Saturday, May 25, 2013

Some sober thoughts on Memorial Day 2013

We've all seen it ... at every sports venue, every school function ... the moms and dads who have been sent off to God-forsaken areas in the middle east, and who have come back and surprised their children, providing camera-ready human emotion and drama.

Even if you're a bit cynical about the manipulation that goes hand in hand with this, it's hard not to get swept up in it, and difficult not to get a lump in your throat over the pure joy in seeing families united after months and months of being separated.

The only problem? Such orchestrated homecomings tend to obscure the reasons these children have not seen their mothers and fathers for those months and months at a time. Are they still valid? Is it still that necessary to be sending moms and dads overseas to fight? Is there ever an upside to war in general? Or is war, as Edwin Starr sang so long ago, good for "absolutely nothing."

These are tough questions. There's a lot of gray area here. There aren't any easy answers.

Have we become too quick with the trigger finger? Have we worked arduously to prevent conflict from spreading or are we, at times, a little too willing to assert ourselves into an unstable fray in hopes that our sheer might will tilt the resolution in our favor? Do we even consider the reasons that terrorism -- which is why we feel compelled to get involved in these skirmishes in the first place -- has become such an effective weapon against us?

Sometimes I wonder. And that's where I'm at on Memorial Day 2013.

I do not say I have all the answers ... just the questions. People far more intelligent, and far more seasoned at handling thorny crises, are left to figure it all out. But I think we need to ask.

 But I will tell you this: While I have an enormous amount of respect and gratitude for those who have been thrust into harm's way to carry out a mission they had no hand in defining, we should be mature enough, in this country at least, to be able to make the distinction between supporting our troops unconditionally and questioning the decisions that have sent them into action.

 So right off, let me reiterate I have nothing but praise and admiration for our nation's soldiers, and join in thanking them when I see them (they never seem to know what to do when I go up to them in airports, or in other places, and simply shake their hands and say "thank you." I guess it's not a reaction they expect).

But I'm just not down with leaving it at that. I always want to say, after the thank you, "but it's still a huge tragedy that you had to go and risk your life trying to dodge improvised explosive devices, snipers and other assorted forms of military artillery." It's not a very pleasant subject to bring up, so I do not. But it's always there.

I'm with Edwin Starr. Wars is only good for the undertaker. As just as some wars may be, it's still war. It is still the single most barbaric, cruel, vicious, devastating, immoral and just plain sick act in which human beings can take part. When you put all the nationalism aside, and take our territorial instincts into consideration, the pursuit of ever-more-deadly weaponry for the purposes of killing people is still, in a word, insane. It's one of those cases where you begin to wish that the ability to think and solve complex problems, with which the process of evolution blessed us, could have been awarded to the lions, tigers and bears. Maybe they'd have figured out a way to use them without unleashing the devastating destruction we have.

Beyond the generally insane, war tends to bring out depravity at its worst in areas that often have nothing to do with why the combatants are fighting. I'm talking about the way prisoners of war are treated and the atrocities that occurred in Vietnam and Iraq (and, undoubtedly, in other places). They are as easy to understand as they are impossible to justify.

If you stick a group of intensely-trained youths in the middle of widespread hostility being waged against them, how on earth to you expect them to act civilly toward the people who have been shooting them and putting IEDs in their paths? If a war has escalated, and spiraled, so far out of control that little kids and old ladies are booby trapped with explosives, how do you expect soldiers to do anything else but burn the village down when they get the opportunity?

This is simply depravity matching depravity. Like I said, impossible to justify; easy to understand. There's a big difference.

Terrorism, as well, is equally impossible to justify, but just as equally easy to understand. Some of the regions in which we've concentrated our military cannot fight us back conventionally. They don't have near the weaponry or the technical sophistication to produce what we can produce ... unless they have nuclear weapons to wave in front of our faces. It's little wonder, for example, we went into Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 and -- to use the popular vernacular -- kicked ass. To have done anything else would have been the military scandal of the millennium.

