoing in countries throughout the world, particularly Sudan, Burma, and Congo. We advocate a number of policies that are directly intended to help ameliorate these specific crises, and we recognize that a sense of urgency and immediacy is important in rallying campuses and communities around a cause. However, our core mission is proactive, not reactive. We do not simply seek to end atrocities that are happening today; we seek to prevent them from happening tomorrow, to permanently ban the scourge of genocide from the face of this Earth. To this end, we work with our parent organization, Genocide Intervention Network, as well as other adult-run organizations in a long-run effort to implement the recommendations of the Genocide Prevention Task Force. In the even longer term, we seek to create what we call a “permanent anti-genocide constituency” of citizens who will hold our elected officials politically accountable for their response to future instances of mass atrocities, just as there are constituencies that hold them responsible for their actions on issues like gun control and health care reform.

Make no mistake: these efforts are not sexy. They do not always generate the same excitement as a political campaign or an emergency fundraising drive. But they are important, and in the long run, they will pay off. STAND students are dedicated to this mission, and to this long-term vision. We take the time to understand the issues, and we are committed both to smart advocacy (to implement these policies) and to education (to build the constituency that will ensure the success of the policies). And that, in brief, is why I love STAND. As the National High School Outreach Coordinator, I have the privilege to work with national and grassroots student leaders who know what real change requires and are willing to see it through. I know of no other student-run organization that can make the same claim.

Addendum and disclaimer: much as I would like to claim otherwise, STAND’s general awesomeness has very little, if anything, to do with me personally. A large, eclectic, and tireless group of students made the organization into what it is today (i.e. what I just described), and I, along with the rest of the current leadership team, stand on their shoulders. The pride that you detected in this post is pride of association, not personal pride, because the latter would be completely unwarranted.

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The REAL population problem

January 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Via Intentional Disciples: John Allen at the National Catholic Reporter highlights a report from the UN Population Division that, in his words, “represents a startling inversion of the assumptions that have long dominated the field, the sound-bite version of which was the ‘population bomb.’ If the old demographic worry was relentless population increase, today’s anxieties cut in exactly the opposite direction.” Today, we’re seeing the result of the rapid decrease in birthrates over the past few decades: a population whose age distribution is skewing ever more dramatically towards the elderly. As Allen writes:

[B]y 2045 the number of older persons in the world (defined as those 60 and above) will exceed the number of children (15 and under) for the first time. Both in the United States and around the world, the elderly are by far the fastest-growing segment of the population, a result of both declining fertility and increased life spans…Here’s the American dimension of the trend, based on the most recent data from the Census Bureau. As of 2005, there were 60.5 million Americans under the age of 14, and 34.7 million over 65 – in other words, almost twice as many children as elderly. By 2050, the number of Americans under 14 will more or less hold steady at 59.7 million, but the number over 65 will explode to 75.9 million. That’s more than 100 percent growth in less than a half-century.

Make no mistake: this is a huge problem for the world (though the gist of Allen’s article is that religious institutions may find it to be a blessing in disguise). Concerns about overpopulation were never really valid from an economic perspective. Simply put, they were based on a theory called Malthusianism, which holds that resources (namely food) increase arithmetically while population increases geometrically. The implication is that the only way to avoid economic deprivation is to restrict economic growth. In both theory and practice, Malthusianism has been rejected by economists. From a theoretical perspective, the fatal flaw of this hypothesis is that it views human beings merely as stomachs to be filled. It neglects the all-important factor of human creativity, which leads to innovations that allow wealth creation to keep up with and even outpace population growth. A higher population does not simply mean that there are a greater number of people among whom we must divide the “pie”; it also causes the pie to grow. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Malthusianism failed in practice, as indeed it did: both human population and human prosperity have increased dramatically over the past few centuries. Certainly, there are large parts of the world that were largely left behind by this growth, but this is a problem of distribution resulting from political obstacles (such as widespread conflict and the legacy of colonialism), not an objective lack of resources.

