Friday, December 21, 2012

Taking Aim at School Violence


The head of the National Rifle Association today explained that the only sure way to keep schools safe is by filling our kid’s hallways, libraries and cafeterias with armed guards.  Gun-free zones like schools, he observed, “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to effect maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”  That’s the reason random shootings have become a sad reality in schoolyards across the country but not at police stations, military bases or gun shows.

Except for places like Detroit’s Sixth Precinct, where last year a 38 year old man with apparently no motive opened fire with a shotgun and seriously wounded four officers.  Or police stations like the one in suburban Deerfield, Michigan, where a 64 year old man, again with no known grievance against the police, began blasting away at the cops there with a handgun just last month.  And don’t forget the Johnston, Pennsylvania, police who were attacked this fall by a shotgun wielding assailant, another “lone gunman” type.  Fortunately none of these shooters had assault weapons or high capacity ammo clips. 

The mere presence of guns doesn’t seem to deter madmen. It may incite them. Mayhem broke out in a gun store on the west side of Indianapolis this fall when a 26 year old man was killed after beginning to shoot at store employees.  And of course, mass shootings on military compounds like the one at Fort Hood, where a uniformed psychiatrist killed 13 and wounded 29 are no isolated incidents.  Another “loner” armed with a MAK-90 combat rifle murdered 5 and wounded 22 at the Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington, in 1994. 

Do guns guarantee safety?  My wife, a criminal defense attorney, is accustomed to being searched for weapons each time she enters the court room.  The only person with a firearm in the room is the policeman on duty, there to guarantee public safety.  Ironically, the only time public safety has ever been threatened was when some criminal grabbed the cop’s gun and started to shoot.  This has happened more than once over the course of her career.

The NRA’s argument that more firepower makes us more secure just doesn’t stand up to the facts.  Instead of arming the teachers, guidance counselors, hall monitors and lunch ladies, it’s time for sensible gun control.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

News of the Infinite


Asked if he was lonesome in his hut on Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau famously replied, “How could I be lonely?  Don’t I live in the Milky Way?”

Thoreau doubtless would have been encouraged by this week’s discovery of a new planet orbiting the sun-like star Tau Ceti, just 12 light years away and not much more massive than our Earth, right in the Goldilocks zone: not too hot, not too cold, just right for organic chemistry to flourish.   Scientists collated 6000 observations from three different telescopes to find the planet, while the Kepler spacecraft has found hundreds of others like it since its launch three years ago.  Given the size of our galaxy, there are almost certainly billions more.

Life is probably widespread in our universe, astronomers now agree.  Back when I was a boy, a famous experiment produced amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) by flashing an electric spark through a beaker of ammonia, methane, hydrogen and water vapor—thought to be the primitive components of earth’s atmosphere.  The theory was that, long ago, a lucky lightning strike in a shallow pond produced the first protoplasm.  But now we know that amino acids are everywhere: in the tails of comets and in the dust of interstellar space.  Wherever conditions are right, evolution takes off.

And conditions are right all over, not just on places like Enceladus, a moon of Saturn where liquid water has been proven present in geysers.  Many cosmologists agree that the cosmos appears propitiously suited to life, right down to the fundamental constants that govern gravity and allow stars and planets to form at all.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe was “designed” for beings like us.  But it does put a new twist on old legends like the Christmas star.  Does it really matter whether a nova appeared over Bethlehem all those years ago? For me, the real wonder is that we are all born out stars, every molecule in our bodies forged in the furnaces of the heavens.

What this means is that we humans belong here.  We are not just accidental tourists in this world.  We have grown out time and space as naturally as grass pushes up through city sidewalks.  And we are linked to nature, not only in our biology but in our minds and spirits also, which conceive space probes like Kepler and seem eternally fascinated by the big questions of where we come from and where we fit into the greater scheme.

Who cares whether astronomers find another habitable world anyway?  It would take our fastest rockets more than a thousand years to reach Tau Ceti not even figuring in pit stops. But the answer is, people care.  For beyond the business cycle, the election cycle, and other ephemeral headlines, human beings remain creatures hungry for news of the infinite.  And for me at least, it is satisfying to know not only that we live in the Milky Way.  In some important sense, the Milky Way—in all its brilliance and unfathomable extent --also lives in us.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Torturing the Truth


A new movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, has renewed debate over the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorist suspects.

As a disclaimer, I haven’t seen the show (and am not sure I want to).  According to reviews, it opens with a graphic depiction of waterboarding, giving an impression that torture helped provide useful information ultimately leading to Bin Laden’s death.

The problem is it’s not true.  I recently finished reading Confront and Conceal, an account of Obama’s “secret wars” by New York Times’ chief Washington correspondent David Sanger.  Sanger reminds readers how Bin Laden dropped out of sight after his escape from the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001. By the end of the Bush administration, the missing Al-Qaeda leader was seldom mentioned by the White House.  As incoming President, Obama put renewed energy into locating the mastermind of 9/11, but the trail had grown cold. 

One scheme to find him involved flooding Pakistan with cheap video cameras, each containing a secret digital signature that could be traced.  Since Bin-Laden loved to make propaganda videos, the hope was that he might actually use one of the devices, which would then give a key to his location.

But in the end, it was old-fashioned sleuthing that smoked him out.  A suspicious cell phone conversation from an Al-Qaeda courier led agents to the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where the CIA discovered a mysterious white compound surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.  Images from a surveillance drone showed a tall, reclusive man walking daily inside the enclave. When President Obama ordered the two Black Hawk helicopters carrying a team of special forces to raid the house in the nighttime of May 1, 2011, that was basically all the information he had.  None of it was obtained through torture.
 
The film maker defends her version of events, saying the movie doesn’t pretend to be a documentary.  But the film is made in the style of “cinema verite,” striving for graphic realism.  The nocturnal raid, for instance, is filmed through night vision goggles, giving the viewer a sense of boots-on-the-ground participation in the action.  Little about the movie suggests that it’s a work of fantasy.

But the idea that torture protects America, or has been a useful tool in the fight against terror, is pure fiction.  Inflicting torture on prisoners of war is not only contrary to our nation’s fundamental values, but is also counter-productive, since the victim will say anything he thinks his tormentor wants to hear.  Torture puts our own fighting forces at greater risk of receiving brutalized treatment when they fall into enemy hands. It has no place in civilized society or in defense planning. 

By suggesting otherwise, Zero Dark Thirty tortures the truth.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Serf City, Here We Come!


