Jajja’s Kids and the Power of Kindness

October 3, 2017

I awoke yesterday to the horrible reports from Las Vegas but I decided to take a week to organize what I want to say, and deal with guns and Vegas next week. This week I want to tell a story about generosity.

For some of us, generosity is its own reward. Others need to be shown that it does some good, not only for others but for themselves. Take it either way. I don’t care to be judgmental but the consequences, both ways, are important. I want to illustrate that with Jajja’s Kids. Jajja means grandmother in Uganda but it’s an honorific, not confined to actual family relations. A lovely local woman, Diane Reiner, has taken on that role with Ronnie Sseruyange who has become like a son to her.

I have spoken about Jajja’s Kids before and WAMC’s Joe Donahue has interviewed the people who make it happen. But I was at a fundraiser for Jajja’s Kids and it’s message is important to ponder.

When his mother died, six-year-old Ronnie Sseruyange, had to fend for himself on the streets of Uganda, and was promptly welcome to the streets by an older child who broke his jaw. But at 16, Ronnie was taken in to a youth shelter, and he turned around to look after other street children, to feed, clothe, house and educate them, though he himself had no formal education. He became known as the Chairman of the Street Kids.

A few years later, Diane, a photographer from this area, went to Uganda for a workshop, and there she was introduced to Ronnie. Instinctively she wanted to help. They set up a charitable organization here and an NGO there so that Diane could raise money and Ronnie would have the wherewithal to provide for the children. Diane has been there repeatedly and brought back stories, letters and photographs that make clear their progress in feeding, clothing, housing and educating the street children in Ronnie’s care.

That brings me to a remark that Ronnie made at the gathering I attended, that the children he takes care of have said “God bless America,” to which Ronnie added that he has not heard that said about their own country.

I don’t want to be naïve about this. I suspect the song had something to do with the kids repeating that phrase. And generosity doesn’t solve all problems. Nor does it create an obligation to do whatever otherwise generous people want. But it does matter. It does create opportunity for children who would have none, for children who would be terrorized by older kids intent on impressing them with their power, what can euphemistically be called a rite of passage all too common in the ghettos of the world.

And American generosity is a form of diplomacy. Some call it soft-power. But it matters. The Peace Corps matters. Our Congressman, Paul Tonko, was at the gathering to lend his support because kindness matters. In this age when so many suffer from the what-about-me’s, it’s important to recognize the corrosive implications of thinking only of ourselves and the international reach of open hearts. The what-about-me’s are all about creating a jungle. The openness of kind hearts is all about creating civilization, and the wealth of kindness and productivity that cooperation make.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 3, 2017.

 

 

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The Courts Stand Up for Impunity

June 27, 2017

In one of the last cases to be decided this term of Court, the Supreme Court described the death of Sergio Hernandez as “a tragic cross-border incident.”[1] Indeed. I want to make clear that I care deeply about this case. Several friends and I helped write an amicus brief to the Court about it.[2]

Sergio Hernandez was 15 years old. The Court continued, “According to the complaint,” which the Court must accept as true at this early stage of the proceedings, “Hernandez and his friends were playing a game in which they ran up the embankment on the United States side [of the Mexican border], touched the fence, and then ran back down.” Border Patrol Agent Mesa caught and detained one of Hernandez’ friends but “Hernandez ran across the international boundary into Mexican territory and stood by a pillar that supports a railroad bridge spanning the culvert” between the c ountries. At a distance – the Court wasn’t precise but the culvert was up to 270 feet wide – Agent Mesa shot and killed Sergio Hernandez though the Agent was in no danger.

Notice the issues that the District, Appellate and Supreme Courts have been “struggling” with.

First, the Court had to deal with whether the Constitution itself authorizes a remedy when Congress has not provided one for the violation of constitutional rights. In other words, do our rights exist at the pleasure of Congress? That’s known technically as the Bivens question.

Second, do foreigners have any constitutional rights or may American officials kill them at pleasure? The Court of Appeals had decided that Sergio had no rights under our Constitution.

Third, even if Sergio’s rights were violated, did the Agent have “immunity … from civil liability.” They would have immunity if “their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established … constitutional rights.” So the fourth question is whether killing foreigners across the border violates any clearly established rights?

Along the way the Court commented that some of the issues in the case  are “sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” Sounds like the Court was thinking about foreign relations. The Bible just says “justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”[3]

The Court finished by noting that the case “result[ed] in a heartbreaking loss of life” but thought the Court of Appeals should think about those issues before the Supreme Court reached any final resolution about the issues in the case:

  • whether foreigners have any rights that American officials are bound to respect;
  • whether there is any remedy for murder;
  • whether murder by a government official is a clear violation of a constitutional right?