But if “overpopulation crisis” was largely a red herring, the concern about the aging population is most definitely not. Once people age past a certain point, their marginal economic productivity starts to decline. A nation in which the number of elderly grows too much faster than the number of (highly productive and innovative) young people will see its economic growth crippled. So how can we avoid this demographic time bomb? Excluding the possibility of widespread euthanasia (which would certainly work, but would also be morally abhorrent), the solution must inevitably include a prescription that will seem hopelessly archaic to many members of our “enlightened” society: people need to have more babies.

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Mill, libertarianism, and abortion

January 17, 2010 1 comment

Though most of its adherents would call themselves liberals or moderates, in reality the pro-choice position on abortion is, at its core, a libertarian one. The decision to have an abortion, as the argument goes, is a private matter of reproductive health affecting, in the end, no one else but the woman. Therefore, the government has no business restricting the range of choices available to her. This argument has its ultimate philosophical roots in the writings of John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English philosopher. As he wrote in his treatise On Liberty, “the individual is not accountable to society for [her] actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but [herself]” (93)

For many, the argument stops here. There may be some nuance, some hemming and hawing, but in the end the pro-choice position comes down to the issue of personal liberty. Some add the caveat that they, personally, are opposed to abortion and would neither have one nor advise someone to have one, but that it is still not the business of society to ban or even stigmatize the practice. “Her body, her choice.”

Of course, this argument is completely contingent on the premise that the act of abortion does indeed only affect the woman. The minute that the act can be shown to have a direct and adverse effect upon another person, this entire argument collapses. As Mill readily admits, “[acts] injurious to others require a totally different treatment” than acts with which we may disapprove but that only affect the individual (76). According to the libertarian thought upon which the pro-choice position is based, society is perfectly justified in restricting an act the minute that the act becomes “an offense against the rights of others.”

Of course, some would disagree even with this seemingly uncontroversial statement. Even if a fetus is a human life, they claim, its mother must still have the right to “terminate” the pregnancy, because the fetus is living within her body. Essentially, this argument claims that because the fetus is so intimately dependent upon its mother, the mother has the right to do what she sees fit with it. This assertion, however, has no basis either in philosophy or in modern law. From a philosophical perspective, it is specifically addressed by Mill:

The State, while it respects the liberty of each in what specifically regards [herself], is bound to maintain a vigilant control over [her] exercise of any power which it allows [her] to possess over others…It is in the case of children that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfillment by the State of its duties. One would almost think that a [woman]’s children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of [herself], so jealous is opinion of the smallest interference of law with [her] absolute and exclusive control over them. (103)

In other words, persons who are dependent upon another individual are not, simply by virtue of this submission, a part of the other individual; they are still themselves distinct individuals, which means that the State is justified in interfering whenever their rights are infringed even by the person on whom they is dependent. Does this basic principle apply even to the fetus in its mother’s womb? According to the United States Supreme Court itself, if the fetus is in fact a person, then the answer is yes. Writing for the majority in Roe v. Wade, Justice Harry Blackmun freely admitted that “if this suggestion of personhood [of the unborn] is established, the appellant’s case [i.e. Jane Roe’s case in favor of the right to abortion], of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”

My ultimate point is this: all of the preceding information indicates that the question of when human life begins is not, as the pro-choice community claims, a useless philosophical exercise; it is, in fact, central to the question of whether or not abortion should be legal. Of course, there are practical considerations that must be addressed–the need to ameliorate the socioeconomic conditions that cause some women to feel that abortion is necessary for them, the question of what punishment if any is appropriate for those who obtain and perform abortions, etc.–but when it comes to the law itself, if a fetus is a person, then no one has the right to take away its life. To assert otherwise requires one to move beyond the boundaries of Constitutional law and mainstream political philosophy into territory that is, shall we say, somewhat darker. If you want to know what I mean by “darker,” Google “Margaret Sanger eugenics quotes.”

