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Tracking Syria's Cultural Heritage

It goes without saying that the worst tragedy of Syria's war is the loss of life and liberty. Those with the power to ameliorate suffering must do so. But academics and other scholars of the region don't have that power, and instead they have been developing their own means of trying to help Syria. The past two years have seen a dramatic expansion in efforts to track Syria's cultural heritage.

Cultural property -- monuments, buildings, artifacts, museums -- is not superficial ornamentation of a nation's identity. Rather, nations use cultural heritage to understand their pasts, bolster their spirits during times of conflict, and imagine their futures. For these reasons, archaeologists and historians of Syria, whether professional or amateur, have built up an impressive infrastructure for the acquisition and dissemination of information.

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Now They Tell Us UPDATE

Three knowledgable and connected Times reporters, Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Landler, write today:

....Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.

Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a “farce,” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”

Should that story have been written a week ago? They note one element that I have thought and argued about over the last few weeks: What are "the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East." Story here, NYTimes, 9/11!

UPDATE: Can Obama's plan work? Skeptics right and left. Lobe Log

Popes, peace, nationalism, and soccer

If Ross Douthat can this week give his Sunday column over to sports (specifically, the social and civic ramifications of basketball star Lebron James's return to the Cleveland Cavaliers), then it seems okay to post on that other big athletic event, the one that by its culmination today around 5 p.m. eastern will leave the nation of either Benedict (Germany) or Francis  (Argentina) as World Cup champion. You may have seen some of the lame graphics (like the one above) showing up in your Twitter or Facebook feeds, created and passed on by those eager to pit the current pope and his predecessor against each other in what soccer fans might call a "friendly." But by general accounts--and according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi--neither is likely to watch the game, much less with each other: The pope emeritus just isn't all that much of a fan, and, though Francis (as noted here and elsewhere) is, he doesn't watch all that much TV, "especially," Lombardi notes, "at that hour"--the game starts at about 9 p.m. in Italy. 
 
Lombardi adds that both men are also above "partisan passion," and in that sense they may reflect something columnist Simon Kuper discusses in the current issue of Harper's (paywalled). It's his belief, founded on having attended World Cup soccer tournaments since 1990, that the the sport now "exemplifies the ongoing globalization of daily life.... [T]he planet's biggest nationalist spectacle [has evolved] into a cosmopolitan party." Athletes from many nations play together on various elite professional teams, throughout Europe and elsewhere, so even those rivalries once fueled by nationalistic fervor (England vs. Germany, Argentina vs. England) are not so much, anymore. "[T]he World Cup minus the hate," Kuper declares. "It's harder to feel blind nationalism about the World Cup when the protagonists themselves don't," and this waning of World Cup nationalism is reflected, he says, by a "worldwide retreat from nationalism."
 
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If Hobby Lobby is a religious 'person,' is a GTMO detainee one too?

Five years ago I wrote two articles for Commonweal about religion at Guantanamo. The shorter follow-up dealt with Rasul v. Rumsfeld (and Rasul v. Myers), in which the plaintiffs appealed in part to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

At that time, courts ruled that Guantanamo detainees are not "persons" under RFRA:

Congress legislated against the background of precedent establishing that nonresident aliens were not among the 'person[s]' protected by the Fifth Amendment ... and were not among 'the people' protected by the Fourth Amendment.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Janice Rodgers Brown admitted she was troubled by the finding.

Accepting plaintiffs' argument that RFRA imports the entire Free Exercise Clause edifice into the military detention context would revolutionize the treatment of captured combatants in a way Congress did not contemplate. Yet, the majority's approach is not much better. It leaves us with the unfortunate and quite dubious distinction of being the only court to declare those held at Guantanamo are not "person[s]." This is a most regrettable holding in a case where plaintiffs have alleged high-level U.S. government officials treated them as less than human. (italics added)

She further argued that Congress did not foresee a situation like Guantanamo: "prolonged military detentions of alleged enemy combatants were not part of our consciousness." She wrote that "Congress should revisit RFRA with these circumstances in mind."

It is also true that Congress did not foresee large for-profit corporations as persons protected by RFRA. With the new, expanded definition of 'person' post-Hobby Lobby, lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees have thus filed a Temporary Restraining Order in the D.C. District Court.

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From Mission Creep to Creepy Mission

SOS John Kerry is quoted in a NYTimes story by Michael Gordon (war correspondent) thus: "BAGHDAD — Winding up a day of crisis talks with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action."

If we take military action, why would Maiki and his Shiite government become more inclusive? In any case, what is the U.S. interest in supporting either Shias or Sunnis? What interest do we have in favoring one religious group over another. 

