21 February 2008

On undermining national security

President Bush was not happy with the Congress's unwillingness to give him more than 90% of the warrantless eavesdropping powers he wanted for himself and the phone companies. He enrolled you and me in his campaign to bully the recalcitrant House members: "Because Congress failed to act, it will be harder for our government to keep you safe from terrorist attack."

Maybe I've been blogging too long, because I feel as if I keep dealing with the same rhetorical tricks over and over again. We think that all we're doing is trying to protect our nation's foundational political principles, but our leader keeps accusing us of not understanding the mean world we live in, and the things our leaders must do to protect us. It doesn't seem to occur to them that we do understand, and we reject the tradeoff.

In considering the almighty value of "national security," it appears that we disagree on the definition of both words. In that earlier blog post I tried to rethink what security and safety mean. When the president tells "us" he's trying to keep "us" safe, we're not supposed to think too much about the safety and security of people who are not "us." We are supposed to believe that the safety he wants to give "us" from terrorism somehow outranks any other form of safety for which we organize as a society. And we're supposed to believe, against all evidence, that his team is somehow competent and trustworthy to provide that allegedly more important safety, even as they strip the country of the wealth needed to provide health coverage for all children.

Now, with this latest manifestation of political arrogance--"My administration will take every step within our power to minimize the damage caused by the House's irresponsible behavior"--I'm also ready to examine the adjective "national." When we think of the USA as a possible target of hostile action, the entity under threat is not just a collection of vulnerable targets festooned with red, white, and blue bunting. It's not alabaster cities and fruited plains, whose perfection is marred only by "irresponsible" Democrats and illegal aliens, and otherwise threatened only by external enemies such as those terrorists we must wiretap. No, the USA is still (despite all my reservations about American exceptionalism!) an extraordinary experiment in democracy, a nation built by rebels who rejected tyranny, and whose political progress consisted of expanding our understanding of inclusiveness, not truncating it.

Therefore, I see our present national leadership as constituting a threat to national security. True, they're not attacking from outside. Instead, they're tunneling underneath our most important political boundaries--the Constitution and its first ten amendments. And the Congress's irresponsibility is not its recent mild opposition to some aspects of White House policy, but its record of abjectly surrendering its balance-of-power prerogatives.

Others have done a fine job listing all the tools used to undermine our national security, but just as a reminder of the ones that make me angriest:
  • an illegal war, begun deceitfully, waged corruptly and incompetently
  • illegal wiretapping
  • barefaced legal tricks to hold prisoners beyond independent judicial scrutiny
  • wrong sharing of world resources, as Bob Cory used to say; preferential option for the rich
  • fierce defense of the right to use special interrogation methods
  • a domestic war on terror that includes, at the very least, the appearance of entrapment
  • a pattern of non-transparency and contempt of Congress long predating the U.S. attorneys' scandal
  • a refusal to engage in persistent, respectful, intellectually honest debates with our self-proclaimed enemies on the world stage; instead relying on the same old insults and swagger--resulting in a loss of value for our goodwill, another precious American asset.
Do you feel more secure? Does your neighbor? (And who is your neighbor?)

Righteous links:

If you think I'm being a bit harsh this week, Karen Greenberg's article, "Visiting the Torture Museum: Barbarism Then and Now," may help.

What would a cluster bomb do to your neighborhood?

Todd Rhoades (in Monday Morning Insight) cites John Burke in saying that a Christian leader's most critical task is creating culture. As I read this article, still seething about the breach of our "national security," I thought that much of what Rhoades and Burke say is also true of a country's president. Much of our president's job description is already determined by law or bureaucratic imperatives; we do need managerial competence, but we also need leaders who "create culture," who preach metanoia to the nation and to themselves.

Still staying at the connection point of politics and faith, I appreciated Jim Wallis saying, on his book-tour visit to Portland, that the engine of true social change begins with faith--faith that empowers hope, that engenders action, that causes change. Some of the questions Jim fielded that evening were from people who seemed to be ready to believe again after a season of hopelessness. Although Jim spoke for nearly 90 minutes, the essence of his message is here and here. (Sorry about the registration form--somehow it never seems to remember I've visited before!)

