Wednesday, April 4, 2012

last sunday's sermon

We are likely to remember at least a part of early October, 2001. The World Trade Center towers and a portion of the Pentagon in D.C. had planes flown into them, killing thousands, and in a Pennsylvania woods another plane crashed unceremonially. The newly placed President, George W. Bush, famously froze when given the news and eventually went on reading The Pet Goat to elementary schoolchildren. We were all in a daze at the notion that, like much of the rest of the world, we had been the targets of a terrorist attack. It ought to be noted, of course, that such attacks happen in other places on a weekly if not a daily basis, even if they don’t have the same loss of life.

Less than a month later, October 7, we woke to find our nation attacking the small country of Afghanistan, a country which we were told had financed and planned the attacks as well as harboring the mastermind of the organization accused of carrying them out. When our intention to bomb them back to the stone age was reported, one of my students from Afghanistan said, “Then this war should already be over; we are already there.”

We are nearing the beginning of our second decade of bombing the tiny nation back to the stone age. Osama bin Laden is dead; al Qaeda, whose greatest strength, its decentralized leadership, has also turned out to be its greatest weakness, is a sidelined terrorist group; the Taliban, whose name means “students,” were routed and forced out of Afghanistan, only of course to return, making inroads among a rural population long sick of being collateral damage; and ancillary war and military action in neighboring Iraq and Pakistan have blossomed. Despite the rhetoric of President Obama and the withdrawal of a tenth of our troops there, the war continues.

There has been no shortage, from drone bomb deaths on innocent neighborhoods to attacks on wedding celebrations to smart bombs launched at overfilled hospitals, for the Afghan public to turn on its supposed liberators—remember the promises of flowers thrown at the feet of advancing Americans?—and now its invaders and occupiers. On March 11, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Jr. gave them yet another reason. A 38 year old four tour serving married father of two from Ohio who had enlisted in those heady days immediately after September 11 who was previously diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from a road accident, he is accused of having killed 17 Afghan civilians, almost all of them children and women, and setting fire to some of their bodies.

Staff Sergeant Bales is the person we blame although there remain questions about what witnesses saw—some have reported that the killings were done by American soldiers—as well as the way events played out—how did an American soldier manage to simply leave a well-fortified post like Camp Belambay, not once but twice, walk several miles in the dark to the nearest villages, and then after his grisly deeds were done simply reenter the camp without having been challenged by guards? The truth is no matter how much evidence is collected and no matter how much investigation goes into it, this is probably one of those wartime atrocities that, like My Lai and the Winter Soldier events of Vietnam, or like who shot JFK or what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa, will probably never be solved to anyone’s satisfaction. Already we are experiencing a notable lack of investigation on the part of American media which is more interested in finding rationales for Bales’ actions than for determining the way he might have done it.

On this last point the essayist Glenn Greenwald has written: “Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill [17] Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he ‘saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,’ etc. Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.” We do tend to relegate the actions of people we already disapprove of to evil and, when faced with proof of our—“our” in the same sense we talk about the team we follow—own evil acts, we experience what Greenwald calls “a desperate need to believe that when an American engages in acts of violence of this type…there must be some underlying mental or emotional cause that makes it sensible…” We live in chaos; people behave in ways we can’t predict or control. Chaos, with good reason, frightens us so we paper it over with narrative, impose order on it, so it makes sense.

Similarly, we are trying to make sense of another, older killing, that of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman. His death occurred in late February this year and came to many people’s attention by way of social media, articles on websites, and the publicity of a large march by people wearing hooded sweatshirts. Unlike the Afghan killings, it was several weeks after Martin’s death before people heard about it—I’ve tried to trace back my own discovery of the incident and I think it was a report on the article-accumulation site dated March 8, nearly two weeks after his death and five days after his funeral. I hate to say it but articles like this and events like this happen nearly every day in contemporary America and the only reason I’m likely to have noticed it myself is the use in that first article of the incredibly affecting photo of a tween Trayvon staring plaintively into the camera and wearing a hoodie similar to the one he was killed wearing and the title’s emphasis on the word “unarmed.”

In the short time since this story became a national headline so much has been said about and commented on the events of February 26th that it may be necessary to reiterate what we do know. We know that George Zimmerman, who has operated as a one-man neighborhood watch in the gated community for a number of years, sighted an unfamiliar black youth walking in the rain with his hood up. Trayvon Martin, who was on suspension from school at the time, was visiting relatives who lived in the neighborhood and had just come from a local convenience store where he’d bought Skittles and iced tea. He noticed Zimmerman following him and called his girlfriend, who has fortunately remained anonymous in the media, who was probably on the phone with him when he was shot.

Zimmerman, who has logged in many calls to the local police department—the number 46 seems certain although whether that is since 2001, 2006 or since December depends on the source—alerts 911 whose dispatcher tells him it will be checked out by police and that he should not confront or follow the suspect. Zimmerman, saying “These assholes always get away,” instead leaves his SUV, approaching Martin on foot.

This is the point at which we don’t know what happens, only what the result is. Zimmerman claims he had chased and lost the suspect and was returning to his SUV when Martin attacked him, breaking his nose and banging his head on cement. The 911 dispatcher, who kept the phone live, records someone yelling for help—the police say it was Zimmerman, Martin’s girlfriend who was also listening via his cell phone says it was Martin—and then a gunshot. Several witnesses report hearing multiple gunshots although no one alleges that Martin had a gun. All of this occurs between 7 and 7:25 that evening. The police have determined that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a shot to the chest at about 7:25 and approximately five minutes later officers arrived.

Zimmerman tells the officers he shot Martin in self-defense. An officer notes in his report that Zimmerman is bleeding from the nose and head. He is placed in handcuffs and taken to the station for processing. However, he is not charged, and when he is released his gun and his gun license are returned to him.