UPDATE: Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers

Update:  You can now watch Andrew Bacevich on Moyers & Company below

Two weeks ago, Andrew Bacevich’s essay “The Duplicity of the Ideologues” appeared on our site. Beginning Friday online, and on PBS through the weekend, Bacevich will be featured on Moyers & Company, where he’ll be discussing the situation in Iraq and issues of U.S. foreign policy he raised in his Commonweal piece. You can check your local listings here; in the meantime, see the preview of Bacevich’s appearance below. (And see “The Duplicity of the Ideologues” here; it’s even more worth [re]reading in light of events since it first appeared.)

 

One for Five UPDATE

The exchange of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo was heralded Saturday morning as a breakthrough in negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sunday and Monday, the exchange is getting head winds from Congressional Republicans. Mike Rogers (R. MI) claims the exchange was illegal and against U.S. policy of trading with terrorists. We will certainly have more of this. And we will have more criticisms on the grounds that Bergdahl walked away from his unit on purpose. Bergdahl is now in Germany for medical treatment and probably won't be heard from for a long time.

President Obama will be criticized through the November elections, but he probably made the right decision for Bergdahl. And maybe he made the right decision for the Taliban prisoners, at least two of whom have been at Guantanamo for over a decade. If Congress won't let the president bring Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for trial, what better way to dispose of them. They have been sent to Qatar where it is said they will be banned from traveling for a year. Maybe the Qataris will pension them off and they will live there ever after.

CNN's description of the Taliban prisoners.

UPDATE: June 6: The Times's Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, gives a rundown on some of the media coverage and responses from the Times's news editors.

History Bites

Events over several decades in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans remind us that upheavals in the present looking to the future also summon the past. Ukraine is a case in point. 

A reminder of its past is captured in the phrase, "fascist riffraff," shouted by Russian-speaking Ukrainans against the Ukrainian-speaking groups now in charge in Kiev. It summons the Russian memory that the parents and grandparents of the current protesters fought with the Germans against Russia in WWII. Putin and Company's charges of terrorism and extreme nationalistism refer to this  history. As prior dotCommonweal posts have noted Ukraine has been part of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Luthuania as well as Russia. It is a borderland as the geo-politicians like to point out. It is also Bloodlands as historian Timothy Synder called it in a history that examines the war between Hitler and Stalin; both engaged in the mass killings of Ukrainians and other inhabitants of the borderlands before and during the war.

In the meantime, here is a brief assessment of the dangers all around: New Yorker

Always reasons to hate Iran

In the State of the Union, President Obama said he would veto any effort to increase sanctions on Iran. Previous White House threats seemed a bit oblique, now his direct threat has pulled some Democratics back from the brink of voting for the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act" introduced by Senators Mendez (D.) and Kirk (R.). Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans to stand back from supporting the bill, now opposes it. All to the good.

But....

Paul Pilar, senior fellow at Georgetown and The Brookings Institutions as well as a former CIA officer, has a long memory. He enumerates all the ways over the years in which relations with Iran have come under fire, and not just for their nuclear program. In the National Interest. He expects that as negotiations continue other and older reasons to bring down Iran will emerge.

Previous disucssions at dotCWL. Let's Have a War and War or Peace? Raise Your Hand.

Throwback Thursday: Wars of Christmas Past

It’s a shame that the term “War on Christmas”—demeaning to both the gravity of war and the spirit of Christmas—is now associated with efforts to display overtly religious symbols in public places during the month of December. As Mollie’s recent column suggested, might the hawkishness with which Christmas Warriors are picking these fights hinder their cause? And moreover, isn’t this term a bit patronizing to those who have or are currently fighting in real wars?

For our throwback today, we’ve reached deep into the archives for this December 1925 editorial, “The Will to Peace.” Perhaps it’s just semantics, but the War on Christmas—with its talk of picking fights and engaging in battle—seems to directly contradict the greeting of peace offered at the Incarnation:

“Peace!” is the ideal enshrined at the core of all pomp and circumstance with which men surround the feast of Nativity. “Peace” was the one message heaven had for earth at the moment the veil was withdrawn and a “great company of angels” was seen by the poor hinds who lay awake watching their flocks on the hillside.

Written between world wars (though at the time, the editors believed they were eight years past the war to end all wars), this editorial concludes with a plea to hold out for peace that cannot be achieved through battle or force:

The world, in a word, can have peace, old Rome’s way or God’s way. It cannot have both. The first is the easiest, for the state is still supreme, and a word will set battalions and batteries on the march, and battle-ship propellers revolving. The second is the hardest, for hearts are not changed at an official word, and a city is taken easier than a spirit conquered.