The Michigan legislature today passed a misleadingly labeled “right to work” law.  You might think a statute with that name would be concerned with the dignity and welfare of labor, but you’d be wrong.

What the law actually guarantees is the right to work for substandard pay, under dangerous conditions, without health or retirement benefits or vacations or sick days, for long hours with no over time.  What the law protects is a child’s right to leave school and become a drudge in a sweatshop.  What the legislation defends is differential pay for men and women, and being fired-at-will if you complain about no lunch breaks or not having a sanitary bathroom in the workplace.  What the “right to work” really means is the freedom to live in a company town, paid with scrip that can only be spent at the company store, so that the harder you work the deeper in debt you go.

You see, virtually all the protections that American workers enjoy today—that make a job in Flint, Michigan better than a job in Beijing, China, for instance—were won through the struggles of organized labor.  The eight hour day, equal pay for equal work, the abolition of child labor and similar reforms were achieved only through collective bargaining and tools of mass action like picket signs, general strikes, sit downs and boycotts that begin to give individual employees something like parity with the vast power of the corporation.  Naturally, China outlaws trade unions.  That’s why Chinese workers are paid a tenth of their U.S. counterparts and why they’re three times more likely to be killed on the job.

But Michigan’s new “right to work” law guts the power of unions by declaring that individuals can opt out of paying union dues, even when they are with a firm whose employees have voted to unionize, even when they are sheltered by contracts and enjoying benefits that can only come from the power of organized labor.  For unions, this means death by a thousand cuts.

Michigan’s working families have moved one step closer to destitution. But at least their right to become indentured servants has been upheld. 

Serf City, here we come!


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New York Times: Perpetuating Libels?

Today the New York Times ran a shoddy report about Green Mountain College's decision to euthanize one of the pair of aging oxen who were the school's mascots.

The two animals, Lou and Bill, became near celebrities when the college announced plans to slaughter the animals and serve their meat in the student dining hall.  But those plans were canceled when no slaughterhouses nearby would accept the two.  Times journalist Jess Bigood quotes the college provost as saying that "slaughterhouses were barraged by threats from the animal rights activists and refused the animals, so we were unable to carry through with our plan."

This claim has been repeated and reprinted endlessly, but has any reporter ever tried to verify it?  The plain fact is that whether or not you agree with their more confrontational tactics, animal rights activists have never killed anyone or threatened bodily violence to their opponents. With a few rare exceptions involving property damage, animal activists have pursued peaceful ends through peaceful means, in the Gandhian spirit.  Those means include letter writing, petitions, picket signs, calls for boycotts, and publicity campaigns, which are all legitimate and far short of intimidation or physical bullying.  

I have read Green Mountain College's Facebook page, where there are indeed dozens or hundreds comments regarding the oxen's fate posted from around the world--many angry, passionate and opinionated but not one even hinting at any kind of mayhem.  A typical rant: "Shame shame shame ... what a disgraceful primitive act, may karma rear its ugly head ..."  Were slaughterhouses also threatened with bad karma?  Perhaps, but the New York Times--without any factual basis--makes it sound like something far more sinister was involved.

I am tired of having animal advocates falsely branded as perpetrators of violence when their entire philosophy is one of non-injury and compassion.  The Times has unfortunately compounded this libel by its failure to investigate the actual nature of the "threats" received by Vermont slaughterhouses.  My guess is that the real "threat" posed by animal activists is in making visible the hidden brutality of what happens there.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

What's Wrong With The Heifer Project?


As Christmas nears, many of you will be receiving a gift catalog from Heifer International, inviting you to help the poor by donating an animal to a family farmer in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. The photos in the catalog are warm and fuzzy and the message is appealing. But there's another side to the story.

Heifer Project International provides cows, sheep, and other livestock to rural families around the world with the aim of fighting hunger. They claim to have more than 300 projects in forty countries. With endorsements that cross the ideological spectrum, from Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, Heifer is virtually a sacred cow--an organization that everyone seems to love. But there are problems with exporting animal agriculture to the Third World.

So What's Wrong With The Heifer Project? I think Heifer does some good work--they are committed to small scale, local agriculture as opposed to factory farming. But the emphasis on raising animals for food contributes to a general misunderstanding among North Americans about the causes of hunger, which are very much related to our consumption of a meat based diet.

Globalizing American farming methods is as big a mistake as cultivating a taste for lamb chops and barbecue among the world's poor. Neither is the answer to starvation. Did you realize that an acre of prime agricultural land can produce 40,000 pounds of potatoes, or 30,000 pounds of carrots, or 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, but only 250 pounds of beef? The grain that could feed twenty people suffices for just one cow. Peasants cannot afford this kind of waste and inefficiency.

Thus in country after country, food security has suffered as people switch from rice, beans, and corn to eggs, dairy and meat to satisfy their nutritional needs. Worldwatch Institute documents the trend in “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment." The authors point out that Taiwan increased its consumption of meat and eggs by 600% between 1950 and l990. While the island nation was a grain exporter at the beginning of this forty year span, it depended on massive imports of grain by the end of the period in order to feed its growing population of livestock. Food self-sufficiency is undermined when people increase their reliance on animal protein. The pattern has been repeated in the Middle East and Central America.

Mexico is one of the countries where Heifer works. Twenty-five years ago, livestock consumed only 6% of the nation's grain. By 1990, the figure had climbed to 50%, as increased numbers of cattle required more imported feed. Most of the meat produced in Mexico and other Latin American nations is exported for dinner tables north of the border while the little that remains at home is usually priced out of reach of the poor.

Two-thirds of non-Caucasians on the planet are lactose intolerant and cannot digest dairy. Among blacks, the numbers are even higher. Writing in "Science in Africa," Dr. Harris Steinman points out that approximately 90-95% of Africans lack the enzyme lactase and are unable to metabolize milk sugar. The common symptoms of this genetic predisposition are nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Despite this, Heifer is spending millions on initiatives like the Small Scale Dairy Project in Zimbabwe, when the last thing that a hungry child in Africa needs is a milk cow.

Heifer seems wed to the belief that animal agriculture is the answer to the world problems, even when evidence indicates the contrary. Americans over consumption of beef is damaging our health and ravaging the environment-a fact the Heifer's public information officer readily admits. But then why is Heifer spending $123,558 to fund the "St Helena Beef Cattle Project" in Louisiana, whose stated purpose is to boost beef production among American farmers? And isn't it a mistake to encourage people in developing countries to emulate a diet that we know is unsustainable?

