Politics & Soul 2/10/16

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

Presidential Politics and the American Soul

By Robert C. Koehler

When I want to believe that America is a democracy — indeed, to feel so deeply this is so that my soul trembles — I turn to Martin Luther King, who gave his life for it.

He cried out for something so much more than a process: a game of winners and losers. He reached for humanity’s deepest yearning, for the connectedness of all people, for transcendence past hatred and the demonization of “the other.” He spoke — half a century ago — the words that those in power couldn’t bear to hear because his truths cut too deep and disrupted too much business as usual.

But what else is a democracy than that?

“Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war . . .”

Uh oh. This ain’t politics as usual. This is King standing in the oval office, staring directly into the eyes of LBJ, declaring that civil rights legislation isn’t a political favor but merely the beginning of a nation’s moral atonement.

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.”

These words were part of the stunning address King delivered — on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination — at Riverside Church in New York City. To read these words today, in the context of the 2016 presidential race and the mainstream media’s inevitable focus on stats and trivia rather than big issues is to realize how utterly relevant this man and the movement he helped awaken remain today. To read King’s words in 2016 is to rip this man out of a sentimentalized sainthood and to bring him back to living relevance.

What he had to say to the political leaders of the time must not be reduced to a few phrases carved in granite; they must be heard anew, in all their disturbing fullness. I say this not because his “day” recently passed and I’m somewhat tardily “remembering” him, but because the 2016 presidential race needs King’s presence — his uncompromised wisdom — standing tough against the media and political status quo that is now trying desperately to mute the unapproved voices spurting forth in this campaign and pulling the electorate’s attention away from the approved, mainstream candidates they’re supposed to choose between.

Paul Krugman, for instance, representing the liberal wing of the status quo, came out for compromise and Hillary the other day, dismissing Bernie Sanders not out of a specific disagreement with any of his positions but because of a contempt for the “contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.”

This is how to make sure that a self-proclaimed democracy is really a faux-democracy, flawed, perhaps, but plodding along in the right direction and basically healthy, with its biggest threat not unrestrained militarism or unregulated corporate capitalism but . . . oh, universal health care. See, that’s radical.

I have yet to hear the status-quo media call the poisoning of the Flint, Mich., water supply, or the daily police shootings of young men or women of color — or the multi-trillion-dollar failure known as the war on terror — “radical,” but a candidate who wants to give a serious push for policies of social betterment (and calls himself a democratic socialist) is radical. He’s purveying false hope, disrespecting the sacred act of political compromise and dangerously trying to establish, or re-establish, the precedent that the public should get what it needs, even if those needs override the quietly laid plans of the nation’s military-industrial consensus.

Indeed, that consensus is never asked to compromise or, good God, subjected to public scrutiny — except, of course, by radicals.

This brings me back to King’s Riverside Church speech, which had the audacity to be visionary, to challenge the United States at its deepest levels of being — which is something that ought to happen during a presidential race. King looked directly at the hell we were inflicting on Vietnam and called not simply for an end to that war but an examination of the national soul.

“This,” he said, “I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

The war King was crying out against ended eight years after that 1967 speech, but the poison did not disappear from the country’s soul. There was no atonement, no real change, only, ultimately, a retrenching and regrouping of the military-industrial consensus. Thus, King’s words remain as urgent and prescient today as when he first uttered them.

“The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. . .

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

Would that Bernie Sanders spoke with such radicalism — or drew such a clear connection between social deprivation and militarism.

Beyond that, however, I must ask, in light of the words of Martin Luther King, what kind of democracy is too terrified, and too cowardly, to examine its own soul and reach toward values that are bigger than its short-term interests? And why do we not have a media rooted in these values and committed to holding politicians accountable to them?

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an award-winning Chicago journalist and editor.

Broken Souls 1/13/16

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

Adding Up the Broken Souls

By Robert C. Koehler

“The question now is how to change our institutions so that they promote human values rather than destroy them.”

Philip Zimbardo, who posed this question in the wake of the famous — or infamous — Stanford Prison Experiment 44 years ago, might have added: If we fail to do so, we guarantee our own social collapse.

The collapse is underway, one broken soul at a time.

“But the basic story the men told was the same: (Leonard) Strickland was pushed down a flight of stairs, and then beaten nearly to death by a large group of guards.”