Militant moral warriors fighting the modern War on Christmas might try their hand at peacebuilding this holiday season. They could take a cue from those in the trenches—that is, those actually fighting in a war on Christmas Day—whose famous ceasefire in the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a model worth imitating.

Nelson Mandela

In 2000, our editors wrote: “Will Nelson Mandela ever stop astounding and humbling the world by the force of his moral vision and the transformative authority of his personal courage and conviction?” The question was in response to Mandela's efforts to end Brundi's civil war, but it expresses what has been said in so many of the tributes in the week since his death, in wonder over how much he was able to accomplish. Commonweal over the years chronicled Mandela's fight against apartheid, his imprisonment, and his release and subsequent election as president of South Africa. But we'd like to single out this brief item our editors composed after Mandela's 1990 U.S. tour. Read it here.

Special feature: Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life, thirty years later

Thirty years ago Friday, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin came to Fordham University to deliver a follow-up lecture on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” [.pdf], a presentation in which he introduced his formulation for a consistent ethic of life [.pdf]. 

I was a freshman at Fordham in December 1983; dealing for the first time with end-of-term papers and final exams, I did not attend the lecture. But it was big news on campus (and off), its key passages highlighted in the official student paper and discussed in my theology, philosophy, and political science courses in the semesters to come. To an eighteen-year-old recently compelled by the 1980 proclamation from President Carter to register for the draft, and made further anxious (like many of my classmates) by the belligerence of the Reagan administration’s nuclear-weapons rhetoric—limned with references to scripture—Bernardin’s wedding of issues made sudden, stunning sense. A pro-life position consisted of more than focusing singularly on abortion; it also meant opposing what he called “the moral and political futility of nuclear war” and directing states “against the exercise” of capital punishment. A formulation like “consistent ethic of life” provided shape for inchoate railings against what I was beginning to think of as the injustices of the day, coming along in time for the moral and political awakening common to first-year students. I still remember the weather (pouring Bronx rain) and how my mother drove the seventy miles from New Jersey to hear Bernardin in person, a basket of all my younger brothers’ laundry in the back seat because the washing machine had broken down and she needed to stop at a Laundromat on the way home.

That’s my personal reflection, in service of directing you to a more thorough and informed discussion over on our website. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of Bernardin’s lecture, we’ve asked four contributors to reassess his idea for a consistent ethic of life and to comment on its influence and its relevance today. Lisa Fullam, David Cloutier, Robert P. Imbelli, and Cathleen Kaveny are the participants in the discussion, “Consistent Ethic of Life, Thirty Years Later,” which you can find here. Once you’ve read it, come back to this post to share your comments. 

New stories now on the homepage

Now featured on the website, the editors on negotiating with Iran, and the first in our special series on raising kids Catholic (more on that below).

From the editorial “The Threat of Peace”:

Iran insists that its nuclear industry is intended only for peaceful purposes. But it would be irresponsible to take Iranian promises at face value. … Still, almost by definition, most efforts to avoid war involve dealing with dangerous and untrustworthy foes. Consequently, confidence-building steps are necessary. Led by Secretary of State John Kerry, the international community has proposed an interim agreement to test the regime’s real intentions…. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a vociferous opponent of any interim deal, claiming that if sanctions are lifted even temporarily it will be impossible to re-impose them. Netanyahu and some in Congress want the sanctions tightened further, arguing that only the harshest pressure can force the Iranians to make meaningful concessions. Given his previous objections to the administration’s Iran policy, Netanyahu’s new-found faith in sanctions is curious, to say the least. …

Diplomacy rarely succeeds unless each party offers the other a way to save face with hardliners at home. In that light, the sort of interim agreement Secretary Kerry is proposing seems worth the limited risks involved.

Also live, the first in our multipart series “Raising Catholic Kids,” in which we asked parents to discuss and reflect on their experiences in “rooting family in faith.” We’ll be posting new installments on a regular basis in coming days, and we’ll be packaging the series so that as new articles go live they’re collected all in one place. Featured today, J. Peter Nixon:

I have two children of my own now. Many parents react to perceived deficiencies in their own childhood by leaning violently in the other direction. I am no different. I have done everything in my power to give my children the deep roots in the Catholic tradition that I did not have. My wife and I have made the financial sacrifice to send our children to Catholic school, a sacrifice that will become all the more difficult as they enter (God willing!) the local Catholic high school. Both of us pursued graduate work in theology and we are deeply involved in a wonderful parish where we are active in a variety of ministries.