Abroad, and we use the same term when describing behavior in other countries, people who are protected from any responsibility for the harm they do are described as having impunity. It does not describe freedom. It describes lawlessness, in countries run for crime bosses and rapacious masters.

Think now about shootings of Americans in America by police officers, shootings of Americans with their backs turned, with their hands up, with their house keys in their hands. Are we now a nation with impunity? Does freedom still live here or are too many people here forced to bow, scrape and beg those with the power to kill. If there are people who, in the language of Dred Scott, have “no rights which … [American officials are] bound to respect,”[4] does that mean that they and we are treated like the slave in Dred Scott?

[1] Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118, decided June 26, 2017.

[2] Brief for Amici Curiae Legal Historians in Support of Petitioners in Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118.

[3] Deut. 16:20.

[4] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 ((1856).


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


Trump’s Audience

August 23, 2016

Behind Trump’s remarks and his imperviousness to criticism is the audience he’s after.

Trump charges that this election is rigged because his audience doesn’t like who can vote. One can respond that elections have been rigged by the Court since it stopped the count in Florida to make Bush president, but that misses Trump’s and his audience’s objection. The Court has unleashed the full contents of corporate treasuries, tightened the screws on union finances, encouraged states to exclude African-Americans from the voting booths and supported gerrymandering so that Republican controlled legislatures could rig elections against Democrats. Those decisions rigged the election in Trump’s favor. But for his audience, rigging the election means including what some still call Fourteenth Amendment citizens. They object that the first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment makes everyone born here citizens, especially Blacks and browns.

Trump’s inconsistency on foreign policy is also because of the audience he wants. While claiming Democrats are weak on foreign threats, Trump also wants to withdraw from NATO which has held the Russians at bay for over half a century. And he has told us that he would consider not coming to the aid of an attacked NATO member. Never mind speculating whether he’s a wimp, a loudmouth, or a Russian agent. The important question is who’s his audience and why? Actually extremists have imagined international conspiracies that only they can believe in. Trump clearly wants their support. That leaves the rest of us wondering whether they would be center stage if he won. Making international conspiracies the number one villain helps explain Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and his invitation to Russia to hack into the computers used by a Secretary of State. One points out in vain that’s an invitation to foreign espionage. Trump got his message across; he’s with the fringe, the conspiracy theorists, and the people with lots of hate.

Then there’s Trump’s comment that Second Amendment people might have a way of dealing with Hilary and her judicial nominees if she is elected. When questioned about those remarks Trump responded that he was just kidding. Besides, he said maybe. No advocacy there. He wasn’t trying to get anyone killed. But why did he do that?

Politicians have reasons for what they say. He was seeking support from precisely those people who could imagine using guns that way. Surely some would just like to have violent dreams. But some are more likely to act on dreams like that when encouraged by people like Trump, and will understand his words as a call to violent action, action that undermines democratic self government.

Beyond whether Trump should be expected to talk like a responsible adult, is the question whether we have the responsibility, whatever our politics, not to enjoy such language, responsibility not to reward it, but to stand tall for the real America, the America that claims to believe in law and order and in self government that celebrates our ability to disagree without threats, assaults and murder.

Trump makes statements like that because he has an audience for it. If most of that audience has the maturity and the loyalty it claims, it must be prepared to turn against candidates who misuse it. Supporters of gun rights must believe that gun owners have an obligation to act and speak responsibly and to keep political and racial hatreds away from trigger fingers.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 21, 2016.

 


Foreign Roots of the Tragedy in Florida

June 14, 2016

The tragedy in Florida is linked to issues abroad. One candidate sometimes suggests we could solve our problems by isolationism, keeping our troops home, and sometimes by wiping out our adversaries with overwhelming force. His adversary has won over American military leadership with a fairly hard-nosed approach to international politics meshed with the belief that part of America’s international strength comes from our ideological appeal and social justice. What’s going to work?

The Middle East has been getting more violent. And the U.S. has been struggling to figure out how to handle it. George H.W. Bush was careful not to unravel power relations there when he rolled Iraq back from Kuwait. George W. Bush was less cautious, eliminating the Iraqi power structure without a plan to replace it. Since then we’ve been fighting multiple wars in multiple countries. Wars with guerilla tactics like these are costly. Al Qaeda and ISIL or DAESH have learned to motivate individuals or small groups outside of traceable networks. Military forces work poorly against that kind of enemy. We may be a superpower against some obstacles, but not all. The history of warfare has been a multi-millennium cycle of upstarts defeating the super powers of prior ages with new tactics.