This is from a recent New York Times investigative piece about inmate abuse at Clinton Correctional Facility, in upstate New York — a particularly boiling caldron of racism in America’s prison-industrial complex. Almost all of the nearly 1,000 guards who work at the rural prison are white; the inmates, mostly from New York City, are black. Not surprisingly, the prisoners say “they face a constant barrage of racial slurs.”

And racial slurs have a way of escalating, especially under conditions in which one group of people has enormous, unchecked power over another group. Zimbardo called it the Lucifer Effect: the transformation of ordinary, decent people into monsters. His 1971 study, in which two dozen college-student volunteers were randomly designated either guards or prisoners in a makeshift “penitentiary” in the basement of Stanford’s psych department, was meant to last two weeks but was called off after six days because the situation had gotten out of control.

Zimbardo said that he came to his senses after an outside observer, who was brought in to conduct interviews, reacted with utter shock “when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!’”

Compare this to the Times story about Clinton Correctional Facility. Though all the guards were officially cleared of wrongdoing in the 2010 death of Leonard Strickland, who was diagnosed mentally ill but had no history of violent behavior, six prisoners who had witnessed the event, interviewed separately at various facilities, told essentially the same story: that he was called a racial slur, pushed down a flight of stairs and beaten and repeatedly kicked by a group of guards at the bottom of the stairs.

As Strickland fell down the stairs, one prisoner told the Times, “his skull hit the concrete steps several times. At the bottom, he pulled himself into a tight fetal position, as about 10 officers took turns kicking him in the head and the ribs … They ‘beat this kid to zero,’ he said.”

Ah, Lucifer!

The broken souls add up. We live in a world where the prevailing belief is that control and dominance are necessary … because of all the terrorism, y’know, and the crime and what have you. In so many American cities, armed police officers (white and otherwise), wield unchecked power in impoverished, minority communities. Not surprisingly, the Lucifer Effect continually makes the news.

Last month, the Associated Press released the results of a yearlong investigation of sexual misconduct by police, discovering records of about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period for various sex crimes, including rape. The figure is “unquestionably an undercount,” the AP story noted because many departments don’t maintain such records.

“‘It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,’ said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. ‘It’s so underreported, and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.’”

What this otherwise excellent story fails to do is put the crimes into a larger context, dismissing the perps simply as “bad officers.” When they can’t resign quietly and disappear, they are turned into scapegoats: exceptions to the rule in otherwise good, solid institutions that serve the public. This is how it is in every institution that commands enormous power over a particular group of people, including the scandal-rocked U.S. military and the Catholic Church.

It’s time for the media, which usually goes along with the “bad apple” explanation, to expand its consciousness. Lucifer haunts the corridors of power. Ordinary, decent people can turn into monsters — rapists, murderers — when given unlimited power over others. It happens with eerie frequency, especially when, in the era of the cellphone video, such crimes are not so easily covered up.

In Chicago, a police officer shot a teenager walking in the middle of the street 16 times, almost as though the gun took control of the officer’s consciousness. Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, interviewed recently by Democracy Now, pointed out that, because of budget cuts, only about 20 Chicago police officers have received crisis intervention training.

My God, budget cuts! In a country that’s waging perpetual war and raking in billions from the global sale of weapons. Yeah, the boy had been acting erratically. But real public safety for the city of Chicago would have included safety for Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke.

I fear we’re reversing the evolutionary process. We’ve surrendered to simplistic, impulsive, fear-based “safety” and we’re reaping the consequences, one broken soul at a time.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Broken Souls 12/30/15

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

Adding Up the Broken Souls

By Robert C. Koehler

“The question now is how to change our institutions so that they promote human values rather than destroy them.”

Philip Zimbardo, who posed this question in the wake of the famous — or infamous — Stanford Prison Experiment 44 years ago, might have added: If we fail to do so, we guarantee our own social collapse.

The collapse is underway, one broken soul at a time.

“But the basic story the men told was the same: (Leonard) Strickland was pushed down a flight of stairs, and then beaten nearly to death by a large group of guards.”

This is from a recent New York Times investigative piece about inmate abuse at Clinton Correctional Facility, in upstate New York — a particularly boiling caldron of racism in America’s prison-industrial complex. Almost all of the nearly 1,000 guards who work at the rural prison are white; the inmates, mostly from New York City, are black. Not surprisingly, the prisoners say “they face a constant barrage of racial slurs.”

