BOMBS AWAY, OR AWAY WITH BOMBS: WHAT OPTIONS DO WE HAVE?

By Paul

At this point, it would appear all but certain that the United States, along with whatever allies in the end decide to join with us, is planning to commence military action against Syria.  The goal is not “regime change,” but deterrence, that is, preventing Syria from further use of weapons of mass destruction, aka in these circumstances, chemical weapons.  At the moment, this would seem to be the best spin we can put on any decision for military action on the part of the US and its friends.

There are, however, other points of view to consider.   The United Nations will not officially agree to sanction such military action, because Syria’s ally, Russia, will not agree to it.  As a result, if the Obama Administration does decide to commence with missile attacks, it will have to be with other justification.  The Chemical Weapons Treaty, implemented in 1993 with 189 signatories, is designed to protect member states from the use of chemical weapons.  And while Syria never signed it, the United States did.  Does this, then, give us “legal cover” to attack another country?  Additionally, the Arab League has not called for military action, as much as it has condemned the use of chemical weapons.  There is, in fact, no argument on the part of any responsible state regarding the utterly abhorrent use of chemical weapons.   But is it absolutely certain that the Assad government ordered their use?  There appears to remain at least some measure of doubt in this regard. And, even if it were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Assad ordered their use, what to do about it is still another matter.

From all reports, it would seem that the planned US military action is designed to be limited to missile strikes which will, in theory at least, provide a deterrence against further use of chemical weapons.  Are such limited strikes even possible, it can be asked, and exactly how far do they go and what good will they do?  Will they, in the end, even accomplish their stated goal, or will they serve merely to further inflame an already highly volatile region?

One of the many complications faced by the United States and its allies is that only some of the insurgents in this civil war want anything like what we might term democratic processes to take place in Syria’s future.   We know that Al Qaeda has, in fact, infiltrated a number of factions within the Syrian opposition, and it is absolutely imperative that the United States not give aid and assistance to them.  Another question to consider is what benefit do we think might accrue to the United States from such military action, if it is to take place?  What are the pluses, as opposed to the whole set of minuses, that we might hope for?

The stated goal of the United States thus far in the civil war is to do what it can to equip and train those pro-western forces within the Syrian opposition.  Whether or not we have been successful in this so far is anyone’s guess.  But yet another purpose that the US may have in deciding to strike militarily is to show to the world, and perhaps Iran in particular (and, in a more round-about way, Israel), that we will respond once a stated “red line” has been crossed.  But was it wise in the first place to draw such a line in the sand?  Surely, there are other ways to state policy forcefully and emphatically than by essentially painting yourself into a corner, and then feeling forced to act in accordance with what you are on record as having said.  It could also be added, although not everyone agrees on the particulars, that it is up to Congress to declare war, not the president.  And what else can a military attack on another country be called, except a kind of declaration of war?  The only exception is in case of immediate need for self-defense, which hardly appears to pertain in this case.

There is no doubt, and no argument, that the use of chemical weapons is an outrage.  Just as, by the way, blowing people up with bombs and artillery fire is – a thing which the Assad regime has been doing for a long time now.  And although it is perhaps too horrible to say, people who die from an artillery attack are just as dead as those who die from chemical weapons.  Even so, whether it makes sense or not, there seems to be a general consensus that so-called weapons of mass destruction are more heinous and more abhorrent than ordinary weapons of destruction.

So, the question remains, should the US, and whatever allies might join in with us, commence air strikes against the Syrian government, both as a retaliation for the use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent against the future use of them?  If I were an advisor to the President, my counsel to him would have to be “no.”  At least not without UN sanction, and even then only if a truly viable coalition of nations were to go in on it together.  Which is exactly the way it happened in 2011 with regard to Libya.

But as things currently stand, there is no unequivocal, world-wide consensus, and no clear indication that missile strikes will achieve the desired end anyway.  They may well only cause further chaos and havoc in a region of the world that is already highly inflamed and insecure.  Additionally, the history of such quick hits on the part of the United States has hardly been a completely positive one.  If anyone needs proof of this, just think back to the 1983 strike against Lebanon, the 1986 airstrike against Libya, and the use of cruise missiles and bombs against Iraq in 1989.  None of these “strategic strikes” brought any lasting positive results.  Quite the opposite, in fact, could be argued.  Add to this mix now the fact that Russia has just today ordered several warships into the eastern Mediterranean, and we can see how quickly tensions might escalate.

As abominable and reprehensible as the use of chemical weapons is, the question very much remains as to whether missile strikes on the part of the United States might yet further destabilize and inflame an already unstable region.  If the United States were to begin military strikes, and if we were – even against our will — ultimately drawn into yet another Middle East conflagration, the end of which is unclear at best, those who currently call for missiles would be the first to condemn Pres. Obama for getting us into yet another quagmire.  As easy as it is to understand the impulse to strike out at a regime that is willing to kill its own people for political gain, let us remember that, so far at least, our record in dealing with such regimes has not in the end proved highly effective or been widely applauded, either by those in the countries themselves, or by the rest of the world.

