Monday, September 9, 2013

Just war, Syria, and Captain America syndrome

With the possibility of strikes against Syria by our own government in mind, let's take a look at what the Church actually teaches about war (and I thank the reader who suggested this).  Here, first, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2307 The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.105
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."106
2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. 

The CCC then goes on to discuss the rights of countries to defend themselves and the right of competent authorities, in a just war situation, to compel their citizens to come to the nation's defense.

How does any of this relate to what's going on right now in Syria, and our justification for becoming involved?

This is not an area in which I have any expertise, but just seeing things as a Catholic laywoman, I would have to say that no case for intervention in Syria falling within the just war principles has even been made.  In fact, the more I look at that list of criteria, the more I think that the tendency of America in recent years has been to stop at principle #1: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain...  Once we've focused in on that, it's full speed ahead, at least in the recent past.

What's interesting about that is that I think that this tendency on the part of the American people to support wars when we see people in distant nations suffering under the cruelty of tyrants is, in fact, a good thing--even a noble thing.  It's the kind of thing the people who brought us this movie recognized when they portrayed the pre-Captain America version of Steve Rogers as the kind of guy who would stand up to bullies, even when he was no match for them--which made his transformation into a capable hero all the more satisfying.

But in the real world, the calculations we have to make before we enter a war don't stop with the knowledge that someone is being an unjust aggressor and hurting the innocent (and the questions which have been raised about just exactly what is going on in Syria indicate that we don't really know for sure that either side can claim innocence or the moral high ground here).  Even if we knew for a fact that Assad was inflicting damage on his nation that was going to be lasting, grave, and certain, we would still have to consider the other points: is there no other way to end this conflict?  Can we win? Will our entry into this fight produce greater harm than if we stayed out--especially given that last consideration about modern warfare and its ills (especially the tendency to target civilians disproportionately)?

Those aren't the kind of questions we should consider only after committing to action--they are the questions we must consider before committing to action.  Our national impulse to wish to help when people are suffering is a good thing, but it's also something that--in the real world--is far too easy to manipulate by those who have more cynical or more political or less pure motives to want to go to war.

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A nation of spies

News from the police state:

WASHINGTON (AP) - The National Security Agency has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order, according to a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

The order was granted by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25 and is good until July 19, the newspaper reported Wednesday. The order requires Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications companies, on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

The newspaper said the document, a copy of which it had obtained, shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens were being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrongdoing.

The Associated Press could not authenticate the order because documents from the court are classified.

Verizon spokesman Ed McFadden said Wednesday the company had no comment. The White House declined comment and referred questions to the NSA. The NSA had no immediate comment. [...]

Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.

The broad, unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is unusual. FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets. NSA warrantless wiretapping during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks was very controversial.

And more:
A robotic bird created for the U.S. Army for use as a miniature spy drone is so convincing that it has been attacked by hawks and eagles, according to researchers.

The Robo-Raven, as the solar-powered, remotely piloted surveillance aircraft is called, was designed and built at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Robotics Center — an interdisciplinary research establishment in the university’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. The center posted a video of a test flight this week.
The endless "war on terror" has created a nation of spies and spy technology that can and will be used against the innocent someday.  Meanwhile, even your DNA isn't safe from unwarranted search and seizure:
A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that police may take DNA samples when booking those arrested for serious crimes, narrowly upholding a Maryland law and opening the door to more widespread collection of DNA by law enforcement.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that government has a legitimate interest in collecting DNA from arrestees, just as it takes photographs and collects fingerprints. Rejecting the view that the practice constitutes an unlawful search, the majority said it was justified to establish the identity of the person in custody. [...]

The dissenters were three of the court’s liberals plus conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who amplified his displeasure by reading a summary of his dissent from the bench.

“The court has cast aside a bedrock rule of our Fourth Amendment law: that the government may not search its citizens for evidence of crime unless there is a reasonable cause to believe that such evidence will be found,” Scalia said from the bench.

