May 052011

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of SEAL Team Six on Sunday has sent shockwaves around the world. The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks who stayed out of reach of American forces for nearly a decade, given up as missing before President Bush was out of office, was found and slain in his plush Pakistani compound by America’s finest. In life bin Laden was a constant reminder of the limitations of American power, his survival daily proof that the Great Satan could be humbled and best. His death, and when it came, may be the last stand of the violent movement he personified. His defeat is not only vindication for an American public hungry for some kind of justice for the World Trade Center but one of the final nails in the coffin of the ideology of violent struggle he championed throughout his life.

The most obvious impact of bin Laden’s death is on the future of Al Qaeda. While global in nature the beating heart of the organization was bin Laden himself.  He was the big money behind the group with a multi-million dollar fortune and fundraising operations the world over Known for being highly charismatic bin Laden was crucial for keeping the factions in Al Qaeda working together. It is very telling that new recruits to the organization did not swear their allegiance to the cause but to the man himself. Following the success of the September 11th attacks his star power, and by extension his organization’s, skyrocketed. Bin Laden was able to cultivate the mystique of a holy warrior striking righteous blows against the mighty Americans and living to tell the tale. His continued survival built up the myth of bin Laden with each day he remained alive and free a constant reminder of his victories over the Americans. His star power certainly didn’t hurt his ability to draw recruits to the organization. Killing bin Laden didn’t just destroy the man, it destroyed the myth he had built up. Just as Robert E. Lee’s image of invincibility in the North was wrecked following his defeat at Gettysburg bin Laden’s death destroys the idea that any terrorist can remain beyond the reach of the United States.

His death could also spell doom for Al Qaeda. Over the past decade American forces under Presidents Bush and Obama have tracked down Al Qaeda leaders and key commanders capturing the ones they could take alive and killing those they couldn’t. The constant attrition on the mid and upper levels of the organization, while having no obvious impact, could not have been healthy for the terrorists. Any organization, regardless of purpose, needs more than just its brilliant founders to lead the way. They need to build a deep bench of talent who can step up when the first generation falls or steps aside. The constant whittling away at this second string has left bin Laden’s followers with a much smaller reserve of talent.  Following his death the most likely candidate to take control is his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri who is certainly no bin Laden.  With no clear successor Al Qaeda will be scrambling to piece together some kind of working leadership at a time when it can least afford it. The seizure of hard drives and other vital pieces of intelligence during the raid on his compound puts the security of information for Al Qaeda up in the air. As likely as it is that Al Qaeda operatives are preparing for retaliatory strikes against the US it would not be far-fetched to assume at least a few are sleeping with one eye open wondering if and when the US will come for them.

On a grander scale bin Laden’s death couldn’t have come at a better time. Jihadi terrorism gained much of its allure from the repressive nature of the governments of the Arab World. The long-term survival of stability of these governments, along with the naked brutality used against peaceful resistance, sent a message to would-be reformers that change can only come through violent action. Leaders took advantage of this impression channeling the rage of their restive people against Israel and the West further encouraging angry radicals to join the jihad abroad instead of causing problems at home. Tahrir Square loudly and soundly refuted this status quo. With the fall of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt non-violent political opposition had gained its first real successes in Arab history. As long as violence was perceived as the only option for bringing about real political reforms peaceful resistance would always be seen as a pipe dream. Victory in Cairo legitimized the methods of the Egyptian activists inspiring similar revolts in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain with even autocratic Saudi Arabia and theocratic Iran feeling the rumblings of discontent. When compared to the relatively dismal track record of jihadi groups which to date have yet to overthrow a single government, drive the US out of any Middle Eastern country, destroy Israel, or bring about any meaningful change the runaway successes in Tunisia and Egypt are likely much more appealing thanks to having worked as advertised. Every government brought down by the mostly peaceful Arab Spring is another nail in the coffin of jihadi terrorism.

Bin Laden’s death is, like the man himself, much bigger than the elimination of one notorious terrorist. Without him Al Qaeda has lost a valuable source of funding, recruitment, and the invincible reputation that came with his continued survival. His death coming during the height of the Arab Spring is a powerful contrast to the wave of peaceful democratic revolution sweeping across the Middle East showing the people of the Middle East there is another, better option than taking up the cause of holy war.  This is not to say a bright future is certain.  The revolts are still being fought out in the streets of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya.  Al Qaeda may be on its way out but they could always find new leadership and recover.  The Taliban, in spite of losing a useful ally in bin Laden, continues to fight on in Afghanistan.

