Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Execute Murderers?

Last week the Supreme Court decided that Kentucky’s method of executing prisoners on death row was not cruel and unusual punishment. The court had an opportunity to reduce the number of executions in the US, at least for a while, but declined to do so. The court unambiguously came out supporting the death penalty.

I do not believe this decision to be justified. Experience shows again and again that people, even on death row, undergo momentous changes. They literally get religion; they regret the murders or other crimes they committed. In 1998 the state of Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer who during long years on death row, had not only become quite religious but had, by all accounts, turned her life around and become a saintly person. Nor is this an isolated case.

Here is the reason against executing criminals: human beings can change. Human beings do change. They experience remarkable transformations. In religious language they undergo conversions. Executing a person takes away their possibility of becoming a good person. No human being should cut off that possibility for another.

"But a murderer cut short a life in just that way." That is the usual argument in favor of the death penalty. And often, to be sure, the life thus cut off was a pleasing and admirable one, a life not needing a conversion to be a good human life.

Most people who approve of the death penalty draw a very sharp line between themselves who "would never do anything like that” and people who do commit violent crimes. Murderers, they think, are terribly bad people -- bad to the core -- and we are different because we are good. We may not be perfect but we are good. Our right to life is inviolable. They have lost theirs.

But experience shows, as in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, that violent criminals often are not bad to the core. People change. Karla Faye Tucker by all accounts ended up a better person than many of us. Was she not as entitled to life, albeit in prison, as any of us?

People change. But people do not only change from bad to good; they also change from good to bad. No one can be certain of their own permanent goodness. The terrible lessons of the Holocaust, of the tribal and religious violence in India during the partition, of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, of genocide in Rwanda are that most of the horrible crimes are committed by people just like you and I. In special situations, perfectly ordinary people who themselves considered themselves intrinsically good and incapable of violence, end up committing brutal crimes. A murderer hides in everyone of us.

Germans, in large numbers, or Indians, or Bosnians, or Serbs, or Rwandans are no different from Americans. The number of sociopaths in those populations is no greater than it is with us. The brutalities of various regimes were committed by people who led ordinary lives until then, and who, afterwards, returned to ordinary lives.

But, you say, this murderer lived in the same society as we do. Here, at least, we stay away from crime but the murderer does not.

Can you see into the murderer's heart? How many newspaper stories have you read about husbands who, out of the blue, murdered their wives while the neighbors all protest what a pleasant and calm neighbor he was. No one expected that, they say. Suddenly he breaks under a burden no one even suspected.

I am not persuaded of the intrinsic evil of the murderers that makes them a different kind of human being from me. I am therefore not persuaded that although my right to life is inviolable, theirs is not. To the extent that all of us carry murder in our heart and all of us may see the light and become saintly, we have the same rights to life.

It takes bold persons to say that they will never, ever commit acts of brutality, that they are fundamentally different from the murderers who therefore forfeit their right to life while ours remains intact. I lack that boldness.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Terrorists and Patriots

Sometimes important lessons are contained in mere coincidences.

On April 21st Massachusetts celebrated Patriot's Day with colorful reenactments of the Battle of Lexington, the first skirmish in the bitter Revolutionary War. British troops fought a deadly engagement with a rag tag band of militia men from Lexington and the surrounding areas. We call those militia men “patriots”; today the British media would no doubt call them “terrorists.”

Quite by accident, the same issue of the Boston Globe that reported the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington with full color pictures of the death by bayoneting of a Lexington patriot, printed a letter harshly disapproving of Jimmy Carter's meeting with the leaders of Hamas. Hamas, the letter insisted, is an organization of terrorists; meeting with terrorists endangers our security.

Here is the definition of “terrorists” as used by the FBI: "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." This definition fits Hamas; it also fits the heroes of the Battle of Lexington who used violence, not sanctioned by law, in order to coerce a government—the government of George III-- in order to promote political objectives, namely the establishment of an independent state for the American colonists..

The parallel does not merely serve as a rhetorical flourish but reminds us of the situation of some groups we now call “terrorist.” Consider the situation of the British colonists in North America in the 1770s. Dissatisfied with the government of the British king, George III, the colonists decided to declare their independence as a separate country. They understood, no doubt, that the British government would not surrender the vast lands on this continent without a fight. By declaring their Independence, they invited a military confrontation.