A United Nations Environment Programme survey counted 6,500 distinct breeds of domesticated mammal and birds in 170 countries across the planet, including cows, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and even ostriches. Unfortunately, much of this variety being lost because of programs like those funded by Heifer, which is introducing Irish goats into Kenya. In China, their "Pixian Dairy Cattle Importation and Improvement Project" is using imported cattle to provide "high quality semen and embryo transfer” for dairy development supposedly to increase the quality of the breeding stock. But the effort to "improve" the gene pool with foreign imports can have unforseen consequences. "The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries," say the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, "which often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds." Loss of diversity puts animals (and the people who depend on those animals) at heightened risk.

So that's my beef with Heifer. The roots of world hunger are systemic and usually lie in an unfair distribution of land, which is itself related to an imbalance of economic and political power. Addressing these underlying causes of malnutrition is essential. Hunger is not caused primarily by lack of food. In fact, the world currently produces enough calories to feed every person on earth an adequate diet. Unfortuantely, too many of those calories are fed to cows and pigs rather than
getting to the people most desperately in need.

Heifer is now branching into praiseworthy efforts at reforestation and water purifcation. But the charity's insistence on putting animal agriculture at the center of their mission hampers their otherwise laudable goal of “ending hunger, caring for the earth.”

(The above is a reprint of an article I wrote several years ago, which has been widely distributed around the web.  Researchers with updated information are invited to get in touch.)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lincoln: The Movie, the Myth and the Man


Lincoln, the new Stephen Spielberg movie due out in theaters next week, will undoubtedly revive interest in the historical personality—as opposed to the myth—of our greatest American President. 

Not coincidentally, Stephen Mansfield has released a fresh biography of Lincoln’s Battle With God (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2012) intended as a counterweight to previous works which portray Abe as a skeptic or freethinker in matters of faith.
Lincoln never joined a church during his lifetime.  During his Springfield years, he was part of a debating society where he seemed to support the views of Tom Paine and other deists of the Enlightenment.  He once called Jesus a bastard and Christ’s mother a base woman.  In an Illinois congressional race, he was dogged by charges of atheism and impiety.  These facts are not disputed.

Mansfield, who is an alumnus of Oral Roberts University, doesn’t deny that Lincoln rejected organized religion as a young man.  But he argues that under the assault of life-changing losses (the death of two sons and the carnage of war) Lincoln experienced something close to a complete conversion: to belief in a personal God accessible through prayer.  He opens his book with widow Mary Todd Lincoln’s remembrance, years after the fact, that her husband’s dying wish as he bled to death from an assassin’s bullet was to walk in the footsteps of his savior.  All the other tangled threads of Lincoln’s lifetime lead to this uplifting finale of faith.

To his credit, Mansfield realizes that first person accounts of Lincoln’s religious life—whether from Mary, his law partner William Herndon, or the various Protestant ministers who sought to befriend him and claim the President as one of their own—need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Sources are not always reliable.  Unfortunately, the author suffers from his own questionable citations.

For example, Mansfield recounts that during his Indiana childhood, Abe “had an impressive capacity for memorization, particularly of sermons.  Those who knew him often recalled how he would take a break from work by getting up on a stump and repeating almost word for word the sermons he had heard in the week before.”  

This un-footnoted passage seems to come from a letter written by Lincoln’s second-cousin Dennis Hanks who wrote to Herndon that “you asked Me what Sort of Songs or Intrest Abe took part in I will say this any thing that was Lively He Never would Sing any Religious Songs it apered to Me that it Did Not souit him But for a Man to preach a Sermond he would Listin to with great Attention.”  Hank’s son-in-law A.H. Chapman wrote Herndon that “When about 10 years old Lincoln first showed his talent as a speaker & from that forward would gather the children together Mount a stump or Log & harang his juvenile audience. he done this so often that it interfered with their labors when at work on the farm & caused him Many reproofs from his father, He would often after returning from church repeat correctly nearly all of the sermon which he had heard mimacing the Style & tone of the old Baptist Preachers.”

Judging from this accounting, was the boy manifesting a serious interest in matters of faith, or rather mocking the frontier revivalists?  In such cases, Mansfield almost always gives evangelical Christianity the benefit of the doubt, taking the episode as an indication of how the camp meeting preachers made an impression on “Abe’s eager mind.” 

Mansfield is a talented writer and I believe he makes a genuine attempt at objective reporting.  But his biases are also apparent.

I would recommend that anyone seriously interested in Lincoln’s faith journey read Allen Guelzo’s  Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which seems a more careful and balanced approach. 


Friday, October 26, 2012

Report from Greece



My wife and I just returned from three weeks in Greece, and while we tried to stay away from tear gas and demonstrations, it was hard to ignore the fact that the country was in crisis.  Athens was crawling with police, heavily armored and many packing submachine guns.  Rumor has it that a high percentage of the law enforcement there is allied or sympathetic to Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi style party we saw marching in the street near our hotel.  There were not large numbers giving the “Hitler salute,” perhaps a couple of hundred that we saw.  But one wonders how the fascists, with 18 seats in the current legislature, have become such a growing power in this country that has been ravaged so often by Germanic speaking peoples in the past, from King Otto of Austria (whose former palace is now the parliament building, adjacent to the extensive botanic gardens today open to all but once the private preserve of royalty), on to the Nazis who bombed Crete and occupied the mainland for most of the Second World War.

Old habits die hard.  The synagogue in Crete’s old section of Chania, whose 300 Jews were on their way to Auschwitz before their boat was torpedoed (ending a Jewish presence there that dated back to 300 BCE) has been targeted by arsonists twice in the last two years.  Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras recently likened the situation in his native land to the declining days of the Weimar Republic—ripe for the forces of hatred and reaction as economic desperation invites more and more people to seek scapegoats for their troubles: immigrants, gays, women and other non-Aryan minorities.

The Greece we saw was a beautiful, modern nation where we enjoyed excellent public transportation, had no trouble accessing the internet, and everywhere we went encountered friendly, helpful people  who despite their current hardships indicated no hostility toward foreigners.  It would be hard to say where we saw more beggars or empty storefronts, in Athens or in the ragged neighborhoods adjacent JFK airport where we stopped overnight on our journey home.  Indeed, the only snafus we ran into were on U.S. soil, where broken trams, bad connections, surly service providers and crumbling infrastructure were far more apparent than abroad. 