See Simon Barrow's Guardian/Comment is free op-ed, "A Question of conscience," concerning Rowan Williams's controversial reflections on possible accommodations of Islamic law in British civil society. Then see Simon's preliminary overview of the issues on his own blog, including the context for his Guardian piece (and its original title). (Simon promises: more to come.)

In the "books I wish I had time to read" dept: Innocents Abroad, by Jonathan Zimmerman.

. . . But I still want to read! So does Timothy Egan.

And in the "wonder what's in that dusty box" dept.: A recording of what may be Allen Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl" has been found a couple of miles down Woodstock Blvd from us, at Reed College.

Why I don't miss television

From acommonword.com:
On October 13th 2006, one month to the day after Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address of September 13th 2006, 38 Islamic authorities and scholars from around the world, representing all denominations and schools of thought, joined together to deliver an answer to the Pope in the spirit of open intellectual exchange and mutual understanding. In their Open Letter to the Pope (see english.pdf), for the first time in recent history, Muslim scholars from every branch of Islam spoke with one voice about the true teachings of Islam.
I was impressed by the collection of signatures on this Christian response (pdf) to "A Common Word." Among the signers was National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, who explains his signature here. (Thanks to Christian Peacemakers for calling attention to "A Common Word.")

Dessert--but this time it's bittersweet: I miss this musician so much, it almost hurts to play this clip with its beautiful close-ups, but I can't stop. (See many other clips from the same youtube member here.) Junior Wells sings "Hoodoo Man Blues."

And to think I had to hide his albums from my parents.


Bill Samuel said...

I find myself pondering the concept of national security as a parallel to security as a person. Insecure people are defensive, afraid to really open themselves to others, and needing to be controlling. Is the same true for a nation, and does that fit the USA to a T?

Would not being secure not be tied to defenses and "preparedness" but be a state of mind that is humbly confident, open to learning from others, and a willingness to cooperate without controlling? How do we move to that condition as a nation?

Johan Maurer said...

Good point. Spending as much on the military as the rest of the planet put together does sound like a symptom of national insecurity.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to me that your blog post contains commentary on the a-morality of the Iraq war decision AND a link to stories about separating church and state. Both in Norway and Great Britain, Muslims tend to favor continuing the state church model, where the church weighs in on moral issues such as going to war. Provided the state mitigates the privileges that the Lutheran church and Anglican church respectively, Muslims say that they see the state church insitution as a guarantee that politicians are accountable to religious principles. I have to say they have a point - in a setting where the president is not held accountable by church leaders, he does have the freedom to use religion for his own political purposes.

Having spent 17 years in Norway, I must concede that public discourse is conducted more in moral/ethical terms there than here in the USA.

The downside to having a state church, however, is that personal spirituality suffers when Lutheranism (as a cultural/ethical phenomenon without the faith component) is a mandatory part of education. Only 4% of Lutherans (roughly 90% of the population) attend church on a regular basis, while something like 60% of non-Lutherans (10%) attend church/mosque/synagogue etc on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

You inspired me to write a blog post I've been meaning to write for the past 4 years on how the church in a country with a state church can be a "Fifth Estate" and what we might learn from that in non-state church countries. http://susannekromberg.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/state-accountable-to-church/

Johan Maurer said...

Susanne--thanks for your two thought-provoking comments and the link. I think it is fascinating that Norway has had a Christian pastor as prime minister, and a Christian ethicist as an official advisor to the national rainy-day sovereign investment fund.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately it was that Christian pastor, Kjell Magne Bondevik, who headed the Norwegian government when Norway became an anonymous member of the Coalition of the Willing and lied to the Norwegian public about it. In fact, I wonder if the fact that he was a pastor was one of the reasons the churches in Norway were so naive about Norway's participation in the war. Another good reason for separation of church and state...?