This confrontation which began in Lexington was not a regular war, as we usually define it, because it was not a struggle between two countries, each with its legitimate government. In the eyes of Britain and of the world, the government of the 13 colonies, such as it was, was not legitimate because America was a part of Britain. War made by the colonists on Britain was not a legitimate war; the colonists committed acts of terrorism.

Now apply this understanding of the American colonists to Israel and Palestine and to Jimmy Carter's conversations with the leaders of Hamas.

The parallel to the Palestinians is instructive. While Palestine was still a British colony—just like the 13 original states-- the British government declared in 1917 that a Jewish state would be allowed in Palestine. (The actual diplomatic language was a bit more ambiguous.) That state was established in 1948 in Palestine. Some Palestinians became Israeli citizens; the majority of Palestinians fled or were driven out—depending on who tells the story. But at any rate, while Israel established its state, the Palestinians were left without one.

Since then the Palestinians have sought to establish their own state but have not managed to do so, so far. They live in territory controlled by another state—Israel. If they resist the Israeli army, they cannot do so as regular troops of their own state. They cannot but act as terrorists—according to the FBI definition—or give up resisting.

The parallel between the Lexington patriots and Hamas makes clear what people mean when they say:” Hamas are terrorists; we must not meet with them.” What they mean is: Palestinians should not resist but accept Israeli rule passively. In the 1770s there were no doubt staunch Englishmen who said the same thing about the rebellious colonists.

The important lesson is this: Subject populations who have no state of their own, but are a part of someone else's state tend to be voiceless and invisible. Such subject populations, ignored and overlooked, tend to resort to violence to make themselves heard. One does not approve of that violence if one tries to understand its purpose, to emerge from invisibility. In order to reduce violence, restive populations who have no state of their own, but may well be entitled to one, must be met with a willingness to negotiate in good faith. Once a Palestinian state exists, violence will be reduced to a minimum.

The same is true elsewhere—and the parallels are instructive: in Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan and in Tibet. The moment that Tibetans resort to violence their actions too will fall under the definition of terrorism, along with Hamas and the American patriots.

Perhaps we need to be more careful before we condemn people as terrorists. Perhaps we need to call fewer people terrorists and support more groups in their efforts to gain their own, proper government.

Monday, April 14, 2008

War on the Poor

Senator Obama recently gave a speech linking the high price of oil and gas to the Iraq War. But that is only a part of the connections between the war in Iraq and conditions at home. The war in Vietnam gave us the War on Poverty; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has given us the War on the Poor.
One of the recent articles commemorating the beginning of the sixth year of the current wars (this one in the NY Review of Book) pointed out that the majority of new enlistees in the Armed Forces have significant economic motives for joining the military. No one doubts that young men and women enlist from patriotic motives, or to avenge 9/11, or to protect their loved ones from future terrorist attacks, or from a desire for adventure, or just to get out of town. But whatever their other motives, a majority of enlistees also cite economic reasons: getting out of debt when they received their signing bonus of $ 10,000.00 or more, getting a pay check after having been unemployed for a considerable period, help with getting a college education once they complete their military commitment, finally getting out of poverty and off welfare. What decides many enlistees to join the military is economic need or, to put it bluntly, poverty.
This creates an opportunity for a government that needs more soldiers to continue its different military adventures, but is unwilling to institute a draft. The solution is to reduce the rates of unemployment payments. Currently only 35 % of unemployed receive unemployment benefits. Many of the rest are sufficiently hard up to consider a military career. Another solution is to keep the minimum wage low, so that even people who do manage to find work cannot make ends meet. They too may consider enlisting. Over the last 30 or so years, working and middle class people have lost ground economically. Real wages have barely kept up with inflation. While more and more super rich appeared in the top layers of our society, the income of the bottom layers stagnated. Prices went up; wages did not. But there was always the possibility of getting three square meals and a bit of cash by soldiering. More young women and men saw a military career as advantageous because civilian life only promised a lot of drudgery and very limited incomes. A government intent on war, facilitated an economy that would maintain a steady supply of soldiers.
Steadily growing military budgets until, today, the government spends about half of its tax income on military expenses have reflected constant warfare. But military jobs are in the words of some economists "job-killers." Money invested in the military goes, to a significant extent, into weapons production. Such production employs a lot fewer persons than if the same amount of money had been invested in schools, in hospitals, in facilities to take care of the sick and the elderly. In all of these places, most of the investment goes to hire people; very little pays for machines or buildings. The same is true for money invested in entertainment, in sports, in libraries or after-school programs. They employ a lot more people than money invested in largely automated production processes that make bullets, bombs, or sophisticated weapons systems. There most of the money is invested in machines, not in workers.
A nation that spends half of its income on the military will suffer from significant unemployment and thus provides itself with another source of willing recruits for the military.
Wherever we look, at our excessive military budgets, at the continuing cuts in essential social services, at the low minimum wage, at the continuing increase in economic inequality, we can see clearly how war and economy are in lockstep: wars require ever more soldiers and those are procured by an increasingly harsh economy that produces enough poverty to push people towards military service. The government makes civilians suffer economic deprivations; it can then find willing recruits for its armed forces. It makes life at home sufficiently miserable that, by comparison, a tour of duty in Iraq may actually seem attractive.
You tell me whether that's right.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Bottom Line on the Bejing Olympics