Perhaps the danger to America is not that it will go the way of Greece due to deficit spending or overgrown government bureaucracy (as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have recently warned).  The greater peril is that our nation, too, will allow racist, homophobic and nativist tendencies to gain ascendance in the search for culprits who can be blamed for our own economic meltdown.  The greater danger is that we will continue to starve our trains, roads, schools, parks and other public amenities in the name of a financial austerity whose burdens fall mostly upon the poor.  Should we allow that to happen, America too will one day be remembered for its glorious past, like Greece a civilization famous for its ruins.



Thursday, October 25, 2012

George McGovern: Requiem for a Hero


Courage is like a Rolex watch.  Cheap imitations abound.  The real thing is real and rare.

Bravery, for example, is something very different than bravado, as exemplified in the life and career or George McGovern.  People who possess genuine fortitude aren’t usually the kinds who boast about their military record.  They don’t have to prove anything to anybody.

So although I voted for George McGovern forty years ago, it wasn’t until recently that I realized he even had a war record or that he’d won the Distinguished Flying Cross.  He piloted 35 bombing missions over some of the most heavily defended cities in Europe.  Twice he brought down planes that had either lost their engines or had their noses blown off by enemy flak.  But these weren’t feats he boasted about in the presidential sweepstakes.  Like any men who’d seen fighting, he seemed rather reticent about revisiting this violent chapter of his past.  And of course it might have made a difference in the election if he had been more forthcoming.
 
For as the “dove” in the race, McGovern was depicted in the press as a dreamer, maybe even a sissy, less practical and tough than hard-headed hawks like Henry Kissinger and Nixon’s other advisers in the White House.  Many voters may have shared Gloria Steinem’s first impression of the man: “I thought he was too nice to be a Senator,” she said.  Yet McGovern was precisely the man who had the most realistic picture of the war, who understood from terrifying firsthand experience what such hostilities involves.  Unfortunately, the voters sensed that McGovern was neither a bully nor a braggart, and concluded mistakenly that he lacked guts.  They confused bravery with braggadocio.

There’s another common misconception about courage, as well.  Many seem to think that being courageous is the same as being fearless.  But even the boldest figures are prey to fears.  George McGovern, for example, had a lifelong fear of flying.  He’d signed up for a piloting course with the Civil Air Patrol early in college, partly at the instigation of a friend, partly because a high school gym coach had called him a “physical coward.”  But he hated every minute in the air, didn’t like soloing (which he told his wife “scares me silly”) and thought that getting his license would mean he’d never have to fly again. 

Then came Pearl Harbor.  McGovern had good reason to be afraid at that point, because he found himself in command of a B-24 bomber, sometimes called the “Liberator” but known among airmen as “the liquidator” or flying coffin.  It was not a forgiving or particularly sturdy aircraft, and hits that the older B-17’s might have taken in stride were likely to mean real trouble on McGovern’s plane, the Dakota Queen.  To survive when, as McGovern put it, “men flying on my wings were getting blown out of the sky” meant being able to keep your wits even in the midst of terror.  Courage in that context meant asking questions, “Are the landing gear working, will the oil pressure hold?”  It meant not giving in to panic.

Courage demands holding onto our rational and critical capabilities, even when the adrenaline is pumping.  Later in McGovern’s career, courage entailed asking questions about U.S. foreign policy.  When others were following the herd, seeking shelter in numbers, McGovern stood alone, the first man in the U.S. Senate to openly criticize our government’s war aims in Vietnam.  Many folks were afraid to ask such questions: afraid of appearing disloyal, afraid of appearing weak or foolish.  But courage, now as then, means overcoming those fears.  It suggests a certain cool-headed appraisal of the situation when hot-heads are beating the drums and sounding the alarm.

And if bravery implies keeping our minds fully engaged, it also suggests keeping our humanity intact, even under the worst assaults.  Being courageous is different from being callous or cold-blooded.  “Once McGovern was at a bar in the officer’s club when a couple of fighter jocks came in bragging about two Italian civilians they had shot off a bridge,” says one biographer.  They had a few rounds left from their strafing mission, so they’d given the strangers a burst of fifty calibers.  “Did you see the way that son of a bitch hit the water?” laughed one to the other.  “It might have been whisky talk,” says McGovern, but still he was repulsed by the exchange.  “I was stunned that anyone could be so barbaric about the taking of human life.”

McGovern never lost his sense of common decency, even with all the atrocities he’d witnessed.  And that was why one particular incident continued to trouble him for decades after the war ended.  The Dakota Queen was on a bombing run when bad weather forced it back to the base.  Lancing with the bombs still on board could be fatal, and so the normal protocol was to jettison the explosives over the ocean or in some remote, uninhabited area.  In this case, however, a new bombardier was on board.  They would have been plenty of time to release the bombs over an unpopulated section of Yugoslavia as the Queen was heading home to Italy, and most of the crew assumed that’s where they’d been dropped.  But sometime later, Tex Ashlock, the waist gunner, was watching the scenery go by in Austria when he suddenly saw the whole payload, six five-hundred pounders, dropping straight toward a farmhouse dead ahead.  The house disappeared in a roar of brown smoke.  And although McGovern would later say that there was little he regretted about the war, that Hitler had to be stopped, he always felt sick about what happened to that tiny homestead.  He knew he had blood on his hands.

Then something remarkable happened.  In 1985, forty years after the war ended, McGovern was interviewed on Austrian television about his wartime exploits.  He told the story of destroying the farmhouse.  And that night, the TV station got a call from an elderly gentleman.  He’d been living in that farmhouse in 1945 and came forward to proclaim that he was still alive, had been working in the fields at some distance when he saw the Queen pass overhead and bomb his home.  He said he bore no ill feeling toward the crew, thankful that so many Americans had risked their lives to rid the world of fascism.  The loss of his property, he said, was simply his share of the sacrifice.

Situations that seem doomed turn out to have hopeful, happy endings.  And this is why we must never lose courage, even when the odds against us seem overwhelming.  For as theologian C.S. Lewis writes, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means the point of highest reality.”  When the chips are down, when the going gets tough, when there’s every reason to be scared, can we keep our minds and hearts engaged, continuing to risk dissent, continuing to care not only for our comrades-in-arms but also for strangers and those caught in the cross-fire?  Can we maintain our compassion regardless of the provocation?

I sincerely hope so.  For even in a world where old-fashioned heroes like George McGovern are hard to find, this kind of courage is needed more than ever.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Mars Rocks!


NASA announced today that the Curiosity research robot on Mars has discovered evidence of an ancient stream bed, where rocks have been worn smooth by deep, fast moving water.   The photo above illustrates the similarities between Martian and terrestrial, alluvial soil.