In his dissent, Scalia wrote that the majority’s attempts to justify the use of DNA as an identification tool “taxes the credulity of the credulous.” He added, “Make no mistake about it: As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

So you don't have to be guilty of a crime to have your DNA or phone records collected by the government, or to be spied on by a robotic bird: you just have to be an American.  Which should make all Americans who don't particularly wish to live in a nation of spies and the spied-upon just a trifle uneasy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The toll of endless war

An Army staff sergeant will plead guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty following an Afghanistan war atrocity:
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is scheduled to enter guilty pleas to charges of premeditated murder June 5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, said lawyer John Henry Browne. A sentencing-phase trial set for September will determine whether he is sentenced to life in prison with or life without the possibility of parole. The judge and commanding general must approve a plea deal. [...]

Bales, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., slipped away from his remote southern Afghanistan outpost at Camp Belambay early on March 11, 2012, and attacked mud-walled compounds in two slumbering villages nearby.

Most of the victims were women and children, and some of the bodies were piled and burned. The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan. It was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

Bales was serving his fourth tour in a combat zone, and the allegations against him raised questions about the toll multiple deployments were taking on American troops. For that reason, many legal experts believed it that it was unlikely that he would receive the death penalty, as Army prosecutors were seeking. The military justice system hasn't executed anyone since 1961.

Why are our troops still in Afghanistan?  Why do we keep sending American soldiers to conflicts where the objectives are unclear and the exit strategy nonexistent?   When will we ever realize that the toll of endless war exacts too great a price on our own soldiers and on increasing numbers of innocent victims?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boston bomber should not be put to death

Earlier this week, Thomas McDonald wrote that he could see the possibility of a just decision to pursue the death penalty in the case of the surviving Boston bomber:
In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we need to consider other issues, however.

Is it possible he will ever get out? Given his age and our short memories, yes, it’s possible.

Is it possible he will be a danger to the public if he is imprisoned for life? Given his motives (radical religious fundamentalism acting in a global war against American citizens and interests), it seems quite obvious that he could be.

It’s too early to tell whether the death penalty will be pursued, and whether Catholics should support it if it is pursued. It’s still an open question for me, but I think as the story and case comes to light, Catholics should be able to learn what they can and make a prudential judgment about the support for, or rejection of, the application of the death penalty.

We do well to reject the death penalty whenever we can. Doing so promotes a wider culture of life and exercises the most powerful witness to God: mercy.

But there may be times when its application is in the good of society, if only to protect society in a way life in prison cannot. The Boston bombings may be one of those cases.

I appreciate the thoughtful tone of what McDonald writes here--this is not some kind of "death penalty cheerleading" which we have, sadly seen from some Catholics.  But even at the time that I read this post it was already seeming as though it might not be at all necessary to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the more information that comes out--though as always what the media tells us and what's really going on may end up varying rather widely in the end--the more it seems as though the possible justifications for a morally sound use of the death penalty are absent in this case.

Remember, here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the death penalty and the use of force to protect society from aggressors:
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.NT
Now, let's look at the situation we have here.

First, it cannot be said enough that both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar committed crimes of unspeakable evil, and that their actions were clearly those of unjust aggressors whom the state has an absolute duty to stop.  That lethal force was used to stop Tamerlan who had not only a gun but (reportedly) explosives and who was clearly not planning to surrender peacefully was clearly a just thing to do.

Having said that, though, we have to consider that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was apparently actually unarmed at the time of his capture (which makes one wonder about why the poor homeowner's boat had to get so terribly shot up).  Had the police used lethal force in their capture of him without even attempting to ascertain that he was, in fact, unarmed, it would be objectively unjust (even if, on a subjective level, we can understand that emotions were running high and fears that the second Tsarnaev brother might not only be armed but wearing a suicide vest were pretty rampant for a while).  But should lethal force--that is, the death penalty--still be considered a morally valid option in his case?

The question is not, remember, whether Tsarnaev is guilty of gravely evil acts that left innocent people dead and more innocent people seriously wounded--he is.  It is also not a question of how much under his brother's control he was, how much he has cooperated with authorities (or whether he has, now that he has been read his rights, stopped answering questions for the time being), or even whether he and his brother did plan further attacks--at least, those questions are going to be very interesting to law enforcement, but they don't by themselves answer the key question for Catholics pondering the morality of the death penalty in this case.  And that question is this: is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, himself, so serious a continuing threat to human life and safety that society can only be justly protected if he is put to death?

