Vermont Awesomeness

No need for me to comment. Smile

Vermont bill would end use of National Guard in Iraq

By Louis Porter Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER – Vermont lawmakers, who passed the first state resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq last year, are now pushing a bill disputing federal authority to continue using Vermont National Guard soldiers in the war.

The federal use of Vermont guard soldiers in Iraq was allowed under the 2002 authorization of the use of force in Iraq. But the justification for that permission – the threat from the state of Iraq and the need to enforce United Nations resolutions – has since expired, said Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln.

"The president no longer has the authority to command the Vermont National Guard in Iraq," Fisher said.

The bill Fisher will introduce today would begin the process of ending the involvement of Vermont National Guard members in Iraq, and has nearly 30 co-sponsors in the House, he said. Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, also supports the measure and said he will do what he can to move a version of the bill in the Senate.

.... Shumlin said when Washington has failed to act it is up to states to protect the members of their militias, even if they can't end the war.

"The question was not should Vermont guard members be mediating a civil war in Iraq," Shumlin said. "We can make cases for mediating civil wars all over the world. Let's have the debate."

"Vermont has led in the past. When we lead others follow," Shumlin said.

Indeed a handful of other state Legislatures are already considering or moving on similar legislation in a national effort, Fisher said.

Five Years of Gitmo

Five years ago today, the Guantanamo Bay detention center was born.  That's when the first 20 detainees arrived.  Now there are 400, being held without charge.  

The Bush administration pointedly refuses to call these people "prisoners of war," even tho they were supposedly taken in the “war on terror.” To call them prisoners of war would mean they were protected under the Geneva conventions.  Along similar lines, the Bush administration chose Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, outside of U.S. territory, because bringing them into the U.S. would have conferred upon them certain rights like the right to due process.  As it is, many of these men have been in the harsh conditions of Gitmo for years without charge.  Without being charged, they cannot challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court.  All of which begs the question: if, as our government keeps claiming, we are not doing anything wrong, then what is it that we are trying to hide?

Before Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. was a respected leader in human rights.  With a straight face and clean conscience, we could bear witness to injustice in other countries.  Now, we cannot.  

I can't believe how low we've fallen.  I want my country, whom I love, to be able to live up the ideals that we espouse.  To be proud again, instead of defensive.  I want people to once again hear our name with a sense of hope, not fear.

Five years of Gitmo is five too many.  It is time to repent America, to confess our sins and start saying "Hail Mary"s.

Happy Hanukkah!... sort of.

The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates a miracle in which oil that should only have been enough to last one night instead lasted for eight.  Less well known is the fact that the holiday of Hanukkah is associated with a war.  It commemorates the victorious Maccabean revolt, overthrowing Greek rule, and the re-dedication of the Temple.

How fitting it is then that on the first night of Hanukkah, we find ourselves embroiled in a war over oil in Iraq, and seemingly itching for war with its neighbor Iran.

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released its report yesterday, confirming what the the U.N. has been saying for a while now.  Iran has no nuclear weapons program.  They in fact have not pursued a nuclear weapons program since 2003.

This good news would evoke a sigh of relief from any rational person, but for our current president and his administration, they somehow interpret the lack of nuclear weapons as justification for their continued sabre-rattling.  Go figure.

Hanukkah has started.  Christmas is coming.  This is supposed to be a season of peace.  Let us pray that it is so.

Active versus Passive Harm

One of the questions every student of introductory ethics has to struggle with is something along the lines of the following scenario:

You are the conductor of a trolley car. While going down a steep incline you realize that the breaks have failed. Quickly you see that it is possible to turn onto a side track to stop the momentum of the car. However there are a few people standing there and if you turn the car onto those tracks, you will kill them. On the other hand, if you do nothing and let the car roll out of control, everyone on the crowded car will surely die. What do you do?

The scenario sets up a forced choice between actively killing a few versus passively letting many die. Which is worse? We had to ponder several permutations of this choice in my ethics class at Georgetown and I was unimpressed. "When", I thought, "would such a contrived scenario every occur? Why don't we focus on questions that we actually face in our lives?"

Today, it finally dawned on me that wrestling with the answer to this question was indeed a productive use of time. That we in fact make similar decisions all the time, tho we may not see it as such. I had been taking the question too literally, as who lives and who dies. But the heart of the ethical dilemma is active versus passive harm. Will we passively allow harm to happen to a great many people in order to avoid the responsibility that comes with hurting a few people?