Terrorism, to those without the conventional power to defeat us, helps even the score. It puts us on the the defensive ... causes us to be a little less sure of ourselves. And it is the fervent hope of the terrorists to give us an idea of the terror ordinary citizens in places such as Iraq -- people who have much less say in what their government does than we do -- feel when the bombs come raining down on them.

Again ... this is another reason why we need to be pretty damn careful about what we do, and where we do it. Chances are very good that even in a thoroughly justifiable offensive, the backlash, in the future, will include terrorism of some sort. Saddam Hussein's way of fighting back during the first Gulf War was to aim SCUDS at Israel. That's pretty much the same type of terror bombing the Nazis visited upon England during WWII.

When it comes to random attacks that could spring up anywhere, and by anyone, we're not in our element. How do we respond? Militarily? Legally? With covert ops? by branding all Muslims as enemies of the state? Profiling them? Perhaps there isn't a foolproof way.

Perhaps, sadly, terrorism may end up being the cost of doing business in the Middle East (and beyond) today. Each time you ratchet up the hostility or increase your unwanted presence in an unstable region (even if you think it's justified), you invite a more depraved reaction to it. That terrorism rears its ugly head at tragically inopportune times (not that there's ever an opportune time), or that it is so unconscionably indiscriminate, should be of no surprise. It not only destroys physically, it destroys even more psychologically.

Let's see, on July 4, how many Bostonians choose to stay home and watch the Pops on TV. I'm betting attendance is way down.

Once in a great while, someone comes along whose unparalleled paranoia forms a deadly alliance with a voracious appetite for hatred and cruelty ... someone whose mission is to throw the world into mass chaos, and someone to whom a military response is required. His name was Adolf Hitler. And while he may have died in 1945, the repercussions of all he did are still keenly felt today.

If you want one reason why the Israelis just might appear to be a little quick on the trigger, or a little too uncompromising in some of their policies and positions, consider that many of them, still, are children and grandchildren of people who had first-hand knowledge of concentration camps. Or, worse, they are children and grandchildren of people who died in those camps. The Jews in Europe were victims of a systematic, decade-long campaign of racism and hatred instigated by Hitler that culminated, by 1941, with the "Final Solution."

I'd imagine you, too, would have serious issues with people whose avowed mission is to wipe your country off the face of the earth. And you might see things from a different perspective sitting in the middle of a region 100 percent hostile to you as opposed to sitting on the Canadian border where the worst that could happen to you might be having a moose or a bear step in front of your car.

Of course, with all that, even eternal vigilance needs parameters. No one with a powerful military should have carte blanche. To me, the higher the military capability, the more checks and balances are needed to keep it from becoming the big stick hits innocent people over the head. And the more leaders entrusted with managing massive military machines should have to listen to the Hans Blix's of the world who endeavor to turn the bellicose hyperbole down a notch.

If there is to be war, let the United States jump in only when all other avenues to stop it have been exhausted. Let the United States not, ever, be the aggressor. And let us demand of our government a clear objective and a clear moral reason why taking such draconian measures is absolutely necessary. The minute it appears as if we're pulling reasons to justify war out of thin air, that should be our signal to put the brakes on and reassess.

Let us not be shielded from war's cruelty. Let us understand exactly what we're doing and what it means when we send our young people to remote locations to kill and be killed. Let our visceral reactions to such carnage be a part of the process that stops the madness.

Let war not be used to satisfy someone's geopolitical agenda.

Let us stand ready to confront the type of megalomaniac who could inflict catastrophic carnage on the world if left unchecked. But at the same time let us be very judicious of how we label those with whom we have geopolitical disagreements. Saddam Hussein may have been a tyrant, but I'm not sure he was ever the next Hitler.

