Bigoted and isolationist rhetoric reflects a tarnished image of America

The Advocate’s editorial board has a somewhat spotty track record regarding the quality of its columns, but this one nailed it. Recent declarations by 31 governors that Syrian refugees would be denied entry to their states (under dubious legal authority) because one of the attackers in the recent Paris bombings appears to have come from Syria shows the worst and ugliest side of American politics. Sadly, while we normally only see this kind of stupidity on the elephant side of the aisle, the jackasses got in on it too, with Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and our own Democratic gubernatorial candidate adding their voices to the chorus of fear and paranoia. This follows our current governor’s letter to the president demanding more information about the handful of Syrians who have been allowed into Louisiana; it seems that, for once, our current administrator was actually ahead of the game in ramping up the scare tactics about Muslim invaders. Kudos, I guess.

Here’s the problem with all of this absurd hand-wringing: while the U.S. has long had (and continues to have) probably the most rigorous screening process for any migrants in any country in the world, the volume of immigrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS in Europe means that such screening is virtually impossible. Is there a good chance that the attacker in question did indeed come to France from Syria? Yes, there is, but consider this: approximately 10,000 people pour onto the shores of the Greek isles every day trying to escape the violence and destruction in their homeland. 10,000 is the total number of people that the administration has agreed to accept in the U.S.

No other country shares America’s unique heritage of immigration and it is one of the ideals that defines us as a nation that we welcome immigrants, especially those seeking asylum from totalitarian regimes. Now Ted Cruz wants to have a religious litmus-test as a condition of entry to America. Cruz should be ashamed of himself for so many reasons, and this is just the latest of them. Our own state “leaders” should be equally ashamed for their blatant appeals, in this election season, to the very worst demons of our nature.

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Return to Iraq

I was very disappointed to learn last week that the president had authorized a military re-engagement in Iraq. I know in some sense we’ve never really left any of the countries we’ve had armed conflicts in, as we seem to have military bases scattered all over the world in really peculiar places from a 21st-century perspective; it is nonetheless disheartening that this president who seems to pride himself on having drawn down our remaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan publicly, while engaging in a covert drone war that is essentially Bush’s War on Terror 2.0, is ready to begin a new campaign of airstrikes in our old quagmire.

Look, I know that Republicans want America to flex its muscles any time a pretty girl walks down the beach or a bully starts kicking sand in the bespectacled eyes of a Euro- or Middle Eastern nerd, but there’s no point in doing any of this to satisfy the administration’s war-hawk critics if for no other reason than that it won’t. Those critics have made it abundantly clear now, six years into Obama’s presidency, that there is no action that he could take in either domestic or international quarters that would be the right action. If Iraq is destabilized and eventually taken over by ISIS, they will claim this is because of his early withdrawal of forces and that we failed to provide sufficient logistical or “boots-on-the-ground” support to the central government. If ISIS ceases pushing into unoccupied sections of Iraq in order to consolidate its gains on a temporary or permanent basis, they will declare that we should move quickly to take back Fallujah and Mosul from the “terrorists.” In any case, they will always blame anything that goes wrong on Obama’s alleged failure to project America’s strength throughout the world the way that <insert your favorite Republican candidate or former president here> would have done.

So we can safely ignore that nonsense. What about America’s “you broke it, you bought it” responsibilities? It should be abundantly clear to anyone who’s been paying even the slightest modicum of attention over the last 11 years that America’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East have been and will continue to be a colossal failure for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that while we do bear some responsibility for the present state of Iraq, being the fragmented country that it was since the Allies drew its lines up after World War II, after we destroyed its infrastructure and the strong central government and replaced it with basically nothing. However we cannot seriously expect that another military engagement will result in anything other than more death, more destruction, and more misery for Iraqis. All we have to do is look at what happened in Bosnia to see how truly effective a campaign of airstrikes is for effecting political change. We would also do well to remember that the term “smart bomb” is a terrible oxymoron and however much we might like to pretend otherwise no airstrike will ever attain the precision that can be achieved with the physical presence of soldiers on the battlefield in a war zone. When we say that we’re using  targeted airstrikes to destroy our enemies, what we really mean is that the lives of our soldiers are more valuable than the lives of the citizens that live in the countries of our enemies. That is an appalling calculus to make.