If the younger Tsarnaev brother had been the one in charge of things, if he had been the one who might have active ties to terrorist sleeper cells, and if law enforcement officials could show that he did, indeed, present a continued threat to the lives and safety of innocent people by the mere fact that he continues to breathe and have a heartbeat even if he spends the rest of his life behind bars, we might be able to answer in the affirmative.  But every single thing that has been revealed so far has shown that the Tsarnaevs acted alone, that the older brother, Tamerlan, was the one with radical ties and suspicious travel, that even so there's no evidence that Tamerlan had an active relationship with a terror cell full of people who will continue to carry out his plots.  In other words, the Tsarnaevs were, in the words of Mark Shea's tongue-in-cheek headline, a couple of Chechen losers, not the shadowy masterminds pulling the strings of a vast network of would-be killers.

So executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can't really be argued from the standpoint of the necessity of public safety and protecting human lives, with leaves us with this part of the Catechism quote above: "If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

And it is almost impossible to see how--barring some sort of gross negligence on the part of those responsible for his eventual incarceration--nonlethal means would not be sufficient to protect America from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.   Provided, then, that there is no sudden twist in our information which proves that the younger Tsarnaev brother really was calling the shots at the head of some vast network of killers and will continue to occupy that position behind bars, which seems almost as unlikely as CNN reporters refraining from publishing wild speculation as fact, I am confident as a Catholic saying that the surviving Boston bomber should not be put to death.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Abortion is both torture and murder

From the trial of Kermit Gosnell:
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A former abortion clinic worker capped the five-week murder trial of her former boss with powerful testimony that she saw more than 10 babies breathe before they were killed.

"I thought they were breathing," Kareema Cross testified Thursday, explaining that she saw their chests go up and down in the clinic run by Dr. Kermit Gosnell. "He would say they're not really breathing."

Cross, 28, is the final prosecution witness in the capital murder case against Gosnell. He is charged in the deaths of a patient and seven babies allegedly born alive.

Cross also described seeing three babies move, one after being born in a toilet, and heard a fourth give a "soft whine." [...]

She said she routinely saw Gosnell abort babies who were past the state's 24-week abortion limit. She said staff left late-term patients alone on the second floor after they'd been given painkillers and potent drugs to induce labor, and said some even stayed overnight unattended in a makeshift bedroom.

She said Gosnell and others snipped the backs of the babies' necks after they were born and sometimes removed the brain through the opening. And she described the clinic as filthy and the equipment as outdated. [...]

Another photograph, taken by a co-worker, showed "the largest baby she had ever seen" aborted at the clinic.

The jury has seen the disturbing picture before and heard from the boy's then-teenage mother. The baby's gestational age has been estimated by some to be nearly 30 weeks.

The teen mother was asleep when the baby came out, and Gosnell put the body in a container the size of a shoe box, Cross testified. The baby drew in its arms and legs and curled up in a fetal position, she said.
Is there any reason in a civilized country for this sort of thing to happen?  No, not really.  But in America, it is clear that the acceptance of Sex Without Consequences as a guiding principle of the public "virtue" requires easy abortion all the way through a pregnancy, up to the very moment of birth.  Dr. Gosnell's alleged crime is that he thought it would be okay to abort living children even after birth.  Even there, it could be argued that he is merely ahead of his time.

Abortion is both the torture and the murder of the living unborn human in his or her mother's womb.  But in America, only the born count--and only some of the born.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Anti-Semitism is neither traditional nor Catholic

In recent days, Dawn Eden, Mark Shea, and Simcha Fisher have been writing about anti-Semitism, especially a form of loud Internet anti-Semitism that tends to be associated with self-described Traditional Catholics.

Please note the careful phrasing of the above.  Just because some people who describe themselves as Traditional Catholics say rather disgusting things about the Jewish people does not in any way mean that all who are drawn to the Extraordinary Form Mass hold these opinions, or that anti-Semitism is somehow a component of traditional Catholic beliefs.  I am not saying either of these things, nor should those who love the Extraordinary Form but rightly reject all anti-Semitism feel as though this post is still somehow directed at them.  It isn't.