What does all of this mean for the pro-life movement? First of all, it points to the need for all pro-life advocates to understand and be able to articulate the overwhelming scientific and logical evidence in favor of the premise that human life begins at the moment of conception. Second, it also points the way to a new political strategy that has the potential to bear great fruit. If laws can be passed stipulating that the definition of “person” under the Constitution includes all human beings from the moment of conception–essentially, enshrining scientific fact into law–then Roe v. Wade, by the admission of the Supreme Court itself, becomes irrelevant, because the unborn will be entitled to the unalienable right to life under the 14th Amendment. I intend to dedicate an entire post to exploring in greater detail the theory and possible implications of this approach, but for now suffice to say that a movement already exists around it. It’s called the “Personhood Movement,” and I encourage you to read up on it. At the moment, it is small, disorganized, unprofessional, and primarily Christian-based. However, if adopted and appropriately secularized by the larger pro-life movement, it could completely change the way the public views the abortion issue. It would re-orient the debate to focus on the scientific and philosophical question whose answer, in the end, should be the deciding factor in its conclusion.

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42 and 43 get to work

January 16, 2010 Leave a comment

The real need and challenge in Haiti will come after the crisis is over. Unfortunately, that’s also when donations will dry up. Such is always the case with disasters like this, which is why two high-profile public servants are on the case. President Obama asked former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to head a long-term fundraising campaign to help rebuild Haiti. Though the country is (obviously) in dire straits right now, it appears that before the quake there were a number of positive trends. Hopefully, with the help of the international community, this forward momentum can be regained. Below, Bush and Clinton’s joint op-ed in the New York Times:

Read more…

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A prayer for after Confession

January 16, 2010 Leave a comment

You know you’re taking a Theology class when, halfway through writing a paper for that class, you suddenly decide that you need to go to Confession. I did, and as I was saying my penance I thought of this prayer that, I think, best expressed my own thoughts and the advice the priest had given me. It’s inspired partially by St. Thomas Aquinas’s Prayer After Holy Communion, and partially by this post from a Catholic blogger, Randall Beeler, who deserves much, much more recognition.

+For the greater glory of God+

I give You thanks, almighty God, for in Your mercy, and not for any merit of mine, you have seen fit to heal the wounds of sin within me. Grant, I implore, that this grace which You have given may not be in vain, but that, with Your help, I may be purified of all attachment to and desire for sin. In its place, I ask You to cultivate true virtues of faith, hope, humility, and above all self-sacrificial love for You and for all of my brothers and sisters. You are the Light that shines within the darkness of my soul; grant that, as I contemplate this Light, it may forever overcome this darkness. Through Jesus Christ, Your Son. Amen.

One of the greatest misconceptions (shared by Catholics and Protestants alike) about Confession is that it a “get out of Hell free card,” that being absolved of our sins means that we are free to continue as we have before. The reality is quite the opposite: confessing our sins and having them forgiven is only the first step, not the last, in the process of repentance and redemption. As Beeler writes:

Absolution is granted before we do our penance because, if we are going to take part in repairing the damage done by those sins, we need to experience the Truth that our sins are absolved. God’s forgiveness is no mere mental pronouncement, a mere naming-away of our wrongdoing. Rather, God restores our dignity by empowering us to take part in the redemption of Creation.

God restores our dignity by empowering us to take part in the redemption of Creation. He invites us to participate “in repairing the damage done by [our] sins” not because He needs it, but because we do. By actively seeking to undo the evil that we have done, we re-discover our true identity and our true dignity as sons and daughters of God. This is why we do penance after Confession, and penance, in the true sense, is not just three Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys or whatever prayers the priest assigns. Penance, in the true sense, is the effort that we make over the subsequent days and weeks to remove our attachment to sin and replace it with an attachment to the self-sacrificial love that is the core of our duty as followers of Christ. Absolution frees us from the wounds of sin that prevent us from beginning this noble effort.

Of course, as humans we often fail in this effort. And because God is merciful, He recognizes our weakness and does not ask us to do it alone. He will remain at our side if only we invite Him. This is why constant prayer is important even after we leave the confessional. And it is why Confession is neither the only nor the most important sacrament. By receiving Christ in Holy Communion, by partaking of His divinity as He humbled Himself to partake of our humanity, we receive the strength that we need in order to truly rebuild our lives in spite of the weakness that is manifested in sin.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His mercy endures forever.

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