Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Death of Two Presidents

As this is written, President Gerald Ford has returned to Grand Rapids, Michigan, after lying in state in Washington, proceeding in state to the National Cathedral, and flying with full honors back to his childhood home. Yesterday, the nation observed a Day of Mourning, closing all government offices and the nation's financial markets. Today, he will be interred in state in the library and museum dedicated to his honor. Dozens of dignitaries and hundreds of mourners will pay tribute to him today, and untold thousands will pay tribute in the years to come, as they visit to learn of this 38th president of the United States.

Two days ago, as President Ford lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, and the thousands streamed past to pay final respects, another president was also laid to rest. "President" Saddam Hussein was buried, also in his home town, before a small crowd of a few hundred. Two very different lives leading to two very different endings. One, succeeding beyond his greatest aspirations and honored with honors exceeding his expectations and even his desires. The other, amassing power beyond all reasonable limits and then watching it slip away as a direct result of his use and misuse of it, and denied all the honors he would have expected and demanded. One, leading his nation out of scandal and dishonor, and restoring faith in his office by his personal character and dedication. The other, leading his nation into chaos and horror, and destroying faith in his office by his personal character and obsession.

Part of the disparity of endings, of course, had to do with recent events. Had Hussein not provoked the wrath of the United States through folly and arrogance, he might well have remained President of Iraq until his death. Then, depending upon the whims of his successor (quite probably one of his equally criminal sons) he might have received all the honors of a state funeral, procession, and grand state tomb. Or possibly not.

For the greatest reason for the different endings of these men has less to do with their own personal character than with the character of the regimes they led. No matter how successful Hussein might have been in life, after death the regime would be in the hands of a successor as unencumbered by legal or moral limits as he was. That successor might have honored the past president, even if he profited from his death—much as Stalin eulogized Lenin. Or, that successor might have denounced his predecessor and stripped him of his honored place—just as Stalin, in his turn, was denounced by Khrushchev. In a state where all power and authority are personal, they end with the death of the person. No matter how powerful, intelligent, or successful Saddam Hussein might have been, he would always have been an illegitimate leader whose authority rested solely upon his personal power to terrorize or reward.

Gerald Ford, on the other hand, served and led a state in which power flowed not from the will and strength of one man but from the consent of the governed in accord with the rule of law. Where Saddam Hussein's authority and prestige rested upon his power, Gerald Ford's authority, prestige, and power all flowed from a source beyond himself. He was vested with authority and power by the people in accord with the laws of the land and the Constitution behind those laws. With Saddam, the office was the man, and was tainted by the depravity of the man. With Ford, the office ennobled the man. In Hussein's case the office was created and defined by the man: a creature of Saddam Hussein which existed to ensure his power and dominion. In Ford's case, the man was changed and redefined by the office: a servant of an office which existed before him and which would outlast both his service and his life.

When we honor President Gerald Ford, we honor both the man and the office. We pay respects to the man, and to his accomplishments and life. But we also pay respects to the office and to its history and purpose. It is Gerald Ford who is eulogized, honored, and buried. But it is President Ford who lies in state, merits a national Day of Mourning, warrants a memorial service at the National Cathedral, and flies across the nation aboard an Air Force transport. In the case of Gerald Ford, the man deserves respect and honor for his personal achievements and character. But it is the office which deserves to command the nation's resources and attention. Thus former President Nixon was honored in much the same way. For while we may debate the difference in personal merit between the two men, the office commands the same respect, for the office transcends the man inhabiting it and remains the same.

This is the greatest gift given by the rule of law. It is given to the people, who remain free to distinguish between the man and the office, and dislike or even despise the one without despising the other. And, even more, it is given to the man himself, who remains free of the crippling need to ceaselessly grasp at power in order to prevent the office from slipping away. The rule of law frees the nation from the reign of terror of illegitimate regimes like Saddam Hussein's, but it also frees the man who leads the nation from the corrupting taint and crippling paranoia of illegitimate power.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why Gitmo is Good

I'm going to make an unpractical and irresponsible statement: I think Guantanamo Bay is a necessary place. No, let me be bold, I think Guantanamo Bay is a positive good, a tribute to the mercy and decency of America. Now I will duck to avoid the thrown objects. But after you throw them, please read on and see the depths of my madness...

These days it's popular to criticize the internment camp at Guantanamo Bay. And this is easy to understand. After all, who really likes internment camps? (If you show this to someone and they respond that they do, watch them very closely.) And, in a war with a clear public relations aspect, we simply cannot afford the black mark of Guantanamo, we are told. Worse, some say, torture and abuse happen there each day, and surely that can't be what we're fighting for.