Here are some things the Church has said that are relevant to this topic:

From the Council of Trent:
Besides, to increase the dignity of this mystery, Christ not only suffered for sinners, but even for those who were the very authors and ministers of all the torments He endured. Of this the Apostle reminds us in these words addressed to the Hebrews: Think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. In this guilt are involved all those who fall frequently into sin; for, as our sins consigned Christ the Lord to the death of the cross, most certainly those who wallow in sin and iniquity crucify to themselves again the Son of God, as far as in them lies, and make a mockery of Him. This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him. [...]

Furthermore men of all ranks and conditions were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. Gentiles and Jews were the advisers, the authors, the ministers of His Passion: Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, all the rest deserted Him. 

From Nostra Aetate:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Divisions among the Jewish authorities concerning Jesus
595 Among the religious authorities of Jerusalem, not only were the Pharisee Nicodemus and the prominent Joseph of Arimathea both secret disciples of Jesus, but there was also long-standing dissension about him, so much so that St. John says of these authorities on the very eve of Christ's Passion, "many.. . believed in him", though very imperfectly.378 This is not surprising, if one recalls that on the day after Pentecost "a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" and "some believers. . . belonged to the party of the Pharisees", to the point that St. James could tell St. Paul, "How many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; and they are all zealous for the Law."379
596 The religious authorities in Jerusalem were not unanimous about what stance to take towards Jesus.380 The Pharisees threatened to excommunicate his followers.381 To those who feared that "everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation", the high priest Caiaphas replied by prophesying: "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish."382 The Sanhedrin, having declared Jesus deserving of death as a blasphemer but having lost the right to put anyone to death, hands him over to the Romans, accusing him of political revolt, a charge that puts him in the same category as Barabbas who had been accused of sedition.383 The chief priests also threatened Pilate politically so that he would condemn Jesus to death.384
Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus' death
597 The historical complexity of Jesus' trial is apparent in the Gospel accounts. The personal sin of the participants (Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate) is known to God alone. Hence we cannot lay responsibility for the trial on the Jews in Jerusalem as a whole, despite the outcry of a manipulated crowd and the global reproaches contained in the apostles' calls to conversion after Pentecost.385 Jesus himself, in forgiving them on the cross, and Peter in following suit, both accept "the ignorance" of the Jews of Jerusalem and even of their leaders.386 Still less can we extend responsibility to other Jews of different times and places, based merely on the crowd's cry: "His blood be on us and on our children!", a formula for ratifying a judicial sentence.387 As the Church declared at the Second Vatican Council:
. . . [N]either all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his Passion. . . [T]he Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture.388
And since this blog is primarily concerned with the social justice teachings of the Church, here is another relevant passage from the Catechism:

1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him:
What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.35
1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church's role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."37 No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a "neighbor," a brother. 

From all of the above, it should be easy to see that any hatred of or contempt toward the Jewish people is not compatible with the Catholic faith.  This hatred or contempt may take many forms: denying or minimizing the Holocaust, for example, or whispering about secret Jewish financial or economic conspiracies designed to control the world in some way, or a tendency to believe that powerful Jewish men and women are secretly engaged either in "infiltrating" the Church or in openly attacking Christianity through various political means.  I myself have heard and seen some of these ideas expressed at various times and in various places; when they are openly expressed it is both right and relatively simple to combat them by instant and complete repudiation of such notions.

There is nothing traditional or Catholic about harboring unjust discrimination against a group of one's neighbors; to do so is to treat human beings like objects, denying them their intrinsic dignity and worth as "other selves" and seeing them instead as some shadowy and less-than-human enemy.  It cannot be said clearly enough that this is wrong, and must not be permitted to continue.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Justice and mercy shall meet

Want to know what justice without mercy might look like?  Here's an example:
A Saudi court has ruled that a man who paralysed his best friend should now himself be crippled in an 'eye-for-an-eye' punishment.

Ali Al-Khawahir has been in prison since stabbing his friend in the backbone 10 years ago, when he was only 14 years old.

According to the Saudi Gazette, a court has ruled that the accused should now be "fully paralysed" unless he pays the compensation demanded by the victim.
Originally the victim asked for two million Saudi Riyals (£350,000) however this sum has since been reduced to one million Saudi Riyals (£176,000), according to Mail Online. 

It is not clear how the punishment would be carried out. However it has been speculated that the victim's spinal cord would be severed.

