"We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person". These are great words. They're so great, I want to say them again. "We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person." Words like this are so big, their importance so oceanic we can get lost in them. They are so monumental, so expansive... so easy to say, but very difficult to wrap our minds around on a practical, everyday level.
Not long ago I heard about the "detainees" being taken by our armed forces from Afghanistan to camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Guantanamo Bay is not US territory, so those imprisoned there have none of the rights of someone brought to American soil. The United States authorities insist that the "detainees" are being treated humanely, and broadly within the guidelines for prisoners of war laid down by the Geneva Convention. On the other hand the United States authorities will not accept the definition that they are any kind of Prisoners of War because they are not represented by the armed forces of a recognized government.
The detainees are being held in 8 by 8 foot chain link cubicles. They have concrete floors with blankets and mattresses to sleep on and to pray with. They get ethnically correct meals and are provided clothing in the form of unmistakable orange jumpsuits manufactured by a Chinese firm. They have buckets for toilets, have access to shower facilities and the ability to exercise. Their housing has metal roofs, but no walls. They have no privacy. At night the entire compound is lit up by arc-lights and the detainees are exposed to the elements. Therefore, there should be no wonder why the camp is called X-Ray.
When I first heard about their plight, I have to admit some measure of satisfaction. I thought, "Well this is good for them. They need to understand that going to war with us has its consequences. They should be deprived of their liberty, and should look forward to spending the rest of their natural lives in American prisons." My thinking was that a little chilliness in the night air might be a good inducement for some of them to be more cooperative in exchange for some small favors. That way we can make sure other attacks against us are thwarted. After all... we are at war.
My more cynical, and somewhat Machiavellian side, knows the perfect solution. We should make the families and governments of those being held pay for their life-long incarceration. Those who wish better accommodations should pay for them. Detainees who cannot find someone to pay for them should be executed. This way, everyone gets to win. The United States and its allies can get out of the quagmire of trying to decide what status to afford the men - whether they should be considered "detainees", "illegal combatants", or "prisoners of war". Under my Machiavellian scheme they would be considered the same way pirates were hundreds of years ago. The scourge of piracy was eliminated because everyone knew that if you were caught on a pirate ship, you would be considered outside the laws of civilization and would be hanged, no questions asked. Surely this would make the young men with more testosterones than brains think twice about burdening their families. It would cause nations that allow their citizens to participate in terrorist activities to be directly responsible for their actions. The detainees should feel like they've got the better end of the bargain. They can both become martyrs and avoid the indignity of spending the rest of their lives in jail. And, finally, my Machiavellian solution would brutally, but decisively settle the question of what to do in this new world order where no one plays by the recognized rules of war, and where multitudes of angry men can form their own Jihadic armies of assassins and murderers to attack civilization as we know it.
So, when a bunch of do-gooder clergy, academics, and civil rights whackoos brought a suit against the United States government for violating the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution on January 22, 2002, my first thought was "... these guys are out of their minds". Their argument basically goes like this: 1) the combatants were captured during war, so they should be accorded the rights governing the treatment of war prisoners, and 2) the prisoners should be produced in a U.S. court and afforded due process guarantees. Of course, this means they should be charged with specific crimes and tried, or let go. My Machiavellian alter ego was turning around in his virtual grave. These detainees are committed to destroying us. If we let them go we violate the first rule of life, which is self preservation. My Machiavellian alter ego started ranting. He flew out of my mind saying "Only in America, only in America". Of course, that's what I thought he was saying, but I don't speak Italian, so I'm not completely sure what else he was saying.
When my alter ego left I started thinking about things from a spiritual perspective. I challenged myself to see this, and other similar situations, through the lens of the first UU principle. I took a historical tour through time. I wanted to find answers to this vexing question: How do you affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even when people are holding pistols at each other's heads? The long arc of history is punctuated by examples of man's cruelty to man. In light of recent developments we can see that these events are part of a very long struggle between fundamentalism and modernism. Karen Armstrong, in her book entitled "The Battle For God", puts the matter very eloquently. She writes "Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for combatants to appreciate one another's position. We shall find that modernization has led to a polarization of society, but sometimes, to prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try to understand the pain and perceptions of the other side. Those of us - myself included - who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists. Yet modernization is often experienced not as a liberation but as an aggressive assault."