I wish there were a voice of reason in Washington, someone who would stand up and say, “There is nothing to be gained by taking half-measures and pretending that this makes us somehow better than everyone else.” War is not the answer because this is a civil war, albeit one being directed from across the Syrian border. If we intervened in every civil war across the world we could do nothing else–and we would be held accountable for the next tyrannical regime that would inevitably emerge from such a conflagration. It’s not isolationism to recognize that we have never been and never can be “the world’s policeman.” While I see no harm in unilateral humanitarian missions, there simply is no dividend from repeating Clinton’s mistakes of the 1990s.

Between the initial draft of this post and its imminent publication, America has apparently committed to putting combat troops on the ground in northern Iraq and staging relief efforts from an airfield located in the same area. The news gets worse and worse.

No one’s hands are clean in sordid Innocence of Muslims affair

As I was listening to this interview on NPR the other day, I pondered just how this mess started and who was really to blame. The answer is that we all are to blame to some degree. Is it ridiculous to storm embassies and murder people because you don’t like a movie? Yes. But should America recognize that it bears some responsibility for fostering an environment where such offensive material is not merely allowed but encouraged? Oh yes.

Mr. Saunders was speaking on a slightly different but nevertheless relevant topic: the notion that Muslims invade countries like sleeper cells, reproduce rapidly, and threaten to dominate host country populations within a few generations. It’s a bit of a silly notion but one that has been making the rounds since Italians, Jews, Mexicans, and other unsavory types first began making their way to the Land of Opportunity. The point is this: we readily accept that the “others”–the people who don’t worship the same god (well, they actually do, but don’t tell your Christian friends because they would never associate their deity with the likes of Allah), dress the same way, speak the same language at home–are a threat simply by virtue of being different. Particularly in the post-9/11 world where everyone who reads seditious books or travels to the wrong countries is to be treated with great suspicion, we have let this narrative dominate public life in this country.

This survey by Gallup shows how American Muslims and other Western Muslims feel oppressed and isolated within the cultures they live in. This is an atmosphere that we subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) promote when our leaders make casual references to jihads and Crusades and when the media are filled with images of ethnically black or Arab Muslims as terrorists and supervillains. Many Muslim stereotypes (being prolific breeders may be among the least offensive) pervade not just American culture but Western culture in general and in this climate of hatred and fear all it takes is one unstable individual with ready access to weapons and you get a Sikh temple massacre or a Norwegian killing spree.

America and the rest of the world should acknowledge their sins in this regard, but the Muslim countries where so much fear and animosity has been stirred by the actions of a small and as-yet-unidentified group of filmmakers who have produced the equivalent of low-budget hate porn must shoulder some share of blame for this catastrophe as well. Ordinary citizens of places like Libya, Egypt and Iran should take the self-appointed leaders who claim to speak for them to task for igniting this tempest-in-a-teapot. Amid news that Iran has upped the ante by raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, claiming that if Rushdie had been killed twelve years ago, no one would have had the temerity to make something like the Innocence of Muslims trailer, maybe it’s time that the world’s mainstream Muslims acknowledge that, while they are personally deeply offended by depictions of Mohammed in Western media and would prefer that they did not exist, they are not a reason to blow up planes or destroy embassies.

Let’s be clear about something: one of the things that makes America a great nation is that we allow the presentation of unpopular points of view. Dissent is tolerated and even encouraged to some degree. At least that’s the way things are supposed to be. Increasingly we are seeing a shift away from the officially secular society that this nation was founded as over two centuries ago as hints appear that this country can be, always was, and should be a Christian nation. This too is wrong. As most of those who spout this kind of nonsense know, most of our founding fathers were deists (believers in a vague and impersonal deity who has no interest or involvement in the day-to-day affairs of individuals) not Christians. The Establishment Clause exists because 5,000 years of human history taught those men that “officially” religious countries are inevitably set up for conflict with neighbors who are not co-religionists. Turning this country into a kind of theocracy only sets us on a path to perpetual war–like our distant neighbors in the Middle East.

Nor should we abandon that most valuable of secular principles, the freedom of speech, to legally sanction the producers of this absurd film trailer. It is, as I said above, one of the great ideals of this society that even the atheist, the racist, and the blasphemous are given a voice, not because every voice has equal merit but because we privilege no one voice over another under the law. Thus, while the president was right to release those ads decrying the content of the video as not being representative of America (and we surely hope that it is not), he was equally right not to accede to the demands of those calling for state punishment of the offenders, who have committed no crime in this country.

Mitt Romney, in what I can only see as a desperate attempt to appear relevant, jumped in front of a camera last week so he could berate the president for “apologizing.” He is an idiot. I can’t even imagine which of his goofy advisors told him that the murder of an ambassador overseas in what appears to have been a well-planned assault could be fertile ground for partisan political maneuvering.