Finally, let us, as free people with the right to pick and choose those who represent us, acknowledge our imperfections. Let us be able to cast a cynical eye on all the bellicose rhetoric without seeming as if we're lacking in support for our troops. I think just the opposite. I think those cynical eyes and uncomfortable questions support our troops in a much more meaningful way than a few shared memes on Facebook.

And that is where I am on Memorial Day 2013.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Let's not prove the terrorists right

At the end of the day, this is what I think. I think that terrorists are, by nature, not dumb people. I also think that terrorists, by nature, are inherently violent, and in a grandiose way. They are no different than the Adam Lanzas of the world. They feel as if the only way they can make a statement that will make everyone stand up and take notice is to do something spectacularly vile.

Otherwise, to them, they're faceless entities who have no relevance. You can call them sick. You can call them evil and twisted. But don't call them dumb.

They have studied us way more than we've studied them. They have tapped into the American psyche (some might even call it the American hubris). And they understand that whatever violence they do has far-reaching ramifications. It isn't just for the purpose of killing and maiming that the Tsaranev Brothers exploded two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It was also -- in a sense -- done to dispel our belief that we are above all the irrational hatred and prejudice that seems to thrive in their worlds, and spur them to such violence.

Please let's not let this horrific incident do this.

I believe we are above it. But I also believe that demonstrating our generic humanity and fairness is most important in stressful, tragic circumstances. That is when our nation's founding ideals come under most assault.

And those who would commit terrorism on American soil know this.

We certainly passed the test on April 15. Hundreds of first responders took their lives in their hands,  rushing to the scene of the bombings (just as they did in New York in 2001). Others rushed to give blood. The outpouring of genuine human emotion, and the thousands of different ways individuals responded to the crisis, helped -- I think -- helped heal us in the immediate aftermath.

Regardless of who blames whom in the fight over whether the FBI communicated with the Boston Police, no one can argue that the local authorities didn't work with the feds to apprehend the Tsaranevs as quickly as possible (the question of a virtual lockdown of the Boston area has validity but can be left for another time). The region-wide, visibly jubilant catharsis resulting from Dzhokhar's capture was spontaneous and genuine, even if it was a bit tacky for my taste personally. We caught the bad guy before he could commit another mass tragedy.

But I submit the immediate aftermath of this tragedy was the easy part ... not, perhaps, for the victims and their families, but for the rest of us who didn't have direct involvement. It's easy to stay united, and to stay strong, when the Bruins and Red Sox are holding virtual rallies, David Ortiz is spewing well-intentioned invective in front of 38,000 people at Fenway Park, and Neil Diamond flies all the way in from the West Coast to sing what has become the area's signature rallying song: Sweet Caroline.

It's a bit more difficult when confronted with the larger, tougher, issues that come later ... where there is no black and white, but many shades of gray. What do we do with Tamerlan's body? Do we read Dzhokhar (who IS a U.S. citizen) his rights? Do we try him via military tribunal or seek redress through the U.S. justice system (where constitutional rights are in place so innocent people aren't unjustifiably imprisoned and not, as some people suggest, the other way around)?

This is where it gets difficult. This is where procedure -- however unpopular -- has to supplant emotion. Tsaranev will get his trial, and to put on his defense, within a reasonable amount of time. But not tomorrow and not next week. And that's so the immediate, visceral emotion of what has happened can die down and be replaced by reason and the rules of evidence and procedure.

It must be this way. Otherwise, we become a nation of vigilantism and lynch mobs. We protect our suspects (such as Dzhokhar and -- I suppose -- Whitey Bulger) so that some other Jack Ruby isn't given an opportunity to murder them before we can get to the bottom of what they did and, perhaps why.

I mean, I have no idea what went on in Tamerlan Tsaranev's head, but I'd kind of like to know what possessed Dzhohkar, a seemingly well-assimilated and well-adjusted teenager, to convert to a side so dark he'd put a bomb behind a little boy. And I don't want some vigilante to assassinate him before we can attempt to find out ... and before whatever sick rationale he spews is made public at a trial.