And racial slurs have a way of escalating, especially under conditions in which one group of people has enormous, unchecked power over another group. Zimbardo called it the Lucifer Effect: the transformation of ordinary, decent people into monsters. His 1971 study, in which two dozen college-student volunteers were randomly designated either guards or prisoners in a makeshift “penitentiary” in the basement of Stanford’s psych department, was meant to last two weeks but was called off after six days because the situation had gotten out of control.

Zimbardo said that he came to his senses after an outside observer, who was brought in to conduct interviews, reacted with utter shock “when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!’”

Compare this to the Times story about Clinton Correctional Facility. Though all the guards were officially cleared of wrongdoing in the 2010 death of Leonard Strickland, who was diagnosed mentally ill but had no history of violent behavior, six prisoners who had witnessed the event, interviewed separately at various facilities, told essentially the same story: that he was called a racial slur, pushed down a flight of stairs and beaten and repeatedly kicked by a group of guards at the bottom of the stairs.

As Strickland fell down the stairs, one prisoner told the Times, “his skull hit the concrete steps several times. At the bottom, he pulled himself into a tight fetal position, as about 10 officers took turns kicking him in the head and the ribs … They ‘beat this kid to zero,’ he said.”

Ah, Lucifer!

The broken souls add up. We live in a world where the prevailing belief is that control and dominance are necessary … because of all the terrorism, y’know, and the crime and what have you. In so many American cities, armed police officers (white and otherwise), wield unchecked power in impoverished, minority communities. Not surprisingly, the Lucifer Effect continually makes the news.

Last month, the Associated Press released the results of a yearlong investigation of sexual misconduct by police, discovering records of about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period for various sex crimes, including rape. The figure is “unquestionably an undercount,” the AP story noted because many departments don’t maintain such records.

“‘It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,’ said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. ‘It’s so underreported, and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.’”

What this otherwise excellent story fails to do is put the crimes into a larger context, dismissing the perps simply as “bad officers.” When they can’t resign quietly and disappear, they are turned into scapegoats: exceptions to the rule in otherwise good, solid institutions that serve the public. This is how it is in every institution that commands enormous power over a particular group of people, including the scandal-rocked U.S. military and the Catholic Church.

It’s time for the media, which usually goes along with the “bad apple” explanation, to expand its consciousness. Lucifer haunts the corridors of power. Ordinary, decent people can turn into monsters — rapists, murderers — when given unlimited power over others. It happens with eerie frequency, especially when, in the era of the cellphone video, such crimes are not so easily covered up.

In Chicago, a police officer shot a teenager walking in the middle of the street 16 times, almost as though the gun took control of the officer’s consciousness. Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, interviewed recently by Democracy Now, pointed out that, because of budget cuts, only about 20 Chicago police officers have received crisis intervention training.

My God, budget cuts! In a country that’s waging perpetual war and raking in billions from the global sale of weapons. Yeah, the boy had been acting erratically. But real public safety for the city of Chicago would have included safety for Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke.

I fear we’re reversing the evolutionary process. We’ve surrendered to simplistic, impulsive, fear-based “safety” and we’re reaping the consequences, one broken soul at a time.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. 

Joy Feels Troubling 11/25/15

The Aftermath of Paris

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

By Robert C. Koehler

I’m sitting in the aftermath of Paris, feeling emotions tear me apart. One of the emotions is joy. My daughter, who lives there, is safe.

Has “joy” ever felt so troubling?

The aftermath of Paris seems likely to be intensified (“pitiless”) bombing raids in Syria, closed borders, heightened fear-based security and the deletion of “the gray zones of coexistence” across the planet.

Oh, it’s so nice to have an enemy who is truly evil! The logic of war is so seductive. It simplifies all these complex emotions. Just watch the news.

The news is that terror wins. Indeed, terror is the cornerstone of civilization.

I couldn’t get that notion out of my head. That’s because I couldn’t stop thinking about an act of extraordinary terror that took place a little more than a dozen years ago, and its relevance to the world’s current state of shock and chaos. Doing so made it impossible to contemplate the raw savagery of the ISIS killings in Paris and Beirut and everywhere else — the “my God!” of it all, as innocent lives are cut short with such indifference — in a simplistic context of us vs. them.

