Reed More Cautious in Committing Troops to Afghanistan

After posting a video earlier in the month questioning why the US is adding troops in Afghanistan, particularly as many in Rhode Island are being called up to serve, (see video here), I am very pleased to see today that Senator Reed is helping to urge more caution in this commitment. From the Projo:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “The burden of proof” will be on military leaders if they ask President Obama in the coming days to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Sen. Jack Reed said Tuesday, as the political lines of battle on the issue sharpened.

But Reed stopped short of the declaration by his longtime ally, Senate Armed Services
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, that a further increase in U.S. combat troops should not be undertaken until the military attempts a vigorous training program to boost the numbers of Afghanistan’s own security forces.

Levin thus put himself at odds with Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the committee in forceful terms that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is likely to ask soon for additional combat U.S. troops — on top of the 17,000 that Mr. Obama ordered into the war effort in March.

RI Air National Guard Hosts British Red Arrows

I received an invitation to attend the Air National Guard community initiative, LEADRI, and am planning to be there tomorrow. I am told that the air show this year will include the British Red Arrows who are featured in the video above. It should be quite the event!

LEADRI stands for Leaders Encouraging Advancement and Development for Rhode Island. It’s a program of the Air National Guard designed to “forge a close bond between the Guard and the diverse communities in Rhode Island,” according to invitational letter. I’m looking forward to this exciting opportunity.

Homeland Security in the Year 1692

Synchronicity? Yesterday I was driving up Rt.128 near Salem. Today’s New York Times has two stories about witchcraft on the editorial page.

From Hartford, Connecticut-

In 1662, the colonists of Hartford accused 39-year-old Mary Sanford of witchcraft. Based on evidence — drinking wine and dancing around a bonfire — the court pronounced her guilty “for not having the feare of God before thyne eyes.� Sanford was hanged, leaving behind five children and a shaken husband who was later acquitted of similar charges.

More than three centuries later, Sanford’s descendants, 14-year-old Addie Avery and her mother, Debra, of New Milford, Conn., have petitioned the State Legislature to exonerate their distant grandmother and 10 other people executed for witchcraft. The fight has taught them something, perhaps more than they wanted to know, about the mob mentality.

Mob mentality? Who could object to a symbolic gesture exonerating people who would never even be accused under any law on the books today? Leave it to the conservative blogs, like

This is the same sort of faux outrage we see from black Americans who want “apologies� or even reparations for slavery. It is foolish to imagine that an “apology� given 150 years after the end of a thing is in any way meaningful. No one is left on any side of the issue to either honestly offer or graciously accept such an apology. It happened. Deal with it.

If only such scapegoating were a thing of the distant past. Then we could conclude that we have nothing to learn from history and that our ancestors did nothing worth remembering. But today’s Times carries Nicholas D. Kristof’s warning that the societal stress of climate change is leading to a revival of the execution of women marked as witches.

In rural Tanzania, murders of elderly women accused of witchcraft are a very common form of homicide. And when Tanzania suffers unusual rainfall — either drought or flooding — witch-killings double, according to research by Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“In bad years, the killings explode,� Professor Miguel said. He believes that if climate change causes more drought years in Tanzania, the result will be more elderly women executed there and in other poor countries that still commonly attack supposed witches.

There is evidence that European witch-burnings in past centuries may also have resulted from climate variations and the resulting crop failures, economic distress and search for scapegoats. Emily Oster, a University of Chicago economist, tracked witchcraft trials and weather in Western Europe between 1520 and 1770 and found a close correlation: colder weather led to more crackdowns on witches.

Imagine living in fear of an enemy who is covert and ruthless. An enemy who hates us for all that we hold dear. An enemy who hides among us, using our freedoms and institutions against us. One who is so at war with all that we cherish that he is outside of our norms of fairness and decency. Our civilian legal tradition is helpless and impotent against such an enemy. We need special laws and prisons, special interrogation techniques. This was Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Sound familiar?

And the clergy, the good educated Christian ministers. Can we look to them to lead us back to the Gospel of forgiveness and love of neighbor? Not in Salem, where Rev. Cotton Mather whipped up a crowd to hang his fellow minister, George Burroughs, for witchcraft. The witchcraft panic made Cotton Mather’s career. He published several best-selling books and became famous. Ministers are still making names for themselves as fearless soldiers of the Lord.

[In Eket, Nigeria] preachers are turning their attentions to children – naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush…

Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people’s memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk. There are nearly 60 branches of Liberty Gospel across the Niger Delta. It was started by a local woman, mother-of-two Helen Ukpabio, whose luxurious house and expensive white Humvee are much admired in the city of Calabar where she now lives. Many people in this area credit the popular evangelical DVDs she produces and stars in with helping to spread the child witch belief.

Nigeria is a country divided between Christians and Muslims, with religious strife, poverty and political unrest. There is fear and desperation in Nigeria, just as in Salem in 1692. These are conditions that provide opportunities for demagogic politicians and religious entrepreneurs.

Not that we have those kinds of things here. In America we’re rational. And we’re never bitter, we always look on the bright side of life.

But we were not always so enlightened. When Mary Sanford was hanged, witchcraft trials were sporadic and few people were directly affected. If the accused was not yourself or someone you loved, then you could just keep your head down and thank the Lord that someone was cracking down on the crime of witchcraft. And sigh with relief that no one was paying attention to you.