Events shaping the world offer the United States a golden opportunity to bring about an effective and lasting end to the threat of jihadi terrorism.  The operation to take out bin Laden showed us the United States has highly effective, precise tools for fighting terrorism.  Osama bin Laden was not brought down by an armored column but by a team of elite Navy SEALs.  Unlike bloody insurgency operations in Iraq or drone strikes in Pakistan the SEAL team was able to accomplish their mission without inflicting any civilian casualties.  Occupation of territory has similarly proven less than effective.  Attempting to suppress terrorist havens in Afghanistan mostly succeeded in pushing bin Laden into Pakistan and tying down large numbers of American soldiers.  The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, far from successfully winning hearts and minds, have led to substantial civilian and military casualties, massive debt, and mostly succeeded in upsetting the Arab world more.

Change abroad should go hand in hand with change at home.  In the past ten years we have seen steady encroachments on our civil liberties all in the name of security and the War on Terror.  Yet for all that effort what consistently brought down terrorist plots and high value targets was not earned through the groping hands of the TSA or warrantless wiretapping but through conventional intelligence methods.  Bin Laden’s demise is an excellent moment to show the world that we can do the right thing and our current flirtation with authoritarian mechanisms is a temporary aberration.  Most of all we must do this for the sake of our rights.  It is our duty to future generations that they do not inherit diminished rights because of a moment’s panic.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Apr 222011

Yesterday Congressman Cliff Stearns’ (R-Fl) amendment to the 9/11 first responders aid bill went into effect.  What is this amendment you ask?  One that has the gall to question the patriotism of the heroes of that terrible day:

“(5) DISQUALIFICATION OF INDIVIDUALS ON TERRORIST WATCH LIST.-No individual who is on the terrorist watch list maintained by the Department of Homeland Security shall qualify as an eligible WTC responder. Before enrolling any individual as a WTC responder in the WTC Program under paragraph (3), the Administrator, in  consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine whether the  individual is on such a list.”

It is exactly what it says it is. To add insult to injury the amendment was added to the bill without dissent with this odious provision going into effect yesterday. There are no words that can truly describe the depth of the disrespect shown by both parties in Congress.

With fears of Muslim takeover fanned by the Cordoba House controversy and Peter King’s radicalization circus Congress has, in the name of “pragmatic politics” acquiesced to the worst in us.  Saying any group of people, including the greatest heroes of the past decade, can be investigated as terrorists by Congressional fiat attacks the foundations of our criminal justice system.  Ever since the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1789 one of the bedrock principals of our legal system is probable cause.  Searches, arrests, and indictments cannot be obtained for any charge without first proving there is a very solid, justifiable reason to be poking around in the private lives of American citizens.  With a simple voice vote Congress has swept aside any need for probable cause declaring everyone who worked at Ground Zero in the days and weeks following 9/11 is now a suspect for terrorism.  As far as our elected representatives are concerned “pragmatic” politics trumps the rights of American heroes.

What is worse are the chilling implications of this act.  When the best among us, the heroes who rose to the call, can be declared terror suspects then any one can be put under the same microscope for no better reason than “national security” or “practical politics.”  If the Ground Zero workers can be thrown on the pyre of a new witch hunt on Congressional whim then what is stopping legislators from tossing others into the flames in a fit of political hysteria?

CORRECTION: The provision was included in the bill passed last year.  The amendment’s effects as per the Huffington Post went into effect yesterday which they learned through an unnamed source.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Dec 222010

Socialism, even though it has yet to become a major political force in America, has manged in the last two years to dominate the political dialog.  This is very ironic and surprising considering there is only one federal elected official who actually is a Socialist.  In spite of that the backbone of the opposition to health care reform, a plan very similar to one proposed by no less than Richard Nixon, was cries of government takeover and socialism.  Recently the Senate Minority Leader decried the recent health care reform, highly inadequate Net Neutrality rules, and financial reform as a government takeover of the economy.  Some of the opposition to the First Lady’s nutrition bill was on the grounds that it was government interference in private lives.  We have seen elected officials go so far as to block a bill to provide for the health care of 9/11 first responders because the bill would be funded by closing a tax loophole exploited by outsourcing companies.

All of these actions show a much larger and far more worrying pattern.  Consistently the cry of socialism has been taken up against any form of government action that does not favor entrenched interests.  The message from these declarations has gone beyond opposing a specific political philosophy to railing against public or community action of any kind.  In the minds of the proponents of this extreme philosophy action for the public good is an inherent threat to civil liberties regardless of what the action actually is or why.  In this Ayn Randite worldview life is everyone for themselves and greed is enshrined as inherently virtuous.  It is this philosophy that has shoved the political spectrum in Washington DC so far out of whack that Richard Nixon, the original Red fighter, would be an unrepentant big government liberal.