In March of 2003, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq with a bombing campaign called “Shock and Awe,” consisting of some 1,700 air sorties over the country that killed, according to Iraq Body Count, more than 7,400 civilians.

We launched our war on Iraq with the intent to commit terror on a scale ISIS could only dream of. The relevance of this is inescapable, not simply because it makes the United States and NATO brothers in terror with ISIS, but also because the war shattered Iraq and caused the death and displacement of millions more people and, ultimately, created the conditions in which ISIS was able to come to power.

What’s haunting to me is the absence of this shockingly relevant recent history from most mainstream coverage of the Paris killings — or more to the point, the absence of almost any sort of trans-war consciousness, you might say, from the discussion of what we ought to do next.

Considering that bombing campaigns, and war itself, are not only the equivalent of terror (“writ large”) but also wildly ineffective and counterproductive, producing, in the long term, pretty much the opposite of what rational, non-war-mongers crave, the failure of politicians and mainstream media types to reach beyond a riled militarism in their reaction to the Dark Ages terror in which ISIS specializes bodes poorly, I fear, for the future of humanity.

My daughter, who last Friday night had been at a rehearsal for an upcoming poetry event, found herself, at 10 p.m., as she was leaving a tavern called Les Caves St.-Sabin, in the middle of the chaos. As she and her friends stepped into the street, someone came running past warning people to get back inside. They only learned, in bits and pieces, the enormity of what was still happening in their city. She spent the night at the tavern, a decorated basement that felt, she said, like a “medieval fallout shelter.” In the morning, the Metro was running again, and she returned to her apartment. Only then did the horror hit her with full ferocity. She sat and cried, then got up and went to work.

However, the tears continue, if only in silence. The Paris tears are a small tributary to a worldwide River of Sorrow that swells beyond Paris and beyond Europe and the West to the broken, bombed, war-ravaged nations of the Third and Fourth World, the source of the planet’s 60 million refugees. This is the world of ISIS. Instead of continuing to bomb this world, in our fear and anger, we could try to understand it.

“ISIS is the first group since Al Qaeda to offer these young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

So wrote Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, in a recent piece for The Nation. She and her colleagues, in an attempt to do just that — understand those who have given over their lives to ISIS — recently interviewed ISIS prisoners of war in Iraq and, in the process, found their humanity. Mostly they were young men in their 20s who grew up in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq; that is to say, in the midst of brutal civil war.

“The Americans came,” one of them told her. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”

Violence begets violence; war begets war. Knowing this is the starting place. It is time to start over.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Never Look Away 10/21/15

The Moral Rabbit Hole

By Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

The New York Times reported last week that U.S. soldiers still fighting the war in Afghanistan — 14 years on — are under orders to be “culturally sensitive” regarding different attitudes among our Afghan allies about, uh … the sexual abuse of children.

One officer was relieved of his command several years ago, the Times informed us, because he punched out an Afghan militia commander “for keeping a boy chained to his bed as a sex slave.” And in 2012, three Marines were shot and killed at a U.S. base in Helmand Province by a 17-year-old Afghan “tea boy” who may also have been the sex slave of a warlord ally stationed there — possibly in retaliation for the Marines’ failure to intervene in the situation. The father of one of the murdered Marines said that officers had told his son “to look the other way” regarding child rape “because it’s their culture.”

Oh, the sensitivity!

Shane Harris, writing a few days later in The Daily Beast, expanded on the moral helplessness of the American invaders in such matters: “A 45-minute scripted presentation given to Marines as part of their pre-deployment process … explains that laws and norms about sexual relations vary from country to country, and that in Afghanistan in particular, sexual assault is a ‘cultural’ issue, and not a purely legal one,” he wrote.

“… The training guide supports allegations by Marines and Army soldiers in recent days that they’ve been told not to intervene to prevent sexual assault in Afghanistan, including the rape and sexual enslavement of children on U.S. bases.”

Where does one start deconstructing the moral weirdness of all this? The stories don’t address the American invasion itself, which has shattered Afghanistan and created infinitely more harm than it has eradicated. Instead, we’re left seething at the scapegoat du jour: anonymous higher-ups, who are imposing strategically mandated directives on our boys on the ground: pedophile warlords are our partners in fighting the Taliban. Don’t look too closely at their leisure activities.

