dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Summer Morning

A first-time Commonweal blog entry for me, and while in future entries I’ll take up books, politics, movies (I’ve been one of your reviewers for fifteen years now) or whatever, today I’ll be more personal. Right now it’s 5:30 AM, I’ve got a cup of coffee, and I want to convey that moment when you feel your family’s life gathering its breath for the summer to come. We’re an early-rising bunch (and early to bed -- alas!); my wife Molly is out walking the dogs, and our daughter Larkin, who recently finished third grade, is asleep in her room with her friend Fiona in the top bunk bed. A sleepover!

I’m turning fifty-six, and for most of my friends the kid sleepover era is long gone. But Molly and I got started late at all this; she was almost forty, and I almost fifty, when Larkin was born. Thus we’re wildly out of synch with most people our age -- as I was reminded at my recent thirty-fifth college reunion, where many of my classmates were fresh from their kids’ college graduations. Anyway, do you remember what it was like when you were up early and your child was still asleep, with a sleepover pal? The silence is blissful! You have that satisfying sense of being a temporary custodian of precious lives, which really is the essence of being a parent.

I spent a few minutes on the front porch, drinking coffee and waiting for the newspaper guy to deliver the Times. We have a family of rabbits living somewhere in our yard (in Hartford, Conn.), and they’ve gotten sufficiently inured to people that they barely look up when you appear. So I watched Brer Rabbit munch for a while. Our newspaper delivery guy is a thirtyish-year-old man who delivers the paper by hurling it from his moving car, without slowing down. This is mortal peril for my tiger lilies, and I keep meaning to ask him to aim for the lawn, not the front walk. But by the time I amble down into the yard, he has roared on. And I hesitate to mar his business plan, anyway.

My mother died nine years ago, when Larkin was just six months old, and after that I took up gardening. My mom was a skilled and joyous gardener, and I’d always intended to spend some time with her in her garden and learn the tools and tricks of the thing. And then she was gone, and I regretted not having done it.

Read more

New stories on the homepage

We’re featuring two new items on the homepage right now.

First, in "‘Under God’: Same-Sex Marriage & Foreign Affairs,” Andrew J. Bacevich writes on “just how attenuated the putative link between God’s law and American freedom has become.”

Cold War-era sexual mores had implications for U.S. foreign policy. Even if honored only in the breach, the prevailing code—sex consigned to monogamous heterosexual relationships sanctified by marriage—imparted legitimacy to the exercise of American power. In measured doses, self-restraint and self-denial offered indicators of collective moral fiber. By professing respect for God’s law, we positioned ourselves on his side. It followed that he was on ours. Here was American chosenness affirmed. Certainty that the United States enjoyed divine favor made it possible to excuse a multitude of transgressions committed in the name of defending a conception of freedom ostensibly mindful of God’s own strictures.

The justices voting in favor of gay marriage don’t care a lick about whether the United States is “under God” or not. On that score, however dubious their reading of the Constitution, they have accurately gauged the signs of the times. The people of “thou shall not” have long since become the people of “whatever,” with obligations deriving from moral tradition subordinated to claims of individual autonomy. That’s the way we like it. August members of the Supreme Court have now given their seal of approval.

Read the whole thing here.

And, in “Liberated by Grace,” E. J. Dionne Jr. looks at the importance of the African-American Christian tradition in America’s history “for reasons of the spirit but also as a political seedbed of freedom and a reminder that the Bible is a subversive book.”

In the days of slavery, masters emphasized the parts of Scripture that called for obedience to legitimate authority. But the slaves took another lesson: that the authority they were under was not legitimate, that the Old Testament prophets and Exodus preached liberation from bondage, and that Jesus himself took up the cry to “set the oppressed free” with passion and conviction unto death.

The church was also a free space for African-Americans, not unlike the Catholic Church in Poland under communism, which provided dissidents with room to maneuver. Even when segregationist Jim Crow laws were at their most oppressive, their churches provided places where African-Americans could pray and ponder, organize and debate, free of the restrictions imposed outside their doors by the white power structure, to borrow a phrase first widely heard in the 1960s.

It was thus no accident that the black church was at the center of the civil rights movement. And it’s precisely their role as an oasis from repression that the churches became the object of burnings and bombings. The freedom enabled by sacred and inviolable space has always been dangerous to white supremacy.

Read the whole thing here.

If I could vote in Greece/ Update: Greeks say NO!

