Saturday, November 28, 2015

Terrorism, Craziness, and the Need to Know (or to be seen as Knowing)

At this writing, we know very little about Robert Dear. We know what he did, but as yet very little has been publicized about why he thinks he did what he did. 

I'm going to use that phrase a lot: why he thinks he did what he did. 

Because we are all experts on terrorism now and keen evaluators of the relative sanity of different persons labeled as terrorists. It goes on in the press and in people's social media activity. The pressure to process information and analyze it even when facts are sparse. 

We know Robert Dear turned up at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs yesterday morning, where he produced an AK-47 and proceeded to shoot people. We know he wounded several people and succeeded in killing three of them, one of whom was a police officer. We know he was arrested and taken into custody. We have seen his mug shot and know his name. 

We can conjecture about his choice of venue and his motives. Violence at abortion clinics has been a fact of life for years, occasionally rising to the level of murder. Some of those incidents involved people who believed they were soldiers in a great cause. The area where this took place has a large number of very conservative, Christianist thinkers who have sometimes radical views of politics. That may or may not be a coincidence. When it comes to those who target abortion clinics based on religious ideas, wow much validity do we give to such motivation?
The man who pointed a gun at me and demanded my money on a quiet street in Los Angeles a decade ago was not a "terrorist." Yet I felt plenty terrified at the time. 

If that man had called me "wop" or "honky" or "commie rat" or something similar he might be called a "terrorist." The degree of terror I felt would be about the same.The label of "terrorism" describes something about what he did and what he was thinking. It would influence what charges would be brought against him if we were apprehended. The threat to my body in that encounter would remain a constant.

This should not be interpreted as me giving anyone the benefit of the doubt or making excuses for violence.  Nor should it be interpreted as me erasing terrorism. The point is, "terrorist" is a label often wielded for political purposes. It is a scare word that gets flung around unconsciously.

Those leaping on this developing story to rehearse their views about terrorism, white males, and Christian fringe politics in America, are doing so ahead of their actual knowledge. They might be right. This might be exactly what it looks like. But we don't know that yet. 

I'm comfortable saying "I don't know yet," especially as regards terrorism, because the selection of this word as a descriptor of violence is overtly political. Some acts of violence are called terrorism and some are not.

Occupy Wall Street participants were routinely called "terrorists" for the act of occupying a city park and engaging in political demonstrations, up to and including non-violent civil disobedience. MLK engaged in such actions - and was thought of as a "terrorist" or equivalent terms at the time, but this is not how history describes him. People who block a supply road to a fracking facility will be called "terrorists" and tried under terrorism laws. Are they terrorists? 

I think about people like the Unabomber. He's a famous "terrorist." But he was also obsessive and paranoid. He thinks he was trying to be a political revolutionary. Yet his political manifesto didn't make sense. Which means he is not a reliable narrator of his own story. 

If I hallucinate purple dragons and act out in public based on my deranged belief, when assessing judgment and penalty for what I do, it is not necessary or helpful to indulge my false belief in purple dragons. They aren't real. And the Unabomber's political campaign wasn't real. It was a purple dragon. We don't have to legitimize purple dragons by pretending they are subjects of serious political violence.

Are all terrorists crazy? Osama bin Laden is morally wrong, in my view, but he wasn't crazy. He was in fact quite rational. And our reaction to the September 11 attacks vindicated his view of the western world. We played right into his hands, as we are doing again with the Daesh attacks in Paris. So I think the Unabomber is crazy, but I don't think Osama bin Laden is crazy. How do we choose words like terrorist and crazy? I think these matters are worth some reflection. Especially when talking about an incident where we know nothing as yet about why this man thinks he did what he did. (What he did is not in dispute; we don't know his motivation and cannot assess his state of mind.) 

Maybe "crazy" isn't a good word, either. Is this a clinical diagnosis or a catch-all phrase for behavior that seems irrational or strange?

I am perfectly comfortable saying "I don't know what this is yet" when that statement is true. I don't know what Dear had in his mind when he decided to do this, or if he even had possession of his mind. I don't know if he is grieving, angry, hallucinating. I don't know if he identifies as a Christian or cares about abortion. There are indications that he might. That might be the story that develops. I'm willing to let it develop.