In the Times story, in particular, a sense of American innocence permeates the situation. Our soldiers know better and want to do the right thing — impose decent values on a sleazy, immoral culture — but despite being armed to the teeth, they can’t force our allies to behave like good Americans. The real villain here, if we look no deeper than the Times chooses to, is political correctness.

All of this suggests to me that the fact that certain U.S. allies in Afghanistan, in the war against our former allies (the Taliban), were wont to abuse local children sexually was not overlooked out of some screwball sensitivity to Afghan culture, but was cynically disregarded as irrelevant to the goal of defeating the enemy. What’s that you say? The “enemy” isn’t as bad as our friends? You’re missing the point. The point is victory.

Here on the home front, where we continue to fund this and all our other insane wars, military “victory” remains a feel-good mirage, some sort of triumph of good over evil. In the ravaged countries where we actually wage our wars, there is only moral breakdown everywhere you turn.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that sexual predation is very much built into American, and probably every other, military culture. Tens of thousands of women and men are raped in the U.S. armed forces every year; most of these incidents go unreported, because reporting a rape usually makes matters worse. That is, it’s not just in Afghanistan where “victims . . . risk blame and punishment for the crime that was committed against them,” as the Marine Corps training manual points out. It happens in every autocratic culture, including the U.S. military. The hammer of moral authority seldom falls on the ones who are in charge, no matter what they do.

Onward to victory, men (and gals)! Just be sensitive to the moral relativism of military culture. Don’t look too closely at what we don’t want you to see.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

How To Dance 9/30/15

Remembering How to Dance

By Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

“Native Americans have to concede that rain dances don’t work.”

Yeah, snort. How funny can you get? It’s the New Rules segment of “Real Time with Bill Maher” and the host has just tossed his gag tomahawk at the First People. A picture fills the screen: Indians in full regalia, dancing. The caption below it says, “Tribal Thumpers.” He pauses, straight-faced, eyeballs rolling in sarcasm. There’s a trickle of laughter amid the awkward silence, then Maher turns away from the camera, presumably toward the crew back stage, and calls out in his fake shame-on-me voice, “Are you making fun of Indians, Bill?”

The moment lasts about 20 seconds, then he’s on to the next put down joke.

So why am I still thinking about it a week later? Indeed, it has a hold of me like an insane car alarm that won’t shut up. What’s reverberating in my head isn’t some moral offense at a politically incorrect joke, which I could, I think, shrug off. What I can’t let go of is the arrogant American ignorance fueling this gag. It wasn’t funny. It was just stupid — but stupid in a way that celebrates and perpetuates pretty much everything that’s wrong with a popular brand of lack of respect.

The humor in the joke was, of course, that it brought a “civilized,” technologically advanced perspective — our perspective, as smart-phone wielding American spectator-consumers — to bear on the delusional rituals of savages. Patronizing chuckle. They think some dumb dance is going to make it rain. Not only is this cheap, bully humor, perpetuating a sense of feel-good superiority, it’s cluelessly Newtonian in a quantum world. The losers here are the ones trapped in linear thinking, who assume they understand a viewpoint about which they, in fact, know nothing.

“Regular Americans” have to concede that using up the planet’s resources doesn’t work. Perpetuating an economy based on war and environmental destruction doesn’t work. Invading Third World countries doesn’t work. Filling the ocean with plastic trash doesn’t work. Destroying everything we value doesn’t work.

We have work to do together.

This coming together is not a simplistic sort of acceptance or tolerance of other worldviews, e.g., the technologically advanced West benignly welcoming the primitives among us into the community of nations. The West — the planet’s colonizers — has to do something far more profound. It has to arrest its sense of superiority and let go of much of what it thinks it knows, in particular that we live in a linear, mechanical, cause-and-effect universe, full of separate objects — “facts” — that are disconnected, inert and awaiting our exploitation. We have to start relearning the nature of things.

Quantum physics, the cutting edge of Western science, has known for a while now that we don’t live in a mechanical universe. The universe is energy — spirit.

As physicist David Peat writes in his book Blackfoot Physics: “[S]cientists who have been struggling at the leading edge of their topics have created ideas that resonate with those of Indigenous science. For example, Quantum theory stresses the irreducible link between observer and observed and the basic holism of all phenomena. So too, Native Science holds that there is no separation between individual and society, between matter and spirit, between each one of us and the whole of nature.”

