Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Killing and Kindness

When we checked our mutt Smokey into the veterinary hospital last week, we were asked whether we wanted a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, order.  I’d never really contemplated advance directives for dogs before.  After learning more, we decided CPR would be okay.  But with a twelve-and-a-half year old canine, we didn’t want more heroic measures.  Every life has its limits.

The incident reminded me of a letter John Adams penned to his friend the physician Benjamin Rush, back in 1813.  It’s written under the persona of Adams’ horse, “Hobby.”  Hobby says he’ll try to shake a little animation into his Master for a few more months, maybe years.  But what can his owner realistically look forward to at the age of seventy-seven?  “How many Pains and Aches, which I cannot shake away, has he to endure?  How much low spirits?”  The horse foresees the fate that awaits a doddering Adams, “withered, fading, wrinkled, tottering, trembling, stumbling, sighing, groaning, weeping.”  The thought occurs to Hobby whether he shouldn’t just stumble, accidentally-on-purpose, as an act of Charity—presumably putting a quick end to the senile equestrian, just as we humans compassionately release our animal companions when they’ve outlived their natural span.

I’m not sure if Adam’s letter could be said to reflect his views on mercy killing.  That’s a big topic, and medical technology has done too much to transform the way we die to make any exact extrapolation possible.  But it does suggest that some things never change.

Whether considering horses, dogs or men, we’ll always struggle with the question of when to fight gallantly and when to throw in the towel.   

For Smokey, I know the point is swift approaching when it will be time for a dose of kindness.  And when my day finally comes, I hope I’ll have a horse like Hobby—or another ministering angel—to send me quietly on my way.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Boys Will Be Boys Will Be Deported

There’s an old saying that “boys will be boys.”  The new version holds that “boys will be drugged and deported.”

That might be one conclusion to be drawn from the sad saga of Artem Saviliev, the seven-year-old adopted lad whose American mom sent him back unescorted  to Russia with a note pinned to his jacket saying she didn’t want him anymore.

Torry Hansen, his adoptive mother, claimed little Artem was dangerously violent.  Grandma said he’d threatened to burn the house down.  But really, how threatening can a seven-year-old be?  Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights found no evidence of pathological behavior when his experts examined the kid.

If little Artem were actually setting fires, and not just threatening to, that might be evidence of some pretty severe disturbances.  But I suspect that most grade-school boys have at one time or another verbally threatened to kill mom or dad, blow up the school, or at least blast teacher with a giant death ray.

Was Artem really a bomb waiting to explode, or just a boy letting off steam?

The incident reminds me of a family in my church that came to me for counseling.  Their second-grader--let’s call him Liam--had stolen another child’s crayon and ripped up the classmate’s drawing.  A team of psychiatrists, social workers, school bureaucrats and law enforcement types had been called in to assess the young delinquent.  The parents were frantic.  What was wrong with their boy, to engage in such anti-social conduct?

I told them they ought to be defending their youngster, who shouldn’t have stolen the crayon, but hadn’t exactly committed the crime of the century, either, and would probably be stigmatized for his entire educational career if they allowed the authorities to have their way.

Part of their plan would doubtless have included dosing Liam with Ritalin or other psychoactive medication.  Vermont and New Hampshire lead the nation in the percentage of children who take these drugs—often at the insistence of school officials who find boys too boisterous and easier to control in the classroom when they’re on dope.

As an adoptive parent, my sympathies are all with Artyem and Liam.  And as a man, I can well recall pulling pranks as a kid that now might land my own children in court.  Have boys changed so much?   I think it’s society that’s changed—and not for the better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Blame It On The Queers

A high ranking Vatican spokesman yesterday blamed the escalating scandal over child molestation in the Catholic Church on too many homosexuals in the priesthood.

Who will be the next scapegoat? Feisty nuns? Secular humanists? Somebody has to take the blame for this nasty business and it couldn’t be the fault of all those Cardinals and Bishops who supposedly run the place.