Before continuing, go now and read this excellent series here at Patterico's Pontifications. It's by a former psychological nurse at Gitmo, who worked with the detainees. Not to interrogate, or to control, but to help and heal them. He saw mentally ill men, and quite sane ones, vicious killers and naive dupes. His description of his time there is important information you should know, and will disabuse you of the notion that Gitmo is some Inquisitorial prison in which detainees are tortured until they confess their crimes and renounce Islam for consumerism. (Or whatever strange notions you hold about the place. Well, unless you think it's like Monty Python's Spanish Inquistion: oddly that has some truth, at least the part about the Comfy Chair.)

But there's no question that it's a prison, full of many people charged with no formal crime and interred for an essentially unlimited sentence. It's the sort of place that no good person can be pleased with. Each day many voices cry for the closing of the camp. But closing the camp does raise one small problem: what do we do with those interred there?

At first this seems a simple question: send them home. Except that in many cases their governments don't want them. (Oddly, it turns out that those captured fighting as volunteers for Al Qaeda and the Taliban are frequently the sort of misfits and annoyingly religious zealots that most authoritarian regimes are happier rid of.) And in many other cases, their governments want them all too eagerly—usually because they have a nice cell, interrogation room, and execution chamber all lined up. So we can't send them home, at least not without guarantees that we'll never get, from governments we really can't trust to keep them in any event.

Okay, then, let's try them in civilian courts. But why crime, what provable crime, have they committed? Most were captured either as enemy combatants, bearing arms against our troops in nasty wars in the Far Away. But is that really illegal, if one isn't an American citizen? Can we really say that it's a crime to fight against US soldiers in foreign lands? And most of the rest are known al Qaeda operatives, some probably responsible for terrible things. But can we prove these charges? We may know, beyond any doubt that this man or that one is a high-ranking officer of al Qaeda, and definitely a declared enemy of the United States. But is that a crime? My guess is the number of detainees who could be formally charged and convicted in a court of law is small indeed.

Okay, then, let's try them before military tribunals, as specified in the Geneva Conventions, to determine their status. Well, that does seem to be what we'll do, but by the volume of whining about it, it appears this isn't really a popular option either. And let's admit that in many cases the tribunals will probably find that they're enemy combatants (either legal or illegal) and, well, put them back in Gitmo.

Or, I suppose, we could just let them go and trust that they're really good people at heart who were mistakenly and unjustly swept up. Except that they're not. Or at least many of them aren't. They're highly motivated and fanatically devoted warriors in a holy cause. If you let those people go, they will simply try to kill you again. Sure, some of them are just innocent men, and others, maybe many, are truly tired of jihad and will go home and get back to life. But many, the hardline true believers, will simply kill more American soldiers, citizens, or allies. So we can't let them all go either.

It turns out that Gitmo is necessary, because we keep capturing people we can't repatriate, convict, or release. Perhaps some of the detainees at Guantanamo are innocent and should go home. Perhaps many of them are. Certainly we should do what we can to identify these people and free them. But a large number aren't innocent and we can't dodge the question through moral posturing or scripted outrage. We have to face the music: what are we going to do with these hardened killers determined to bring down our society?

In earlier days, this wasn't a dilemma, because we had a clear answer. We killed them. Frequently we never let the issue come up in the first place because we just wouldn't take them captive. Fighters who intentionally wear civilian dress without some clear sign of their status (an armband, telltale headgear, etc.) aren't POWs if you capture them. They're spies and saboteurs. Often they were killed in the field, or captured and turned over to the tender mercies of our local allies. And, in fact, in Afghanistan there are many more men languishing in Afghan prisons under far worse conditions than Guantanamo Bay.

But, because we desired information and because we wanted to separate out the innocent and salvagable from the hardened killers, we ended up bringing many to Guantanamo. So now they're under our custody, not our allies', and we have to decide what to do. Because we don't like killing or cruelty, we have chosen to build a place to house and care for these men, many of whom hate us so much that they would gleefully slaughter our families upon release. Rather than "disappear" or "vanish" them, we ensure that the Red Cross visits them and we even allow them to send messages home so that their families know they're alive. We feed them excellent food, specially prepared according to their exacting religious needs. We grant them each a Koran, and are careful not to mistreat it or mishandle it. We provide mats for prayer and indicate the direction of Mecca, for the convenience of our enemies. We make spiritual guidance, medical care, and psychological counseling available—in some cases services superior to those enjoyed by the guards and staff!

And for our trouble we are scorned by the world, including by nations whose prisons make Guantanamo seem a five-star resort. We are hated more, perhaps, than we would be if we simply killed these men. We are held to a standard impossible to meet, and which has never been met in any conflict by any nation. And we are told that because we don't meet this standard, we are no better than those we fight.

Why would we do this? Because we are better than those we fight. We are fighting committed, religious, focused men who hate us because they believe we are responsible for great evils and, above all, for rebellion against God. They see themselves as God's avengers and are full of the self-righteousness of the self-appointed scourge of God. But we return mercy for their violence because we too see ourselves (whether we admit it or not) as the soldiers of God. But, in our minds, a God who says "it is mercy I require, not sacrifice," who commands "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," and who proclaims that "the measure you measure with will be measured back to you."

If we really were like our enemies, Gitmo would be a true chamber of horrors. Secure in our self-righteous knowledge that we were God's annointed we would mercilessly interrogate the enemies of God, learn what we could, and then joyously butcher them for the glory and honor of the Most High. But we are not like our enemies, and Guantanamo Bay, for all its many faults and moral quandries, is an expression not of our wrath, but of our mercy.

Politics and Civility, Redux

I have a confession to make. I like Barak Obama. As a more-or-less conservative Republican, I know I'm not supposed to. And I don't really fall into the two typical Obama camps: the one that proclaims him the liberal savior of the Democrats or the one that proclaims him a new "third way" politician in the mold of Bill Clinton. But neither am I in the "he's all talk and posturing" camp some on the right have created.

I don't deny that Sen. Obama is a liberal. But then, neither does he. Indeed, he celebrates it. I imagine we would disagree in many ways about many things. But that, really, is the point. Sen. Obama is one of a handful (though thankfully it seems to be a growing handful) of well-known liberal politicians with whom I can disagree without rancor. Why? Because while he strongly states his own position, he does so without belittling or ridiculing those who disagree. And while he has been quite candid with his views (in book after book, no less), he can also listen respectfully and debate calmly.

And in this age of insane partisan sniping, that alone is something to admire.

But Sen. Obama goes further than that. Some on the right point to his lack of accomplishments as a senator (as if a first term junior senator could be expected to amass an impressive tally within two years). But I point to the nature and quality of his first widely-known accomplishment. It may not seem much to many, one sponsor among several of a bipartisan bill to force the federal government to detail spending in a public database and make that database searchable on a public website.

But take one brief moment and reflect. Ask why the Republicans are close to losing both houses this election. Certainly a midterm election like this produces losses. Certainly Iraq plays a role, as does disappointment among Republicans over spending and immigration. But can anyone deny that graft and corruption, and—even more—the appearance of graft and corruption has played a major role? Look at the growing Porkbusters movement, and the growing tide on the Blogosphere and elsewhere against "earmarks", dubious contracts, and all the rest.

And then look at Senator Obama, ambitious, eager, possibly considering a run for the Presidency in 2008. He could, like Nancy Pelosi, focus on how to accumulate and consolidate power after a Democratic victory. Or, like John Murtha, focus on hammering the Republicans over Iraq. Or, like Harry Reid, decry Republican corruption (while building his own Nevada empire ever higher). But rather than do these things, he works closely with Republicans to deliver a low-key bill that might, just might, change how Washington, Republican and Democratic, does business.

If that be ambition, it's the kind of ambition that I like: seeking to gain honor and prestige by doing something worthwhile and necessary. It's not empty posturing, it's not ugly calculation, and it's not partisan hypocrisy. It's something dangerously close to statesmanship: placing the needs of ones nation above one's personal politics. Working with the opposing party, risking "giving them a win", to get something done. Was the decision altruistic? I certainly hope not! Seeking to build one's reputation by doing worthy things may not be saintly, but it's the kind of "good ambition" that we should desire from our politicians. Just as I want my CEOs (the CEOs of those companies I own stock in) to build short-term value by building long-term value and growth, I want my politicians to build their careers by making my government and my country better.

And, oddly, I prefer that they do it without rancor and shrill partisan posturing. I like it best when they do it as part of a career which appears to turn away from dividing and towards uniting. Uniting not by appealing to a bland (and probably non-existant) middle ground on every issue, but by appealing to real shared ground on issues where it does exist. To get the (cumbersomely named) Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act passed, Sen. Obama and his co-sponsors had to battle open and secret opposition by an equally bipartisan group of those wanting to continue to do business the old-fashioned way. Sen. Obama could have chosen the easy path of posturing and criticism, but he chose the harder and better path of solving problems, even when that means partnering with the "other side".