Such words start to deconstruct Maher’s joke. Maybe a rain dance isn’t meant to be an action as linear as turning on a faucet, but rather a joyous, intense means of participation with the universe. Perhaps there is no dividing line between human beings and the rest of the universe, and what they do, if that action emerges from their depths, has a quality as natural as thunder or rain.

“The assumption of the laws (of science) is that we’re a non-living universe,” biophysicist Beverly Rubik said at an event called the Language of Spirit Conference, in Albuquerque, that I attended a few years ago. “We ought to start over. We have a science that starts with deadness. It’s time to re-envision science — in a living universe.”

Perhaps we have to break open language itself in order to begin to become, again, knowingly part of a living universe. Rupert Ross, in Returning to the Teachings, at one point discusses the differences between noun-focused Western languages and verb-driven indigenous tongues.

“It has to do,” Ross writes, “with the difference between standing behind the triple-pane window of your cliffside mansion and watching the sun go down over a quieting ocean — and watching instead the first beginnings of a sunrise over that same ocean, but from flat on your belly on a wet surfboard three hundred miles out from shore, as the ocean beneath you awakens.

“In the cliffside mansion, there is a conviction of separation, stability, and control. On the surfboard, there is the conviction of intimate and inescapable exposure to unfathomable powers which, while they might let you ride them, will never let you gain control over them.”

Let’s recall how to live with helpless awe, how to subordinate our knowing to our awareness of the unfathomable. Most of all, let us remember how to dance with it.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Nuclear Nations Sued 8/26/15

A Wedge for Nuclear Disarmament

By Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

Robert Koehler

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith …”

What if words like this actually meant something?

This is Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the United States signed in 1970. It continues: “… on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Please read it again, slowly, understanding that 190 nations have signed onto these words: “a treaty on general and complete (nuclear) disarmament.” Here’s a wild thought. What if they were recited aloud every Sunday in churches and other public spaces across the nation, the way congregants at my parents’ church recited the Apostle’s Creed when I was a boy? Each word, slowly uttered, welled up from the soul. The words were sacred. Isn’t a world free of nuclear weapons — and beyond that, free of war itself — worth believing in?

The treaty’s preamble also calls for “the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery …”

What if these words could stand up to the geopolitics of cynicism and military-industrial profit? What if the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons — the NPT — weren’t simply a verbal coffin in which hope for humanity’s future lay interred? What if it could come to life and help reorganize global culture?

I ask such questions only because I suddenly believe it’s possible, thanks to an unlikely player in the geopolitical realm: a nation with a population of about 70,000 people. The Republic of the Marshall Islands filed suit in both the International Court of Justice in the Hague and U.S. federal court against the five NPT signatories — the United States, the U.K., China, Russia and France — that possess nuclear weapons, demanding that they comply with the treaty they signed. For good measure, the lawsuit demands compliance from the other four nuclear nations as well — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — on the grounds of international law and, well, sanity.

Here’s the thing. This audacious lawsuit is a disarmament wedge. I’ve been in touch with Laurie Ashton, the lead attorney for the case in U.S. federal court, and have read the brief appealing the suit’s dismissal, which was filed last month. To get this close to the case — to its language, to its soul — is to feel possibility begin pulsing in a unique way.

As Ashton put it, “The NGOs and protesters are just talk, talk, talk. But when you sue the nuclear nations, then they listen.”

Attesting to the seriousness of this suit, she noted: “The Marshall Islands are on record. They have a mission to make sure this never happens to another people again.”

This tiny nation of coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, once a U.S. trust territory, was the site of 67 above-ground nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. These tests, so cynically perpetrated on an “expendable” people, turned much of the area into radioactive wasteland, wrecked a way of life and created terrible health problems for the residents, with which they still struggle with two generations later.

“No nation should ever suffer as we have,” said Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Speaking of the appeal of the decision dismissing the U.S suit, he declared: “We are in this for the long haul. We remain steadfast in our belief that nuclear weapons benefit no one and that what is right for humankind will prevail.”

Only as I began to grasp the courage and determination behind the lawsuits did the words of the NPT start to come to life for me. In nearly half a century, no other nation or organization has sued for the enforcement of this treaty, which has been contemptuously ignored by the nations that possess and continue to upgrade their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. routinely invests tens (or hundreds) of billions of dollars annually into its nukes. The NPT, for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist — not for the haves.

But it does exist.

