Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Accidental Universe, Accidental Us

The explosion of that small meteor over Russia—injuring over a thousand people and terrifying many more thousands—when added to the close encounter with yet another planetary rock, this one an asteroid that barely (by a mere 17,000 miles) missed another earth hit that would’ve caused even more damage, left me pondering our place in the vast shooting gallery we call the Universe. It is not so much that we have to fear another cosmic collision like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. It is that these two encounters remind us just how accidental, how truly unpredictable everything about our existence appears to be. We are mere blips on the screen of cosmic time. Less than blips. We appear, “strut and fret our hour upon the stage,” as Macbeth put it, and then are heard no more. We try to attach some sort of significance to our every “decisive” move, but the truth seems to be that we are not even in charge of the tiniest aspects of our lives, much less the largest, and that even if we were, what even potentates do is so paltry in the grand scheme of things that it might as well have never happened.
            There was a zen master named Huang Po who one day, in answer to some questions from his audience, assured his students that if he told them the truth about their real condition, they could not stand up to it. Then he summed things up this way: “There is nothing on which to rely. That is what you have to realize. There is nothing at all on which to rely.” What he meant by that was what the meteors remind us: some flying piece of rock could strike the earth, for no reason whatsoever (though no doubt our religious leaders would try to link it to some deep sin of ours), and if it happened to hit in the right place—New York city, say, or Moscow or Beijing or New Delhi—it would wipe out half of our species and all its works. To ward off our terror of such things, we imagine we can rely on our government, or on our military, or on our scientists watching out for such things. But the truth is that there is nothing they or anyone else could do in such an event. We have no cosmic ray guns, no Super beings from the planet Krypton, who could divert the thing. Nothing on which to rely. And this works in those small everyday accidents that continually afflict us as well. Nothing lasts, nothing is secure even for a moment, especially us. In fact, modern physics tells us there isn’t a real, core “us” to begin with.
            And of course, the situation is even worse than that. It now appears that the very ingenious devices we humans have been busy erecting and inventing over the past few thousand years—safe food supplies, military and scientific weapons, fossil fuels to power our heat, our conveyances, our mastery over space and time, pesticides and herbicides to increase our crop yields—have been leading us down the garden path to disaster. We thought such manifestations of human genius were helping us, making us more secure. We thought they were leading more of us to healthier, happier lives—about which our cheerleaders take every opportunity to remind us. Instead, they have been leading us down a fool’s path, their very sources of power being the engine on which we are undermining the stability of the planet we’ve lived on for millions of years. The planet is warming chiefly due to our pollution. The oceans are dying chiefly due to our pollution. The very seeds of the plants we’ve relied on for a stable food supply are being distorted and chemicalized chiefly due to our tampering to make them “secure” from blight and disease and weeds and change. So everything we have done—thinking that this is our grand purpose in life, to save ourselves and other human beings and make all lives better—has been a mirage. Worse than a mirage. Not only has it not been a useful purpose, a salvational purpose, it has been, in the long run, a suicidal one. By trying to make ourselves last, we’re killing not only ourselves, but possibly all the life on the planet.
            So what we are compelled to say is that if so-called “gods” have our interest at heart, it is an interest that leads us to extinction—which, in that curious way things have of feeding back on themselves—might well be the best thing for the rest of creation and the planet itself.
            On the other hand, the cosmic events that we know about, or think we know about, make this idea of purpose a very dubious proposition. We are accidental creatures, seemingly without purpose. We, the human species, cannot be viewed any longer as some divinely-ordained (or cosmically-blessed) system of life that some wiser entity has directed all existence towards. I mean, why would any rational or benign or compassionate entity create a system, evolution, whose highest branch is occupied by a species like ours? A species that threatens, is in fact well on the way to destroying the whole system out of which it arose. The only logical way to look at this (and evolutionary theory sees it precisely this way) is as accident. Everything we are, everything we do is accidental, and can only be understood probabilistically. We have almost no say in who we are or how we have developed or what we choose to focus on or fight for. We are born with certain proclivities, like self-protection and reproduction, geared to certain environments over which we have no control. We are what we are born with added to where we happen to have been dropped and by whom. And we are swept along by the historic and economic and social and cosmic forces that pertain during our puny lifetimes. To think that we can help anyone or save anyone, much less ourselves, much less the planet, is based on sheer ignorance of the facts.
