Thursday, August 28, 2008

An interesting exchange

It started with a link my SIL sent to the members of my family:,15202,164859_1.000.html It's an op-ed written to a military affairs news site, by a man who had served with John McCain in the Navy. The piece explains why he will not vote for McCain. The author is an activist in the group Veterans For Peace.

My father responded:

This opinion is one of many. Some pro and some con. The writer has every right to it. However, it does sound a little like one who is jealous of the successes. For example, the passage on how McCain is only one of thousands of heroes. Everyone has a right to join whatever group they choose. Veterans for Peace is an honest, if mistaken, organization. Freedom is not free. It is paid for by the blood of thousands of "heroes" . And if the payment is not made, freedom will be lost.

In general when my father makes these sort of cliched remarks I let them stand and pass. They seem indicative of a stance that the remark is only the tip of the iceberg. To tug at that thread threatens to pull up everything that's ever been dropped into the pond. For some reason this day I chose differently and sent this message to the group:

When you say that Veterans for Peace is 'mistaken' and then say 'Freedom is not free' it makes me wonder what you mean by 'mistaken'. Do they believe that freedom is free? Or do they believe that each of the lives of these heroes is precious and should be spent with only the greatest of care and grave consideration? Is digging a hole and then having to expend lives and treasure to repair the damage a responsible expenditure?

Our freedom is as much at risk from within as from external enemies. I've been troubled by the quiet ways that George Bush and Dick Cheney have increased executive power, and the way they've done it. It appears to me that their means and rationale have been dubious and don't pass the smell test. I'm curious about the people who say we're defending our Freedom and then in the next breath say we should surrender our civil liberties in the name of security. They don't seem to realize the internal contradiction.

The increased power the executive has taken to itself isn't limited to a Republican administration. I was just reading an article about how neither presidential candidate has clearly renounced the increased power Bush has taken for the presidency. Our constitution is based on checks and balances among the three branches of government. I think that people who say that the president should have the power to overrule the other branches of government are saying that our republic is functional only during good times. I think that reveals a lack of faith in our democratic system that has endured for 232 years, both in times of peace and times of war.

Just my .02

At this point he responded to me privately, opting out of the group discussion:

Hi Debora,

As I understand Veterans for Peace, they believe peace at any nearly price is desirable. I do not. They also believe they are better suited to decide when (and if) to fight. I do not. That is why we elect a president and a congress. If we don't like their decisions, then unelect them next time. They have much more information than anyone else about the threat to our country and to our liberties. There are things for which I would fight and die if necessary although I dislike war about as much as anyone. As for the loss of civil liberties from President Bush and Vice-President Chaney, I have not noticed that I have lost any. By what means have they accomplished this piracy of our rights? The Patriot Act? It seems to me that Congress passed that bill. The interception of communications from foreign suspected terrorists to someone inside this country? It seems to me that to allow terrorists to communica te with each other in order to plan our murder is stupid. With all the "curtailment" of civil liberties, there has been not one major terrorist act in this country since 9/11, and it has not been for lack of attempts. Let's give some credit to those in authority who are charged with protecting the civilian population for this record. I do not want a "dirty" bomb or nuclear device to be exploded in a city in this country so that I can say my civil rights are not infringed. I am willing to be searched in an airport to ensure no one carries weapons on board. I am willing to make similar concessions to ensure detection and interdiction of plans to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

I am sorry if I am a dinosaur. This is the greatest country in the world. I do trust our government to a large extent, even those who are not conservative. I think they want the best for the country even though they have some misguided positions, according to me. Please forgive me for my out dated and perhaps short sighted thinking.

The biggest threat to our country is the exploding National Debt, now around $9.5 TRILLION. President Bush shares some responsibility for this, but the Congress is the main problem. They consitutionally are the organization that approves the budget and authorizes the spending. We can defeat the terrorists, but I wonder if we can defeat the congressman who wants to get reelected so badly that he promises a "Bridge to Nowhere", as most of them have.

I love you all

I thought about this for a couple days and wrote:

Hi, finally getting back to you.

I half wonder if the 9.5 trillion dollar debt in a backward way is GOOD for American security: a great deal of that debt is to China, and I can't see that it would be in their best interests to go to war with a nation that owes them that kind of money! Their best interest is to have us working away.