But that all changed thirty years later when Salem turned on its own. Allegations and rumors swept through the community. In response to the panic, the normal legal process was replaced by the Court of Oyer and Terminer — hear and determine, so as to dispose of cases quickly in the crisis. Within a year, twenty innocent people, mostly church members, had been executed. Over 150 were imprisoned. Rich and poor alike were swept into the nightmare of accusation and detention, and for a while most of the citizens knew they were at risk.

So at great cost, Salem learned that the right to a fair trial and a defense lawyer is not just a luxury for peacetime, and that hearsay and testimony obtained under torture is worthless.

I hope that Mary Sanford really did drink wine and dance in the woods. I hope she had a moment of freedom from the heavy hand of frightened religious fundamentalism. Blessed be, sister. We’d better not forget you because we’re not home yet.

Dr. King’s Speech, Beyond Vietnam

Forty years since we have heard his voice, forty years since the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was murdered. If he had lived, he would not be the sainted figure who ‘had a dream’. He would be reviled and slandered now just as he was when he was alive.

Common Dreams has posted a long excerpt from Dr. King’s speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam’. The speech could be mined for sound-bytes on Fox quite effectively. King’s stand against the Vietnam War won him many enemies and lost him friends.

‘Beyond Vietnam’ is a long speech and a complex one. In the last twenty years the American public has chosen leaders who make it simple for us. At the same time, the percentage of people who bother to vote at all has dropped to a shameful low.

In 2005 the Iraqi people waved purple fingers for the cameras in what was supposed to be the beginning of democracy in Iraq. But the goal of real political order, established by the Iraqis themselves, is always the receding light at the end of the tunnel. The words of Dr. King, during the Vietnam War, have a resonance now…

“How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than 25 per cent communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them, the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant.

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and non-violence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know of his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

If we persist in looking for simple answers, ‘they hate us because of our freedom’ or ‘they are evil’ or ‘they are islamofacists’ then there’s only one final solution: kill them all. We are not going to untangle the ‘good Iraqis’ vs the ‘evil Iraqis’ because with every mis-step, we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. If we can learn from Vietnam, I hope that we can construct an exit strategy that will not leave Iraq prey to the mass murders and dislocations that took place after the US withdrew our troops from Vietnam. I hope the terrible genocide that took place in Cambodia will never be repeated again in history. The way out won’t be easy or simple. It won’t break down into inspirational sound bytes.

Dr. King’s speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam’, doesn’t break down into quotable, feel-good phrases. It’s long, hard and complicated. It’s reality-based. It’s being heard more and more today, forty years later, as we ask ourselves again how we got to this place again.

Sabrina Harman, Abu Ghraib Photographer

In some ways, it feels fun to me to talk about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton because, all inter-party jabbing aside, they are both about hope and both about a better future. It’s fundamentally a question of what flavor of hope suits your particular fancy, and that fancy can be liberal or conservative, as indicated by the recent endorsement of Barack Obama from young Rhode Island conservative Don Roach. (Yay, Don! Yay, Obama!) The bottom line is, it just can’t get much worse than what has happened under the leadership of George W. Bush.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s post: an excruciating but fascinating and important article in this week’s New Yorker called Exposure. The article, a collaboration of Philip Gourevitch and filmmaker Errol Morris, is mainly about the experiences of Sabrina Harman, a soldier in Iraq in 2003 who took pictures at Abu Ghraib.

This is the stuff about our nation and our future that is not so easy for me (or a lot of people) to talk about. It’s about how badly we failed our own standards, and how much we can be corrupted. It’s about how some of our young people went over to Iraq and participated in organized torture.

But there is good news, and part of that good news is Sabrina Harman, who had the guts and the will and the sheer hope about how the world would react to do something very important: document. She took over a hundred pictures of the occurrences at Abu Ghraib, and, despite that she was court-martialled, despite that she is smiling and giving a thumbs-up in some of the pictures taken next to tortured corpses, despite all this, Sabrina Harman is, in my opinion, a commendable American.

From the article:

All that the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, a Reserve unit out of Cresaptown, Maryland, knew about America’s biggest military prison in Iraq, when they arrived there in early October of 2003, was that it was on the front lines. Its official name was Forward Operating Base Abu Ghraib. Never mind that military doctrine and the Geneva Conventions forbid holding prisoners in a combat zone, and require that they be sped to the rear; you had to make the opposite sort of journey to get to Abu Ghraib. You had to travel along some of the deadliest roads in the country, constantly bombed and frequently ambushed, into the Sunni Triangle. The prison squatted on the desert, a wall of sheer concrete traced with barbed wire, picketed by watchtowers. “Like something from a Mad Max movie,� Sergeant Javal Davis, of the 372nd, said. “Just like that—like, medieval.� There were more than two and a half miles of wall with twenty-four towers, enclosing two hundred and eighty acres of prison ground. And inside, Davis said, “it’s nothing but rubble, blown-up buildings, dogs running all over the place, rabid dogs, burnt remains. The stench was unbearable: urine, feces, body rot.� [full text]

From Kenya to Kansas, Barack Obama Talks About Race

This speech is just incredible. It actually made me weepy at the end. The whole experience question gets turned on its head when you listen to Barack Obama talk about his life experiences, and his awareness of the racism mixed with the love all around him as he grew up. Here is a man whose life experience can bring a different understanding to the world.

A small sample from the speech:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

For a full transcript of the speech, go here.