There will be plenty of time given our addiction to 24 hour news cycles and instantaneous commentary to say the things we want to say about gun control, terrorism, religion, and democracy, and all those things we want  to talk about. President Obama has already made a statement, as he must, pointing out that it should not be so easy for a person to show up in a public place with a Kalashnikov (a military weapon) and kill people en masse. Some of those conversations will be worthwhile and I will surely participate in a few of them. But I'm not interested in standing on events like a dais where I deliver my rehearsed lectures - I'd like to pause, breathe, and listen. I talk a lot but hope I'm doing so with my feet on the ground, not in some echo chamber.

We might learn this is a guy who thinks he was striking a blow in a holy war over the unborn. 

We might learn he was reacting to some other idea, and chose Planned Parenthood for a different reason. We might learn he intended to hit the nearby shopping center and ended up going into the clinic instead. I don't know. Neither do you, at the moment I type this, though later today we might know more. (Some people are so certain in their knowledge, I wonder why they aren't out saving lives.)

We don't always have to act like we know. The mind that thinks it knows things it doesn't is very much like the mind of people who do these things.

We don't always have to throw words around that are vague and slippery in their definitions.

And I never use the word "evil." I don't think these things have supernatural causes. They are darkly, terribly human.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

30 Years Ago, a NM Governor Welcomed Refugees

The "Desert Sage" column appears in the Deming Headlight on Mondays, and has typically appeared in print editions of the Las Cruces Sun News and Silver City Sun News. For a couple of months, however, they have not been posting the column online unless I nag them about it. (KRWG has been re-posting them a day later.) But it's not really my job to nag them - I'm a vendor, not an employee. 

I was especially hoping they'd run it this week - to my knowledge, no one else has brought up Governor Anaya's "Sanctuary Proclamation" of 1986 and compared it to Governor Martinez's resistance to Syrian refugees being settled in New Mexico. It also invokes Thanksgiving so it is time-sensitive. The column appeared in print editions but not on any of Gannett's websites.

So here it is. I like this one not because the writing is great or anything (I'm still chafing hard against the 600 word limit so they all feel a bit hammered down to me), but because I think the argument is relevant and would stir up some healthy and constructive debate about the issue of refugees during a week that has been loaded with misinformation.

This piece was also published at KRWG and New Mexico Political Report.

This week most of us will celebrate Thanksgiving, perhaps with the traditional turkey and mashed potatoes, and since we live in New Mexico there might also be tamales, capirotada, perhaps cranberries laced with local pecans.

Amid overeating and football, a few might even reflect on the meaning of Thanksgiving for a moment. The story of the first Thanksgiving is the story of a vulnerable population welcomed to the home of another people. In a nation torn by political battles over immigration and refugees, particularly the Syrian refugee crisis, Thanksgiving is highly significant.

Here is a New Mexico story for Thanksgiving.

On Good Friday in 1986, Governor Toney Anaya started a political wildfire by declaring New Mexico a "sanctuary state" for refugees seeking political asylum from the killing fields of El Salvador and Guatemala. Anaya argued that the Reagan administration discriminated against refugees from Central America  by declaring them "economic refugees," denying their persecution and deporting them while treating European refugees with more deference.

Anaya was declaring conscientious resistance to federal law, stating that employees, officers, and agencies should not "assist or voluntarily cooperate with Immigration and Naturalization Service investigations or arrest procedures relating to alleged violations of immigration law by Salvadorans and Guatemalans.” The governor stood on symbolic rather than legal ground. Then as now, states could not countermand federal immigration law or foreign policy. Anaya succeeded, however, in bringing political asylum into the national spotlight. He paid a steep political price for it.

The Governor argued that the federal government was violating the Refugee Act of 1980 as well as the Geneva Conventions by deporting legitimate political refugees to face persecution and murder.  In an article for the Hofstra Law Review, Anaya cited U.S. policies in Central America to show that foreign policy goals were conflicting with our humanitarian obligations under Geneva. Those obligations are binding under international law.

Almost 30 years later, New Mexico is once again bucking federal policy on political refugees - but from the opposite side. Last week, Governor Susana Martinez jumped on an anti-refugee, muslim-bashing bandwagon along with 30 other governors in a race to the bottom of a political sewer. Citing the November 13 terrorist attack in Paris, Martinez stated that she "strongly opposes the Obama Administration’s plan to accept more Syrian refugees until there is a very clear plan in place to properly vet and place the refugees."

For starters, none of the Paris shooters identified at the time I write this were Syrian. They were European nationals. (Who will protect us from the Belgians?) Syrian refugees are the victims of ISIS, not its collaborators. As for the vetting process: refugees go through the most intensive security checks of anyone admitted to the United States, and Syrian refugees go through an even tighter process already.