The referendum called for by the Greek Government allows citizens to vote Yea (for more austerity and remaining in the Eurozone) or Nay (default and perhaps depart the Eurozone). It is a momentous decision for the Greeks, the EU, and in various forms for the rest of us. Story here.

Paul Krugman in Friday's column seems to support a "No" vote to show the creditors that they should push no further and it was time to cut their losses. But the creditors won't be the only, or perhaps primary losers, in this war of nerves.

How would you vote?

UPDATE: Reuters: "Greeks defy Europe with 'NO'"   What next?

Holiday weekend reading

Happy fourth of July, dotCommonweal readers. Here are some stories to check out that we’ve posted this week.

First, Robert Mickens, in his latest Letter from Rome, describes Pope Francis's plans to overhaul the Holy See's media management, including who will be managing his Twitter account. It will not be an easy task, since 

a number of the departments affected have enjoyed and jealously defended a relative autonomy, which means they have also been overlapping with each other and duplicating work.” 

Read this week’s letter here, and catch up on previous dispatches here.

Then, Rita Ferrone argues in favor of restoring the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation, celebrating confirmation and Eucharist in a single ceremony when the child is seven or eight. 

Confirmation programs rarely reverse this sorry state of affairs. Why are we pouring resources into getting youth “ready” to celebrate a one-time event? We should be bending all our efforts toward helping them engage with the celebration of the Eucharist

Read all of “Slap Them Sooner” here.

Next, Mollie Wilson O'Reilly writes on the delicate task of explaining big ideas to little children:

I certainly wasn’t ready for the day he declared, “Mommy, ‘poor’ is the same thing as ‘sad.’… Quick,I thought, say something wise and simple and profound, something a really good parent would say, something that will set him on the road to a life of virtue, before he changes the subject back to what various kinds of dinosaurs ate.

Read all of “Momsplaining” here.

Atticus Lish and Next Lives

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s extraordinary novel seems material for the perfect melodrama: a vet returned from the horrors of war, Byronic wounds setting him apart; the plucky immigrant woman, a survivor, canny and intent on saving the wounded hero. The backdrop: New York City where anything is possible. Given the pretext of the work, a reader can’t help but wonder if the love affair can not generate the compassion to redeem the soldier and make real the dream of the woman? Lish’s world is not that of melodrama: he subverts the expectation through unsparing realism. In the process, his vision leaves desiccated flabby assumptions about PTSD and the underworld of illegal aliens. Love simply is not enough to buoy the pair above the wash of the City’s violence and exploitation. 

The novel has had high praise in many reviews, principally for Lish’s ability to create dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, the speech, demotic, of the outer boroughs of the City. The progress of the plot is almost cinematic – by way of montage, scene juxtaposed on scene. The abrupt changes of place and character create a sense of energy, almost manic energy, particularly in so far as Skinner (the Iraqi vet) and Zou Lei (the part-Uighur, part Chinese illegal) share an obsession with physical training. They literally pursue each other in sweat drenched, convulsive runs – or rival each other in squats and lifts.

In remarkable explorations Lish takes us into the shadow economy of undocumented immigrants – the punishing work in over-hot kitchens, or clattering rag-trade sweat shops. Skinner’s altercation with the son of his landlady puts him in the holding cells of a local precinct, and Lish manages to channel in rapid fire speech all the riot, aggression, taunting and fear of the men jailed. He has the same ability to convince that he knows the many different Chinese dialects and the Pidgin English that serves as common speech as well as the clannish tensions that push Zou Lei down the pecking order of kitchen hierarchies.

Read more

Farewell Pune, Hello Bangalore

Before leaving Pune, I attended a meeting that Sr. Julie George hosted for some diocesan leaders to discuss ways to engage parishes in Pune on Laudato Si’.  Specifically, they designed plans to help parishes be prepared for Pope Francis’ UN General Assembly Address on the environment on September 25th.

Sr. Julie, a lawyer and activist, heads Streevani (meaning, “the voice of women”), a legal aid center that advocates for domestic workers.   Julie gets things done.  7 years ago she helped start the “Women’s Religious Lawyers Forum.”  She helped to recruit over 90 Indian sisters working in law.  The forum “Pursuit of Justice: Prophetic Response to our times” was so successful that it just finished its seventh annual gathering.  Her partner in crime is Raynah Braganza Passanha, the leader of the Indian Christian Women’s Movement, dedicated to gender equity.   We will continue to work with one another virtually.