My prediction (you read it here first) is that Curiosity will discover convincing evidence that life exists or has existed on the red planet.  

Life depends on liquidity. In May of 2002, the Mars Odyssey probe found evidence of frozen water in deposits up to two feet thick around the southern Martian pole, amounting to trillions of gallons in all--more than double the volume of water in Lake Michigan. Presumably that water flowed at one time, and on earth even very cold environments can harbor biological activity. The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, at first sight an arid wasteland looking very much like a rubbled Martian plain, contain at least twenty species of photosynthetic bacteria, a like number of algae, and a number of invertebrate animals such as mites, springtails, and other diminutive critters at the top of the food chain. All these "extremophiles" (creatures adapted to adverse conditions) depend on a brief summer flow of runoff from surrounding icefields for their sustenance. As for Mars?  "Where there's water, there's life, one NASA scientists predicts. 

Life is robust and probably widespread in our cosmos.  When I was in high school (eons ago), we learned about an experiment at the University of Chicago where experimenters flashed an electric spark through a container filled with methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water (presumably mimicking the earth's primitive atmosphere) to produce amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and life.  Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, the researchers, concluded that life might have begun when a stray flash of lightening struck a pond filled with "primordial soup."  Yet now we know that amino acids are everywhere, found on meteorites and in the depths of interstellar space.  Life on earth didn't have to wait around for lightening to strike.  It almost certainly began as soon as the planet's crust had cooled sufficiently to allow water to precipitate from the atmosphere and gather in shallow seas.   Thus the fossil record here on earth stretches back almost 4 billion years, nearly as old as the planet itself.  There was no lengthy period of gestation needed for life to occur.  

And what will the discovery that life exists on other planets mean for the human race?  The  old story of salvation--that our species is singular in the cosmos, created in the image of God--will be harder to sustain.  But appreciation and admiration for the ingenious creativity of life itself, endlessly generative and prolific, can only be enhanced.  For humanity, won't it be nice to know that we have company?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Space Dogs



Science tells us that what goes up must come down, a law enunciated by Isaac Newton. Religion informs us of the corollary that what goes down must also rise again, an insight expounded in countless myths of death and rebirth, but which probably originated from simple observations of the stars and other rhythms of nature.

Orion the Hunter, accompanied by his mighty dog Sirius, is one of the few constellations that almost everyone knows. In New England, where I live, the pair appears during the colder months, rising in the southeast and arcing across the heavens while we sleep. There's no mistaking the two, because Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky.

How did this celestial hound get up there? The Greeks said Zeus elevated Sirius to the heavens when the dog's master wooed a goddess and earned a share of immortality. For the Egyptians, Sirius was the abode of souls. The star's first appearance, in late summer, signaled the season for the Nile's recurrent flooding, marking a New Year and the restoration of life. Pyramids were often oriented toward the Dog Star, which served as a luminous beacon guiding the dead on their final journey.

At a little less than nine light years away, Sirius is nearly twice as luminescent as its closest competitor. So it's not surprising this object has been a magnet for myths and legends. But it is remarkable how many cultures—widely separated in time and geography—have associated man's best friend with the brightest lantern in the sky.

For the Chinese, Sirius was known as the Celestial Jackal or Heavenly Wolf. In one preserved mortuary vessel from the early Han dynasty (c. 250 BCE), T'ien Lang, as the dog is called, is depicted lunging with bared fangs at an archer, the constellation Chinese astronomers called the Bow.

For the native peoples of North America, the star held the same associations with dogs and the departed. The Pawnee called Sirius the Coyote or Wolf Star, one of the four pillars that supported the night sky and also the guide who accompanied spirits into the afterlife. For the Inuit people of Alaska, the "Moon-Dog" (as Sirius was known) played a similar role. Cherokee legends suggest that Sirius was one of two mighty dogs, the other being the brilliant star Antares, who together guarded the gates of eternity.

How did Sirius acquire its connection with canines and the great beyond, not only for Greeks and Romans, but also for the Egyptians, the Chinese, and Cherokee? Perhaps the link goes back to Neolithic times, when dogs were first domesticated. One of the first pieces of evidence of the interspecies bond dates back to 14,000 BCE, where dogs and humans can be found buried together at a site in Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany. In Israel, another of the earliest human interments has been excavated, dating back roughly 12,000 years. That grave site also contains the remains of a dog, alongside an elderly person whose hand has been placed rather touchingly on the shoulder of a young pup, as if petting or protecting it. From time immemorial, dogs and their human companions faced the unknown together. And as they pondered the darkness, perhaps inevitably, people's hopes turned toward the night's most lustrous object.

Sidney_Hall,_Canis_Major,_Lepus,_Columba

In India, the same traditions can be found. There, Sirius is called Svana, the dog of Yudhisthira, who is the hero of the religious epic the Mahabharata. Yudhisthira is renowned for his love of satya (truth) and dharma (righteousness), but his character is revealed most fully at the conclusion of the drama. Arduously, Yudhisthira and his brothers scale the peaks of the Himalayas on their final pilgrimage. One by one, the four brothers fall aside. But Yudhisthira, who is without sin, achieves the summit and there Indra, the King of Gods, prepares to take the hero to heaven in a golden chariot. Indra tells Yudhisthira he must leave his dog behind, however, as a creature not worthy of eternity. "There is no place in Heaven for persons with dogs," Indra announces.

Yudhisthira responds, "This dog, O Lord of the Past and the Present, is exceedingly devoted to me. He should go with me. My heart is full of compassion for him," and compassion is the great teaching of the Vedas. But you've renounced everything else, Indra reasons. Why not sacrifice this dog, too? Still, Yudhisthira won't betray his four-footed friend, even if it means forgoing bliss. "Hence, O great Indra, I shall not abandon this dog today from desire of my happiness." That's devotion.

At this moment of supreme self-denial, the dog morphs into a deity, who had just been testing Yudhisthira. The gates of paradise open for man and mutt alike. And Svana—whose name in Sanskrit means "dog"—takes his place in the firmament above.

Even Edgar Cayce mentioned the Dog Star in his psychic readings. According to reading 993-6, the ancient Egyptian Temple Beautiful, which was like a university for spiritual learning, had an opalescent hue in the heaven in the dome or ceiling. The Dog Star was specifically listed above one of the seven stations.

 Don on the beach 062012

What wonderful old stories! They make the night seem less lonely, the stars a bit friendlier and more welcoming. And whatever heaven is out there or up there, beyond the Milky Way, it's good to think that pets are allowed.