As more than one reporter has noted, the more we learn about this case the more complicated it becomes. George Zimmerman accused his former fiancĂ© of having attacked him in 2005 and biting his face (she claims he attacked her and her dog bit him). Martin was suspended from school for having been found in possession of a plastic bag with trace amounts of marijuana in it (one commenter I read pointed out, quite realistically in my opinion, such a charge and punishment would be laughed off by most white suburban high school students). Zimmerman’s father, who is a judge, has pointed out that his mother is Hispanic and this point has been remarked on repeatedly by his defenders as a reason this couldn’t possibly have been a racist attack, as if racism is the result of a formula, the introduction of one element negates another, rather than an incident based on cultural and social assumptions, and there’s no indication Zimmerman self-identifies as Hispanic. The Sanford police chief, Bill Lee, has stepped down in the face of a state-led investigation of this and another case involving his refusal to charge the son of a prominent citizen for killing a homeless man. We have seen in the past few days the release of surveillance video of Zimmerman’s arrival and processing at the Sanford station that night during which he looks neither injured nor bleeding, and even if he had, as some defenders claim, been “cleaned up” before arriving, he certainly does not look like he’s suffering a broken nose.

The primary means for explaining the rather lenient treatment of George Zimmerman barring some rather strong and justifiable beliefs of racism on Zimmerman’s part or on the part of the police has been the Florida law on justifiable use of force by civilians, also known as the “Stand Your Ground” or “Castle” defense. Subsection 3 of Chapter 776 of the state’s 2011 Statutes, the relevant section of Florida’s Law Code, reads, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked…where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm…or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

I’m certainly no criminal lawyer but it strikes me by a cursory reading of the law and the information that we have of what transpired on February 26 that George Zimmerman may very well be not guilty of the murder or manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. But it strikes me also that Zimmerman, the Sanford police department, and indeed the law itself, are guilty of something.

What is that something? To answer, I’d like to return to the tragedy I began with, the killing of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Jr. What do these two incidents have in common? They are tragedies, surely, happening in both instances to people we must presume are innocent of anything punishable by a death sentence. Both became needfully more complicated the more information became available. Both too are examples of killings that should have been easily avoided: Zimmerman was told to stand down by the police dispatcher, Bales should have been confronted by guards when he first left Camp Belembay. Both too are examples in my mind of misplaced policy. There should not be a continuing war in Afghanistan in which a Robert Bales, Jr. experiences a fourth tour of duty—contrast that with the average experience of a Vietnam veteran, the penultimate suffering soldier of my generation, who served a single tour that was both shorter in duration and less intense—and there should not be a “Stand Your Ground” law on the books in Florida or anywhere, wherein anyone using a gun against a stranger is given the benefit of the doubt about his motives. Such use of deadly force should always be investigated thoroughly and its user, as the survivor, should be presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

But the two tragedies have another similarity and that’s the one I want to talk about finally. It’s a sense of entitlement. Entitlement has become a dirty word in our current political climate, used by candidates and politicians to mean something unearned, like food stamps or healthcare or voting rights. As if we lived by the maxims “no work, no food” and “if you’re sick you’ve sinned” and “you don’t play unless you have skin in the game.” But that’s not the entitlement I’m talking about.

Nor am I talking about the entitlement that most of us feel when we walk the streets unmolested by others, safe in our own environs or safe in the areas where we know, because of the color of our skin or the power of society behind us or our ability to fend for ourselves, that we won’t be bothered or at least not for long, that no one is likely to physically harm us or steal something from us or accuse us of something we haven’t done. I’m not talking about the entitlement we feel when a cop car passes us by, secure in the knowledge we’ve done nothing wrong and they won’t stop to ask what we’re doing.

The entitlement I’m talking about is the sense that, having been harmed somehow, whether by a horrible war whose ravages we suffer or by the predators, both real and imagined, that take advantage of society, that we are within our rights somehow to avenge ourselves, our families, our culture, on other people, on the representatives of those predators, willfully blind to whether they are adults or guilty. Perhaps, like the war in Afghanistan, this entitlement is a reaction to the experience of September 11, as if having been victimized on a national level gives us the right to ignore what the Gospel writers point out about our responsibility to turn the other cheek. It’s a human reaction, maybe even so universal as to be a mammalian reaction, to strike out against someone or something that harms us or harms what we consider our own. To take revenge for slights that are real enough to cause us pain.

But as much as it’s human it’s also arrogant especially when it’s applied against someone who, in the cold light of day rather than in the middle of the night or when it’s rainy, can have had no part in harming us. To do so is to sin. You might remember Michael Milken, the so-called Junk Bond King from Drexel Burnham who was indicted, along with Ivan Boesky, for racketeering, securities fraud and insider trading, and who spent two years in prison. Milken, of all people, has what I think is the most cogent definition of sin, probably by reason of his experience: “Sin is treating other people as means and not as ends.”

It is this sin that that the United States commits by continuing an unnecessary war against Afghanistan. It is this sin that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Jr. and George Zimmerman committed against innocent Afghans and against a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt. To both men these people were only representations of forces that had impinged on them and theirs and killing them served to exorcise, but only for a moment and only in their own minds, whatever evil bedeviled them. Both Bales and Zimmerman gave in to their own sense of entitlement that they were the persons capable of determining guilt and punishment for other people. Both are wrong. In both instances, we demand justice over blood. We demand investigation over concealment. We demand responsibility over retribution. In pursuing answers in these cases we are demanding nothing less than that life, with uncertainties, messiness, and indeterminacy, is privileged over the certainty of death.

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