“At the time” — in the 1960s, as the NPT was being negotiated — “there was intent to negotiate nuclear disarmament,” Ashton said. “At the time, (the nuclear danger) was much more in the consciousness. It was a different era. The level of complacency we have now was not the case then.”

That intent was encased in legal language, then filed under the heading “irrelevant.” It disappeared for 45 years. But now it’s back.

In the case in U.S. federal court, which challenges only the U.S. arsenal, the Marshall Islands are claiming injury in two ways: 1. As a signatory of the treaty themselves, they are owed U.S. participation in disarmament negotiations, as per its agreement. 2. Without that participation, as the U.S. continues to upgrade and enhance its nuclear arsenal and maintain hundreds of weapons on hair-trigger alert, the Marshall Islands — and all the rest of the Planet Earth — are in “a measurable increased risk of grave danger” from nuclear weapons use, either intentional or accidental.

Oral arguments in the U.S. case are likely to begin sometime next year. There’s no telling what will happen, of course. But this is not mere powerless, symbolic protest of a great wrong. The Marshall Islands suits challenge the nuclear states at a level that could yield real, not symbolic, victory and change.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Them and Us 7/29/15

Armed insecurity

By Robert C. Koehler

Robert  Koehler

Robert Koehler

“… no real security, just powers of retaliation.”

This was Norman Mailer, four-plus decades ago, writing in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” about the obsessive security measures – “helicopters riding overhead like roller coasters, state troopers with magnums on their hip and crash helmets, squad cars, motorcycles” – at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, which … uh, didn’t actually provide security, but sure allowed us to get even afterwards.

This is still the unnoticed insanity haunting the American news cycle, whether the story being reported is domestic or international. As a society, we’re armed and dangerous – and always at war, both collectively and individually. We’re endlessly declaring bad guys (officially and unofficially) and endlessly protecting ourselves from them, in the process guaranteeing that the violence continues. And the parallels between “them” and “us” are unnerving.

Mohammad Abdulazeez opened fire at a naval reserve training facility in Chattanooga and killed five people. He was suffering from depression and possibly radicalized by ISIS. Fox News headlined the story: “Tennessee gunman was armed to the teeth and ready for war with America.” The story pointed out that he was a naturalized American citizen born in Kuwait.

A few days later, a gun shop owner in Florida posted a video on YouTube declaring, with the Confederate flag in the background as he spoke – summoning the spirit of Dylann Roof’s murder last month of nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C. – that his store, Florida Gun Supply in Inverness, was now a “Muslim-free zone.”

“I will not arm and train those who wish to harm my fellow patriots,” he said, paradoxically espousing a weird, racist form of gun control.

He also said: “We are in battle, patriots, but not only with Islamic extremism. We’re also in battle against extreme political correctness that threatens our lives because if we can’t call evil ‘evil’ for fear of offending people, then we can’t really defeat our enemies.”

Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, spoke of the shootings with less clarity about the nature of the enemy: “While we expect our sailors and Marines to go into harm’s way, and they do so without hesitation, an attack at home, in our community, is insidious and unfathomable.”

Yet a few days later at least 10 Afghan soldiers – American allies – died “at home, in their community” when the checkpoint they were manning in eastern Afghanistan was taken out in a U.S. helicopter strike, which the Afghan regional commander described as “a very big mistake.” He pointed out to the Washington Post that the strikers should have known they weren’t attacking the enemy because it happened in daylight and “the Afghanistan flag was waving on our post, when we came under attack.”

Well, you know, collateral damage and all. These things happen. But somehow the deaths of these soldiers didn’t cause the same stir the Chattanooga killings did, though the victims’ lives were equally precious and were cut short in an attack that probably seemed, to them, equally unfathomable.

But, whereas the Chattanooga shootings were a “horrific attack,” the friendly fire killings were an “incident” – just like all the other bomb and missile killings, accidental, intentional or whatever, of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade and a half. The Wall Street Journal added that the incident “threatens to strain relations” between the U.S. and its allies in the war that has no prospect of ending, but added that “the airstrike is under investigation,” which is the epitaph of choice for news stories about to be buried for eternity.

All of which leads me back to the Norman Mailer quote, that we have no real security, just a massive power to retaliate. This is the nature of armed self-defense. In order to feel like they have some control over an unfathomably complex world, many, many people – inspired by the governments they either revere or despise – categorize large swaths of the human race as bad guys, who therefore need not be regarded, or treated, as fully human.