And indeed we do this all the time, in our inability to address serious issues of social justice. We passively allow debilitating poverty to continue, generation after generation, when we actually have the means to end it, tho it would require some active inconvenience to ourselves. We passively allow global warming to continue by unthinkingly following our normal routines, causing great misery to the rest of the world, when we could actively adjust our life styles to end it, tho it might be "inconvenient." And we passively allow the wars to continue in our name...

In our society we somehow buy into the reasoning that if we simply allow things to happen, we are not as culpable as if we actively perform the act. And this view allows great suffering to continue unabated. Surely, there is something wrong with this kind of ethical reasoning.

Activist Monks

An image seared into my psyche from the earliest years of my consciousness is that of a burning Vietnamese monk. The incident happened before my existence but was repeatedly shown during the long, drawn out war. The flames so violent, yet the monk so stoic. So Buddhist.

The image of such drastic protest to oppression is in sharp contrast to the stereotype of monks I later developed while studying Buddhism and talking to various practitioners - stoic and detached. In fact, one of the few criticisms of Buddhism that I hold is that, unlike Christian liberation theology, it is a philosophy that does not encourage political involvement. While I had heard rumours of socially engaged Buddhism and even read a few books on the subject, I hadn't seen much evidence of it in recent years. (Aside from Thich Nhat Hahn of course, bless him.)

The events coming out of Burma in the last couple of months are bringing to mind the images of Vietnam again. Monks protesting in the streets. Monks leading the protests. Monks being targeted by the brutal Myanmar government. I am both heartened by their social engagement and appalled by what is happening to them as a result. When someone is brave enough to stand for justice in the face of overwhelming power, we must support them. If we do, they may succeed. If we don't, their suffering will be in vain and that will be on our heads.

Please stand with the Burmese protestors.

Sanity and Insanity

On the same day that the Supreme Court refused to listen to a case of wrongful abduction and torture by our government, the president of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, delivered over 13,000 signatures to Congress from UUs from all 50 states (and DC) calling on them to end the unjust war in Iraq.

Rev Sinkford joined Rev John Thomas, president of the UCC, our much larger cousins who delivered over 60,000 signatures for a combined total of more than 73,000 signatures. (The competitive part of me must point out that we got a higher percentage of signatures from UUs given our size.)

The response was incredible. We got positive emails from UUs all over the country stating how good it felt to be finally making our voice heard. People printed out the forms and took them to their congregations and faxed in signatures. We were swamped by success. The truth is that if we had somehow gotten our goal of 25,000 we would not be able to handle it. All day long for the last week faxes have been pouring in. Our sad little fax machine broke, a casualty of the war. And we had to hire temps to enter all the data in electronically. And Adam worked like a maniac, but he got the job done and our signatures were delivered by Sinkford to Congress, in a neatly bound 398 pages, organized by state, city, last name, and zip code, and "covered with an awesome cover letter."

I am told that they were impressed that it was a liberal religious voice calling for peace.

Meanwhile, just a sort distance away, by refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling that the "state secrets privilege" made it ok for our government to kidnap, hold, and torture innocent people all in the name of "fighting terrorism." Khaled el-Masri is a German citizen of Lebanese descent who was mistaken for a terrorist because of a mix-up in names. He was detained while vacationing in Macedonia in late 2003, shipped to a secret U.S. run prison in Afghanistan, and tortured for five months before they finally realized they had the wrong guy.

Mr. el-Masri is not alone. There have been numerous cases where our govt in its zeal has imprisoned and tortured the wrong person. There is debate over whether it's justifiable to use torture to extract information that might keep civilians safe (despite the fact that it's never been proven effective). But surely we can all agree that it is wrong to torture innocent people! Surely, if we are a just and civilized society, as we claim we are, then we can recognize this, instead of arguing that it's ok to harm innocents in the pursuit of our own protection.

As proud as I am of UUs today that's how ashamed I am of the U.S. government.

Witness for Peace!

I haven't (until now) plugged what happens at the UUA's Washington Office.  I feel the need to keep some semblance of separation between my personal opinions as a UU in this blog and my status as an employee of the UUA.  But this is just too exciting to not mention.  While I was away on vacation in Alaska, the UUA took on it's biggest online advocacy campaign ever.  We are attempting to collect 25,000 signatures witnessing for Peace.

The United Church of Christ (our religious cousins, the UCC) has been collecting signatures against the war in Iraq and they've invited us to join them.  On October 10th, both Rev. John Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and our UUA President, the Rev. Sinkford, will be visiting Congress to deliver a stack of petitions.  The petitions we have signed.  