No, the Church is more than blameless. Altar boys are being tied up and sodomized, but the Church is the victim rather than the perpetrator of these horrific acts. That was the far-fetched logic of a Vatican preacher who, just before Easter, likened pedophile priests to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, comparing attacks on the hierarchy to anti-Semitism.

The Bishops are being subjected to media criticism, not slaughtered like cattle in extermination camps, so it’s not a very good analogy. But consider: could the Vatican preacher have charged his critics with carrying out an Inquisition? A witch hunt? The Holocaust was a poor choice, but at least it didn’t raise memories of heretics burned at the stake.

A good friend of mine, who spent many years as a Jesuit priest before leaving his vocation to marry and raise a family, asked my opinion about the unfolding drama. I told him my own view counts for little. Since I’m not a Catholic, whatever I think or say can be dismissed and discounted as the prejudices of an outsider. I told my friend that ultimately, it would be up to officials in the Church to clean up their own house and make restitution for wrongs committed.

He suggested that thousands of conscientious priests resigning, in mass protest, might be the kind of jolt needed to get the higher-ups quit their stonewalling and come to terms with this problem of their own making. Perhaps. But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Instead, blame it on the queers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Festival of Freedom

How do you say “welcome” in Sudanese, Nepali and Russian?  Despite language barriers, the expression of hospitality was unmistakable when refugees from those countries, along with asylum-seekers from Bhutan, Burma and the Congo, gathered for an interfaith Passover Seder last night.

Passover or Pesach, called the “Festival of Freedom” in Jewish tradition, commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.  Yesterday’s celebration, jointly sponsored by Ohavi Zedek Synagogue and Vermont Interfaith Action, brought the old story up-to-date as new arrivals recounted their personal narratives of escaping regimes more brutal than anything imagined in Pharaoh’s time … schools turned into prisons, hiding from soldiers in the jungle, years spent in make-shift bamboo huts in re-location camps before finally making their way to America.

Jews, Catholics, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Friends, Presbyterians and Evangelicals rubbed shoulders with Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, sharing the ritual foods like parsley dipped in salt water---a reminder of tears—and bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery in “mitzrayim,” a Hebrew term meaning any place of oppression, whether ancient Egypt or more modern hell holes.

The night concluded with prayers for peace from Lao-Tze, St. Francis, and the Buddhist dharma. 

I was grateful to participate in an event that exemplified religion at its best—building bridges rather than barriers among the world’s peoples, and strengthening relationships among those of differing cultures and faiths.

For a planet torn by too much religious, racial and national conflict, last night’s Seder was a bright moment of hope.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Racism in Rutland?

It’s an ugly picture that conjures up memories of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized with a broomstick by Brooklyn police in 1997, creating a national furor.  But this picture is in progressive, pristine Vermont.

A video taken New Year’s Day has just been released that shows a Rutland police officer, Michael Nesshoever, repeatedly firing a pepperball launcher at a detainee named Jamek Hart, who is constrained in a holding cell with his feet shackled and hands cuffed behind his back.

The pepperball pistol, which works something like a paintball gun and is ordinarily used for crowd control, fires three pellets at a time.  The video shows the detainee, whose pants have fallen to the floor, being hit repeatedly on the bare skin of his lower legs and buttocks.  At least twenty shots were fired at the helpless man, according to the head of the Rutland Police Commission.  As the pepperballs strike, the victim’s angry rants and protests turn to screams of pain before he falls to the floor.  Police then place a bag over his head–reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.

At least three police officers, all of whom are white (with one sporting a “skinhead” style haircut), were involved in the assault on Hart, who is black.

The director of Vermont’s ACLU, Allen Gilbert, warns against assuming the brutality was racially motivated.  “People usually jump to that conclusion if an incident involves a person in the minority, but it’s not necessarily the case,” the Rutland Herald reports him cautioning.

Maybe or maybe not.  Police have a hard job and have to deal with some unsavory characters.  And perhaps these particular officers abuse all their prisoners, regardless of color.  But when white cops on an all white force gratuitously torment and torture a black man who is bound hand and foot, powerless to resist, it certainly looks like institutionalized racism to me.