Al-Khawahir's 60-year-old mother, who does not have sufficient funds to pay the compensation, has begged people to contribute to the fund.

"Ten years have passed with hundreds of sleepless nights. My hair has become grey at a young age because of my son's problem. I have been frightened to death whenever I think about my son's fate and that he will have to be paralysed," she said according to a report in Saudi Gazette.
Now, nobody I know thinks that a boy of 14 who stabs his best friend in the back should be given a slap on the wrist and sent home.  He did something seriously wrong, and the punishment has to be serious as well.

Ten years in prison might or might not be just (though there's no word in this article on how much longer he will remain in jail).  But severing his spinal cord?  Most of us would not call that justice; we would call it cruel and unusual punishment.

But there was a time in history when such "eye-for-an-eye" punishment was the standard of justice.  It's even reflected in the Bible, in the book of Leviticus, when these kinds of punishments, which seem horrible to us today, were spelled out as being what was required in a variety of circumstances.

What changed?  Were those things just then, but unjust now?  Can justice change?  Or is it our understanding of justice and our appreciation for the necessity of mercy to season justice that has changed?

I don't think any of us would want to be in a place where justice meant deliberately severing the spinal cord of a man who is in prison.  And I think that says something about how Christianity changed our concept of what justice means, and what role mercy properly plays in our dispensing of it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Monstrous inhumanity at Gitmo

You've probably seen these kinds of posts popping up in the Catholic blogosphere already today, but I wanted to take part in this effort to raise awareness about what's going on at the Guantanamo prison...

Did you know that there's been a hunger strike going on among prisoners held at Guantanamo for six weeks now?  And that the number of those participating has risen to include 24 of the 166 prisoners there, most of whom have been held for eleven years now without even being charged?  And that half of them have been cleared to be released or transferred, but they're still being held?

Neither did I.  And information in the mainstream media about all of this has been rather scanty.  For instance, here's a bit from a Reuters piece:
Periodic hunger strikes have occurred at Guantanamo since shortly after the prison opened in January 2002 to house suspects captured in overseas counterterrorism operations after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The prison has 166 inmates. Nearly all have been held for 11 years without charge, and about half have been cleared for transfer or release. Many are Yemenis who the United States will not repatriate at this time because of instability in that country.

More than 50 lawyers representing the prisoners sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week urging him to help end the hunger strike, which they said began on February 6 to protest the confiscation of letters, photographs and legal mail, and the rough handling of Korans during searches of their cells.

They said the participants' health had deteriorated alarmingly, and that some had lost more than 20 or 30 pounds (9 to 14 kilograms). Kelly said the prisoners who spoke to Guantanamo staff cited other reasons for the strike.

"They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed. They were devastated apparently ... when the president backed off, at least (that's) their perception, of closing the facility," Kelly told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in Washington.

Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman at the detention camp, said 24 Guantanamo captives were on a hunger strike and eight had lost enough weight that doctors were force-feeding them liquid nutrients thorough tubes inserted in their noses and into their stomachs. Two were hospitalized with dehydration, he said.
 And here's a similar look from CNN:

More prisoners have joined a hunger strike at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The number of suspected terrorists involved has risen to 24 as of Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said.

There were 14 last week. U.S. military officials deny detainee lives are in danger. [...]

Beginning last year through mid-February, between five and six detainees started and stopped hunger strikes, Breasseale said.

But the numbers grew after lawyers for some of the detainees drew attention to conditions at the facility, Breasseale said.

"The reports of hunger-strike related deteriorating health and detainees losing massive amounts of weight are simply untrue," Breasseale said.

David Remes, a Washington-based lawyer who represents 15 detainees at Guantanamo, said his February visit shocked him.

"I think every one of the clients I saw had lost 30 pounds or more when I was there," Remes said. "They were weak and chilled."

Remes said two of his clients were unable to meet because they were too weak from their hunger strike. He said he knows that at least six of his clients are participating.

Can you imagine the outcry that would be taking place in the mainstream media if this were happening in a Republican administration?  And it would be justified, make no mistake.  Holding prisoners for eleven years without even charging them with crimes, when half of them could be released or transferred today, is simply monstrous inhumanity.  Calling the prisoners "detainees" and "suspected terrorists" shouldn't reduce their humanity in our eyes; if you've been held as a "suspect" in jail for eleven years you are no longer a suspect; you are a political prisoner.  Where is the evidence that any of these people were ever involved in actual terrorist acts?  At the very least, the ones who have been cleared to be released but are still being held are having their human rights violated in the most egregious way.