            That is, if we insist, as most humans do, of thinking of ourselves as self-directed, self-contained, human individuals responsible only to and for ourselves. On the other hand, if we could change our perspective only slightly; if we could come to understand that it is not the survival of our little selves that is the issue, but the survival of the whole grand scheme that includes life and non-life, every animal, vegetable, mineral, planet, sun, galaxy and all it relies upon, then perhaps something can be salvaged. Not saved. Salvaged. We might come to see that, as the aforementioned Huang Po put it, the jewel of salvation for which we have been turning the world upside down to find has been attached to our foreheads all along. We, the totality of what we really are, is always already salvaged. It relies not upon our feverish doing designed to secure us and our nearest and dearest from harm, but upon our simply accepting the risk of our connection to, our dependence upon, our identity with all that is.
Of course, this is not easy. Everything we’ve been taught, everything we think we have learned on our own militates against it. Almost every sensory and material gift we’ve been given, everything we think we have earned on our own, militates against it. And yet, something nourishes in us this counterintuitive truth. There is a jewel that belongs to all, a jewel which, given how we see things, must seem accidental. Preposterous and iniquitous. But which, in the end, may come to seem the most inevitable, and indeed the most salvational reality of all.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Killing Citizens

In the early days of WWII, the U.S. government put immigrants from the enemy countries of Germany, Japan and Italy under various restrictions. The most severe of these restrictions were: forced evacuation from prohibited zones, and internment in camps set up on various Army bases. Neither of these penalties was imposed because of actions taken by any of those affected, for none had done anything. They were imposed because the government had ruled that the affected persons were “potentially dangerous.” In the evacuation cases, the suspicion was applied to the whole group, without individual adjudication of “dangerousness:” all enemy aliens were forced to leave homes or jobs in a given prohibited zone, usually along the coast. In the internment case, the suspicion was applied to specific individuals who had appeared, for some reason, on the government’s ‘custodial detention index’. The cause could be overheard statements favoring an enemy leader, or the enemy country, or simply an accusation by a friend, acquaintance, or rival. In most cases, the individual affected had no idea why he was considered “dangerous;” in fact, at hearings for internees, they were not allowed to know the charges against them, but only to “prove their innocence.” If they failed, which most did, the internment orders were final.
            Since 9/11, the United States has been engaged in yet another global war, and in this war, too, individuals are investigated and judged to be “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathizers,” even absent any actions they may take or have taken. The difference, now, is that if certain conditions are met, an individual—including an American citizen—can be killed. No trial. No jury. No chance for the person to question evidence or protest his innocence. He is simply made the target of a kill order—usually by drone—and he is eliminated.
            This process has been the subject of increasing scrutiny of late, and recently NBC news published a “white paper” from the Department of Justice outlining the reasons and conditions under which the Obama administration can assassinate a suspected terrorist. The assassination can be done in any country, at any time, whether or not the United States is at war with that country, and whether or not the individual is actually in the process of planning or mounting a terrorist operation against the United States. It should be said that this “white paper” or memo is not the official legal memo authorizing this procedure from the Office of Legal Counsel. The Obama administration refuses to release that. But it is an astonishing document nonetheless, being the administration’s attempt to justify the President’s power to order the murder of a suspected terrorist, even if he is a U.S. citizen, without judicial or any other kind of review. In other words, the right to due process granted every American (and indeed every resident of the United States, citizen or not, to know and be able to contest the charges against him) is simply not operative where this kill procedure is concerned. The President’s (or whoever is empowered to authorize such assassinations) word is final. And we know for certain that at least two American citizens—Anwar Awlaki, and then his 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman Awlaki—were indeed killed in two separate drone strikes in Yemen in September 2011. Of course, the administration has contended that Awlaki, a Muslim imam, has plotted and ordered attacks on the United States. But whether he has or has not done so (we have only the Administration’s word on this), he was simply targeted and killed by a drone strike. It is not clear whether his son, at age 16, was also considered to have been plotting, or was judged guilty by reason of genetic inheritance; no matter, he was eliminated as well.