This entire line of thinking is fundamentally inhumane and immoral.

It says you should take the check from BP and waive right to suit because justice hurts profits.

It says enforcing fairness in the marketplace for all players, large and small, will wreck our economy.

It says heroes, in spite of great courage, do not deserve anything from the society they gave everything for.

It says good health is a commodity one must purchase even if the cost runs you out of house and home.

It says look out for number one and anything you step on while climbing the ladder of success deserved it.

It asks us, in exchange for promises of wealth, power, and security to cast aside obsolete ideas like honor, family, public good, and community.

This is not, by a long shot, principled opposition to communism and socialism.  These people are not the glorious watchmen on the battlements of democracy.  This is naked contempt for any act or idea that asks us to give of ourselves for the sake of others.

This philosophy is nothing less than the sanctification of antisocial behavior as virtuous.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Sep 082010

I think it goes without saying that the tragedy that occurred nine years ago when two planes slammed into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, transcended the petty political bickering of the time in a moment of community grief.

How soon we forget.

This is not meant to be a sentimental recount of my experiences of that day, or a self-righteous indulgence of my anger over everything that day has since been used to justify. But in light of the controversy of the past month over Park51, and the choice by a few U.S. citizens to respond with actions of intimidation and hate on the anniversary of 9/11 this Saturday, there are some things that I think need to be said.

I remember the images on the television: the billowing smoke rising from those huge structures of glass and steal glistening in the bright morning; the speechless news anchors sitting in stunned silence at their desks, oblivious for once to the cameras trained on them; the slow-moving crowds of people leaving their offices and their cars and walking through the streets, shoulder to shoulder, away from the wreckage. It is perhaps this last image that lingers longest in my mind. While most remember the towers smoldering and falling like some cinematic Hollywood climax, I remember what it looked like to see every gender, age and race of people all pressed together in that surging crowd, all of those faces stripped of the masks of detachment, professionalism and cynicism that we so often wear. They were frightened, and confused, and sorrowful, and their souls were laid bare in their gazing eyes and slack-open mouths. Despite my own grief, I remember this image as one of community and togetherness, an image of heart-breaking beauty. There was beauty in the world, even on that day.

And that beauty rippled outward in unexpected ways, as over the following week spontaneous memorials and makeshift shrines for the dead and the missing began to appear all over the city and the country. On my college campus, a rusty, run-down chain-link fence suddenly became a space transformed by colored ribbons, photographs, drooping flowers and burning candles, all fluttering together as though alive in the slight breeze. People were kinder to each other, and the days were quieter. Professors on campus organized group discussions, while other faculty turned their attention to supporting and promoting counseling sessions for students and teachers alike; we all had our ways of coping with the shock and grief of that morning. For some, such as myself, it was an experience that utterly transformed our lives — it was, for me, the moment that the theoretical pacifism of my childhood became something palpable and real and vital, the only sane and loving response to the violence and tragedy of the world.

How soon we forget. We are, as a culture, not very good at grief. We spend a great deal of time trying to escape sadness and death, and anything that might remind us of those things — old age, solitude, poverty, dark nights, cold winters, the otherness of strangers. I do not need to trace for you the history of war and fear that grew out of the events of 9/11. We already know very well how the puppets of power turned our sorrow to anger, our anger to revenge, and our revenge, finally, into fear and xenophobia. I remember well that it was not fear that I felt on that morning as I watched the towers fall; it was an aching regret and helplessness that drove me to reach out, to run towards danger, to plunge into my local community and connect, to seek out the strangers in my dormitory hall and sit with them in tears and silence, simply so that we could be together.

This should have been the true legacy of 9/11, this sudden re-membering of our communities. We had an opportunity that day to keep our eyes firmly on beauty and hope, and to learn how to grieve together in ways that could transform denial, anger, sorrow and fear into empathy, connection, forgiveness and wholeness. We had a chance, stripped down to the raw and vulnerable at the heart of each of us, to learn to be tender and gentle with our humanity, and with the humanity of others.


Politicians across the political spectrum, both left and right, have tried to tell us that the last nine years of war and partisan patriotism is the best we can do. But they have also worked to keep us in a perpetual state of unhealed and unacknowledged grief that gives rise to a sense of victimization and paranoia. Every exhortation to “remember 9/11″ is couched in terms of imperial imperatives and the proclaimed trade-off between security and liberty. We have turned politics in this country into a kind of sadomasochistic freak-show of bloated anxieties and imaginary demons. If we are not fleeing terrified of “foreigners” into the arms of the Military Industrial Complex, we’re busy rejecting every plea for community reconciliation as a weakness and acquiescence to the Right Wing.