As I wrote several years ago, speaking of the “moral injury” that so many vets bring home from their war service: “Killing is not a simple matter. It’s not a joke. The argument can be made that on occasion it’s necessary, but military killing is not about self-defense. Soldiers are trained to kill on command, and this is done not simply through physical preparedness exercises but through dehumanization of the enemy: a cult of dehumanization, you might say. Turns out we can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing ourselves.”

And the more that people lose touch with their own humanity, the more, I fear, they will feel the need to be armed – desperately imagining it’s the same thing as being secure. And the news cycle will continue, endlessly bringing us more of the same.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Context of Torture 7/8/15

Absolute Power

Robert  Koehler

Robert Koehler

By Robert C. Koehler

“The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images are turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.”

This was the Washington Post a few days ago, informing us wearily that the torture thing isn’t dead yet. The bureaucracy convulses, the wheels of justice grind. So much moral relativism to evaluate.

“They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation,” CIA director John Brennan said at a news conference in December, defending CIA interrogators after a portion of the 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report was made public.

Serving the nation means no more than doing what you’re told. Really?

God bless America. Flags wave, fireworks burst on the horizon. Aren’t we terrific? But this idea we celebrate — this nation, this principled union of humanity — is now just a military bureaucracy, full of dark secrets. The darkest, most highly classified secret of all is that we’re always at war and we always will be. And war is an end in itself. It has no purpose beyond its own perpetuation.

This is the context of torture.

At least this is what occurred to me as I reflected on the most recent non-news, that the existence of many thousands of photographs of U.S. black site operations are out there somewhere, classified but known and pulsing. What more can we learn that we don’t already know?

“On Nov. 20, 2002, (Gul) Rahman was found dead in his unheated cell. He was naked from the waist down and had been chained to a concrete floor. An autopsy concluded that he probably froze to death.”

So the Los Angeles Times informed us in December, in an article about two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were serving their country in the early days of the War on Terror by developing the CIA’s torture methodology.

“When he was left alone,” the article reported, describing another detainee’s experience, “(Abu) Zubaydah was placed in a stress position, left on a waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes.”

“In all, he spent 266 hours — 11 days and two hours — locked in the pitch-dark coffin, and 29 hours in a much smaller box. In response, he ‘cried,’ ‘begged,’ ‘whimpered’ and grew so distressed that ‘he was unable to effectively communicate,’” the interrogation team reported.

“The escalating torment, especially the waterboarding, affected some on the CIA team. ‘It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable,’ one wrote. Several days later, another added, ‘Several on the team profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.’”

And a few weeks ago, The (U.K.) Telegraph, quoting from the Senate Intelligence Committee Report, described the experience of Majid Khan, who “was raped while in CIA custody (‘rectal feeding’). He was sexually assaulted in other ways as well, including by having his ‘private parts’ touched while he was hung naked from the ceiling …

“‘Majid had an uncovered bucket for a toilet, no toilet paper, a sleeping mat and no light … For much of 2003 he lived in total darkness.’”

And the awkward part of all this, for defenders of the military bureaucracy, is that these torture procedures produced no information of any value. We sold our soul to the devil and got nothing at all in return. Bad deal.

Whatever details about the torture program remain classified and buried, these stories, along with plenty of shocking photographs, are fully public. There’s enough data here to open a deep conversation about what it means to be a nation and what the limits of power ought to be. What I see instead is a sort of official resignation — on the part of media and government — to the inevitability of out-of-control power in the pursuit of self-defense.

Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo—whose studies are literally textbook–called this phenomenon the Lucifer Effect: the utterly corrupting nature of total power over others. Reports of CIA torture are rife with observations that the interrogators were out of control. The information they sought from the utterly powerless detainees in their keep was a treasure to be extracted, like oil or diamonds from the bowels of the earth, and no technique was too inhumane, too morally odious, to achieve that end. Call it human fracking. It’s for the good of America.

The awareness that must emerge from a decade-and-counting of torture revelations is that absolute power over others does not keep us safe and should not be pursued. And torture is only a minute fraction of the wrong we promulgate through unchecked militarism, the aim of which is domination of the planet.

Step one in the unhealthy pursuit of power is the dehumanization of “the enemy.” The consequences of what we do after that will always haunt us.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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