THE WINDING DOWN OF SUMMER

By Paul

When I was a boy, each August the 15th was a bit of a milestone for me and for all of my friends.  In the Catholic tradition, which we had grown up in and which we were so steeped in that it was a part of the very fabric of our lives, this date was what used to be called a Holy Day of Obligation.  It was the Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (for those unfamiliar with Catholic lore, this refers to the story of the taking of the living body of Mary into heaven by angels at the end of her life).  On that day, all practicing Catholics were obliged to attend mass, under pain of mortal sin, which meant that – if you died with it “on your soul” and without having confessed and received absolution – you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

But for those of us in what was still referred to in those years as Grammar School, being condemned to hell could seem almost like something of a reprieve in comparison with the reality of returning to class once again.  August the 15th meant summer was, alas, almost over, and we had only two weeks left; so better make the best possible use of these last few, final days of freedom.

All this took place in upstate New York, not far from Albany.  Even in those northern climes, it was still far too early to even think about fall color.  That wouldn’t happen until the beginning of October.  And yet, all you had to do was to look around and you could see that summer was drawing down, nearing its end.  The trees themselves had a kind of tired, shopworn look to them, as if they’d been working full bore since April or May and they were beginning to feel the effects of all that effort.  The leaves seemed drier, dustier, less verdant, a little tattered along the edges.  The oaks, sugar maples, and sycamores were drooping a little, and their leaves were beginning to make strange, rattling, almost brittle noises in the late afternoon breeze.  The light, too, was changing.  Now, almost two months past the Summer Solstice, the sun was setting earlier and earlier.  We could tell that, as we rode our bikes after dinner.  Dusk was settling in by 7:00 or 7:30, and it was getting harder to see.  Mothers were calling their children earlier to come in for the night, and somehow, as much as we might complain, we knew we were ready, too.  As we took those last bike rides of the evening, we ourselves had begun to talk about which nun we were going to have “next year,” as we still called the start of the fall term, already looming so close.  Would it be strict but unstable Sister Mary Clotilde, or bumbling but sweet Sister Mary Barbara?  It was all up to Mother Amabilis, the Principal of St. Patrick’s School, the decider of our fate.  But one way or another, we were beginning to accept the stark fact that summer was almost over, and the day of reckoning would soon be upon us.

Now, in retirement all these years later, there are no more fall classes to dread, no more wondering which of the sometimes not-so-merciful Sisters of Mercy might be standing in front of the classroom that first Tuesday after Labor Day.  And yet, August 15th somehow still stands out to me as a marked day.  It still signals the fact that, even in sunny Southern California where I live, summer cannot last forever.  It denotes, it highlights, it memorializes the fact that seasons pass, that time shows once again its frightening, fleeting evanescence, and that yet another year has flown by and is now two-thirds on its way toward completion.  Jokingly, I tell my partner that Christmas is almost here.  He tells me he doesn’t want to hear it and, when I am being most honest with myself, neither do I.

I am 68 years old, soon to turn 69.  The big seven-oh, as they say, looms on the near horizon.  I have been retired for over six and a half years.  And as lucky as I freely acknowledge myself to be, I also think, what have I done?  How have I used this precious time?  Work is over, at least in terms of the day-to-day drudgery of going into the office and dealing with one problem after another, only to come home at night, exhausted and drained.  But have I fully made use of the time I have?  I have written an unpublished novel, and it will no doubt remain unpublished, unless I choose to put it out there myself.  I write regularly on this blog, I go to the gym every day and exercise, even pretty vigorously sometimes, and I feel as though I am in good health.  I make masks and other odd creatures that stand about the house, silent watchers of my quotidian life.  And most happily, I enjoy more and more life with my partner of 33-plus years.

But, at the winding down of summer – and this may be the case with the passing of every season – I do think a lot about the question of making maximum use of whatever time is left.  I suppose it could always be said that, for most of us, there remains some not fully defined yearning, some only half-conscious desire, a hankering, a craving, a deep-seated hunger to do something bigger, to accomplish something beyond explanation, something past even the crispness and the resolute acuteness of rational thought.  To achieve something that answers an urge that transcends all else.  What is it that so calls out to us?  What is it that pulls at the heart in ways we cannot finally define?  Is this what makes us human, after all?  This profound longing for what we feel we have not yet achieved?

Maybe, all those years ago, we weren’t so wrong to mark the Feast of the Assumption as an annual milestone in our lives.  Maybe, if we think of it more symbolically, we can see that what it’s really about is an innate desire in all of us to rise above the plane of our daily lives, to reach for the stars, and to be carried on high by the angels of what is best and most perfect.  Maybe the end of summer marks the beginning of something else.  It is a time for reflection, a time for contemplation, and a time to wonder why in the first place we wonder at all – why, always and forever, we yearn for what is beyond reckoning, beyond our daily, workaday lives, out there, which is also within, to where we are borne by what is highest and brightest in all of us.