            Glenn Greenwald, among others, has written about this new memo  titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qua’ida or an Associated Force”, and outlines several of the most egregious elements it contains (see Glenn Greenwald, “Chilling Legal Memo from Obama DOJ,”, 2/5/13) . They are mouth-dropping. The first is the fundamental violation of our core legal protections, due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The founding fathers made these a key part of the new nation’s legal system primarily to head off the arbitrary and absolute power wielded by traditional monarchs to eliminate their enemies by decree. “Off with their heads” is the popular way of putting this. No, said the framers of our Constitution; an offense must be proved in a court of law. But as Greenwald puts it, this constitutes the “core distortion under both Bush and Obama: equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt.” This is precisely what happened in WWII to enemy aliens. They were presumed guilty unless and until they could prove their innocence. The same thing is happening now—only with the serious difference that the presumption of guilt now becomes a death sentence. Anyone accused by the U.S. government of terrorism is, ipso facto, a terrorist—no evidence or trial needed. And to be a terrorist means to be plotting against the United States, and therefore to be guilty and deserving of death—no questions asked.
            During World War II, the FBI had, over some years, produced a custodial detention list—a list it activated by arresting and interning thousands on that list right after Pearl Harbor. Today, however, it is the President and a few key aides who produce another list—this time a “kill list.” The New York Times has written about the presumed procedure for targeting a terrorist on this list for a lethal drone strike, and it is another chilling aspect of the process. Here is how Greenwald summarizes it:
            The president's underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president - at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as "Terror Tuesday" - then chooses from "baseball cards" and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.

The president’s men claim that proof (however flimsy) of being a “senior leader of Al-Quaida” plotting an attack is a sufficient condition for execution. BUT as Greenwald points out, even this is not a necessary condition. The memo makes clear that assassinations may in fact be permitted “even when the target is not a senior Al-Quaida leader posing an imminent threat.” In short, in a process this secret, with no checks or balances whatever, the person exercising such arbitrary authority can call for the assassination of anyone he chooses. Death by presidential fiat allows for no review, either before or after the death sentence. It makes moot any question of whether the accused person was, in fact, an al-Quaida leader, whether, in fact, there was a chance of capturing rather than killing him, and whether, in fact, a specific attack was “imminent” (this notion of “imminence” is a prime justification for killing someone who has not actually committed a crime; it’s akin to the idea of “potentially dangerous”) at the time of the assassination. As Greenwald points out, “the U.S. routinely assassinates its targets not when they are engaged in or plotting attacks but when they are at home, with family members, riding in a car, at work, at funerals, rescuing other drone victims, etc.”
            There are more astonishing aspects to this new and radical power claimed by a president who campaigned on the idea that the Bush White House had violated constitutionally-sanctioned war powers both by its invasion of Iraq and by its indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” without trial at Guantanamo. But here we have Barack Obama, a putative “liberal,” arrogating to himself the supreme power of death-by-drone with no oversight whatever. It is one of the grim ironies of the current situation in which the United States finds itself: advertising itself as the great bastion of liberty and due process, and at the same time engaging in the same kinds of targeted assassinations long favored by tyrants of every stripe.
A warning given a few years ago by legal scholar David Cole, should be remembered here: “what we are willing to allow our government to do to immigrants creates precedents for how it treats citizens” (David Cole, “Enemy Aliens,” Stanford Law Review, V54, p959). In the present situation, the precedent to kill U.S. citizens has already been established in Yemen. How long it will take for this precedent to reach citizens in the United States is anyone’s guess. After that, it will only be a matter of time for the next question to arise: which of us will be next?

Lawrence DiStasi