(This article is adapted from the chapter "Space Dogs" which is part of my forthcoming book Blessings of the Animals, due out from Lantern Books in December 2012.  It's featured this month on the Association for Research & Enlightenment website.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Transit of Venue and the Birth of America


Today the planet Venus makes a rare transit across the face of the sun.  During the eighteenth century, the astronomical alignment took place twice, in 1761 and 1769, drawing observations from scientific teams all over the world, including North America.  Astronomers at that time were able to produce the first truly accurate measurements of the distance between the Earth and the sun, vastly expanding the known universe and kindling the human imagination with an understanding of Deep Space.

The Declaration of Independence, a short time later, would receive its first public reading from atop a tower constructed in Philadelphia to view the transit.  The American Philosophical Society, the scientific body Benjamin Franklin founded, which built the tower and organized the astronomical viewing under the leadership of David Rittenhouse (who constructed the telescope, quadrant, pendulum clock and other precision instruments necessary to do the siting) is located just next door to Independence Hall.  The new cosmology went hand in hand with the new political paradigm, no longer based up the heavenly mandate of a hereditary king, but upon the equal access of all to the heavenly realms and their motions.
 
The Royal Astronomer of England, upon receiving a report of the American measurements, wrote that “the first approximately accurate results in the measurements of the spheres given to the world [was made] not by the schooled and salaried astronomers who watched from the magnificent observatories of Europe, but by unaided amateurs and devotees to science in the youthful province of Pennsylvania.”


What else might come out of these colonies, where men by their own wits and abilities could vie with the lords of the Old World?   Today you can watch the transit online or with protective filters—your last opportunity to see what America’s Founders saw and wonder at an event that won’t be repeated for 105 years.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012


FBI Should Investigate the Real Terrorists

Has the FBI become the Federal Bureau of Instigation?  The moniker seems to fit the announcement earlier this month that five young men loosely associated with Occupy Cleveland were infiltrated by a provocateur on the agency’s payroll who promised to provide C4 explosives and the cash to buy it when the boys began dreaming up hypothetical schemes to disrupt business-as-usual in corporate America. Their youthful braggadocio verged on the hair-brained: setting off stink bombs, knocking the signs off bank buildings, and tossing thumb-tacks out the back of their get-away vehicle. From the FBI affidavit, it’s not even clear the young men owned a car.

The actual transcript shows how the FBI mole—a bona fide criminal with a history of robbery, cocaine possession, and multiple counts of passing bad checks—incites 26-year-old Douglas Wright, who has just discovered an online “Anarchist’s Cookbook”  for brewing homemade trouble. 

Wright: We can make smoke bombs, we can make plastic explosives, we can make, like, we can--it teaches you how to pick locks. It does everything. (laughs)

FBI: How much do we need--that--how much money we need to make the plastic explosives.

WRIGHT: I'm not sure, I haven't really read too much into yet, um, I'll have to get into that. I just downloaded it last night.

FBI: Well you gotta get with me--

WRIGHT: Should be able to find it.

FBI: You gotta get with me, uh, if we gonna be trying to do something in a month you need to get with me as soon as possible on how much money we gonna need …

Attorneys for the self-described anarchists, who are now facing possible 20 year prison sentences, will doubtless use information like this to suggest the defendants were entrapped, lured into a plot that likely never would have occurred had the FBI not been egging them on.

Spying on political activists is nothing new for the Bureau, which wire tapped Martin Luther King Jr.’s phone and blackmailed him with information about an extra-marital affair in an attempt to force him to commit suicide.  Over the years, the FBI has infiltrated the Quakers, vegetarian societies and similar pockets of radicalism.  Surveillance of the Occupy movement—which in keeping with its remarkable commitment to non-violence has disavowed any connection to the Cleveland Five—fits the FBI’s pattern.

Law enforcement might focus less on imaginary threats to our nation’s security and more on real thieves and looters, including those in corporate boardrooms.  In the wake of September 11, 2001, the FBI shifted a third of its agents away from racketeering, financial fraud and similar crimes toward “counter terrorism.”  The economic meltdown that destroyed millions of jobs, forced untold numbers of families into foreclosure, and annihilated trillions of dollars in retirement savings was at least partly a result of inadequate policing, as resources were diverted from investigating securities and insurance scams to eavesdropping on Muslims and peaceniks.  In the five years leading up to 2008, federal corporate fraud cases dropped over fifty percent.

The FBI needs to ask, who is the more dangerous criminal—the hapless twenty-something trying to buy plastique, or the investment banker, betting against the exploding securities he’s sold to a pension fund which then blast millions of seniors’ nest eggs sky high?
  
If “terrorists” are people who threaten to poison our water, contaminate our food supply, wreak havoc on our economy and put innocent  life at risk for the sake of short term gain, I am less worried about the activists who are occupying Wall Street than by the terrorists on Wall Street itself.  

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Founding Fathers and Abortion in Colonial America

Few issues arouse as much passion as abortion.   This has not always been the case, however.  Following English law, abortion was legal in the American colonies until the time of “quickening” in the fetus, when the baby started to move, usually around the fourth month of pregnancy. Recipes for herbal potions including pennyroyal, savin and other plants capable of “bringing on the menses” were common in home medical guides of the period.

Our founding fathers actually wrote about the subject.  Benjamin Franklin’s views can be inferred from an incident that occurred in 1729 when his former employer, newspaper editor Samuel Keimer of Philadelphia, published an encyclopedia whose very first volume included a detailed article on abortion, including directions for ending an unwanted pregnancy (“immoderate Evacuations, violent Motions, sudden Passions, Frights … violent Purgatives and in the general anything that tends to promote the Menses.”)  Hoping to found his own newspaper to compete with Keimer, Franklin responded in print through the satiric voices of two fictional characters, “Celia Shortface” and “Martha Careful” who expressed mock outrage at Keimer for exposing “the secrets of our sex” which ought to be reserved “for the repository of the learned.”  One of the aggrieved ladies threatened to grab Keimer’s beard and pull it if she spotted him at the tavern!  Neither Franklin nor his prudish protagonists objected to abortion per se, but only to the immodesty of discussing such feminine mysteries in public.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a well known physician who signed the Declaration of Independence, shared his views of the subject matter-of-factly in his book of Medical Inquiries and Observations (1805).  Discussing blood-letting as a possible treatment to prevent miscarriage during the third month of pregnancy, when he believed there was a special tendency to spontaneous abortion, Rush asked the question, “what is an abortion but a haemoptysis (if I may be allowed the expression) from the uterus?”  A hemoptysis is the clinical term for the expectoration of blood or bloody sputum from the lungs or larynx.  In Rush’s mind, apparently, what we would now call the three-month-old embryo was equivalent medically to what one might cough up when ill with the flu.