POPE’S PREMISE: GAY PEOPLE ARE NOT THAT BAD (provided they behave themselves)

By Paul

I guess it’s better than being told that we are “intrinsically disordered,” or that being gay is an “intrinsic moral evil,” as Benedict XVI used to say.   And no one is arguing that Pope Francis I isn’t a much humbler man, and a more human and humane individual than the previous pontiff, who was as stiff and as formal and as rigid as the crosier he carried.  Still, the hullabaloo made over the new Pope’s recent comments about gay people seems a little overblown to me.

First of all, he did not say, “who am I to judge gay people?”  That seems to be the way that it has too often been portrayed by many news sources.  In fact, what he did say was that, if there are gay priests, and so long as they remain completely celibate (as all priests are supposed to, at least in theory), then in that case he would not judge them.  And, yes, that is something.  As mentioned above, it’s better that this be his first statement about gays as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, than to condemn all gay people as evil and disordered.  But it’s not as earth shattering as it is being made out to be.

Let us remember, first of all, that the Catholic Church still preaches that any sexual expression on the part of gay people is a mortal sin, which, if unconfessed  (and if you believe such things), means that your “soul” will be condemned to hell for all eternity, should you die in that state.  So, the message, as much as it may currently be couched in a slightly more palatable package, remains exactly the same.   The most that a believing, practicing gay Catholic can hope for is to live a life of enforced celibacy (more or less like Catholic priests, again, at least in theory), and never experience the joy of sharing him or herself intimately with another man or woman.  To put it, in fact, more bluntly, the message basically is: keep your mouth shut and your pants on and don’t touch anybody, and then we won’t judge you.

Well, thanks but no thanks, Your Holiness.

The mark of the papacy of Francis I so far, there is not doubt, has been one of social justice.  The Pope scolded the elites of Brazil, clerical and secular alike, in his recent visit to that country, and he seems truly to relish being a man of the people, among the people.  He said he wished he could knock on every door of every person in the country, ask for a glass of cold water or a cup of coffee, and sit and talk with families.  We have no reason to doubt the sincerity and the compassion that is clearly behind such an extraordinary statement, especially inasmuch as what Francis does and says as Pope flows naturally from what he did as a simple priest, and then later on as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  Whether this scolding of the rich and powerful will do much good in the long run remains to be seen.  A great deal will depend on whether he can ultimately convince his brother bishops in Latin America and around the world to take on his own love of the poor and the dispossessed, a thing that has not been seen for a long time among many Catholic prelates.

His simplicity of manner, and his preference for living a normal life, has shown itself in many ways.  Not the least of these has been his eschewing of the lavish papal apartments in the Vatican in favor of living in the nearby guesthouse.  As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a small apartment, and took public transportation to work every day, a path not followed by the great majority of cardinal archbishops of the world, who live in elaborate mansions and travel about in chauffeur-driven cars.

All of this, we understand, he does and has done not only because it seems to be his own personal preference, but out of solidarity with the poor of the world, who know pretty much by definition, and by force of circumstances, know how to live simply.  All these are good things, and bring to mind some of the better qualities so admired in the late Pope John XXIII.  And no doubt, as with Pope John, they cause a certain amount of consternation not only among the current pope’s security people, but more to the point among the conservative elite of the church, who believe that the Supreme Pontiff ought to be more admired from afar than accessible to the many.

But would it, in fact, be too much to hope that Francis I might show as much love and compassion to the gay people of the world, as he does to the poor?   I think we have to admit that there is virtually no chance whatsoever that the Pope will change his mind on the idea of gay marriage.  That is a bridge too far, to be sure, for this, or for any pope in the foreseeable future.  The Catholic Church is too locked into a literal reading of the bible for that to happen, even if it has no problem dismissing the notions of slavery, or some of the more stringent dietary regulations the bible teaches, as no longer being applicable or appropriate for the modern world.  This picking and choosing of what is essential, and of what is really God’s immutable word, is a hallmark of most Christian faiths.  The same bridge too far, or at least a parallel one, could be cited in regard to the marriage of priests, or to the Church’s ever allowing women to become priests.  Still, even so, the Pope has said that it will be one of the important tasks of his papacy to make the voices of women, and their role in the governance of the Church, much more prominent than they every have been before, and that too is a good thing.

If he shows some movement in regard to women, then, is it too much to wonder if he will do so when it comes to gay people?  My prediction is that we will see little change in this regard more than the slight shifting of tone that we have already witnessed, and beyond that, there will be little if any substantive difference.  Francis I may be a man of the people, he may honestly express and truly feel compassion for and solidarity with the poor of the world, but doctrinally he is as conservative as all of the other modern popes who have been his immediate predecessors.

The message is, and will remain, that gay people are not in and of themselves sinful, but that any actual expression of who they are, any attempt at living a normal life of love and of companionship will be condemned by the Church as an offense against the law of God.

And no slight modification in tone, no simple adjustment in verbiage can, in the end, make up for the intrinsic evil done by this rigid, unbending, and ultimately un-Christ-like doctrine, and its vilification of gay people, or of how they live and love in the world.