Yesterday, I arrived in Bangalore, the IT capital of India, where everyone is young.  In 2001, the city had a population of just over 5 million.  Today, 14 years later, it has more than doubled, with nearly 11 million of India’s 1.3 billion residents.  The city is a work in progress, a microcosm of the development across India.  When I first came here in 2007, I arrived in a tiny airport with one waiting hall.  When I last left here in 2012, the hour long trek to the airport included dirt and unpaved roads.  Yesterday I arrived in a major airport and the ride into the city was on a seamless highway.

Read more

Who is Burning Black Churches?

Mount Zion AME in Greeleyville, South Carolina, is the seventh black church that has been burned down since the shootings in Charleston, when Dylann Storm Roof—after declaring his white supremacist intentions online—killed eight black parishioners and their pastor, Senator Clementa Pinckney. Roof wrote:

I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.

Unfortunately at the time of writing I am in a great hurry and some of my best thoughts, actually many of them have been to be left out and lost forever. But I believe enough great White minds are out there already.

As the FBI investigates each arson separately as potential hate crimes, no perpetrators have yet been found, nor has there been an investigation into a potential "link" between these burnings. On social media a trending hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches calls the media out on overusing passive-tense headlines and draws our attention to the immediate hesitation of the (white) media to speculate anything could possibly be motivated by hate, let alone race--as exemplified by CNN's latest headline, "Lightning may have caused South Carolina church fire, FBI says."

To speculate that an organized (racist) movement (motivated by hate) might be behind the crimes is common sense, especially since there is a tradition of burning black churches that was believed to have ended in 1996, only after the Dept. of Justice under the Clinton Administration needed to create a National Church Arson task force to deal with a resurgence of this age-old practice in the mid-90s.

The Southern Poverty Law center reported 784 active hate groups in 2014. That number is up from 602 hate groups in 2000, before President Obama was elected. Neo-Nazis make up 142 of them; Racist-Skinheads, 119; White Nationalist, 115; Black Separatist, 115; Ku Klux Klan, 72; and others fill out the rest.

The SPLC is calling for congressional hearings to address crimes against black churches as threats of domestic terrorism. I don't think that's an unfounded speculation.

Integral Equality

In his pastorally tone-deaf response to Friday's Supreme Court decision to recognize same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, struck a tone that Michael Sean Winters rightly described as "petulant." Kurtz also made a rather dubious reference to the "unambiguous" teaching of Jesus on marriage -- Is that the one where we're told those worthy of the resurrection "neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Luke 20: 35)? -- and an equally strained analogy to Roe v. Wade. What struck me as the strangest citation, though, was the reference to Pope Francis's concept of "integral ecology" as recently articulated in Laudato Si.

At first glance, it is difficult to see what a document that never uses the word "marriage" might have to do with the question of same-sex marriage. 

Read more

Pope Francis's U.S. itinerary.

As you may have heard, the bishop of Rome will be vacationing in the United States in a few months. This morning, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops finally released his itinerary. Should you want to go full groupie, here are the relevant details:

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23 (WASHINGTON, D.C.)

9:15  a.m.  Meeting with President Obama at the White House
11:30 a.m. Midday Prayer with the bishops of the United States, St. Matthew's Cathedral
4:15  p.m.  Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra, Basilicia of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

 

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 24 (WASHINGTON, D.C., NEW YORK CITY)

9:20  a.m.  Address to Joint Session of the United States Congress
11:15 a.m. Visit to St. Patrick in the City and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington
4:00 p.m.   Depart from Joint Base Andrews
5:00 p.m.   Arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport
6:45 p.m.   Evening Prayer (Vespers) at St. Patrick's Cathedral

 

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 25 (NEW YORK CITY)

8:30  a.m. Visit to the United Nations and Address to the United Nations General Assembly
11:30 a.m. Multi-religious service at 9/11 Memorial and Museum, World Trade Center
4:00  p.m.  Visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School, East Harlem
6:00  p.m.  Mass at Madison Square Garden

 

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 26 (NEW YORK CITY, PHILADELPHIA)

8:40  a.m.  Departure from John F. Kennedy International Airport
9:30  a.m.  Arrival at Atlantic Aviation, Philadelphia
10:30 a.m. Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia
4:45  p.m.  Visit to Independence Mall
7:30  p.m.  Visit to the Festival of Families Benjamin Franklin Parkway

 

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 27 (PHILADELPHIA)

9:15   a.m.  Meeting with bishops at at St. Martin's Chapel, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary
11:00  a.m. Visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility
4:00  p.m.   Mass for the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families, Benjamin Franklin Parkway
7:00   p.m.  Visit with organizers, volunteers and benefactors of the World Meeting of Families, Atlantic Aviation
8:00   p.m.  Departure for Rome

Calm, collected.