Right now, protestors are preparing to take to the streets this Saturday in a campaign of intimidation and threat. Their protest is an attempt to prevent the building of the Park51 community center not through legitimate legal means (of which there are none), but by making Muslims feel unsafe and unable to practice their religion openly in the streets of Lower Manhattan. (Elsewhere in the U.S., a few fearful Christians far from the site of contention will gather together to burn the holy texts of a religion they do not understand.) These protests are acts of grassroots, citizen-sponsored terrorism. Like all acts of terrorism, they grow from a sense of desperation and helplessness — people are in pain and they are afraid, and because they don’t know why they are in pain or what is making them afraid, they look for a scapegoat, or a cause, that will give them a sense of control and purpose.

In the meantime, counter-protestors are organizing and mobilizing their own mobs in preparation to confront and, presumably, shout down all those who disagree. For these counter-protestors, the cause of individual rights and the freedom to worship and practice openly in this “Land of the Free” takes precedence above all else. Their counter-protest is an attempt to show solidarity with their Muslim friends and fellow citizens, and I have to admit that part of me appreciates and supports them in this aim. Yet I cannot stand with them this time. Despite noble intentions, such a response shows a decided lack of both compassion and creativity. To respond to an act of protest and intimidation with yet another act of protest and intimidation cannot, in my mind, foster the engagement and reconciliation that so desperately needs to take place. There are times when civil disobedience and public demonstrations are acts of political power and affirmations of community strength. But this is not one of those times.


So what is an appropriate response? Though I will not be in New York City this Saturday, my heart will be with a small group of Buddhists who will, as in previous years, be holding a simple interfaith ceremony on the banks of the Hudson River:

The service is both Buddhist and interfaith. At its center is the traditional Obon ceremony for the dead, loosely translated as the Floating Lantern Ceremony. Rice paper lanterns are inscribed with the names of the dead, lit with candles, and floated out to sea.

The Obon ceremony comes originally from a Japanese Buddhist custom, part of a three-day-long festival in late summer honoring the departed spirits of the ancestors. Within this beautiful ceremony are echoes of the Shinto religion native to Japan, as well as the Buddhist appreciation for the mutable, transitory nature of life. Imagining those flimsy paper lanterns drifting delicately out into the vast darkness of the ocean, I am reminded of the Buddha’s final words: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.” (Though others believe his final words were, “Make of yourselves a light.”)

There is also a sorrowful irony in this image of the burning paper lanterns, inscribed with the names of our dead, as I read about the plans of Rev. Terry Jones and his tiny congregation in Florida to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday:

Supporters have been mailing copies of the holy text to his Gainesville church of about 50 followers to be incinerated in a bonfire on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Much of the debate about this misguided, fear-filled pastor centers, once again, on questions of liberty and security. Is the burning of holy texts a hate crime, or is it protected as an exercise in free speech? Will this act endanger American troops who are fighting abroad — and should we put the safety of our soldiers above the rights and freedoms of our civilians back home? These questions imagine a strict dualism between liberty and security, but it seems to me this is, in the end, a false dualism. It is within our liberty that we discover and cultivate our security: it is through our freedom to reach out and connect authentically and respectfully with others that we ensure the community bonds and strengthening relationships that will keep us safe and sustain us through times of difficulty and uncertainty, pain and grief.

In Gainesville, Florida, a handful of people will gather to set fire to paper inscribed with holy words. In New York City, on the banks of the Hudson river, another group of people will come together to do the same. What great difference lies between these two acts!

Here in Pittsburgh, I will be lighting a candle of my own, and reading the astounding poetry of the Qur’an (in English translation), as well as the poetry of those Sufi mystics who inspired me, when I was still only a teenager looking for answers, with visions of beauty, longing and connection that eventually led me to my Druid path. In this small way, I hope perhaps to begin the process of bridging the great gulf between acts of hatred, and acts of honor. I hope to affirm the sacred connections we share even with those who disagree with us or threaten us. I hope to participate, by doing my small part, in the transformation of our community not by trying to repress or intimidate those who lash out in fear and anger, but by learning how to reach out to them in fellowship and forgiveness.


I will also be sharing some excerpts from the Qur’an publicly on my blog, Meadowsweet & Myrrh, committing the rich depth and insight of these poetic verses to the ephemeral, etherial medium of the internet, a place where these words cannot be touched by fire and yet will burn with light. I invite others to do likewise. Or, if you do not blog, find your own small ways to transform these times of polarization and dissonance into opportunities for contemplation and connection.