The men sitting in our camp X-Ray are not considered to be members of any recognized governmental army, and are therefore, according to U.S. authorities not prisoners of war. We miss the point. In fact, these prisoners are part of a vast army; one that is so large it cannot be hindered by our conventions. This army believes so deeply in the moral and religious rightness of its cause that it does not need insignia on its leader's shoulders, and it does not see the need for the most expensive and brightest weapon systems, for it fights with the power of God on its side. If we are so blind as not to see this, then we are in much deeper trouble than we suspect. We see these men as having placed themselves outside our requirement to consider their dignity and worth because we make the mistake of linking that requirement to values they do not share.
Did you know that the term 'Genocide' was coined by a jurist named Raphael Lemkin in 1944 by combining the Greek word 'genos' (race) with the Latin word 'cide' (killing). Genocide was defined by the United Nations in 1948. It means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including: (a) killing members of the group (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
History is resplendent with examples of genocide:
Armenians in Turkey 1915-1918 - 1,500,000 Deaths
Stalin's forced famine 1932-1933 - 7,000,000 Deaths
Rape of Nanking 1937-1938 - 300,000 Deaths
Nazi Holocaust 1938-1945 - 6,000,000 Deaths
Pol Pot in Cambodia 1975-1979 - 2,000,000 Deaths
Rwanda 1994 - 800,000 Deaths
Bosnia-Herzegovina 1992-1995 - 200,000 Deaths
It is easy for us Americans to look out from the bastions of our Judeo-Christian inspired fortress America and say to ourselves, that these things do not happen on our shores. But, or course, we would be badly mistaken. By conservative estimates, the population of the United States prior to European contact was greater than 12 million. Four centuries later, the count was reduced by 95% to 237 thousand. A very chilling example of the thinking that led to this outcome is taken from a letter written by General Amherst to Colonel Henry Bouquet, in July 1763. In the letter Amherst wrote, "You will do well to inoculate the Indians (with smallpox) by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this exorable race. I should be very glad your scheme for hunting them down by dogs could take effect." This reminds me of what Adolf Hitler wrote to his Army commanders on August 22, 1939: "Thus for the time being I have sent to the East only my 'Death's Head Units' with the orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the vital space that we need. Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?"
We all know about the devastation that the effects of slavery had on the American psyche. It is easy to view such human tragedy in a sterile, impersonal way, especially when we consider the amount of time between then and now. I would urge anyone interested to read a thought provoking book called "Bullwhip Days" edited by James Mellon. It is an oral history of slaves, as told by the slaves. In the introduction to the book Mellon wrote "Human emotion, we are often reminded, is universal and timeless. Yet few of us pause to consider that innumerable human feelings and experiences have vanished forever because the conditions that gave rise to them no longer exist. This book is about an entire range of human feelings that arose from the condition of being a satutory slave, of being owned, physically, by one's fellow man as a piece of property."
The book is filled with very vivid accounts of slavery by the men and women who lived as slaves. I am often struck by the stories because they bring the long ago days of that era back through the timelessness of human emotion. Here is an example of one of the brief accounts in the book by a woman named Sarah Douglas.
"The last whipping Old Mis' give me she tied me to a tree and - oh, my Lord! - she whipped me that day. That was the wors' whipping I ever got in my life. I cried and bucked and hollered, until I couldn't. I give up for dead, and she wouldn't stop. I stop crying and I said to her 'Old Mis', if I were you and you were me, I wouldn't beat you this way'. That struck Old Mis's heart, and she let me go, and she did not have the heart to beat me anymore."
What is the message here? What is the common denominator? How do Arabic men, genocide, and slavery all tie in together? In the broad view each are separate issues of the larger subject of human relations. We can examine these issues from many viewpoints... the struggle of fundamentalism versus modernism, the psychology of race, the politics of expansionism, the politics of ethnicity and cultures, and so on. When the categories of suffering are studied in minutia from within the domain of history the lives of real, breathing, flesh and blood human beings become marginalized. When we can't see our fellow man as worthy of dignity and respect, then we have lost ourselves. Too often we allow ourselves the luxury of future sight. That keeps us from clearly seeing the things we do to each other today, and every day, because it is too painful examine our own feelings right now. On a practical level, translating the goal of promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person into an every day reality is very difficult.