Faced with the Supreme Court's decision to make same-sex marriage the law of the land, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, predictably expressed his displeasure:

Just as Roe v. Wade did not settle the question of abortion over forty years ago, Obergefell v. Hodges does not settle the question of marriage today. Neither decision is rooted in the truth, and as a result, both will eventually fail. Today the Court is wrong again. It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.... Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children.

Other bishops, however, took another tone. Calling the majority decision in Obergefell "particularly painful," Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston urged Catholics to "both protect our own deeply held values and participate with civility and charity in the continuing national discussion about this decision."

In a longer reflection on the decision, Cardinal Donald Wuerl reminded his people that "Christians have the responsibility to learn and to grow in their faith in order to share it with others"--without barring the church door to those who struggle with the church's definition of marriage. They too must be welcomed.

Read more

New stories (& a new issue) on the website

We posted two new stories (and also our latest issue) to the website.

First, E.J. Dionne Jr. responds to last week's social sea change—the national movement against Confederate monuments and the Supreme Court's rulings on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act. He cautions liberals to be "candid" about conservative concerns about judicial activism and urges conservatives to recognize that "social movements, public opinion, the courts and the elected branches are not hermetically sealed off from each other."

Read the whole thing here.

And, our July 10 issue is up. In it, the editors expound on the "impressive, deeply challenging" vision of Francis's enyclical and what it requires of us.

One cannot separate ecology from economics, or economics from ethics, or ethics from politics. Above all, one cannot separate what Francis, following Benedict, calls “human ecology” from the rest of creation.

Read the editorial here.

Also in the issue Jay Neugeboren recounts when champion Max Baer confronted racism at a segregated bar in Chicago in 1932; Mollie O'Reilly describes what it's like to explain poverty to a 3-year-old; and Anthony Domestico reviews Anne Enright's latest novel The Green Road. Enright, Ireland's first fiction laureate, spoke with Digital Editor Dominic Presziosi about—among other things—family-as-fate, sex and death, John Paul II in Ireland, and writing. In case you missed the interview, read the whole thing here.

See the full table of contents for our July 10 issue here.

Why Pretend?

This week will be remembered as an important one in the history of this country, a very good week for most people on the left and a bad one for most on the right. For the second time, the Supreme Court protected the Affordable Care Act from a legal challenge that would have crippled it. The following day the Court ruled that gay Americans have a Constitional right to marry.

The ruling in the health-care case was a clear rejection of narrow Scalian textualism, a theory of statutory interpretation that has had great influence in the past couple of decades. Many would argue—along with the four dissenting Justices—that the ruling in the marriage case was a rejection of judicial restraint, a principle sometimes confused with textualism. As John Roberts reminded us this week, there is a difference

For most supporters of same-sex civil marriage, what mattered most was not the process but the outcome. That is understandable. When it comes to matters of the greatest personal urgency, most people are procedural pragmatists. They'll wait for a legislative victory if they have to, but if they can get what they want from the courts, they'll take it.  Proponents of same-sex marriage will no longer have to wait for the legislative process to catch up with public opinion. That might have taken years, and since there seemed to be little doubt about the final outcome—since it was only a matter of sooner or later—why not get it over with? Why make gay couples wait for democracy to slowly run its course when we could all see where it was headed. That, at any rate, was the pragmatic argument for having the Supreme Court settle this. (I don't say that was the only argument.)

Meanwhile, opponents of Obamacare will have to figure out how to get rid of it politically, having failed again to get the Supreme Court to kill or maim it for them. This means they'll have to wait for at least one more election.

The GOP response to the marriage decision has not been uniform. Many Republicans are eager to put this controversy behind them as quickly as possible so that they can concentrate on the truly important things: repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes. It is useful to compare the range of views about same-sex marriage on display at the National Review with the much narrower range of views about the Obamacare decision: the flagship publication of the American right, though generally opposed to both decisions, makes room for supporters of same-sex marriage (Charles C. W. Cooke, Reihan Salam), while speaking with one hoarse voice against Obamacare. This contrast confirms the view that today's GOP is less a conservative party than an anti-government pro-Market party. Capitalism über alles.

Read more

Jacob Lawrence—Again

Following up on a column I wrote about Jacob Lawrence's "The Great Migration," here is a NYTimes book review of the catalog accompanying the show now at MOMA (through September 7).