I think the main threat to civil liberties comes from the executive branch of the government accumulating power to itself. Under steps that the Bush administration has taken it can and has declared American citizens to be unlawful combatants and therefore can be held indefinitely without charge or access to a lawyer. No, it hasn't happened to many Americans, but you can see the potential for abuse.

Under the Material Witness Law immediately after 9-11 at least 70 men were taken into custody without charge or access to lawyers. Most were kept for over 2 months, one for 6, and another for a year. Many were never brought before a grand jury to testify or were asked for information about ties to terrorists. This was through the Justice Dept, an executive agency.

We have been informed that the FBI is found to have mis-used it's power to issue National Security Letters and has accessed information about people with no remote connection to terrorism. The Pentagon and CIA have their own versions of national security letters (although recipients have the right to refuse; recipients of the FBI NSL do not) The Pentagon and CIA are both much more involved in domestic intelligence than ever historically. We know that peaceful groups, such as Quakers have been monitored and their names entered into data bases. Again these are the actions of the executive branch.

We also know that over 700,000 people have found themselves mistakenly on 'do not fly' lists with little recourse and that Americans' bank data is being electronically surveilled.

Though we have not (yet) been personally affected by these actions (at least, not that we know of) and so might be inclined to dismiss them it matters very much to the people who have been. And what makes our country great is that it has enshrined in our Constitution basic human rights for individuals. All individuals are entitled to being treated according to the rule of law. So if an individual is deprived of his/her civil rights for arbitrary reasons and no just cause, we are all at risk--and from the government that has sworn to protect those rights.

America is a great country. However, this greatness is undermined by its government when it doesn't live up to the high standard set by our Constitution. It's not America that's been 'hated' around the world--America is still loved. It's when it fails to live up to its ideals that it draws criticism.


To which I received a rather terse reply: (the subject line was "sorry")


I think you and I will have to agree to disagree on this subject. I don't know where you got your numbers, and I am not disputing them. I just have a hard time imagining the FBI or the Justice Department coming up on a completely innocent person on the street and saying "We are going to hold you for the next year, we are not going to give you access to legal council and you can't argue with us". Sorry, but if a guy like Padilla was detained for a time, he probably did something to cause it. At least we do agree that this is a great country.


I had kept some of the web pages open that I'd cited my statements from, and I considered sending him some sources. However, his email seems to be a pretty clear door-slam, no-more-discussion message.

There's an interesting division among conservatives. It seems there are some who want to 'conserve' the human rights (also known as 'freedoms' in this country) guaranteed by our Constitution. And there are conservatives who claim allegiance to "freedom" but they're really about loyalty and obedience to authority. I suppose they are the ones who don't see the internal contradiction between talking about 'fighting for our freedom' and in the next breath ridiculing someone who expresses concern about erosion of our civil liberties.


Douglas W said...

There is so much to comment on in this exchange. But let me start with just to points.

The line "this is the greatest country in the world" worries me. It is the kind of line that is thrown about by those who feel extreme nationalist pride. By implication it suggests that every other country is therefore second rate.

It would be a good thing if we all taook a flight across the world and looked down and asked "Where are the national boundaries?" There are none. Countries and borders are essentially artificial divisions drawn on a map. Most national borders are not delineated on the ground and people cross between one country and the next without noticing any difference - think of the huge border between the US and Canada, or between the US and Mexico. The differences between what is on one side and what is on the other, if any, are man-made and artificial.

We are all members of the human race and citizens of the world. No one country should proclaim itself as being "the greatest" and then proceed to protect its own "interests" at the expense of those who just happen by a quirk of fate, to live elsewhere.

If there are some citizens of the world who feel disgruntled by the actions of others and resort to "terrorist" activities then the response should not be a simplistic "We are good and they are evil" mantra, but a questioning of how the world got to be this way in the first place and a striving to put it right in a humanitarian, not militaristic, way.

Nobody can claim to be "the greatest" while fellow citizens of the world living in poverty, disease and degradation.

That's the first point. Now for the second.