President Obama has committed the United States to accepting 10,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria, a very modest number compared to some of our allies, notably Germany (a much smaller country). Days after the November 13 terror, France actually increased its commitment to welcome refugees from Syria.

We cannot shirk our responsibility for the instability we have produced elsewhere in the world. Our policies of regime change, bombing countries into smithereens and slaughtering innocents in non-declared wars with no definable end, produce the very chaos that breeds terrorists like standing water breeds mosquitoes. We are bound not only by international law to assist refugees, but by human decency. Accepting refugees is reasonably safe - and the duty of a moral society.

It is also consistent with the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Avoiding the Stupid and Wrong (Letter #3)

President George W. Bush visits an Islamic center on September 16, 2001

[Taking a different tone after my previous two letters - here and here -  I point out an opportunity for actual moral leadership in the midst of the mess. Because optimism.]

Dear Governor,

Congratulations on assuming the Chair of the Republican Governors Association. It is a position of some prominence and must be an opportunity to do some good, not just - as is typically reported - a stepping stone to a national stage and a body for doing partisan political work. Although it is also that. 

It is a leadership position within the political party and an opportunity to walk back some of the frankly crazy talk we have had just before Thanksgiving, much of it (though certainly not all of it) from governors, on the topic of Syrian refugees, terrorism, and muslims. 

1.) If you will continue to object to the United States commitment to accepting a modest number of Syrian refugees, it is important for you to cite specific problems or questions about the process. The process, as we know, is quite extensive - it is indeed the most difficult way to gain admission to the United States. Which is why the refugee process has not been a gateway for terrorists. Knowing the facts on the long vetting process, and that it is continuously reviewed and improved, governors need either to raise specific factual questions about the process. Simply claiming a process does not exist is incorrect and irresponsible.

2.) Governors need to remember the week of September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush visited an Islamic center and made a brief, cogent address in the company of muslim leaders clearly distinguishing terrorists from the body of citizens - anywhere from five to twelve million in the United States. It is profoundly unreasonable and unjust to insist that Islam is typified by a few criminals (who are regularly denounced by muslim leaders and clerics as well as the body faithful) and not the millions of muslims who are ordinary citizens of our communities.

3.)  Neither is it reasonable to hold that people fleeing the civil war in Syria are sympathetic to the cause of Da-esh (aka ISIL or ISIS). The heightened fear of Syrian refugees is an overreaction to the events in Beirut, Paris, and Bamako, and the downing of a passenger plane over Egypt. Syrians were not involved in these attacks. This is as strange as blaming the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Korea rather than Japan.

Once we stop blaming the innocent for the actual terrorist activity that has taken place, we need leaders like yourself to help the country walk back from the fascistic rhetoric that has presented itself over the past week. Here is a brief review of the horrors:

[NOTE FOR BLOG: I didn't even remember to mention the calls by leading presidential candidates to shut down mosques or businesses where muslims might gather and inspire radicals. The letter continues...]

These sentiments have been uttered by elected officials from both major parties. It is a frightening moment, and a time when we must be reminded of our broad values regarding justice, liberty, and human life; to say nothing of the rule of law. 

You now have an opportunity to lead as a voice of reason and justice, to help us walk back from this rhetorical abyss. The elected officers who have said these things have not had to step own for taking this abhorrent positions. The result is that our country seems no longer a safe place for citizens or visitors who are muslim. We cannot allow that to stand.

If you took a leadership role in restoring balance and wisdom to this crisis, it would reflect well on you on a national stage, on your party, and on our state. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Stupid and Wrong, Part 2

From an anti-immigrant rally in Bratislava in September

Governor Susana Martinez
Office of the Governor
490 Old Santa Fe Trail, Room 400
Santa Fe, NM  87501

Dear Governor,

Hours after I mailed my letter yesterday, imploring you not to join the shameful example of other states whose governors announced an intention to block refugees from Syria from entering their states, your office issued a statement which included this message:

The Governor strongly opposes the Obama Administration’s plan to accept more Syrian refugees until there is a very clear plan in place to properly vet and place the refugees, and the voices of governors and the public can be heard.