The review is by Isabel Wilkerson whose own master work, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells the migration story through the lives of several of those who made the journey. An impressive work in its own right.

Lawerence's great 60-panel work will open at DC's Phillips Gallery in 2016.  All of this apropos of so many events of the last several weeks, beginning with Charleston.

John Boyne's Lonely Priest

John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.

One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.

I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.

Read more

Carbon Fasting

In my last post, I remarked that the archdiocese of Bombay had started the practice of carbon fasting for its Lenten practice of 2014 and repeated it in 2015.  I received in a variety of ways many positive responses to the blog.  While I know we are a long way from Lent, still in the wake of Laudato Si,’ we are being asked to change our ways immediately and carbon fasting seems like an exercise that can get us started.

In 2014, the Bombay archdiocese posted on their website a booklet, entitled “40 earth-saving ways to fast this lent.”  It is a simple set of reminders to reduce one’s carbon foot-print each year.   The archdiocese also made an app available that would text daily very specific practices to follow. 

Carbon fasting brings us into the world of an asceticism that’s mindful of our place in our environment.  This mindfulness helps to develop, I think, a new humility.  Prompted by the Magnificat, I have long defined humility as knowing one’s place in God’s world.  Carbon fasting helps us then to develop a 21st century humility, making us more mindful of our place in God’s creation.

Read more

SCOTUS Votes 5-4 in Favor of Human Dignity

The Supreme Court today issued its opinion strking down anti-marriage equality laws in all 50 states. Writing for the majority, swing vote Justice Kennedy concluded his opinion with this moving paragraph:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

The Court's argument was based on four "principles and traditions" which show that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply equally to all. They are:

  1. The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. (Here Kennedy cites Loving v. Virginia, which struck down interracial marriage bans.)
  2. The right to marry "supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals," and same-sex couples have the same right "to enjoy intimate association."
  3. Marriage "safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education." This doesn't mean that everybody has to procreate in order to marry civlly: "Precedent protects the right of a married couple not to procreate, so the right to marry cannot be conditioned on the capacity or commitment to procreate."
  4. "[M]arriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order," and excluding same-sex couples is "demeaning" to them. 

While this is not a decision that Church leaders are likely to cheer, it is striking to me how strongly these principles echo Catholic doctrine on marriage:

Read more

Jiggery-pokery

Ever since reading David Cole’s compelling account of the legal issues at stake in King v. Burwell, I've had trouble imagining how any intelligent and intellectually honorable person could support the plaintiffs in this case. So, being stuck at home with a bad cold on the day the Supreme Court announced its ruling, I wandered over to the website of the National Review in search of intelligent, intellectually honorable rebuttals of the majority opinion.

Sure enough, two intelligent men, Yuval Levin and George Will, were both arguing, with as much drama as they could muster, not only that John Roberts and the others Justices in the majority were wrong, but that their decision was a precedent that would do lasting damage to America’s Constitutional tradition. According to Levin and Will, the majority’s interpretation of a disputed provision in the Affordable Care Act was, in effect, an attempt by judges to revise badly written legislation in order to rescue it from its internal contradictions. Yet another example of judicial overreach, about which conservatives are forever complaining (and sometimes with good reason). Here’s Levin:

Read more

Knew or Should Have Known

Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

Read more

Roberts’s Pragmatism, Scalia’s Precedent

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has for the second time helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, again by seeing sensibly through to what the intent of the law is. Not persuaded by plaintiffs’ contention that the four words “established by the state” forbid the federal government from providing subsidies in states that do not have their own exchanges, he also noted the consequences of cutting subsidies for millions of people:

The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. … Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them … If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.

Antonin Scalia again has put himself at the center of a decision with the petulant language he has chosen – this time precedent-setting – in siding with Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in the minority: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” he wrote, which apparently is the first time the term “SCOTUS” has appeared in a SCOTUS decision. There was also this: “The cases [concerning the ACA] will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.” Finally, Scalia departed from custom by concluding his dissent with a concise “I dissent,” forgoing the adverb that typically divides the declarative: “respectfully.” Though it could be argued his use of it in previous dissents may have implied its absence.

Stop the Glock

John Cassidy makes a good point on his New Yorker blog: 

"Evidently, the American political system still has the capacity to rouse itself and restrict the display of offensive flags. Unfortunately, doing anything about guns, which kill more than thirty thousand people a year in the U.S., is still beyond the nation."