What if we disengaged from the Middle East? I doubt Americans have the stomach for it. Israel, our so-called “ally,” continually breaks its promises to America, so the Israeli mouse drives both American Middle Eastern policy and its consequences. America cannot be an honest broker in the Middle East while backing a government of heedless buckaroos who learn nothing from the failures and constant irritation of seven decades of war, eviction of Palestinians and indiscriminate retaliation. Still less can we be an honest broker by engaging in the same tactics that make refugees of millions and radicalize too many. Who are we to criticize the Israelis when our policies have been more and more like theirs? We too pay the price. Our removal of Premier Mossadegh and replacement with the former Shah of Iran contributed to the Revolution of 1979 and subsequent demonization of America. U.S. military moves created chaos in the Sunni world, pushed Turkey toward autocracy, and helped destabilize Europe with a flow of refugees not seen since the World Wars.

Pulling out would leave a power vacuum that those we despise and sometimes fear would fill. If Russia or China were fool enough to move in, the throw weight of Islamic extremism would refocus on them. The short-run consequences, however, could be

Our policies toward the Middle East need to be rethought in light of new realities. Power relations in the Middle East have been drastically reshaped in the last fifteen years. And Saudi Arabia has been playing a double game, supporting radical Islam in return for denying the clerics the keys to governmental power, creating a Hobson’s choice for us. Obama has tried to avoid both disengagement and warfare, but his efforts to reshape thinking about the Middle East have, not surprisingly, run into a barrier of incomprehension. The U.S. should not be driven by the unreliable machinations of paranoid premiers, two-bit dictators and fractured armies in a region of declining importance to the U.S.

America accomplished a great deal in the past as a model of a fair and decent state. Foreign policy isn’t merely a contest of muscle and fire power. Its complexity requires a lot of patience. It took half of century to wait out the Soviet Union. Much as some Republicans want to credit Reagan’s grand gestures, that victory was hatched under Truman and pursued by eight presidents of both parties, without any know-it-all buckaroos upending decades of careful policy. Can we do it again? We’re going to find out.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 14, 2016.

 


For Whom the Bell Tolls Amid the Refugee Crisis

January 12, 2016

Wars in the Middle East are creating huge flows of refugees. If war creates refugees, we either have to have a way to stop the wars or a policy about refugees. Just saying we will or won’t let people in is a decision, not a policy. One must think past those decisions to the enormous consequences.

Countries can try to exclude refugees leaving them to fend for themselves wherever they are. Countries can also put them in camps, let them in but then leave them to fend for themselves, or help them settle. Surrounding countries can also stop them at borders, keep them in camps, or let or help them settle. The permutations produce very different results.

More than six decades ago, Arab states refused to let the Palestinians settle. Ipso facto they created a permanent Palestinian fighting force. But who would the Palestinians fight? The oppressors keeping them in the camps, or the oppressors who pushed them out of their land? Which story would they buy? Refugee issues can fester. Both Palestinians and Israelis feel their backs to the wall and feel themselves fighting for survival, with lethal results.

Incidentally at the same time, a much larger refugee crisis existed in the Indian subcontinent leading to the separate nations of India and Pakistan out of the British Raj. That land is still troubled, though neither denies the other’s right to exist. In both cases, the mass exoduses left powerful marks on the stability of the regions.

And on the US southern border what happens to the people we exclude and what happens to us because of it? Impoverished masses elsewhere are likely to do the same things that impoverished masses do here – turn to some forms of crime. I doubt, when one takes white collar crime and tax evasion into account, that crime is much more prevalent amongst the poor but it is different – mostly theft, drug dealing or prostitution for survival or quick cash.

Then there’s the effort to deport people who were brought here as small children, an effort some of the prominent Republican candidates have endorsed. Ok, what are those kids going to do when they are back in their countries of origin? Many of them will find themselves jobless because they are strangers in what Americans insist on calling their land. But those young people brought up in the United States will prove valuable to criminal enterprises abroad because they could cross the borders and pass here easily. From an American point of view, those likelihoods of crime and participation in organized crime abroad are dangerous here. Volatile borders do no one any good.

Would it be better to bring them in, settle, employ and educate them and our people too, than to insist that everyone is on their own volatile devices to deal with the cruelties of a world without mercy. And then think about the effect of refugees on the people they leave behind. Think about the letters home, and the money home. Who is the so-called Great Satan when family write back with ordinary family developments – marriages, jobs, babies – and send money.

Creating a population tsunami and then pushing people back into swirling lifeboats has consequences for all of us. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself….. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 12, 2016.


In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.


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