Smart people who were victimized by much unfairness on the part of the British during colonial times devised these rights ... and from these rights, and the observance of them, came rules of evidence and procedure. These people obviously had a strong reason for creating this justice system. Perhaps they, or people they were associated with, fell victim to kangaroo courts that rushed to judgment without the slightest regard for the truth.

Every time a U.S. citizen is imprisoned in Iran or North Korea on some phony pretext, our visceral reaction is to blame the country's skewed political system, and its kangaroo courts, for the the problem. Do we really want that here?

I don't think we do. So we have to trust our judicial system that it will properly, legally, and competently present its case against Dzhohkar and earn the conviction he truly deserves.

It's the same thing with Tamerlan's remains. One of the things we do in this country is bury our dead (and if he lives here, he's our dead). We've interred many heinous individuals (some of them with funerals so ostentatious that they'd be funny if they weren't so blatantly hypocritical). We've sat there and taken it all in, some of us without doubt shaking their heads in amazement every step along the way.

Why? Because we've accepted that it's what we do in this country. So what if Gennaro Angiulo was responsible for maybe 20 times the death and mutilation ascribed to the Tsaranevs? His funeral stopped traffic ... and the police were the ones directing it. It was a spectacle. And it gave comfort to his family, even if it struck us as absurd.

That's why it was so disturbing to see the hate and fear machine stoked as much as it was this past week over where and how Tamerlan should be buried. It was a sorry spectacle. And as my friend Kris Mason likes to say, it's the product of a certain "rage addiction" that seems to have taken hold in this country. Someone else calls it the "Springer Virus." Either term fits.

And again, don't think the people who declare us their enemy haven't studied us sufficiently enough to know how this all works. There are those among us who live to incite mobs ... whether those mobs are spurred to violence or simply driven to the airwaves and newspaper blogs to just trash anything they don't like ... however irrational those dislikes might be.

Here's a news flash. We're not going to like everything. And no one ever said we would, or even should, like everything. I don't like broccoli and brussel sprouts. Should I ban them from being sold at my grocery store?

You don't have to like the fact that Tamerlan Tsaranev was buried in a Muslim cemetery in Virginia (if that's the case), but if you call yourself any kind of an American (or Christian) at all, you have to accept that's what we do. I'm a Catholic. I learned the Corporal Works of Mercy when I was in grammar school (the nuns even taught us a song about it). One of them is "bury the dead." It doesn't specify which dead.

What we do when we succumb to this "rage addiction hysteria" is feed the rage machine. God knows I'm no fan of George W. Bush, but he was right about one thing ... that those who attacked us on 9/11, and again on April 15, are dubious about our freedoms. Their belief systems find those freedoms subversive.

Not only that, the point I think they're trying to prove by doing this is that when push comes to shove, all these freedoms, and all this talk about diversity and tolerance, is simply a myth ... our own propaganda to show how high-minded we all are. When the issue is forced upon us, we can be just as paranoid, just as petty, irrational, small-minded, and suspicious as they are.

That is what they want to prove.

They want to show that we can form mobs just like they do. We can stand outside a funeral home with scathing signs and scathing language and rage irrationally against a man whose only crime was to follow one of those Corporal Works of Mercy that a religion perhaps many of us clam to devoutly follow asks us to practice.

It would have been nice had Tamerlan been buried in an unmarked grave, in an unknown location, and in the type of abject anonymity he richly deserved. Dickens had it right with Scrooge's grave. I envisioned Tamerlan's much the same.

But that's not going to happen now. It's either going to become a shrine to people of like mind who have found the irrational justification to twist a word (jihad) that simply means to teach into a war cry along the lines of "come home with your shield or on it"; or a target for the rage-addicted who seem to think that the louder and longer they scream, the more patriotic they are.

There isn't much we can do about the former. But please, please, please do not give the Tsaranevs of the world the satisfaction of allowing the latter to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.