We have a similar "anti-terrorist" law here in Australia - a person suspected of some terrorist-related tendancy can be apprehended without being given details of the reasons that led to the arrest; without being able to communicate with family; without their lawyer knowing the details of the reason; and a whole string of draconian measures. It happened last year - a Doctor working in Queensland was arrested and detained because he had, a year earlier, given an unused SIM card to a cousin while on holiday in the UK. A year later the SIM card was found in the apartment of a person connected with another person who was implicated in an attempted bombing of Glasgow airport. The Doctor was held for several weeks with nobody knowing the details of why or what the specific evidence was. When an appeal to the court ordered his release he was then deported under a different provision that allowed persons of "bad character" to be deported. He had done nothing wrong and broken no laws.

I suspect the supporters of the American Revolution would have all been thrown into prison and the key thrown away if these laws existed back in the 1770s.

But then, I guess they felt they could resort to "terrorist" activities then because their "cause" was right.

And today, because a tiny percentage of the world's population feel they must resort to "terrorist" activities laws impinging on the liberties of the other 99 percent have been enacted.

It's a bit like justifying the occasional execution of an innocent person on the grounds that it will deter real murderers from murdering. Not likely.

It's a bit like arguing that all school students should be allowed to carry guns so that if the one in a million murderer comes onto the school grounds the other students can shoot him dead first.

In the land of opportunity and freedom why is it that such things exist? Why is the divide between the obscenely rich and the obscenely poor so great? Why do people seeking health care have to show their credit card first or be turned away?

Sometimes the people who proclaim "we are the greatest" should take time out to cross those imaginary borders, go out into the rest of the world, and listen to what the rest of the world is saying. There are plenty who say "you are the sickest".

excavator said...

Hi, Doug

I think that for some in the US, nationalism is sort of bound up into a bigger package of obedience to authority and quasi-religion. I think this is what Bill O'Reilley touches on in his book Culture Warrior when he talks about "traditional values" being "undermined" by "Secular Progressives".

A fascinating book called "America Right or Wrong", written by Anatole Levin, explores the 'anatomy' of nationalism in the U.S. frame of reference. He discusses the marriage of nationalism with traditional religious (Christian) values and the tilt toward authoritarianism and the odd inclusion of unconditional support for Israel. As I grew up with a backdrop of unquestioned patriotism as a norm, I found this book helpful in sorting out the various strands of what has seemed an oppressive presence.

Reading Ian McEwan's book, Saturday gave me an interesting term: anosognosia. The inability to recognize one's own deficits. Chauvinism is a harsher term. Once I'd thought that was an attitude that was a relic, but then I read about the Project for a New American Century which lays out very clearly a plan for American supremacy, backed by military force, and aggressive deterrence to any challenges to this hegemony. The authors and signers of this document are widely dispersed throughout the Bush administration, though many have since been fired or retired.

A number of years ago I took a Western Civilization course through a local community college. One of the conclusions I came away with was the destructive power of nationalism. Last night I was trying to find out if Russia had yet withdrawn from within Georgia. I found an entry in Wikipedia: "2008 South Ossetian War" and it included a map of the Caucasus region. It's astounding the numbers of different peoples who live in the region. The possibilities for conflict if each of these people decides to seek their own state is mind-boggling.

Did the anti-terrorist law made in Australia come before 9/11 in the United States happened? Or was it influenced at all by that event? Was it a result of any of the "You're with us or against us" rhetoric?

I was disturbed by the interaction with my father, and as I said wondered whether or not to pursue it further. I sense that he may actually be signaling being backed into a corner with his last message. From the heat I sense that this is a very big subject that he said we should 'agree to disagree' on. I think the bigger topic is about loyalty to authority and whether questioning it amounts to disloyalty. I was talking about it with my counselor because we've discussed the the dichotomy before that underlies right wing/left wing. I asked if there was any way to truly ever know who was "right" and she told me about a theory called Spiral Dynamics. It wasn't developed by Ken Wilbur but he's made use of it in his Integral Theory. I have his book A Theory of Everything and she said he summarizes it in there. So I looked it up today and see the notion of waves of consciousness which spiral higher, with each stage encompassing and building on the lower. He discusses the hostility between the stages of consciousness and how it is impossible for one level to be persuaded by another. Nationalism is on a tier with a "membership", conventional, and conformist worldview and self-identity.

Very interesting stuff, and a useful context to put this conversation with my father into.

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