Sunday, July 30, 2006

Moral Dilemma

Jan Egeland, the United Nations Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, summed it up, “There is something fundamentally wrong with the war, where there are more dead children than armed men."  Something very wrong indeed, but hardly limited to the tragic conflict unfolding before our eyes on the borders between Israel and Gaza to the south and Lebanon to the north.  Nations at war have come to accept “collateral damage” as a necessity, albeit unfortunate, of conflict.  I’ve always found it a pathetic euphemism that belies the real cost to real people, however nameless and faceless they may be to the combatants.  The victims (and their families) don’t see themselves (or their loved ones) as collateral in any way, nor are they.  What’s so terrible about this is that good nations founded on idealism and boasting a moral compass have succumbed to an ends justifies the means modality if not philosophy that is both immediately destructive and, in the end, self defeating.

War is a conundrum.  It is often seen as necessary, justified as retaliation but tends more to harden positions than solve problems.  In the Middle East that is particularly true complicated often by disingenuously stated goals and, all too often, executional stupidity.  Frank Rich recounts our missteps in Iraq once again in his July 30 Times column.  Israel, on the other hand, has clearly been fighting time and again – beginning with the day its Statehood was declared – for survival.  But equally, sometimes pushed in that direction from its religious and political right, it has squandered opportunities and misread the mandate of its own military success.  True it took the West Bank after an unprovoked attack by Arab countries, but it never should have held on, certainly no longer than was necessary to help Palestinians to gain a state with which it could be interacting today.  It has cost them lives and has impeded their economic growth.  It has, with every passing day, diminished an already fragile support around the world, or in many cases obviated the possibility of building support where none was present.

The sustained bombing with its high toll on innocent civilians in Gaza and then in Lebanon reminds us once again of both the horrific tragedy of war (regardless of how it starts) and the specific dilemma faced by a nation like Israel whose very foundation is built on moral values, on theory at least of not being “like every one else”.  To same holds true for the United States as it wages war often paying hollow lip service to the tragedy of “collateral damage”, a moral dilemma that was compounded for all of us when we learned of the abuses, still not properly addressed, at Abu Grahib, Gitmo and other American run prisons carried out under the cover of that catchall “war on terror”.

The moral problem facing Israel is particularly vexing because so many of us grew up to believe that this state was indeed something different expressed in that bucolic aspirational image of a “land flowing with milk and honey,” now a beautiful metaphor that has little to do with reality.  We had so hoped for a powerful antidote to the horrors of World War II without which sadly a Jewish state probably would not have come into being.  Perhaps that was na├»ve and most certainly the violent attacks it faced at the start may have made it an all but impossible utopian dream.  There is no question that Israeli leadership is terribly torn by this inconsistency which one can hear in the voices and words of both government spokesmen and individual citizens.  But the most heartfelt words and inner conflict that lies behind them doesn’t resonate with the families who are burying their dead, just as the victims of rockets that fly in a kind of Russian roulette pattern over Israel can’t quite justify their suffering with the legitimacy of the other side’s cause.  The truth is there are no moral equivalents when it comes to innocent death or injury.

At this point, the Moslem world thanks in part to our own misadventure in Iraq, is increasingly falling into the hands of violent extremists.  Their deeds, often carried out in the name of God, can never be justified.  And there is no question that the lingering stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians plays a huge role if not in causing the unrest, then in giving it cover.  In this context, the State for which my parents generation dreamed and worked and in which so many of my people live has emerged as a country known as much, if not more, for its military prowess than for anything else.  It is noteworthy that Ehud Olmert is the first Prime Minister in a very long time who has no substantial military background.  There is something poignantly tragic about this bit of historical trivia. 

We know why Israel is flexing its muscle; and their articulate spokesmen have rightly contended that other nations would do no less.  Whether it is using that power to excess or whether such a strategy is working for them (or ever does) is open to debate.  I will readily admit that’s easy to second guess them sitting at my computer here in the still mostly sheltered United States.  In contrast, my niece Tammy and her family who live in the North have had to alternate between living a life in the cellar and when necessary fleeing south to safer ground.  In all fairness, imagine rockets coming from Canada and hitting upstate New York, New England or Detroit, imagine them coming from Mexico and landing in our beautiful Southwest.  What would our government do and would we as citizens expect any less than an all out, perhaps even seemingly over response?  Probably not, but that in itself is a large part of the problem.  We have come to expect that “shock and awe” will solve all problems when in fact the case against the long (and sometimes short) term efficacy of violence is pretty compelling.  Being on the other end of a gun or bomb may intimidate today, but it leaves an indelible impression, a wrong to be righted at some point in the future.  As that predictable anger builds it brings with it an unending vicious no win cycle which is precisely where Israel (and increasingly the United States) finds itself today.

Decades ago as a young rabbi, I presided over an assembly of school children in my synagogue.  The auditorium was packed and the assembled were singing with great enthusiasm.  Suddenly in the middle of the room, a boy with a shock of dark hair stood up and at the top of his lungs shouted, “stop!”  The kid, as it turned out, had perfect pitch and simply could not abide the dissonance of what he heard around him.  The children responded to his command and resumed their song only after the music teacher got them back on melodic track.  Where is that kid today when we need him so badly?  Nothing will change until someone has the understanding and most importantly the moral courage to stand up and say “stop!”  I know it’s not as simple as that and know also all of the reasons why it hasn’t happened and may not happen.  But in the end that’s what it will take.  The wrongs of yesterday will never be righted, the blood can’t be unspilled neither of the combatants or of those collaterals who have been caught in the cross fire.  Tomorrow can look different, but it won’t happen by itself.  Let’s all say it together, “stop!”