Go to the Ironic Catholic's blog post to find links that will help you contact the president and your elected officials about this.  And I encourage you to pray for the situation to improve and for the prisoners to be treated with their full human dignity, which would include at the very minimum releasing and transferring those who have already been cleared for this to happen.

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Don't say it can't happen in America

A man was arrested in New Mexico and kept in solitary confinement for 22 months without ever even being brought before a judge:
Stephen Slevin spent 22 months in solitary confinement in a New Mexico jail. During that time, his mental health deteriorated, fungus grew on his skin, and he was forced to pull his own tooth after being denied access to a dentist. A recent settlement with Dona Ana County resulted in Slevin receiving $15.5 million.

Initially, Slevin was awarded $22 million by a jury, but Dona Ana County appealed. The two parties reached an agreement this week. According to NBC News, Slevin's attorney, Matt Coyte, said his client's "mental health has been severely compromised from the time he was in that facility. That continues to be the same. No amount of money will bring back what they took away from him. But it’s nice to be able to get him some money so he can improve where he is in life and move on."

During his 22 months in solitary confinement, Slevin developed bedsores and lost 50 pounds. The ordeal began in 2005 when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and stealing a car, which he says he borrowed from a friend. Slevin was never brought before a judge nor was he officially convicted of any crime. He said he wrote letters, begging for help with his depression. The before and after photos show the effect the 22 months of neglect had.

If you think this kind of thing can't happen in America, think again. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Well, that's reassuring

United States Attorney General Eric Holder says Obama can indeed order drone strikes against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil--but that he probably won't:

President Barack Obama has the legal authority to unleash deadly force—such as drone strikes—against Americans on U.S. soil without first putting them on trial, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter released Tuesday.

But Holder, writing to Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, underlined that Obama “has no intention” of targeting his fellow citizens with unmanned aerial vehicles and would do so only if facing “an extraordinary circumstance.”

Paul had asked the Obama administration on Feb. 20 whether the president "has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil and without trial." On Tuesday, he denounced Holder's response as “frightening” and “an affront to the Constitutional due process rights of all Americans.”

“The U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so,” Holder assured Paul in the March 4, 2013 letter. The attorney general also underlined that “we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat.

Holder added: “The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no President will ever have to confront."
Bottom line: the U.S. Attorney General says it's okay for the President to kill American citizens without trial or due process under some undefined "extraordinary circumstance."  But it's all just hypothetical, so no need to worry.

Well, that's reassuring.  Er, not.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A history lesson

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea)

The blogger Magister Christianus, a classical scholar and teacher, is sharing an important history lesson with us today:
So what was this ultimate decree of the senate that caused such confusion and judicial hullabaloo? It was a vaguely worded decree that seemed to give the consuls, the chief executives of the Roman state, unlimited power. It stated, "Consules videant ne quid res publica detrimenti capiat." "Let the consuls see to it that the republic suffer no harm." The problem with this was that, if interpreted to mean the consuls could order the summary execution of citizens, then it seemed to violate a series of laws dating back to the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the republic in 509 B.C., all of which guaranteed a citizen's right to a trial in a capital case.

In the events of 63 and the Catilinarian conspiracy, Cicero tried to get around this by maneuvering the senate into a position to judge Catiline and his followers hostes, or public enemies. A hostis was an enemy outside of Rome who had taken up arms against her. Cicero argued that this was precisely Catiline's state. He had, in fact, stockpiled arms and men in the passes around Etruria and was planning a military strike on Rome. As historians have observed, however, included one Classics graduate student in his Master's thesis, that while it was perfectly legal to kill an enemy combatant, such as Hannibal, the questions still remained as to whether the senate had any judicial authority to pronounce someone as hostis, and even if it did under certain circumstances, whether it could summarily strip a citizen of his rights as a citizen. Could the senate point its finger at a citizen and proclaim, "You are a hostis and as such we can kill you with impunity.