Thomas Jefferson put no moral judgment on abortion, either.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he observed that for Native American women, who accompanied their men in war and hunting parties, “childbearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them.  It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable, and that it even extends to prevent conception for some time after.”  Jefferson on the whole admired the native people and the Notes were intended in part to counter the views of the French naturalist Buffon, who accused the indigenous inhabitants of the New World of being degenerate and less virile than their European counterparts.  In extenuation, Jefferson cites “voluntary abortion” along with the hazards of the wilderness and famine as obstacles nature has placed in the way of increased multiplication among the natives.  Indian women married to white traders, he observes, produce abundant children and are excellent mothers.  The fact that they practice birth control and when necessary terminate their pregnancies does not lessen his respect for them, but appears to be in his mind simply one of the ingenious ways they have adapted to their challenging environment.

A different window into colonial attitudes toward abortion can be found in Corenlia Hughes Dayton’s “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth Century New England Village.”  In her 1991 monograph which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly, Dayton examined a case from 1742 that occurred in the village of Pomfret, Connecticut, where 19-year-old Sarah Grosvenor died in a bungled abortion urged on her by her 27-year-old lover Amasa Sessions.  Magistrates filed charges against both Sessions and the “doctor of physick” who mangled the operation, but Dayton points out the legal complaints were not for performing the abortion as such (which was legal) but for killing the mother.  The whole episode was surrounded with a hush of secrecy, in an era when “fornication” was not only illegal but culturally taboo.  Abortion, in the colonial context, carried a stigma of shame not because it ended the life of a fetus but because it was associated with illicit intercourse—helping to explain the outrage of Franklin’s two characters Celia Shortface and  Martha Careful when their private remedies for ending a pregnancy receive a public airing. 

What can we learn from examining attitudes toward abortion in early America?  Perhaps only this, that positions which seem to both the pro-choice and pro-life camps to be eternal and absolute have in fact evolved over time.  An historic perspective should teach us a degree of humility that, if nothing else, might moderate the extremism that too often characterizes the modern debate.



Thursday, April 5, 2012

Earth Day, Then and Now

Remember 1970?  The price of gas for regular was 36 cents a gallon.  That spring also marked the first celebration of Earth Day, organized partly as a response to an oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast the previous winter.  With April 22 approaching, I thought it would be informative to learn how the planet has fared in the intervening decades.

In 1970, the population of the world was 3.7 billion.  Today, in the space of forty-two years, it has almost doubled to over 7 billion.  In the two minutes it takes to read this article, another 300 people will have been added to the total.
 
Animals haven’t done so well.  The London Zoological Society reports that almost a third of the world’s species have gone extinct in recent years.  Researchers tracking 4000 species from 1970 to 2005 found that 25% of the land animals disappeared in that interval, 25% of the marine organisms, and 29% of those adapted to fresh water.  Goodbye Golden Toad.  Farewell Eastern Cougar. 

Compared to 1970, New England is two degrees warmer than it used to be.  According to the USDA’s temperature guides, winter lows are typically four degrees higher than they were back in the year the Beatles broke up.  That might not sound so dire to Yankee farmers, but if you’re a polar bear, global warming is a bummer. The arctic ice cap, roughly the size of the continently United States, has annually been losing the equivalent of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined since the late 1970’s. 

Since 1970, the Amazon rainforest has lost 745,289 square kilometers of tree cover, an area larger than the state of Texas (with most of that land clear cut to graze cattle).  In the same span, glaciers in the Andes have shed about 20% of their volume (devastating not only for the environment but for the people who depend on the annual runoff for drinking and irrigation).
 
Meanwhile, the average size of a new home constructed in the United States has jumped to 2900 square feet, compared to just 1400 square feet back in 1970.  Despite a considerable increase in hot air produced by politicians over the last four decades, it has not been enough to compensate for the BTU’s needed to heat the additional space.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders are still living in the era of “Happy Days.”  Few have been honest in facing up to the reality that human beings are pushing beyond the carrying capacity of the planet.  Pay attention.  How many elected representatives of either party this coming Earth Day will speak of climate change or the need for contraception and family planning?  How many will ask us to alter our lifestyles or diets or to hang out the clothes instead of running the dryer?  How many will propose a hefty tax on fossil fuels to encourage innovation and conservation?  How many instead will make promises of endless economic expansion, “clean coal,” and ever higher standards of living? 

Earth Day, then, was a moment for crunchy granola and batik.  Earth Day now is a time for candor and courage.  Four decades have elapsed, and despite local success stories—a river restored or a dam removed--things have not improved.  The world is in peril.  There is still time—barely—to save the planet.  But there is no longer an instant to waste. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why Does Health Care Cost So Much?

Like many Americans, I’m satisfied with my health insurance.  As a retired government employee, my wife is covered with CIGNA and our premiums are mostly paid by the taxpayers.  But news that CIGNA’s top executive David Cordani enjoyed a pay increase of 25% last year, to $18.9 million annually, reminded me why health care reform remains an unresolved challenge for our country.

Cordani’s salary translates to nearly $10,000 an hour, compared to the $10.50 to $17.00 an hour that nursing assistants earn in Massachusetts.  Certified nurse assistants take vital signs, respond to hospital help lights, get patients in and out of bed and provide the hands-on care that make them the first responders of the medical world.  I’m not sure what David Cordani does to earn his exorbitant paycheck, except continue to ratchet up the price of insurance.  According to his corporate bio, he has a degree in business from the University of Hartford and lots of experience in marketing.

Bloated CEO pay packages and excessive administrative costs that consume 31% of every health care dollar spent in the U.S. are much of the reason we are poised to pour nearly $3 trillion on health care this year, a pile of dollars that if stacked one on top of the other would reach almost to the moon.  

Unfortunately, measures that are touted as “reform” (including the President’s Affordable Care Act due to be heard before the Supreme Court) do little to address these escalating costs.  The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which was a major advocate of our state’s 2006 mandated insurance law, is now calling for another mandate, a “cap” on the Bay State’s health care spending.  But so long as the profit-motive continues to drive the insurance industry, guys like David Cordani will surely continue to apply the first rule they learned in marketing school: Charge what the market will bear!