Saturday, July 22, 2006

What a Mess

It’s more than a month since I last posted.  I’m in the process of preparing to relocate my person and activities from New York to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.   After 39 years it’s a big move from a big city apartment (still to be sold) to a house in a small town (closed on it last week).  Aside from the fact that it is really a very special place, my main motivator is to be closer to my younger kids much as it is difficult to leave my older son and his terrific wife behind.  Whatever the case, I’ve been occupied.

While scheduling conflicts have gotten in the way in the last two, for many of the recent years I’ve spent the early summer weeks in St. Barths.  Not only is it a beautiful place – we call it our paradise – it’s great to have a real break from the every day, most especially from 24/7 news.   In fact, while I could easily keep in touch I purposefully avoid newspapers, TV (which blessfully our hotel doesn’t have in the rooms) and even on-line links.  Over the years, it didn’t really matter because things seemed to be very much as we left them three or so weeks earlier.  That would not have been the case this year.  There has been lot’s of news and sadly it seems to be getting worse by the hour.  What a mess.

Living in my Liberal bubble, all the more magnified by being in New York, I sometimes have to catch myself and wonder if my criticism of the present Administration isn’t a bit over done.  I find myself sounding (and thinking) like a Michael Moore movie, perhaps even more over the top.  I should give more credit to the other side and stop being such a know-it-all.  Then I listen to George Bush sanctimoniously talking about protecting life as he undertakes the first veto of his presidency and all my good intentions fall by the wayside.  Life?  This life is thrown into the trash can every day and no one gives it a second thought.  And perhaps that’s what Mr. Bush wants.  Don’t consider for a moment using that never to be initiated “life” for research that might ease or save the lives of real people.  You’re for life Mr. President?  How about the many thousands of human beings, the vast majority of them innocent, whose lives are being snuffed out by your destabilizing elective war?  What a mess, what an embarrassment.

With each passing day, we become less secure and so do our fellow human beings around the world.  Speak about proverbial Pandora’s boxes.  I won’t give them the respect of being called “unintended consequences.”  These so-called brilliant people, these big thinking strategists, should have known better.  From the start they have been so infuriatingly sure of themselves in their effort to refashion the world that it never occurred to them that the unwashed masses out there didn’t necessarily want to be shaped in our image.  If you doubted the validity of a domino effect in the 1960s, be assured it is alive and well in the early 21st Century. 

To be sure, George Bush didn’t start the current tragic conflict surrounding the Holy Land.  Its roots predate his presidency and reflect so many missed opportunities and missteps on all sides that only a very thick scholarly volume could begin to define cause and effect.  But it can be said that just as Bush’s distracting adventure into Iraq put any real effort to stamp our terrorism on the back burner, it can equally be argued that the Administration’s cavalier abandonment of any vigorous peace effort between Israel and Palestine has at the very least exasperated an already untenable situation.

The real problem is that the United States has in the last six years been deeply weakened in every way.  We have lost respect in the world and dissipated our strategic strength militarily and financially to the degree that it might be fair to ask whether we in fact remain a super power any more.  Our ability to face real, as opposed to imagined, threats has been sorely undermined.  The North Koreans know that as do the Iranians.  By the way, have you noticed that all the problems in Iraq that once were attributed to Al Qaeda are now the fault of Iran? The mythical torch has been passed.  It’s not we who are failing in Iraq, it’s those Iranian backed evil doers who are undermining our oft proclaimed success.  When it comes to the tragic conflict now so heatedly under way, we are no longer seen as an honest broker, something that Bill Clinton worked so hard to achieve.  Is it any wonder he remains so popular in the world?  And the stem cell veto, beyond the horrific implications that it has for vital research, may also weaken us, sooner rather than later.  Why should any serious stem cell scientist work in the United States when other governments are so ready to give their all in the pursuit of her or his research?  Remember Ross Perot’s great whooshing sound?  Jobs have exited as predicted; will brains be drained from our shores as well?

Tell me what these folks have done right.  Tell me that we are better off, that our children’s future looks brighter than ever.  Dream on.  And speaking of the future and of our continued leadership vacuum, I saw Al Gore’s movie on the environment.  It was clearly a counterpoint to Bush’s head in the air conditioned bubble view of global warming.  I was so primed to like it, so ready to like him, to think that perhaps he is after all our great white hope.  What a disappointment.  Not the underlying message which is both important and urgent, but they way in which he succeeded in stepping on it.  Here he goes again.  Perhaps he didn’t invent concern for our planet (like he invented the Internet), but he came pretty damn close to suggesting he did.  And then, out of the blue, these self serving and self indulgent autobiographical references – his son’s life threatening accident and his sister’s untimely death from cancer – that were injected into his 2000 acceptance speech. Perhaps they worked there, but with the environment?  I think not.  Al is not the guy.

I don’t know who if anyone can get us out of the mess we’re in.  It’s hard to think that we aren’t at the edge of the tipping point and that bringing us back from the brink maybe too much for any mere mortal.  But my sense of history doesn’t permit me to get lost on that doomsday track.  Things got pretty desperate in the 1930s (in some ways much more desperate than today), and leadership did present itself ready and able to meet the challenge and lead the world out of darkness.  There has to be an FDR out there.  Will she just stand up and let us see her face.