Given that Congress is demonstrating an appalling lack of  moral backbone with respect to funding this war, our liberal religious voice calling for peace is more important than ever.  Together, we are not just a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.  Together, we have power.  Let Congress know what you think of this war.  Sign the petition today!



The Duck and the Dick

Sometime this afternoon I came up with the title of this post, but now I can't remember what the Duck is for. Maybe I'll remember by the time I finish writing.

The Dick otoh, refers to Vice-president Dick Cheney. A 1994 video interview of him popped up today where he rationally explains why "regime change" in Iraq would be a bad idea:

For those of you who don't have shockwave: "Because if we’d gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn’t have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq.

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it — eastern Iraq — the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq."

Funny, back in the 90s during the first gulf war, in response to reports from Amnesty International that Saddam was torturing Kuwaitis and that he had gassed Kurds, I was all in favor of "regime change." It was Papa Bush's administration that explained why this wasn't a good idea and they made a convincing case. In 2002/early 2003 as we ramped up the rhetoric and militia towards the current war, I was asking what had changed to make those arguments no longer valid. I'm still asking.

Hmmm... a google news search for "duck" tells me that Scary Spice's hubby killed a duck with a brick. But I really can't believe that's what I had intended to tie in with Dick Cheney. Or was it?

Hope for Darfur

The death toll for the genocide in Darfur is thought to be over 200,000. We have sat idle and watched (or not watched as the case may be) while innocents are slaughtered. This week brings some reason for hope. Both the United Nations and the United States took significant steps yesterday to bring an end to the killing.

Internationally, the UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force of 26,000 to protect aid workers and civilians. Domestically, the House of Representatives passed by a vote of 418-1 the Darfur Accountability and Divestment Act of 2007, which authorizes states and local governments to divest funds from companies that conduct business operations in Sudan, prohibits U.S. government contracts with companies fueling the genocide, and authorizes states to also prohibit contracts. (For the record the one naye vote was Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul from Texas.)

In related news, two weeks ago scientists announced the discovery of a giant (19,000 square mile) underground lake, which may contain the water that is so desperately needed in the drought stricken region.

"What most people don't really know is that the war, the instability, in Darfur is all based on the lack of water," said Farouk el-Baz, director of Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing. <...>

Widespread environmental problems are a root cause of Sudan's violence, the U.N. Development Program said in a report last month, noting that deserts had spread southwards by an average of 62 miles over the past four decades.

Many refugees from Darfur settled in regions that were once the domain of nomads, straining water resources and sowing conflict between farmers and nomads, said el-Baz.

"So now, if you find water for the farmers ... in addition to that for the nomads ... for agricultural production, to feed them, to give them grain, then you resolve the problem completely," he told Reuters in an interview.

Let us pray that these recent changes will help bring peace to the people of Darfur.

So Much for Peace III

One Unitarian Universalist was so disgusted by the recent disruption of a Hindu Senate prayer by conservative Christian activists that she blogged about it, calling the protesters "intolerant and ridiculous." Another Unitarian Universalist was so put off by the first UUs characterization that she blogged about that, calling the first UU an "asshole."

In the interest of full disclosure let me say that the first UU is a colleague of mine. Even so, I don't think that it's purely the bias of proximity that makes me think ChaliceChick's comments were not only inappropriate but highly ironic.

She titles her post "Is this who we want to be? Seriously?" and then goes on to say how she had intended to make fun of the Washington Office's blog "but got busy and forgot." More than her issue with my colleague, that line really struck me. Is this who she wants to be?

We, as Unitarian Universalists are supposed to respect everyone for their inherent worth and dignity. We're supposed to engage each other with justice, equity, and compassion. Sometimes, when the issues are heated and the "other side" seems unreasonable - as was the case with these hecklers disrupting a Hindu prayer while they were in town to protest the hates crimes bill on the pretense that it would impede their freedom of religion - it might be hard to remember that. The protesters were clearly intolerant, but calling them ridiculous may not have been the most constructive thing to do. On the other hand, what about a UU who, when she disagrees with a fellow UU, calls her an "asshole" and for her to be fired? Is that ChaliceChick's idea of a path to a better world?

And what about the comment about intending to "make fun of" fellow UUs but forgetting? I can't get over that one.

Conflict and disagreement are inevitable, but escalation is not. If one thinks that someone has crossed a line, calling them names and insulting them is not the way to bring us back towards peace.

Is this who we want to be? Good question.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative