Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Post #94 - Women's Rights

"All oppression creates a state of war." (Simone de Beauvoir)

In April of 2006, Iranian professor and philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who holds dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship, was detained by the Iranian authorities as he was boarding a flight to Brussels. A delegation that included Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division, Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council [Full disclosure:  I serve on NIAC's advisory council], Joanne Leedom Ackerman, vice president of the International PEN (writers' association), and Zahir Janmohamed, Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Middle East went to the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, DC to protest Jahanbegloo's detention. One of the organizers said, “we ask for the freedom of all political detainees who are held in Iran's various prisons for participating in peaceful gatherings.”

In such situations, a prison term may be given, in some cases even capital punishment, for those who are deemed a threat to the government.  A Washington Post article mentioned also reported: "With 159 people executed by the state in 2004...Iran was second only to China in the number of death sentences it carried out last year." (For comparison, the figure for the United States in 2004 was 58, for Saudi Arabia about 85; in 117 other countries the death penalty had been banned. Another half-dozen nations have since joined in rejecting the death penalty.)

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights activist, a key figure in the reform movement and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, led an initiative to gain one million signatures for a petition to press the Iranian government to reform laws that are discriminatory toward women. Sharia law [law that conforms to Islamic principles and traditions] gives different weight to men's and women's testimony, prescribes different amounts of compensation for torts and sometimes gives different punishments for the same crimes.

A few days prior to International Women's Day (March 8) in 2007, thirty-three activist Iranian women were jailed as they protested the trial of five others. Those in custody objected (as reported in the Washington Post of March 6) to provisions of the “penal laws, family code and blood money practices.” The article went on: “Practically the entire top layer of the women's movement in Iran, except for...Ebadi, who happens to be in Italy, is in jail,” said Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch, who was in New York at that time.

Though most of the women arrested on March 4 were released in a few days, the Organisation for Women's Liberation, in its communiqués, painted a picture of a much wider crisis in this chronology of events:

March 4:
Allameh University -- 700 gather to oppose a new dress code; students chant slogans condemning the "fascist method of controlling the university." A male student said "this new more restricted dress code is not just against females; it is against us and all humanity, too".
Sharif University -- protesters sing progressive songs, make speeches and hold banners saying "Women's freedom is the freedom of society," "women are the main victims of war, poverty and violence," "No to gender apartheid" and "Students' movement in unity with women's and workers' movement." 

March 5:
100,000 teachers go on strike; many students and the women's movement show solidarity with the teachers; several thousand factory workers join the teachers to demand their unpaid wages. Many workers' committees issue messages to commemorate International Women's Day. 

March 6:
Tafrash University – a gathering is held at the electrical engineering faculty where many students take part; the assembly issues a statement saying: "Freedom of society is measured by the freedom of women." 

March 8:
Tehran demonstration, 2006
Tehran – 1500 people gather to protest gender segregation, "dictatorship" and "police state;" 3,000 gather in Vali-Asr Square; 10,000 teachers stage a picket outside the Parliament building demanding justice and better wages.
Esfahan -- two events, one in Boostan Park and the other in the main library; women take their veils off for a few minutes and read out a resolution demanding freedom of clothing and condemning gender apartheid.
Sanandaj (Iranian Kurdistan) -- police and secret police attack an annual ceremony and arrest many; a gathering in the main city center is attacked by Islamic guards, some are arrested and a few injured.
Sagez (another city in Kurdistan) -- people celebrate International Women's Day; women make speeches about women's rights and abolition of gender apartheid.
Kamyaran -- people gather by the grave of women who were victims of honor killings or had committed suicide and read out a resolution in defense of women's rights.

(Remember that this was two years before the much-covered events surrounding the 2009 Iranian elections and the "coming out" of the Green Party.)

There have been some gains in the position of women in Iran since 1979, and a new atmosphere is becoming evident. Washington Post reporter Steven Knipp shared these observations:

"What astonished me the most about Iran were its women. I met and spoke with scores of them from all parts of the country. And everywhere they were wonderful: vivid, bold, articulate in several languages, politically astute and audaciously outward-looking. While some men demurred, the women weren't afraid to voice opinions about anything under the sun. In fact, women in Iran can work and drive and vote, own property or businesses, run for political office and seek a divorce. The majority of Iran's university graduates are women.

Hijab chic
"But socially, Iran's women still live under Islamic edicts: they must wear the hijab when leaving the house, and they cannot normally associate with any male who is not their father, brother or son, or shake hands with a man. Despite these restrictions, they manage to remain utterly feminine. They are keen on bright lipsticks, nail polish and eye shadow. And they have a passion for imported handbags and shoes. It's the women who give me the most hope that this once noble nation will one day return to its tolerant roots. Most of the young people I spoke with insist that change is coming."

A report called "Women’s Rights and Democracy: Peaceful Transformation in Iran" was published in May 2006 by the Policy Commission of the Initiative for Inclusive Security. “One sector often overlooked and underestimated,” the authors wrote, “is women.” They noted that UN Security Council Resolution 1325 called for women’s participation in peace processes. Recognizing that over 60% of those attending Iranian universities are women, that women are a key constituency in Iranian politics, and that Iranian women have shown remarkable adaptability in coping with the vagaries and restrictions of Islamic Republic officialdom, the report recommended that “new strategies of activism” should be– and are being – created. “Women’s efforts,” they wrote, “are emblematic of the larger public’s desire for increased democratic and human rights and economic justice.”

Our righteous condemnation of such abuses needs, however, to be placed in a wider context. Saudi women fare worse than Iranian women in many respects, for example; Iraq's new constitution has actually limited women's rights more than some earlier legal structures that existed in that country. Amnesty International, in its Report 2000 cited the following examples of human rights violations (in that year alone) in some of the countries that we considered friends and allies in the “war against terror” (none of these countries, of course, made it onto President Bush's “Axis of Evil” list in January of the following year):

Battle for a Rio favela
Brazil: Torture and ill-treatment were reported to be common in many police stations...”death squads” linked to the security forces continued to kill civilians, including children, in circumstances suggesting extrajudicial reform activists in a number of states were harassed, assaulted and murdered by gunmen hired by local landowners, with the apparent acquiescence of the police and authorities. [I met with the victims of some of these crimes during a 1992 visit to Rio de Janeiro for a UN Summit on Environment, though most of the poor people had been cleared out of the parts of the city that hosted international conferees.]

Colombia: Widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law...principal victims continued to be unionists, political and social activists, human rights defenders, judicial officials, church workers, and journalists were among those targeted...”death squad”-style killings continued...torture – often involving mutilation – [was] widespread...impunity for for human rights violations remained the norm.

Egypt: Fourteen prisoners of conscience were sentenced to prison terms...thousands [were] held without charge or trial, sometimes for years...torture and ill-treatment of prisoners continued to be systematic...prison conditions amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading least 108 people were sentenced to death and at least 16 were executed...several detainees just “disappeared” and were unaccounted for. [In addition, from 1972 to the present there have been scores of incidents in which Coptic churches have been bombed and burned in Egypt; monks, priests and parishioners murdered or tortured, and acts of mob violence carried out against the Copts. These occurrences never put a dent in U.S. aid to Egypt, which was second only to that given to Israel.  Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall, Copts are still sometimes the target of assaults or discrimination.]

Israel: About 1500 Palestinian political prisoners were being held...houses in the West Bank were demolished because their owners had been unable to secure building permits...150 Lebanese nationals were held without charge or trial in Khiam Detention Center in Israeli-occupied South Lebanon...Israeli security forces killed at least eight Palestinians in circumstances suggesting that they were unlawfully killed.  [In addition, here is an interesting excerpt from an article in Washington Post opinion piece by Ruth Marcus (December 2011):  "Women are forced to board pubic buses from the back and stay there.  Billboards with images of women are defaced.  Public streets are cordoned off during religious holidays so that women cannot enter.  Saudi Arabia in the misogynistic grip of sharia law?  Sadly, astonishingly, infuriatingly, it is Israel under the growing influence and increasingly assertive demands of the ultra-Orthodox."]

Pakistan: Law enforcement personnel carried out arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions with impunity...258 people were sentences to death...abuses by private individuals, including the honor killings of hundreds of girls and women, were not investigated or punished...rights of religious minorities, journalists and other human rights defenders continued to come under threat. [Iran was a party to over half of the nine major human rights conventions in effect at that time; Pakistan only two.]

Things are changing in Iran, if slowly -- in part because so many of its citizens are young and have access to the internet. Grand Ayatollah Sanei finished one of his lessons in Qom's Seminary School in a recent year by condemning laws that discriminate against women as “indefensible.” According to a story of the Rooz (“Day”) webblog, Sanei said: "We all have a duty to to try to fulfill the rights of women and every human being: clerics and academics by carrying out research, Majlis deputies by passing laws, as Ayatollah Rafsanjani recently requested." (Rafsanjani had advocated making the compensation paid to the families of male and female crime victims identical.) Another prominent conservative cleric, Mohsen Gheravian, was quoted as saying: “...we are moving in a direction in which jurists must rely more heavily on logic and reason in forming their opinions [rather than tradition].”

Dr. Ebadi served a jail sentence in her country and has been subjected to continuing intermittent harassment by the current government. She has said that while she calls for democratic reforms in Iran, she feels that change can only come from within the country. "The intervention of the American army will not improve the situation -- the experience of Iraq has demonstrated that," Ebadi said (according to an Associated Press story), adding that Iranians would "not allow another Iraq to happen." Iraq, according to correspondent Patrick Cockburn, “is a country that's been 'hollowed out.' Two million people have left. At least 3,000 civilians are murdered every month. The rest live in terror...Of the 32,000 physicians who were there before the war, 2,000 are dead, 12,000 have left, and the remainder, who are seen as having money and are thus targets for kidnappers, must work from armed-guarded clinics...” "We will defend our country,” Ebadi said, “till the last drop of blood." (She reiterated this to me in person.)

Scott Ritter spent some time with Dr. Ebadi in 2006 and cited her position (in an article in The Nation, November 20, 2006) as evidence of the relatively loose hold the Islamic Republic's now has on its dissidents:

"Ebadi is permitted to travel abroad, speaking and publishing words harshly critical of the Iranian theocracy. She has been harassed by the government but still operates freely, unlike her fellow Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, again under house arrest in Myanmar." [the Myanmar leader has, of course, since been released from house arrest, and persists in her activism]

Ritter himself came to a similar conclusion about the Iranian populace as Ebadi's:

"While most Iranians welcomed the elimination of Saddam, the horrors inflicted and unleashed by U.S. military forces next door have left many...with the realization that the dream of American intervention may turn into a nightmare. My trip convinced me that support for U.S. intervention does not exist to any significant degree but rather resides solely in the minds of those in the West who have had their impressions of Iran shaped by pro-Shah expatriates who have been absent from the country for more than a quarter-century."

Dr. Ebadi joined forces with an American Nobelist, Jody Williams, in forming Women's Nobel Laureates, a group whose membership crosses religious lines and national boundaries and unites its members in protesting the saber-rattling of self-interested national actors. (Williams helped spearhead the international movement to find, eliminate and prevent the further dissemination of landmines – some of the most vicious weapons ever devised in their capacity to inflict harm or death on civilians both during and long after conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, El Salvador, Panama, Yemen and others. A similar campaign is underway to deal with cluster bombs, which kill many innocent civilians as well.)

Haleh Esfandiari, PhD
Epilogue: Sadly, in 2007 Dr. Ebadi took on another client (a colleague of mine), the respected Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.  She was jailed by the Iranian authorities on a trip back home to visit her ailing mother, and became another pawn in the struggle between our two governments. (Esfandiari was able to return to the United States in early September of that year, after being released on bail, and has written a book about her incarceration, My Prison, My Home:  One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran).

Post #93 - Treatment of Baha'is

(The next few posts address human rights abuses in Iran.)

"The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." (Baha'u'llah)

Baha'i Lotus Temple, New Delhi
An element of revolutionary intolerance which persists even today is the persecution of the one minority religion distinct from all others in that it was promulgated after the advent of Islam. Developed out of what is called “twelver” Shi-ism, this tradition was founded in Shiraz around 1844; its current world headquarters is located in Haifa, Israel.

Baha'is sentenced in October 2011 to four years in prison
Earlier, in the mid-1800's Baha'is were persecuted – perhaps as many as 20,000 killed (out of a total of perhaps 300,000). They were seen as a sect that violated the Islamic understanding of the Mohammad as the last and final prophet of God (Baha'is see their tradition as natural step in the perfection and completion of all the preceding faiths). Under the Shah, the position of Baha'is was not always comfortable in Iran; in 1955, the government oversaw the demolition of the Bahá’í national center in Tehran with pickaxes. Following the Islamic Revolution, it grew worse once again. According to the Baha'i community, since then “more than 200 Bahá’ís have been executed or killed, hundreds more have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses, and educational opportunities.

All national Bahá’í administrative structures were banned by the government, and holy places, shrines, and cemeteries were confiscated, vandalized, or destroyed.” Citing the fact that Iran is a signatory of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Bahai's cite violations including denial of access to higher education to Baha'is. At 350,000, however, Baha'is still comprise Iran's largest religious minority.

Post #92 - Revolutionary Brutality

(These next few posts will deal with human rights abuses in Iran).

The summary executions, beatings and other excesses of the early days of the Islamic Revolution still reverberate in the consciousness of those who lived through that era. An eyewitness to the Islamic Revolution, Brian Appleton, has written:

Khomeini's return from exile
"I saw with my own eyes, shortly after Khomeini's coup d'etat, the 20,000 protesting professional women who marched in Tehran refusing to veil and were harassed and stabbed by hooligans...[the protesters] called themselves the “men” of Iran because they were the first ones to protest the new regime en masse.... I fear that the IRI has survived against the will of the people for 27 years now because of foreign intervention. The U.S. Government does not want a strong Iran to interfere in their hegemony in the region and the Europeans have cut too many oil deals with these butchers to want to see them out of power. It is a sad state of affairs when countries are never allowed to be masters of their own destiny...this is the new mercantilism, the new colonialism, the new global economy where third world countries are engineered by design of the great powers just as surely as Stalin engineered famines in the Ukraine. I pray nightly that Bush doesn't start a war on Iran."

Beyond the mass political upheaval, though, were the hundreds of individual stories: the former minister summarily sentenced to be hanged, the young man or woman brutally disciplined by a gang of "morality" enforcers, the intellectual who fell afoul of the authorities and found he could not speak in public or be published in journals. As in the French Revolution, the high ideals were matched by base motives and methods, like a hybrid creature, half angel and half demon...all too human, one might say.

Now that the world has experienced, either up-close or at a remove, the so-called "Arab Spring," we see that the people of each country have to answer those same questions: How can the "bad old regime" be removed without plunging one's nation into a "different-but-just-as-bad new regime?" How can the people retain the power they demonstrated, rather than letting it slip into a just a few hands? How can the Spring not become a Winter of discontent?

Post #91 - Human Rights

"But Paul said to them, 'They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned…and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.'” (Acts 16:37)

The people of the United States and Iran – and each of us individually -- have ultimately to answer to a higher authority for the things done in our name. Our countries have taken turns creating problems for one another. Reza Aslan writes:

Author/professor/speaker Aslan
"The intention of the United States government in supporting Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War was to curb the spread of Iran's revolution, but it had the more disastrous effect of curbing its evolution. It was not until the end of the war in 1988 and the death of Khomeini a year later that the democratic ideals embedded in Iran's constitution were gradually unearthed by a new generation of Iranians too young to remember the tyranny of the Shah but old enough to realize that the present system was not what their parents had fought for."

He goes on to project a different possible future:

"The question remains: Can Islam now be used to establish a genuinely liberal democracy in the Middle East? Can a modern Islamic state reconcile reason and Revelation to create a democratic society based on the ethical ideals established by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina nearly fifteen centuries ago?...Not only can it do so, it must...But it is a process that can be based only on Islamic traditions and values. The principal lesson to be learned from the failure of Europe's “civilizing mission” is that democracy, if it is to be viable and enduring, can never be imported. It must be nurtured from within, founded upon familiar ideologies, and presented in a language that is both comprehensible and appealing to the indigenous population."

If that is to happen, Iran must deal with basic human dignity and fairness. In the next few posts, I will address the best-known abuses of human dignity that have occurred in Iran in the years since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Post #90 - Role of Religion in Politics

"If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." (Romans 12:18)

Although we can argue about whether the founding fathers intended to establish "a Christian nation," I believe it was faith in God that led George Washington to say, in his Farewell Address to the young nation, September 17, 1796:

"Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.
"In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest."

Washington could have been talking about the U.S., “the Axis of Evil” and Israel. I am sure there will be those who say that the world is far different and more dangerous place these days, and Washington's sentiments are just that: "sentimentalism" -- not realistic or useful in the 21st Century. But Christians are accustomed to relying on guidance that was promulgated long before we appeared on the scene, including the scriptures, and we pledge to uphold the U.S. Constitution, now in its 225th year.

Tom Tancredo
I heard an address by Colorado congressman and then-presidential candidate Tom Tancredo in which he took pride – and scored points with his March 2nd, 2007 audience at the Conservative Political Action Committee – in saying that he would “never apologize for America.” Tancredo seems to have confused humility with humiliation. As a Christian, I certainly would never apologize for being a Christian or for loving my wife and family, but I would hope that I would be ever ready to apologize, and sincerely repent, for things that I -- or my country -- might do that were misguided or destructive. We all are fallible – as individuals and, yes, as nations. To say that we never would repent is to imply that “being America means never having to say you're sorry,” a position that paints us into a moral corner where we never want to be. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote, "these days, to be called humble, obedient, meek, is almost an insult. We no longer see the grandeur and the strength of such an attitude.”

In a Christian Ethics Today article, Daniel Malotsky, a religion professor at Greensboro College, wrote about "A Presidential Apology." He said:

"President Bush has acknowledged on several occasions that mistakes have been made in Iraq...None of his public remarks has constituted an apology, and he scrupulously avoids any suggestion that the invasion as a whole was a mistake.
"..The redemption that the President surely desires is only possible by shedding the sense of his own -- and, by extension, America's -- inherent righteousness by admitting wrongdoing.
"...Though moral failure, Niebuhr shows, often arises by proceeding as though the gap between the ideal and the real does not exist, we are not well served by assuming that the gap leaves us in an amoral wasteland, in which survival (political or otherwise) becomes the only relevant criterion for determining our course of action."

In his book on Confession: the Healing Sacrament, Jim Forest writes:

"It is impossible to imagine a healthy marriage or deep friendship without confession and forgiveness. If we have done something that damages a relationship, confession is essential to its restoration. For the sake of that bond, we confess what we've done, we apologize, and we promise not to do it again; then we do everything in our power to keep that promise."

Wouldn't this same idea apply in relations between larger groups of people – even nations? If it is not legitimate to apologize for the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, for our historical legacy of having owned other human beings, for the overreaction that led to imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, for our overthrow of democratically -elected governments around the world, or for torturing prisoners, then it follows that it is uniquely America's place to be above morality. 

A Guide to Iran was prepared in 1943 by the War Department for U.S. soldiers stationed in Iran during the Second World War. Recognizing the critical importance of Iran in the wider strategic situation, the government gave advice to the enlisted men:

"And remember always that you aren’t going to Iran to change or reform the Iranis or tell them how much better we do things at home. Their ways have been good enough for them for some thousands of years and they aren’t likely to change because you think they should.
"...They are two principal danger points. Their politics and their religion. Stay out of arguments of discussion of either. In the first place, you don’t know enough about them to have an opinion; in the second place, they aren’t your business; in the third place, you can win a lot more friends for our side by just being an ordinary, friendly American."

A bit simplistic? Perhaps; but this embodies succinctly the advice given by many Iran experts during this period of growing tension. It is also reminiscent of the guidance given by Ali (one of the earliest Muslim leaders) to a person of higher rank, the man he appointed governor for Egypt, in a letter of instruction:

"Let the dearest of your treasuries by the treasury of righteous action. Control your desire and restrain your soul from what is not lawful to you...Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in the face of them a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation...Never say, 'I am invested with authority, I give orders and I am obeyed,' for surely that is corruption in the heart...God harkens to the call of the oppressed and He is ever on the watch against the wrongdoers." (cited in Heart of Islam)

Born of fear, our school-yard bravado can get in the way of mature interaction with other players on the world scene. This bit of verse has been attributed to weapons inspector Hans Blix: "The noble art of losing face/ Will some day save the human race."

Post #89 - Natanz, continued

Dave Robinson concludes his piece on Natanz by asking a question:

"So where does this all leave Noora and the other young women of Alame Majlesi? Their future is a stark question mark. If the U.S. succeeds in gaining more international economic sanctions against Iran, they will surely exacerbate the impact on the already weakened Iranian economy, further cutting off job opportunities, perhaps cutting back on Alame Majlesi’s ability to maintain its current services (they were the first such home for abused teenagers in Iran 10 years ago) and probably even strengthen the conservative Iranian regime and precipitate a backlash of ultra-conservatism that will additionally marginalize women in the Islamic state. If the U.S. mounts a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Alame Majlesi and the young women it serves will be vaporized in a millisecond."

For the victim of a nuclear attack, being vaporized might well be the fate to wish for. Here is a passage from the Hiroshima Diary of a survivor, Dr. Michihiko Hachiya:

"Updrafts became so violent that sheets of zinc roofing were hurled aloft...Disposing of the dead was a minor problem, but to clean the rooms and corridors of urine, feces and vomitus was impossible...The sight of them was most unbearable. Their faces and hands were burnt and swollen...their flesh was wet and mushy...their ears had melted off...I saw fire reservoirs filled to the brim with dead people who looked as though they had been burned alive...none of the patients had any appetite and were dying so fast I had begun to accept death as a matter of course...bloody diarrhea was increasing...sanitation teams were cremating the remains of people who had been killed. Looking out, I could discern numerous fires about the city...The bundle [of supplies] he returned with was no bigger than the tears of a sparrow...White clips of blistered paint and mortar settled over us like falling cherry blossoms...What a dismal view...the shabby figure of a dog trudging along with his hips bent, tail down, and hair gone."

One of our stops in Natanz was at a small pottery shop where I bought an inexpensive vase. It was later pointed out to me that on it, in stylized Persian calligraphy, were words from a poem of Hafez: “My heart tells me that someone like Jesus – with the breath of life – is coming my way.” Hafez, if writing today, might perceive that someone else -- with the breath of death, not life -- is heading that way.

Post #88 - Taking Out Natanz

Dave Robinson, in his report he made to the membership of Pax Christi, the Catholic peace organization he leads, wrote this sobering personal note about Natanz and a home for young women that is located there:

"Noora is seventeen years old. She wants to be an engineer. A victim of parental abuse by her drug addicted parents, Noora lives at Alame Majlesi…She and the other two dozen teenagers that live [there] are like teenagers anywhere. They share the same hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations that all young people have.
Noora (center)
"These young women…are anonymous participants in this unfolding fiasco. Few people have ever heard of Alame Majlesi. But everyone has heard of Natanz. In a patch of desert just 10 miles outside town lies the Uranium Enrichment Facility (UEF) that has become the fulcrum point in the standoff with Iran over the future of its nuclear energy program. It is also ground zero in the U.S. plans to wage another preventive war.
"Physicians for Social Responsibility modeled an attack on these facilities, concluding that 2.6 million people would die within the first 48 hours... "

These projections, as sobering as they are, are only statistics. It is so hard to get a real sense of the human costs, even of conventional explosives. One can read accounts like that given by journalist/author Asne Seierstad of her time in Baghdad during the “shock and awe” bombardment:

"It is nearly midday. Zahra will be home soon. She and her family have decided to move back to the house in...Baghdad. In order to escape the bombs they have been living with relatives in a Baghdad suburb for a week. Now that the ground war is drawing near they feel it would be safer to live closer to the town centre.
"Zahra sits at the back of the minibus holding the baby in her arms. With her are her husband, sisters, mother and three children. The bus stops and they get out.
A tanker is parked nearby. The driver wants to have his lunch in Restaurant Ristafa, one of the few [in Baghdad] to stay open...A bunch of children play in the dust that covers the ground after the last days' sandstorms.
"Before the driver has made it across the street...a missile hits the pavement close to the lorry. Flames shoot up. The driver and those standing close by are killed instantly. The air pressure causes Zahra's entire family to fall to the ground.

Baghdad Street after a bombing attack
"Out of a house close by Muhammad comes running. He heard the noise and wants to see what happened. A further missile zips past, hits the ground and radiates deadly fragments in every direction. The twenty-two-year-old falls, screaming. One leg is a bloody pulp, the other peppered with metal. Around the square, bodies fall to the ground from the air pressure, the shards, the shock. The tanker is blazing and twenty other cars catch fire. Anyone who was passing by when the missile hit perishes in their burning cars. The market shops lie in ruins and ten or so apartments are a total loss. Ristafa is crushed; those partaking of lunch are killed.
"Screams rend the air. Blood runs into the sand on the street and pavements. Those who can, get up. Zahra and her family lie still; they are all unconscious. Muhammed is on the ground bellowing with pain. By his side lies a man whose artery has been severed; blood pumps from his body. They are both conscious when the ambulance arrives.
"About thirty wounded are brought to al-Zahrawi Hospital close by. The man with the severed artery dies on the way...Torn off body parts are removed from the street. After a few hours only the blood in the sand remains...
"Angry, frightened and soaked to the skin, people remain standing there. Their neighborhood has been attacked. “Bush said he would only attack military targets, but what is this?,” Someone screams. “They want to destroy us,” someone else calls out. “This is no military target... He should be ashamed of himself!”
"Zahra wakes up. She has shards of shrapnel all over her body and four broken ribs. Her daughter Aisha stands by her bed. Aisha's hair is matted with mud but she is unhurt. She pats mother's shoulder, caresses her arm.
"Zahra gives her daughter a faint smile. Her husband lies in the bed next to hers; he has wounds all over his body...Grandmother lies by the wall. Her ear was ripped off and she wears a bloody bandage round her head.
"'Three babies have been seriously wounded; one has deep cuts in his head, the other was hit by shrapnel. A tiny baby whose mother lost hold of it in the blast was thrown against a wall and is seriously wounded,' Doctor Sermed al-Gainlani says. He is treating the first patients following the missile attack.
"'Awful,' the doctor sighs. 'These are innocent people and did not deserve this. But such is war. More will be killed, more will be wounded. To believe anything else would be to deceive oneself. This will be far worse than anything we have previously seen,' he says quietly."

The missiles and bombs had merely done what bombs – whether crude or high-tech -- are designed to do: destroy. As our last president might have said, “Mission accomplished.” In the last century, 62 million civilians were killed in wars, versus only 43 million military personnel; that imbalance seems to be a characteristic feature of “modern” warfare, and it's getting worse. So it is today in Iraq, with the number of civilian casualties – Iraqis and others -- mounting with each month that goes by, far beyond the uniformed dead and wounded. Iran, if that country is subject to nuclear attack, will be still worse.

But this was not just a tragedy for those on the receiving end of the masses of metal and explosives flung through the air. It was a tragedy, only now fully unfolding, for the troops who dutifully carried out their instructions, who had to make hard choices with insufficient information, who did things of which they hadn't thought themselves capable. Who were, in short, sent to war. Here again is Seierstad, reporting a phone conversation between her, in the besieged Iraqi capital, and a French journalist embedded with U.S. troops who were approaching Baghdad: “We are standing by a bridge outside Baghdad, but as I don't have a proper map I don't know which one."  Her colleague, named Laurent, has been accompanying a unit from Kuwait.  Now, three weeks on, he has some gruesome stories to tell:

“They are petrified and shoot before they think. One day they killed two little boys who were walking on the roadside. Suddenly they were lying on the ground. One time an old man was crossing the road. The Americans shot a warning shot but he did not react. They shot again but he continued to walk on. Then they picked him off and just left him lying in the road....American logic runs along these lines: 'If we shoot and they run, they are civilians.' So if they don't hide they are soldiers. Hence they shot and killed a woman in a field on the outskirts of the village. Everyone ran for cover. In other words: They were civilians. The Americans claim that fewer people are killed in this way. It is better to kill someone at once, in order to make people understand that they must stay inside, than to drive through an unknown village where someone might be a suicide bomber...
"The American battle thesis is: 1. Protect yourselves. 2. Win the war. Their fear makes them dangerous. Today they shot at a father who was leading his son and daughter by the hand. The father was not hit but both children were mortally wounded. The Americans just wanted to drive on, but I couldn't take it any longer. I screamed at the driver, 'What the hell! You can't just drive on and let them bleed to death. I was so angry he had to stop. I got one of the cars to turn around and we drove them to a field hospital. I don't know any more – we had to leave. I'm quite sure the little girl died, she had lost so much blood, was nearly unconscious when we got there.
"Laurent sighs...'They cry at night.'
Girl whose family was killed accidentally
"'The soldiers. I'm sure lots of them will have problems. Only a few do the actual shooting. As though they enjoy it. No one is punished. I have never seen such trigger-happy soldiers,' Laurent says. He has covered wars all over the world for the last twenty years. A bullet smashed his knee in Gaza a few years back and has left him with a limp. His trip to Iraq is the first one since the accident."

Is this account accurate? Who knows for sure; you are now getting it third-hand. But we all know that such things do happen in war; more and more disturbing stories from returned Iraq vets are coming out every day: post-traumatic stress syndrome, nightmares, personality changes.

If there is a war with Iran, there will be American casualties. Deaths, painful injuries, long-term disabilities, and emotional devastation. And eventually – inevitably – moral decay. Every war has Johnny marching home a different person than he was when he left. And so, our society changes a little each time. Sodom and Gomorah did not become libertine, or Rome decadent, overnight. But societies do change. We hold our future in our hands in every present moment.

I remember sitting with a fellow school teacher on the carpet in the house we shared in Firuzkuh, Iran, attempting to translate a love-song then popular in Iran called “Aineh Shekasteh” (“The Broken Mirror”). Despite his weak English and my fledgling Persian, we managed to some up with a passable rendering of the wise, wistful and melancholy lyrics. I thought of him one spring morning not long ago. After reading Seierstad’s account of war in Baghdad at a Starbuck's, I passed a Washington row-house whose residents had left a full-length bedroom mirror to be picked up a trash truck. It was obvious why it had to be discarded; it had taken a bad hit and broken into several hundred pieces. The shards were still in their original places, encased in the mirror frame, but it was difficult to see one’s image for all lines in its crazed surface. A little more shattering and my image would disappear entirely, the cracks themselves having become the image, rather than what was reflected by the mirror.

It occurred to me that there are only so many “hits” – like complicity in the “inadvertent” death of innocents from bombs that our taxes buy -- that we can inflect on our moral selves before the mirror will show a self that we can no longer recognize. Then the glass will be only a picture of brokenness, no longer one of humanity.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Post #87 - Nuclear Proliferation

St. Nicholas, saving the condemned men
"But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all they who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matthew 26:52)

What do we know about Iran's intentions vis-a-vis war-making? Iran's position is that it has never initiated the use of force or resorted to the threat of force against a fellow member of the United Nations. “We have not invaded another country in 250 years.” (This obviously begs the question of Iran’s aid to others who have engaged in hostile acts. But if we follow that line of inquiry it would open the door for critics of the U.S. to bring up our own implication in aiding movements such as the Nicaraguan contras, when we were opposing leftist rule in that country, or the taliban in Afghanistan, when we were focused on reducing Soviet influence there.)

Saddam, in his heyday
The United States in that same period of time has invaded Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Iraq, Panama, the Philippines and other countries, to say nothing of all the various territories previously controlled by Native Americans. Despite its rhetoric of freedom, our country has supported and encouraged a long string of tyrants and despots around the globe – unsavory people such as Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Manuel Noriega, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan currently (he just had his latest inauguration last April) and, of course, Saddam Hussein. Even more directly pertinent is the fact that the United States has built up a military presence on every one of Iran’s borders – Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq and Turkey to the west and Kazakhstan to the north.

And what about Iran's nuclear program? Everyone alive since the Manhattan Project in the United States, and similar research efforts elsewhere in the world, has come to know of the awesome energy held captive in the core of each atom. Nuclear fission, when provoked into a chain-reaction, can produce either enormous destructive power, or surprising amounts of harvestable power. The radioactive and heavy metals that are the by-products of nuclear fission are dangerous as well, making even “civilian” nuclear programs problematic over a long time-frame. However, nuclear power has some clear advantages over fossil fuel generation, and many countries, such as France, have embraced the technology to meet ever-increasing energy demand.

Sharing a meal in Natanz
On my trip to Iran lin 2006, our bus drove by the nuclear facility near Natanz, about 180 miles from Tehran, that has become known in the West as a symbol of Iran’s entry into the nuclear “club” -- whether for energy alone or for weaponry is the “$64,000 question.” Ironically, we (the United States) were responsible for encouraging Iran to begin a nuclear program in the first place, back when the Shah was in power; according to James Risen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for work at the New York Times which he published in a book called State of War, the CIA gave Iran plans to build a nuclear bomb. (If that in fact was the case, then it would surely have been a violation by the United States of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.)

Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post reported that in 1976 the Ford administration “endorsed Iranian plans to build a massive nuclear energy industry, but also worked hard to complete a multibillion-dollar deal that would have given Tehran control of large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium - the two pathways to a nuclear bomb.” Noam Chomsky has pointed out that “the top planners of the Bush administration, who are now [in 2007] denouncing these programmes, were then in key national security posts: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.” Noam Chomsky quotes Henry Kissinger as saying recently that Iran's seeking of nuclear energy capability would be "a wasteful use of resources." In the time of the Shah, when Kissinger was secretary of state, he said it would "provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals." Kissinger's explanation for the discrepancy?-- that before the revolution "they were an allied country."

The Supreme Leader of Iran
During the Islamic Republic period, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful political leader in the country, has issued a religious decree, or fatwa, against the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. (One does not hear nearly as much in the mainstream press about this pronouncement as about President Ahmadinezhad’s inflammatory rhetoric on Israel.) Historians may recall that the Muslims were slow to accept the “unchivalrous” gunpowder and associated weaponry that gave Europeans their ultimate victory over Islamic powers. Iran may or may not be interested in having a nuclear weapon; we cannot know for sure. We know that the United States has had nuclear capabilities for over fifty years, is the only nation in the world to have used them against an adversary (indeed, on civilian population centers), has the largest collection of such weapons, and has not lived up to its own obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to move toward nuclear disarmament. Former secretary of defense Robert McNamara has called our current policies "immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous." In fact, the United States has facilitated the development of nuclear capabilities by non-signatories such as Israel and India, and ignored others, such as Pakistan. (There is a debate going on now in Israel, also a non-signatory to the NPT, about whether the country should shift to using explicit threats -- “open deterrence”, rather than the implicit threat of its unacknowledged nuclear capability.)

Bruno Pellaud, Chairman of the Experts Group on Multilateral Approaches to the Fuel Cycle at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and former head of their Safeguards Program, has said (at a February 14, 2003 conference) about the plant at Natanz:

" should never forget that there are international inspectors all over the place in [Iranian nuclear] facilities. It is not exactly a secret facility...if Iran would like to produce additional quantities [of enriched uranium] to get to a significant quantity, they would have first of all to kick out the IAEA inspectors and this will be known...For the time being, the inspectors are on the ground and the centrifuges are few and they are not operating very well, so there is time for diplomacy."

During the period of time when Iran was engaging in development activities that were not open to scrutiny (that is, in the 1980's when Iran was illegally embargoed from obtaining nuclear technology openly), there are indications that this was done for precisely the same reasons that the United States went into Iraq: faulty intelligence on threats from neighboring Iraq (with which Iran was engaged in a life-and-death struggle on the battlefield). Here is Mr. Pellaud again:

"Coming back from Baghdad to go to the United Nations, [Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] wrote a doctoral thesis covering the Iran nuclear work in 1979, and there he has a very nice sentence regarding Khomeini. He said the Ayatollah may have an interest in nuclear weapons; however, this interest would really be increased if they find out that their neighbors – in particular Iraq – would do so. He had a pretty good insight of what has happened because it's clear that in the '80's, during the Iraq-Iran War, Iran did start activities which were of a dubious nature in a sense with military dimension -- polonium, half spherical spheres of metallic uranium, and so on. There were attempts. There was a program without [fissile] nuclear materials, but there was an interest clearly during the war...I would not call it a weapons program, but I would say illegal activity that should have been declared to the IAEA...
"In the '90's...Saddam Hussein had been beaten. There were two governments who did not believe that Iraq had no more weapons of mass destruction – a nuclear weapon – Washington and Tehran...My own conviction is that in 2003, with the fall of Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini thought, well, okay, we have a new situation now, let's hide what we did in the past and let's call in the IAEA with the additional protocol...At the same time [they] sent a letter to the U.S. Government on a broader agreement...Since that time, Iran has been under very strict control..."

Centrifuges, destroyed by a cyber-attack
The latest development in the modernization of our own nuclear infrastructure is the establishment of a new uranium enrichment facility near Piketon, Ohio. This will house 11,500 centrifuges and supply enriched uranium to nuclear plants around the world. News reports noted that these machines are “technical marvels, much larger than those of Iran or other nations in the international centrifuge club, which includes Russia, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Pakistan and Brazil.” The plant will cost at least $2.3 billion of our tax dollars. Another $175 billion has been proposed for new nuclear weapons production, though the state of our economy may mitigate such enthusiasm for new expenditures.

Here is a succinct summary of NPT basics, from the group called Reaching Critical Will, a nuclear disarmament advocacy group:

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty contains two central bargains:

1. Non Nuclear Weapon States agree to never acquire nuclear weapons, and in exchange are guaranteed access to civilian nuclear energy; and
2. Nuclear Weapon States agree to eliminate their arsenals. 

Civilian nuclear energy is legally guaranteed under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but has serious proliferation risks. 

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities has been the focus of U.S. and EU efforts because the same technology used for energy can be used for weapons. 

The five nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States), Pakistan and Israel used nuclear reactors to create the materials for their nuclear weapons. India and North Korea acquired nuclear weapons through so-called peaceful civilian nuclear programs. 

Nuclear power is never peaceful due to the devastating health and environmental impact. There is no safe way to dispose of the waste produced by nuclear power. 

There is an inextricable link between non-proliferation and disarmament. 

Lackluster progress on nuclear disarmament, especially in the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) undermines support for nonproliferation and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. 

The breakdown of the last NPT Review Conference signals that the non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly unwilling to accept the concessions demanded of them regarding the development of nuclear technology without similarly demonstrated progress on the total elimination of nuclear arsenals. 

The exclusion of nonproliferation and disarmament from the 2005 United Nations World Summit illustrates that nonproliferation efforts will be stymied without the nuclear weapon states implementing commitments already made.

(More on this subject in my next post.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Post #86 - God and Country

I plead with you...that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together.”  (I Corinthians 1:10)

In looking over the biographies of those who took part in a February 2007 delegation of religious leaders to Iran, I was struck by how many of them had in-depth exposure to diverse cultures as a part of their life experience:
  • Rev. Ronald Flaming, director of International Programs, Mennonite Central Committee, not only represents a traditional “peace church,” he has served as principal of the prestigious Woodstock International School, which has educated generations of young people from many countries at its campus nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.
  • Maureen Shea, Director of Government Relations for The Episcopal Church, has traveled to China, the Holy Land, Syria and Tanzania, and serves as chair for Churches for Middle East Peace.
  • Patricia Shelly, a professor at Bethel College with a PhD. in biblical interpretation has studied and led seminars to Israel/Palestine for years and teaches courses Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA for Interfaith Relations, was born in Sri Lanka, educated in India and the United States, and has led groups to Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
  • Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, the national Roman Catholic peace and justice movement, has led or participated in delegations to Iraq, El Salvador, Colombia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan and (with me) to Iran.
I was reminded of some words inscribed high up on the white Vermont granite façade of Union Station, Washington, D.C.’s great railway terminus. They cite a Spanish proverb: "He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him." Samuel Johnson went on to say “So it is in traveling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge." These devout American travelers, in their lifetimes of communicating across differences, were vastly better qualified to develop rapport and understanding with their Iranian interlocutors than most of those in our government who have been making and implementing U.S. policy regarding Iran. Perhaps one must deeply understand diversity before one can comprehend true, all-encompassing unity.

It was Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, its capital Providence and the first Baptist church in the New World, who likened our national saga to that of a ship at sea:

Roger Williams
“...It hath fallen out sometimes that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks/ May be embarked in one ship/ Upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges:  That none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews or Turks be forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they have any./ What God hath put asunder, let no man join.”

National versus Universal

Bill Moyers
“Love of country, yes. Loyalty to country, yes. But we carry two passports: One stamped American, the other stamped human being. We are facing a mighty multicultural future, and to help us live peacefully in it is our mandate. This, I think, is the beginning of knowledge and the gathering of courage.”  (Bill Moyers, “A Journalist Looks at the Politics of Peace,” speaking at the College of William & Mary, 1989)

Bonnie Block, a past national coordinator of the Lutheran Peace Fellowship, went to Iran under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in December of 2005. Upon her return she wrote in Fellowship magazine (Fall 2006) that five contentious issues are at the heart of the current impasse:
  1. U.S. foreign policy
  2. Oil economics
  3. Nuclear proliferation
  4. U.S. support of Israel
  5. The role of religion in government/politics
Block’s categories capture the most important aspects of what stands between us and the Iranians. They are apt ways to think about of what divides our countries, as well as what needs to be addressed if we are to have lasting peace. Let us examine in some detail the topics that have not yet been discussed fully:

U.S. foreign policy

John Quincy Adams said that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." As Dr. Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 18, 2006: “We must recognize that regime change is the prerogative of the Iranian people, not [to be] the policy of the United States.”

President James Madison
Foreign policy is ostensibly all about preserving and protecting America, but this does not mean that military might is always – even most of the time – the key to our security. In recent years, our reliance on military dominance has reminded me of the famous quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” As it was in the beginning of our republic, so is it now. James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution, noted the danger in 1795: "Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few.... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

Similarly, in 1821 John Quincy Adams stated about his then-45-year-old country:

“She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart...Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue...which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.... [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.”

A Washington Post article of March 5, 2007 reported a study done by Jason Lyall at Princeton University and Lt. Col. Isaiah Wilson III at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Their research compared numerous asymmetrical wars waged between 1800 and the present. For each successive half-century, the percentage of victory for the “big power” grew less – from an average 85% in the earliest period to only 21% for the second half of the 20th century. The writer noted:

“Essentially, what Lyall and Wilson are saying is that if you want to catch a mouse you need a cat. If you hire a lion to do the job because it is bigger and stronger, the very strength and size of the lion can get in the way of getting the job done.A lion is built for different prey,’ Lyall said. ‘A lion is built to take down an antelope, and a cat is designed to take down a mouse. Now [in Iraq] we are a lion trying to take down a mouse...’ The researchers also posited that nationalism plays a role, the article points out: ‘The French and the Russians, for example, won asymmetrical wars in Algeria and Chechnya in the 19th century, but lost asymmetrical wars in those same places in the 20th century. In the 19th century, there was not a literacy for nationalism. You look at a lot of these colonial wars. The great powers could play off tribes against each other. By the 1960's, you cannot do that anymore.’”

Middle Eastern correspondent David Hirst wrote:

“In a brilliant study, [US strategic analyst Mark] Gaffney warned that for technical and geographical reasons a US assault on Iran could end in a catastrophe comparable to the massacre of Roman legions... by the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s greatly inferior army. For in one field of military technology – anti-ship cruise missiles – Russia is streets ahead of the US. Iran’s possession of the fearsome 3M-82 Moskit could turn the Persian Gulf into a death trap for the US fleet, causing its confined, shallow, manoeuvre-impeding waters to ‘run red with American blood.’”

Another factor, elucidated by new research done by a University of Minnesota sociologist, Ann Hironaka, is the new longevity of civil wars. In recent history (say, mid-20th-century to the present), civil wars tend to occur in areas where there is no strong central government apparatus. “We assume,” says Hironaka in a recent University publication, “a prototypical war is like one of the French civil wars – there are rebels and there is the government, and whoever takes Paris takes over and that's it. It's decisive and short. But that's not how they work in the developing world.” In Iraq, the United States replaced a strong government (albeit tyrannical) with a weak government, one that is attempting to weld a governing coalition out of previously-unaligned forces.

In fact, the past few years have seen an erosion of America’s security in real terms, as non-state actors become more powerful, vast publics in all parts of the globe become less and less admiring of U.S. policies and other world leaders recognize that our loyalty is to national self-interest, rather than to multi-lateral consensus or formal agreements. The country that helped form the League of Nations and the United Nations now works to hamstring the International Court of Justice. The country that uses more energy per capita and produces more pollution per capita than any other ignores the Kyoto Protocol, despite widespread popular support among Americans for it. The country that helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and used to tout the Geneva Convention as one of civilization’s finest accomplishments now seeks to avoid or subvert its provisions to advance our “war on terror.”

One my U.S. senators from Maryland, Benjamin Cardin, has said about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, "These abuses have damaged our mission in Iraq and put our military personnel overseas at greater risk...we must speak out and take action against torture everywhere in the world, even if it occurs under our own watch."

Our national stance during much of the past decade has seemed to illustrate these lines from the Old Testament: “...they are a law unto themselves and promote their own honor...Their own strength is their god.” (Habakkuk 1:7, 11), as quoted by members of a small congregation in North Carolina in a statement they adopted on the subject a few years ago.  They went on to say:

“As with the ancient empire described in the Prophet Habakkuk's oracle, our government is setting its 'national interests' above international norms of justice, usurping all authority to itself. With an escalating military budget – already larger than that of all other nations combined – we seem to have established our own destructive threat as the source of national glory and honor.

And again, they turned to scripture:

“’Pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.’  (Psalm 73: 6,9)  It is not our habit to engage in partisanship on any political party's agenda. We believe in the separation of church and state. But not in the separation of values from public policy….In the Reformed legacy of the Christian community (toward which some in our congregation lean) there is a tradition of invoking a status confessionis, of declaring that some moments in history require the church to refuse neutrality and abandon silence. And in the Anabaptist tradition (toward which others of us lean), Jesus' insistence on loving enemies precludes the willingness to kill them.

“Not only are these religious convictions suffering scandal; so, too, are the core values of this Republic's founding. It was Thomas Jefferson, in 1807, who asserted, 'The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force.' Now, with the administration's 2002 National Security Strategy document, the U.S. claims (for the first time) justification for waging preemptive war. This policy undermines our democratic traditions, any and every theory of when war is ‘just,’ and the very foundation of international law itself. The contradiction is staggering.

“Accordingly, should the U.S. preemptively attack Iran, we shall vigorously protest. For some of us, this commitment includes the willingness to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“In the same way, we also pledge vigourous support for any leaders willing to consider Iran's security concerns and national interests alongside those of the United States. Competition in belligerent behavior carries catastrophic risks. The only enduring security is mutual security.

“Another way is possible. Waging peace will require at least as much commitment – as much courage, pride, honor and ingenuity – as the pursuit of war.

“We say no to war against Iran. It is both a contradiction to the Way of the Cross and a defamation of national honor. We say yes to the strategics of multilateral diplomacy and other nonviolent initiatives. We invite other Christians, other people of faith, and other people of conscience to deliberate these convictions and consider similar commitments.

They concluded with a postscript:

“’You have sown much and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you put the wages you earn in a bag full of holes.’ (Haggai 1:6)

We make this statement in the midst of Lent, the Christian season leading up to Easter. The traditional emphases of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving, all of which focus the mind and heart on the way gluttony corrupts our personal and common life. Appetites have a way of overwhelming wisdom. Righteousness is pursued by a commitment to clarifying disciplines: prayer, to calm the heart's fretfulness; fasting, to purge the body's toxic buildup; almsgiving, to recall God's bias on behalf of those denied access to the earth's bountiful table of provision.

“Sisters and brothers, especially in the household of faith: the Apostle Paul's instruction overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21b) is both a spiritual truth and the foundation for politically realistic strategies to transform conflict. The Way of the Cross leads home. Perhaps the simplest formulation of all is that of the Prophet Micah:

‘Has it [not] been told thee, O man, what [is] good? Or what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, and love mercy, and be ready to walk with the Lord thy God?’ (Micah 6:8)

This implies to me that the role of the Christian can never be defined fully in terms of his or her support of any one country. While identification with the worldwide Body of Christ is more desirable than narrow nationalism, there is also a place for individual conscience, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.