In any case, we should all take a hard look at our own reactions to this unfolding saga and what it means for the role of religious freedom, pluralism and the dream of what America can and should be, while reminding our brothers to the East that authoritarian rule and religious laws are not the sort of virtues that we wish to emulate.

Ironic and pathetic death and serious injury news for the week of October 24

Two news stories caught my eye this week.  New post-mortem results on 27-year-old singer Amy Winehouse’s blood show that she had several times the legal limit of alcohol (416 mg/mL) in her system when she died on July 23. Winehouse, by all reports a talented artist, was best known for her song, “Rehab,” the lyrics of which scoff at the idea that she needed professional help to combat addictions to drugs and alcohol:

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, “No, no, no”
Yes, I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go, go.

It’s a shame that this young lady threw away her life and a promising career for the sake of alcohol. Hopefully some of the young people who made this song a Top 10 hit here and in the U.K. will pause to consider this.

Tragic, pathetic and ironic for different reasons is the severe injury on October 25 of Iraq War veteran and political activist Scott Olsen in Oakland, CA. Olsen returned home after two tours of duty in Iraq and began expressing his displeasure with American foreign policy through groups like Iraq War Veterans for Peace and Iraq War Veterans Against the War. Accounts differ on what precisely caused Olsen’s injury–his former roommate and fellow ex-Marine Keith Shannon believes it was a tear-gas canister–but it seems clear that the injury was the result of an excessive police response to the crowd of protesters Tuesday night where nonlethal crowd-control measures were employed after rocks were allegedly thrown at officers. Olsen suffered a skull fracture and at the time of this writing has inflammation of the brain that will probably require surgery. This young man, who unlike tens of thousands of his colleagues, returned home with no physical scars, was exercising the constitutional right to peaceably assemble;  he will likely have his life shattered forever as a result of this incident. Ironically, war advocates tried to sell Olsen and the public at large on the premise that American cultural heritage and values such as the rights granted to citizens by the U.S. Constitution were in grave peril and thus we had to “fight them over there before they come over here”–this was a convenient ex post facto justification for the American military intervention in Iraq after all of the other pre-war rationales were debunked. Any number of lessons can be drawn from this episode but perhaps the most significant is that we as Americans need to recognize that protesting government policies is not only a time-honored tradition but a constitutional right that should not be trampled upon lightly by civil authorities for any reason.

Deep Thoughts from the Online Op-Ed Pages of The Advocate: Hang ‘Em High

The more Clint Eastwood-literate among you will recognize that I cribbed my subtitle from one of the roughly 700 vengeance-themed Westerns that he made in the ’70s and ’80s. This is in honor of the response to an article about an American flag being burned on the LSU campus by the poster who goes by the oh-so-appropriately-semi-literate moniker of gofigger:

Check the video camera. It’s time for a public hanging.

Here’s the article.

Sure, the flag was clearly the property of the university and therefore should not have been stolen for this purpose. But why do we sit over here in our easy chairs and scoff when we’re told about Danish newspaper editors being threatened with death for publishing images of the prophet Mohammed when we’re ready to leap out of them and hastily erect a gallows when someone protests American policies by burning a flag? Flag-burning is an act of political speech, and its constitutionality has been upheld by the Supreme Court (although I’m not sure the Roberts Court would rule the same way). It’s not a crime and if it’s offensive to people, frankly it’s supposed to be.

Nothing brings out that special Louisiana brand of racist or just plain crazy like a flag-burning. A cursory glance at the comments section for this article reveals how quick most of the readers are to lay the blame at the feet of foreign graduate students, liberal activists, and/or Muslims. Louisiana for Louisianans!

No one knows who burned this particular flag but the timing of the incident suggests an expression of anger over U.S. foreign policy. One might reasonably ask this question, then: what policies are we defending when we condemn this statement? Extralegal assassinations of foreign nationals? Cultivation of relationships of convenience with tyrannical heads of state like Pervez Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Qadafi–and, lest we forget, Saddam Hussein? Invasion of sovereign nations which pose no security risk to the United States?

It’s not necessarily reasonable to steal someone’s flag just for the sake of burning it. But it’s also not unreasonable to ask why America is exerting its power around the world in the various ways that it is currently doing so. And if we are so cash-poor that we cannot afford to continue operating the way that we have been (as so many Republicans are quick to state) then maybe we should start by reevaluating our foreign policy priorities.