Aside from the investment in their education, I did not do most of these things for my children. I did them because they seemed at least a meager return for what God has done for me in Jesus Christ. But I have also tried to live my faith in a way that would make it truly attractive and credible to my children.

Every now and then I feel that it’s working.

Read the whole thing here, and remember to check back at the homepage as we post additional pieces. And as the series concludes, we’ll be featuring as an online exclusive some reflections by young people (who to some might still count as kids) on what they learned being raised in Catholic families. 

Armistice Day--the 95th anniversary

Two minutes of silence are observed in the UK at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: November 11 when the guns of the Great War fell silent in 1918. The U.S. has renamed this "Veteran's Day," in honor of the fallen from all of our 20th and 21st century wars, but in the UK, World War I is still is considered the Great War. Here is the BBC story of today's observances.

Today is the 95th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the slaughter of the Great War. Very soon, 2014, we will be observing the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Several books have appeared retelling the story of the events leading to the outbreak of hositilies in August 1914. I am currently reading Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace, and during the summer finished Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europse Went to War in 1914.

How did the war break out? It depends on when the authors think incipient hostilities began.

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Veterans, Conscientious Objectors & Guns of Love

For those observing both Veterans' Day and the feast of St. Martin of Tours (patron saint of soldiers and of conscientious objectors), here's Maura O'Connell's rousing cover of "Guns of Love".

"With guns of love brought into battle, the nights will burn like never before;
Pride will fall and foundations rattle, when guns of love put an end to war.
"

I Only Turn Screws

Whether or not the potential attacks on Syria transgress the stringent conditions of a just war, what should be said of the money accruing to investors shrewd enough to have invested in it?  A friend sent me this intriguing story from USA Today, and I found myself wondering, in Baltimore Catechism terms, about war profiteering.  Is it a sin to accept an unsavory dividend from investments in, say, Northrop Grumman or Boeing, when the weaponry they help produce is deployed in a “just war?’  Blessed Pope John Paul II never pronounced on this, but when he was Karol Wojtyla, he wrote a suggestive poem about something like it.

New issue, new stories on the website

Our September 27 issue is now live. Here are some of the stories we’re highlighting.

Paul Moses, in “Here to Stay,” looks at how Latinos are changing the country and the church.

[Long] term, it’s unclear how Latino voters will respond as their incomes rise—and as they are assimilated into American culture. Will they follow the path of other once-impoverished immigrant communities, such as Italians? Another open question is how many Latino Catholics in this country will remain Catholic. Young Latinos are not immune to the effects of secularism. Nor will they be unaffected by Protestant efforts to win them over—a trend across Latin America.

What is clear, as the Pew Research Hispanic Center predicted in 2007, is that “Latinos will bring about important changes in the nation’s largest religious institution.” Like politicians, Catholic bishops are learning that they can’t succeed if Latino Catholics don’t share their priorities. The bishops’ campaign against the Obama administration’s contraception-coverage mandate may have helped Mitt Romney take 59 percent of the white Catholic vote, but the Latino-Catholic vote overrode it to deliver the overall Catholic vote to Obama. The bishops’ new, more activist approach to seeking citizenship for undocumented immigrants—urging priests to give homilies on the subject, targeting members of Congress with phone calls, parish pilgrimages, and Masses dedicated to immigration reform—seems to reflect an awareness of the 2012 election’s demographic lesson. This new approach is similar to the one often taken to abortion or same-sex marriage. In June, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to all parishes of the Archdiocese of New York asking Catholics to support the bishops on “two important issues,” immigration reform and abortion, he mentioned immigration first.

Andrew J. Bacevich and R. Scott Appleby debate the current state of the peace movement, and whether it’s capable of exerting influence on U.S. policy [subscription]. “For Dorothy Day,” Bacevich writes,

The unfolding of salvation history may have provided an appropriate context in which to situate the Catholic Worker movement (or Christianity as a whole). In that context, the timetable may be unknown, but the outcome is predetermined. The Good News ultimately culminates in good news. Hence Day’s counsel of patience.

For the peace movement, however, it’s what happens in the meantime that counts. Whatever may await humanity at the end of time, afflictions endured in the here-and-now matter a great deal. Peace activists cannot state with confidence that history will ultimately yield a happy verdict. The persistence of large-scale political violence suggests grimmer possibilities.