For that, and for his constant tone of respect and reason, I salute him and offer him the highest praise: if all Democrats today were liberals of the cast of Barak Obama, the Republicans wouldn't be in danger of losing the Congress, they'd be desperately lining up new careers.

On False Starts and New Beginnings

Filled with fire and hope, and a bit of free time, I strode boldly out into the wild Blogosphere and staked out this tiny claim on the fringes of the vast settled landscape of Blogger. Filled with purpose and visions of the future, I put (virtual) pen to (virtual) paper and produced my first two postings.

And then promptly forgot about it all for 6 months.

But now, with the gentle encouragement (read: non-stop nagging) of my beloved father, I am once again taking up this noble crusade and perhaps, perhaps, might actually post a bit. Whether anyone reads it, of course, I know not. (Though I do know that if a certain father doesn't read it and comment, well, let's just say that Oedipus may be best remembered for one thing, but he killed his father in righteous rage long before that...)

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Politics and Civility

When I was younger I used to enjoy watching the The McLaughlin Group with my father. We enjoyed the debate and the humor and we also enjoyed the obvious friendship among many of the participants, men (and later women) with quite different views on many things. On the show, they'd something go at it hammer and tongs. But you knew that at the end of the day, John McLaughlin, Robert Novak, and Jack Germond might find themselves having a drink together and swapping stories and laughing together.

Where has that gone? Oh, it can still be found, but as I look around I see so much rancor in so many places. And so little civility. Have we really come to a place where there is no reasonable disagreement? Where everyone who fails to acknowledge that I'm right is in bad faith---a liar or worse? Isn't it possible to be well intentioned, honest, honorable and wrong?

In a few minutes I'm going down to dinner with two friends. One is a fellow Christian, though from a very different tradition (he's a devout Quaker) and the other is an atheist. One is a strange amalgam of federalism, Midwestern chauvanism, conservatism, liberalism, and insanity. The other is a fairly orthodox left-libertarian, though sympathetic to current mainstream left-liberalism. And I'm a fairly standard moderate conservative, though colored by Catholicism which moderates the worst excesses of my politics (one really should care for the poor, one way or another; war may sometimes be just but had best be rare as Hell; killing people needlessly is never right, etc.)

And we're all opinionated. So we argue and we'll probably argue at dinner. But we're also all futurists of a sort, share a love of technology and science fiction, and we all, above all, believe that civility, honor, and fair play should hold despite disagreements. We see each other as more than just the sum of our politics.

After all, shouldn't everyone?

About the name

I've always loved the writings of G. K. Chesterton, and I was always struck by one of his phrases in particular:

"There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man."

This has alwasy rung true to me, so when I finally decided to create a blog (mostly to ensure that not all of the good Chestertonian names were taken) I thought of it at once. And then I thought of a great title: The Flag of the World. And promptly forgot about doing anything for weeks.

Then I thought of it all again, and, lo and behold, The Flag of the World was taken (kudos to Timothy Goddard on an excellent title). Ah well, I said, at least it is in use by someone who looks as though he appreciates GKC... Besides, I can still use another title, almost as good: The Eternal Revolution. Well, of course you can see the problem there. (Kudos to the various writers selecting so excellent a title.)

So I looked around at What's Wrong with the World, which has many fine chapter titles, and thought about using that title (What's Wrong with the World). But that sounded really too negative. Certainly many things are wrong with the world, but one shouldn't focus entirely on the nasty things or one risks becoming mean and irritating (like Bill O'Reilly or George Carlin).

So, with that in mind, I considered one of the greatest chapter titles in that book: The Home of Man. No, that one wasn't taken, but it just sounded somewhat presumptious. Is my site really going to be the "Home of Man"? No, probably not. Besides, someone else has the real claim to being the Home of Man (as GKC pointed out).

So, in the end, I settled upon a very strange, but very fitting title: The Universal Stick. Here's what Chesterton had to say about the lowly stick in the chapter of that name in What's Wrong with the World:

"Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man's house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die."

So there it is, the reason for this strange and perhaps foolish title. Perhaps I am still presumptious, but I hope that this site may be, like the lowly stick, universal in its scope and intention. I may well fall short of this ideal, but I'll still proclaim the ideal: a man should be open to discussing nearly everything, even if he's an expect only on a few things. Granted, he'll frequently be a fool, but at least he'll be a man, albeit an unpractical one.