To begin with: there is such a plan in place, and has been for decades. Refugees seeking admittance to the United States are vetted extensively in an inter-agency process. The success rate appears to be 100% as I cannot find a case where someone admitted to the United States as a refugee has engaged in terrorism. Can you? Making a statement that suggests our process for considering refugee applications is not already clear and effective is wrong and undermines public confidence in an effective public institution, without cause.

The terrorists who hit our country on September 11, 2001 were in the country on student and tourist visas. Will you also announce that tourists and students from the middle east are no longer welcome in New Mexico?

The federal government has made a commitment to accepting 10,000 refugees from the humanitarian crisis in Syria. This is a much smaller commitment than our allies have made, even though we own much blame for the instability in a region that has provided a haven for terrorism. Terrorism is drawn to spaces where there is not effective government. We and our allies have created those spaces with our reckless policies of endless war and "regime change" at our will. Those fleeing the bloodshed in Syria are targets of ISIS, not its collaborators. As for the recent attacks in Paris, as of this morning the perpetrators are not Syrians, but european nationals.  The suspect at large this morning is Belgian.
For several years, I worked with the American Jewish Committee in their Los Angeles headquarters. In that capacity I had frequent interaction with survivors of the Holocaust, and the generation that followed them. The history of that humanitarian crisis weighs on my mind. Can you imagine the United States refusing to admit Jewish refugees merely because they, like their oppressors, were German?

As a matter of law, a governor of a state cannot close its borders to people of a particular ethnic background at will, whether they are students, tourists, refugees, or naturalized citizens. These announcements are, therefore, simply for political gain. It is easy to stir up fear of immigrants, especially those from the middle east, especially those who are muslim.
Here in Deming, we have a number of families who have immigrated legally from Somalia. They wear traditional head coverings - I presume they are Sunni muslims. In any case, I think of them as I read of a nationwide backlash against ordinary muslim people as once again they are scapegoated and associated with the actions of terrorists. It weighs on my heart when my countrymen behave this way - and even worse when our political leaders, people like yourself, play to these dark sentiments.

It's hard to take back a statement like the one from your office yesterday, but you left yourself some wiggle room. I am lending my voice in the hope that you will take a step back from this position and speak on this matter with a little more wisdom and statesmanship - especially while you are being considered for a more prominent role in our country's governance.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Shutting Doors on Refugees Is Stupid and Wrong

Map courtesy of Vox.vom

Governor Susana Martinez
Office of the Governor
490 Old Santa Fe Trail, Room 400
Santa Fe, NM  87501

Dear Governor,

Several states, including our neighboring state of Texas, have had their governors announce that they would do whatever is in their power to prevent the acceptance of refugees from Syria and other parts of the middle east that are ablaze with violence from nation states as well as terrorist organizations. I am writing proactively to encourage you, if it is within my powers of persuasion to do so, not to join these efforts, as they are reactionary and xenophobic, and would reflect poorly on New Mexico.

These governors are misinforming the public by suggesting that the refugee process endangers American security. This is simply not the case.

To be accepted as a refugee by the United States, applicants must complete a multi-stage vetting process by the United States that follows refugee designation by the United Nations. We have accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from the middle east (and millions worldwide) over my lifetime. Not one of them has engaged in terrorism. It's hard to impeach that record, and it is a testament to the capabilities of conventional law enforcement and the screening processes we have in place.

Besides this, it is not reasonable to assume that refugees fleeing ISIS have common cause with ISIS. These people are fleeing ISIS, as well as the Assad regime that holds state power there. These people are targets of ISIS, not its collaborators.

The governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, and Texas (so far), are appealing to a cowardly and xenophobic impulse following the attacks in Beirut and Paris (and the bombing of a Russian passenger plane), but we have a moral obligation to the victims of regional instability (to which the United States has contributed with its own policies). The United States has made a rather modest commitment to absorbing refugees from this region. It is an embarrassment that these governors have made a bid to resist that obligation. I hope you will have the moral courage to reject a similar course. Let us not see New Mexico join this ignominy.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fascism Gets Good Ratings

"Fascist" is a word that gets flung around and I don't care to indulge in the mongering of scare words. "Communist," "socialist," "fascist," etc. are all tossed around in American political discourse as pejorative terms with little interest in the terms' actual meanings. This is particularly slippery when alluding to fascism, which is an especially slippery term. I do not intend to use it pejoratively, but descriptively.