Appleby:

Andrew Bacevich’s essay is confused—theologically, conceptually, and factually. As a result, it delivers half-truths, not least regarding “the peace movement.” Let’s begin with the theological. Dorothy Day is not our only option for gauging the impact of peacebuilding. Indeed, Bacevich’s version of Day is not even a recognizable theological option. Contra Bacevich, Kingdom of God theology—what he refers to as “salvation history”—hardly ignores “afflictions endured in the here-and-now”; nor does it postpone the pursuit of justice and the repair of the earth until “the end of time.” The reason Day and her followers concentrated on the works of mercy, prophetic witness, and solidarity with the victims of structural, cultural, and physical violence is that such actions constitute participation in God’s redemptive presence now, here, on this earth. Living as the poor and among the homeless, eschewing all forms of violence, railing against militarism—these were not futile acts or hollow metaphors but primary symbols, fully participating in the reality to which they refer.

Also in the new issue, Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon on the grim and largely untold real history of Poland’s wartime suffering, Celia Wren on the PBS series “The Hollow Crown,” and Mary Frances Coady on her sojourn through the Jordan desert.

And, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes on the repercussions of last week’s vote in Colorado that saw proponents of recently passed gun laws recalled from office – this more or less the same time as Iowa passes a law allowing the blind to carry weapons in public, as new data reveals the effect of gun violence on women, and as authorities continue to investigate the latest mass shooting: eleven reported killed today at the Washington, D.C., naval yard.

Unjustified, by just-war standards

Now featured on the homepage: George Hunsinger evaluates the proposed attack on Syria by the criteria of just war--and finds it wanting.

How should U.S. citizens and their elected representatives decide this dreadful question? A defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified.

In my view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards. Let us review them in order.

Read the whole thing here.

Catholic commentary round-up on proposed attack in Syria

The past few days have seen a burst of commentary from Catholic writers about the proposed attack in Syria. This blog has featured a lot, and the current issue of the magazine has Gabriel Said Reynolds's essential short take. A few other items of note, and feel free to add more in the comments:

Maryann Cusimano Love on the "just war" question in the Huffington Post

Drew Christiansen, S.J., on the role of prayer in Washington Post "On Faith"

Tobias Winright on "just war" analysis in The Tablet and Catholic Moral Theology

R. R. Reno on "symbolic killing" in First Things

The USCCB's letter to President Obama

E. J. Dionne's column in praise of democracy, today in the Washington Post

Michael Sean Winters taking the liberal interventionist route in National Catholic Reporter

And, of course, the Pope has been leading the way from last week's Angelus to his letter to President Putin to his forceful social media activism, about which I wrote a short piece in the Washington Post's "On Faith" section. My take-home point was: "Prayerful, prophetic denunciation of war is one papal tradition that the reform-minded Francis will not be changing."

Elizabeth Tenety offered a round-up of some of these critiques from the commentariat, and then posed the question of whether all the Catholics in political power in the United States are listening.

Are they???

Finally, if you're in the New York area, I'm sure the Pope's out-front anti-war message will become a topic of conversation at our Fordham panel about Pope Francis on Mon, Sept 9, at Lincoln Center campus.  Info and RSVP HERE.

Conflict & the persistence of ‘credibility’ as justification

Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock is a western in the way The Godfather is a crime novel or The Road a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which is to say it belongs to its genre but also subverts it. The novel harnesses familiar ideas—in this case, violence, honor, and the limits of law—for fictional storytelling, while examining how they can influence, direct, and legitimize cultural, personal, and political activity in the real world.

It’s no Zane Grey, as Robert Stone—whose own work takes up questions of violence and political conflict—acknowledges in his introduction to the 2006 reissue of Warlock, which in its depiction of duels, massacres, vendettas, and assassinations reveals how deadly force so often springs from nothing more than a desire to project credibility. The characters in Warlock aren’t necessarily interested in killing one another; they’re worried what people will think if they don’t—whether it’s avenging this murder or that insult, or preemptively eliminating a perceived enemy, even when the lack of clear evidence would seem to demand restraint. Protecting one’s reputation proves a poor justification for violence, Hall makes clear in Warlock, even while (or by) acknowledging that his characters have no real choice but to act as if it’s the best one.

But that’s a novel, and Hall’s thematic intent precludes epiphanies of self-awareness and the throwing down of guns. Real-world actors operate under no such constraints, though, and so credibility would seem an even worse excuse in this realm, especially when it comes to war. Yet there were John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Monday using the word again, a couple of days after Barack Obama—sidling up to it himself because of his own unforced error with the rhetoric of red lines—brought Congress into the decision-making on Syria. (Tuesday, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Boehner and Eric Cantor employed its go-to variation: inaction will “embolden other regimes.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Mercer has twice made the case against using credibility as a cri de guerre—first in May, and then again last week to reflect developments since evidence of the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians came to light.

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