McDonalds, Visa, Coca Cola, Samsung, General Electric--should we feel sorry for them? They spent huge sums of money for the privilege of advertising their products during the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing, China. But now the Tibetans, always a bit unruly, are in open revolt and the Chinese government, always prone to violence, is sending thousands and thousands of heavily armed troops to Tibet to suppress the uprising. The large corporate advertisers face a serious dilemma. Their customers may object if they do not speak out against the human rights violations in Tibet; they may show their displeasure by patronizing Mastercard instead of Visa, Wendy's instead of MacDonalds, or Pepsi instead of Coke. All of a sudden, the investment in the Beijing Olympics seems a bad deal. But, on the other hand, if these companies were to criticize the actions of the Beijing government, they might lose their permission to do business in China. They could lose their chance to sell cokes to more than one billion Chinese. Coca Cola's stock holders would not be happy about that.
The advertisers in the Beijing Olympics truly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
But before you get all choked up about the troubles of these multi-national corporations, pause a minute and ask yourself: what is new about the suppression of the Tibetan uprising. Should we really be surprised?
China has occupied Tibet since 1959. There never has been any evidence that the invasion of Tibet was welcomed by its population. Thirty years later, in 1989, students demanding more democracy in China were killed by troops in Tienanmin Square in Beijing. Once again the Chinese government showed itself to be prone to harsh violence in the interest in maintaining political control by the ruling Communist Party.
Did McDonalds or Coke not know that? Yes, of course they knew that but they did not care. After all "business is business" and there is a great deal of money to be made and that is all that counts.
The Olympics, and the question whether to advertise on the broadcasts of Olympic events, is only a small episode in a much larger drama.
Google had been operating in China for a number of years, but early in 2006 the Chinese government demanded that Google block sites not acceptable to the government. Google agreed, making itself complicit in the Chinese government's censorship. Google also closed down e-mail and chat-rooms, because they could not easily be monitored by the Chinese government. Nor is Google an exception. The BBC reports that "Last year, Yahoo was accused of supplying data to China that were used as evidence to jail a Chinese journalist for 10 years."
These are some recent examples of large corporations being willing to cooperate with authoritarian regimes for the sake of their bottom line. These enterprises are willing to support any government, however brutal and tyrannical, in order to improve their balance sheet.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. During the thirties, when the Nazis rebuilt the German army, they got material assistance from General Motors and Ford Motors in building trucks and tanks. Both corporations had factories in Germany and produced military vehicles for the German military until long after the outbreak of World War II. A significant portion of German weapons were produced by the Thyssen Iron Works. Thyssen was closely associated with Senator Prescott Bush, the President George W. Bush's grandfather. The Guardian (UK) reports "George Bush's grandfather, the late US senator Prescott Bush, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany."
Finally, the most awful example of all: the extermination of vast numbers of German Jews was made much easier with the help of accurate lists of German Jews and their addresses. IBM developed and leased to the German government the technology for making the needed lists of Jews to be deported. IBM was rewarded handsomely for that service.
The business of business is profit. They will make profit by supporting authoritarian regimes just as happily as they make it in democratic countries. They would do business with the Devil himself, if it were profitable. The dilemmas raised by the Beijing Olympics are just a bump in the road to greater profits, never mind the human or moral costs.