So why the history lesson? A white paper has just been released from the Obama Department of Justice arguing for precisely the same power to be given to the President. Precisely. The difference between President Obama and Cicero (okay, there are vast differences between the two) is that Cicero tried to work within the law. His efforts may be seen as questionable, but he did at least keep up some pretense of democratic process. This is not the case with our President, as Glenn Greenwald's article in The Guardian makes clear. Let's face it. If the ACLU is against President Obama on this one, then you know something is up. The President's efforts to secure this power to himself have been wrapped in secrecy. There is nothing of Cicero's open-floor speeches making the case.
 Read the rest here.

When I read Magister Christianus's post, I was struck by the idea that even back in Roman days, anyone who objected to this vague decree might be met by the hostile question: "What are you saying?  You think it's okay to stand by and twiddle our thumbs and let the Republic come to harm rather than take out our enemies before they can destroy us?"  Which, when you come to think of it, is a question that has an oddly familiar ring.

Torture, drone warfare, giving the President of the United States the power to order the assassination of American citizens without due process--all of these are what happens when liberty and reason are surrendered to a climate of fear and suspicion.  We don't have to doubt the eventual outcome.  We have the lessons of history to show us what happens when people trade liberty for security, and end up with neither.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I share this today as a small reminder that Americans aren't the only ones capable of treating prisoners inhumanely:
Ibrahim al-Halabi was confused by my questions. He could neither tell me how he landed himself in a makeshift prison cell nor respond to even simple queries, like what job he held. The 27-year-old had been picked up at a routine checkpoint in the city of Aleppo by rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the Syrian regime. When he could not provide identification papers, they arrested him.

My broken Egyptian Arabic was probably not to blame for the troubled communication, because another inmate offered logical responses to the same routine questions. But with Ibrahim, they only elicited a bewildered gaze.

On the rare occasion when he did speak, Ibrahim provided contradictory responses. At times he said he worked in a textile factory. Other times he said he was unemployed. Once he even admitted that he had worked for the regime's paramilitary, known as the shabiha, albeit for only two days. Ibrahim was clearly scared. His left hand never stopped shaking. Red spots on his forehead and nose covered the marks where his captors had beaten him. When Ibrahim refused to speak, a fighter yelled at him "Liar! Shabih! Dog!" before intensifying his pain with several slaps to the face.

After a fruitless hour, I gave up trying to extract information from Ibrahim, concluding that the man the rebels accused of iniquitous deeds was a harmless patsy who likely suffered from a mental illness that impeded his ability to communicate with any precision. The handicaps that hinder interacting with others probably rendered FSA fighters suspicious and accounted for his unfortunate incarceration, for Ibrahim did not appear to know how to hold a Kalashnikov let alone even use one. [...]

The United States recently labeled Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, claiming that it is a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But if Washington hoped the move would persuade other FSA units to distance themselves from the group, it grossly miscalculated. For in the Arab world, whatever America thinks is bad must be good. During my time in Aleppo, I was accosted daily by fighters and civilians demanding to know why the United States has blacklisted an organization that has done so much good in society.

When I shared these experiences with Abu al-Hassan, a Jabha fighter, he smiled approvingly. "Civilians are fed up with the FSA. There is lots of stealing, lots of bad treatment of civilians," he said. Abu al-Hassan then listed off the reasons why his organization is so popular. One stood out among his litany. "The FSA just accuses people of being shabiha and takes them away without proof. We require two witnesses."

The organization did not haphazardly choose the number. Islamic law requires two able-bodied male witnesses to prosecute someone, in order to protect innocent people from being wrongly accused for personal or financial motives.

Islamic justice would likely have spared Ibrahim, the mentally challenged prisoner I interviewed, his anguish in the room across the hall from me. Though his captors offered me no proof of his crimes, during the night they continuously humiliated him to the point of tears. Behind thick steel doors the sounds of a grown man crying were all I could make out. And his torment has left Ibrahim just one more Syrian whom the FSA lost from their dwindling role of supporters. 
 Read the whole thing here.

A commenter at the Atlantic's website (where the piece originates) points out that this prisoner was being slapped and beaten for not answering the journalist's questions.   Are we now so inured to the torture of prisoners as a routine part of incarceration that a journalist would not simply refuse to participate in such a thing, ending the session immediately?  What is wrong with us that we are so nonchalant in the face of the inhumane?