Cordani was the CIGNA spokesman five years ago who explained why his company wouldn’t pay for a 17-year-old girl with leukemia whom doctors had slated for a liver transplant.  The girl, named Natalie, was covered under her mom’s CIGNA policy and physicians gave her a 65% chance of recovery.  But business is business, right?  Cordani called the procedure experimental and wouldn’t cover it. Thanks to a lobbying campaign and thousands of phone calls generated by the state Nurses’ Association, the company eventually reversed its decision, but by that time Natalie was dead.  Those are the kind of tough decisions that earn you $19.8 million a year.
 
Isn’t it time to get private insurance companies and  profiteering out of medicine altogether?  Our neighbor to the north, the little state of Vermont, is poised to do just that, with a universal, single-payer plan due to take effect in 2014.  Instead of a dozen competing insurers, each skimming the system, there will be a single agency paying the bills—just as it’s done in Canada, in France, and in most of the rest of the civilized world where health spending is considerably lower than in the United States and where outcomes are better, whether measured by lifespan, infant mortality, survival rates for significant illness or almost any other index.  Organizations like Masscare calculate that our state could save $9.7 billion annually with a similar “Medicare for all” plan that eliminates the middle-man.
 
Of course, David Cordani would then be out of a job.  Do you think he knows how to empty bedpans?   

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Right To Die?

Should people faced with an incurable terminal illness, with less than six months to live, be able to receive prescription medication to painlessly end their own suffering?   The question affects real people facing terrible end-of-life dilemmas.

As a clergyman, I accompanied two of my parishioners through the final stages of their lives when they chose to stop eating and drinking rather than endure the alternative.   Margaret was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would inevitably destroy her mind and personality long before her heart stopped beating.  Jim had ALS, which left him completely paralyzed, progressively shutting down bodily functions  while leaving the higher cognitive abilities intact.  With the support of their families and physicians, both chose to stop hydration, dying of thirst over the course of several days.  Thanks to palliative care, the process was not agonizing, but not pleasant, either.  Both would have preferred a quicker and more merciful exit, but state law didn’t give them that option.

Residents of Massachusetts may soon have more choices.  After receiving a petition bearing 79,626 signatures last December, the House Joint Committee on the Judiciary is now considering a ballot initiative titled the “Death With Dignity Act.”  If voters approve in November, individuals like Jim and Margaret who are terminal with no hope of recovery will soon be able to ask a doctor for a dose of kindness.  Safeguards insure that the patient be of sound mind, under no coercion, repeating the request on three occasions, separated in time by an interval of at least fifteen days, properly witnessed by impartial, disinterested observers.

If the experience of states like Oregon and Washington which have passed similar legislation are any guide, the right to self-administer euthanasia is rarely exercised.  In the first fourteen years after its passage, just 401Oregonians took advantage of the law.  Given any reasonable chance for a viable quality of life, few people elect to hasten their own demise.  But knowing the option is available has given peace of mind to thousands of others, for there truly are some fates worse than death.  

I empathize with individuals like Jim and Margaret, because for almost one year I lived tethered to a dialysis machine.  Three times each week, my blood circulated through an artificial kidney in a process that took hours and left me physically drained.  I survived and eventually received an organ transplant.  But from firsthand experience, I can also understand the decision some others have made (mostly elderly or unable to find a suitable donor) to simply unplug the device.

Should anyone in such a situation be kept alive against their will?  Virtually all medical ethicists recognize the patient’s right to refuse treatment—even a treatment like dialysis that might save or prolong one’s life.  How different is that from the right that Jim and Margaret were requesting, to leave the world through their own volition?  Physician assisted “suicide” is the wrong term for an act that is really a final assertion of autonomy, dignity and self-control.  Neither Jim nor Margaret were cases of suicide, for the choice they faced was not whether to live or die, but only whether death would be more or less cruel, degrading and prolonged. 

Whose life is it, anyway?  There can be only one answer for me and members of my church like Jim and Margaret, who want to make their own decisions right down to the very end.     

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Still Waiting For Justice



Some people, literally, get away with murder.  That’s what happened forty-seven years ago, on March 11, 1965, when James Reeb was hit over the head with a club and killed in Selma, Alabama.

Reverend Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister, one of the hundreds of rabbis, priests, nuns and other clergy who responded to Martin Luther King’s plea to come south in support of civil rights following “Bloody Sunday,” when peaceful protestors were attacked by police dogs and blue-helmeted troopers wielding rubber hoses wrapped in barbed wire during a non-violent march toward the Montgomery statehouse.

As Reeb walked out of the Blue Moon cafĂ© in Selma with two colleagues, the three clergymen were attacked from behind.   Reeb, a father of four from Boston, died of a broken skull soon afterward.

Three men--Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O’Neal Hoggle—were tried for murder before an all-white jury after African Americans had been systematically removed from the panel.  One of the jurors was the brother of a key witness for the defense.  Two of the jurors told the judge they despised white activists who shared meals with blacks, but were allowed to sit in judgment nonetheless.   The attorney for the defense told the jury during the trial that “certain civil rights groups have to have a martyr, and they were willing to let Reeb die,” as if the real guilty parties were the NAACP and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Despite these tainted proceedings (or because of them), all three defendants were declared not guilty.

Reeb’s murder shocked the conscience of the nation.  Four days after he died, President Lyndon Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to Congress, which brought the ballot to millions of formerly disenfranchised citizens of color.  For the first time, there was fair representation at the polls.  Selma added 7,000 black voters to its registration rolls, and the sheriff who presided over the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” was voted out of office.

But justice at the ballot box and justice in the courtroom are two different matters.  In recent years, there has been a renewed effort to pursue Civil Rights era crimes across the span of decades.  Edgar Ray Killen, for example, an 80-year-old former Klansman, was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his role in killing three civil rights workers in Mississippi and burying their bodies in an earthen dam.  Four years ago, Congress passed the “Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act” to encourage the U.S. Department of Justice to race the clock, bringing belated charges against the perpetrators of heinous crimes like the lynching of the fourteen year old Till—the boy allegedly was seen flirting with a white woman--before time runs out.

With that aim, the FIB announced a year ago on March 11, the anniversary Reeb’s  death, that it was re-opening the case.  At least one of the men who was charged with attacking Reeb and his friends remains alive and at large.  But when I phoned the Bureau and spoke with Greg Comcowich to learn if there had been developments or progress made, he told me that the investigation had once more been closed. So there is a strong possibility that at least one of James Reeb’s murderers is still walking free. 

It took the all-white jury just 97 minutes to acquit him, back in 1965.  After almost fifty years, we are still waiting for justice.

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