Precise definitions of fascism are elusive but there is consensus about some of the broad characteristics, many of which are present in American politics - many of which Donald Trump exploits successfully in his primary campaign for president. Even if he does not become the Republican nominee, the popularity of his campaign (buoyed by the media's fascination with him, and the free media coverage he has gotten as a result) indicates where we are as a nation.

What are some of these "fascist" characteristics?  Endless nationalism. Scapegoating and dehumanizing of certain groups, ethnic groups in particular. Male chauvinism (with consistent, sometimes remarkable graphic verbal attacks on female journalists who question him). A retributive attitude toward journalists and media. Love of corporate power. Disdain for safety nets, welfare policies, humanitarian aid in competitive capitalism ("giving stuff away"). Disdain for the humanities and intellectuals.  A need for a national myth in which the homeland is being humiliated, has become decadent, is a victim, is in need of rebirth. A selective populism crafted to appeal to frustrated and frightened elements of the working class and middle class.  Prizes decisive action, especially "tough" or military action, over deliberation.

These are elements Donald Trump has exploited in his campaign with popular success. Some of it is craven - his professions of religiosity, limited to stating "I love the Bible" over and over, sounds hollow but it plays well with his select audience. Other elements seem quite congruent with Trump's personality as we observe from his long career as a public figure: the obsession with winners and "losers," his almost exclusive interest in opinion polls and ratings rather than content or details of policy, the sense that every human interaction is a competition - life is an unending battle.

So yes, I think it is fair to say there are multiple elements of fascism present in Donald Trump's campaign, and it is not really news that these elements play well to a lot of American citizens. Trump is no Mussolini, but the response to Trump suggests that if someone of Mussolini's caliber emerged he would be quite popular in today's U.S. There are plenty of people willing to enlist themselves as blackshirts, as we saw in the incident where two brothers targeted someone described as "Hispanic" for assault, and who said upon their arrest "Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported." Ironically, the surname of the two brothers was Leader. And Trump's response when informed of the incident, including their claim to be inspired by him, was to say, "people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate."

The NBC late-night comedy institution Saturday Night Live raised eyebrows when they invited Trump to be a guest host, but it is hardly surprising. Trump is a highly prominent New Yorker, closely identified with the city for decades, and is a front-runner for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. When Hillary Clinton, then a Senator from New York, ran for president in 2008 she, too, was invited onto the show.

SNL is a business. They deliver entertainment in order to earn revenue for NBC. Because of his prominence, by those who love him and those who despise him, he makes for terrific ratings and indeed, his appearance was SNL's most watched show in years. Some 400 protesters marched outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza to protest Trump's appearance, but the show went on.

Up to this point I did not give the controversy much attention. SNL can invite who they want on their show. They're going to do their thing. People can protest and criticize it and ask them to reconsider - they, too, will do their thing.

Then I heard - and looked up clips online to confirm - that SNL's writers had actually made a joke of the protesters. In one bit, Larry David interrupted Trump's opening monologue to call him a racist and then try to claim a cash reward he'd been promised for saying that, neutralizing the moral case protesters were making. In another case, Trump participated in a skit where he thanked the president of Mexico for making Telemundo broadcast in English and accepted a check to pay for Trump's border wall. Having Trump participate in these skits, allowing him to be in on the joke, does not make him the butt of the joke. It mocks those who criticize the deplorable things he says and the preposterous policy proposals that will never come to fruition. It makes light of our smoldering fascism.

That might be pretty disappointing but let's not forget this is Lorne Michaels's kingdom. For example, producer Michaels banned Elvis Costello from the show for some 12 years because Costello switched songs during the broadcast and played "Radio Radio," a song that criticized corporate broadcast media. Lorne Michaels and his SNL brand are politically "faux neutral," the kind of neutral that leaves the social order unchallenged and is therefore not truly neutral.

(Footnote: Yes, it is true that Costello was forgiven and played on the show again - in fact, he was invited on to play "Radio Radio" again in a skit that satirized what he had done and why he had been punished. This is what politicians do when they mess up: go on TV and joke about it. It's a ritual of ablution - not so much for Costello in this case as Lorne Michaels himself.)

SNL exists to make money. It is not interested in espousing justice. This isn't the job of a comedy show on a corporate network. Far from it. Even Jon Stewart, the funnyman on Comedy Central who occasionally engaged in serious media criticism and did advocate for justice once in a while (on behalf of 9/11 first-responders for instance), reportedly told Daily Show successor Trevor Noah that they are in the comedy business first.

And in this chapter of our history, SNL knows fascism is good for business.