Sarah Douglas reminded her owner that they were both human beings, with inherent dignity and worth. As soon as Old Mis saw Sarah's humanity reflected in herself she could not view her in any other way. Genocide exists because entire governments do not honor the dignity and worth of other nations and their peoples. So those nations, unwisely, institute policies based on the expediency of their national aims rather than being based on human rights. Do you think for one instant that Jimmy Carter, as Commander in Chief, would have allowed the detainees at Guantanamo Bay to be held under their present conditions? Why then, is George Walker Bush, allowed to behave so differently than a former president. Has the world changed so much in 23 years? Have we changed so much? What if Al Quada members were of European extraction, comprised of Muslim men from Germany, Austria, France, or Poland ? Do you think they would be held in open cages, as the men from middle eastern countries are now being held? The answer is no, those men would be housed in proper facilities at this moment. The point is that we must be consistent in our treatment of all people. We do, indeed, sow what we reap.
We must not affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person only when it is convenient for us. We cannot put aside our values to expedite the elimination of evil; for it is exactly at that point when we create the most fertile ground for its manifestation. Without careful, and sometimes painful, attention to this principle we can find ourselves on the wrong spiritual and moral end of an issue. Less than two hundred years ago this great nation was consumed by a civil war which tested our ability to match the fine and noble words of the Constitution with our actions. The seeds of the great evil of slavery from our past are still bearing fruit today because our forefathers disregarded their own values for the sake of short-term gain.
For extraordinarily short-term gain our government has decided that the men in Guantonamo Bay are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention. Did you know, that the Geneva Convention, Chapter 2, Article 25 states:
"Prisoners of war shall be quartered under conditions as favourable as those for the forces of the Detaining Power who are billeted in the same area. The said conditions shall make allowance for the habits and customs of the prisoners and shall in no case be prejudicial to their health.
The foregoing provisions shall apply in particular to the dormitories of prisoners of war as regards both total surface and minimum cubic space, and the general installations, bedding and blankets.
The premises provided for the use of prisoners of war individually or collectively, shall be entirely protected from dampness and adequately heated and lighted, in particular between dusk and lights out. All precautions must be taken against the danger of fire."
There is little wonder why the United States government, in its present rather vengeful state of mind, does not wish to grant prisoner of war status to the detainees in Cuba. The conditions at the camp are not intolerable, but they are harsh. I submit that our government is not only being short-sighted, but we are acting stupidly, and against our own self-interest. More importantly, on all counts our government violates the Unitarian Universalist's first principle. Keeping men in a camp that exposes them to the air each night, deprives them of any modicum of privacy, forces them to use buckets as bathrooms, and treats them worse than we treat our own criminals is an outrage. We are the most prosperous nation in the world. We can spend billions of dollars on smart bombs, but we are not, apparently willing to provide the detainees in Guantanamo with rain-proof shelters. Why can't we understand that this behavior only serves to justify the ill-feelings between us and it strengthens our enemy's resolve to fight us? I'm not advocating that we install the detainees in luxury apartments, but I am saying that we are falling far short of the requirement to honor their dignity and worth as fellow human beings. Every night they are left to the elements is another night that reminds them of why they hate us. Placing them in a more comfortable environment can only serve our purposes. We must do this, more for ourselves, than for them. What we are doing is wrong. There is no other way to describe this. We, as Unitarian Universalists, should be screaming at the top of our lungs to stop this less-than-brilliant president and his administration from continuing their insane policy in this regard.
We must be consistent in our application of the wonderfully self-evident seven principles that we hold dear. We must not allow them to slip, even for an instant because it makes up feel better to do so in the moment. As for those whackoo do-gooders... I thank God for them. They made me realize an inconsistency in my own reasoning. During the O.J. Simpson trial I angered more than a few people by saying that the interest of justice outweighs the need to establish Simpson's guilt. My position then was that, if it was proven the L.A. police detectives tampered with evidence then O.J must be set free, even if he killed his ex-wife. Now I confront the same issue with regard to the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. If it is proven that international laws and/or US laws were broken by our actions we should be prepared to release the prisoners, at least back to the countries of their origin. Why should we do such a thing? Because the laws are in place to protect the dignity and worth of every person. What do you think those men in Guantanamo Bay would learn about us if they were freed? What do you think they'll learn about themselves? If we do not abide by our own principles, even when we don't want to, then our children will inherit a world without justice, without honor, and without grace.
The evil within us must not be ignored. The seven principles we espouse have gotten Unitarian Universalists into trouble before. They exist as beacons to guide us when we are blinded by the fog of emotions. They are reasonable and enlightened principles that call us to the best and highest God within us and they challenge us to resist our lowest tendencies.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!