Susie Bright, in addition to being a best-selling author, activist, and podcast host, is editor at large for Audible. Susie's blog, The Bright List, keeps readers and listeners apprised of new audiobooks.
Today's post is a cross-post from a post by Willow Pennell on the Bright List.
"An incendiary, moving book that startles on nearly every page . . .
"MacDonald's nimble prose and detailed recall of grim times long past make for luminous reading; his hard-won conception of how ghettoized poverty spawns localized violence, and the dignity he brings to lives snuffed out in chaos, gives All Souls a moral urgency usually lacking in current memoir or crime prose.
Michael Patrick MacDonald grew up believing his mother and the politicians who said Boston's Southie neighborhood was the “best place in the world.”
But the tight-knit, community was also insular and hostile to outsiders. Violence on the street was ignored even as it affected nearly every family there. Politicians like William "Billy" Bulger and gangsters like Whitey Bulger cooperated to keep crime and punishment in the neighborhood and out of sight.
This insider’s tale is revelatory and heartbreaking. MacDonald's writing: evocative and sharp. It’s easy to see why, even as he describes the murders and overdoses of friends and family, he loves his neighborhood.
Rather than join in the cycle of violence all around him, Michael Patrick MacDonald used his sorrow and his outrage as an anti-violence activist helping to start a gun buyback program and the South Boston Vigil Group which helped the community acknowledge and bring to light the violence around them.
For 25 years Mark Winne was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Winne now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community assessment, and food policy. He also does policy communication work for the Community Food Security Coalition. He is the author of Closing the Food Gap and Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas.
I’ll never forget the look on the desk sergeant’s face as he gazed down at me from the heights of his dark-paneled police podium. Before him was a neatly dressed, wavy-haired 18-year old cradling something seemingly as long as baseball bats wrapped in a tattered brown army blanket. Not fitting the profile of the regular string of miscreants who normally paraded before him – “hoods” as my high school friends called the few greasy-haired “bad boys” who inhabited our affluent North Jersey suburb – he targeted his puffy eyes at me and asked, “Yes, what can I do for you?”
I cleared my throat and said, “Sir, I’d like to turn these in.” Laying my little bundle on a heavy oak table before me, I slowly pulled the edges of the blanket away to reveal a single-shot, bolt action .22-caliber rifle and a single-barreled, 16-gauge shotgun. For a moment, the sergeant appeared to drop his right hand to his sidearm, but quickly discerning I meant no harm, planted both his elbows on his desk and glared at me asking, “What do you mean ‘turn these in?’” I told him what I would later tell my parents and quizzical friends, that I was sick of the violence and the killing, that for any of us to keep guns in our homes was nonsense, and that the only way to end the killing was for all of us to give up our guns.
This was June, 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just been gunned down in California. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been slain two months earlier in Memphis. Four years before that, I sat at my George Washington Junior High School desk listening to our principal announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That “violence was as American as cherry pie,” a notion reinforced daily with bloody TV and magazine images from Vietnam, the streets of Newark, and the Columbia University campus, had become for me a palpable reality to which I could either succumb, attempt to suppress, or perhaps, in a fit of youthful naïveté, resist.
My relatively benign weapons – the heft of their polished steel and wood across my eager teenage palms, the crack of their retort against my eardrums, and the sting of ignited powder in my nostrils – had once pointed a way to manhood and dominance. But like the progression from the toy Davy Crocket musket, to the six-shooter cap pistol, to the battery-powered rata-tat-tat of the plastic M-14, my “real” guns had only perpetuated the myth of power and control over the world around me. The young boy pointing his stick at an imaginary aggressor and screaming “bang, bang, bang!” is the precursor to the adolescent hunter, jolted at last to adult consciousness by the pellet-riddled pheasant now lying limp on the forest floor. The boy’s cocoon of security is at last shattered, his omnipotence exposed as an illusion, and the choice to commit violence or non-violence the only one that matters.
It’s been a long time since I’ve cried, but I made up for the dry spell this past weekend. As a former resident of Connecticut, where for 25 years I did my bit to bring healthier and saner options to that state’s children, I could not help but steep myself in the misery that is now Newtown’s lost children. I will not patronize that community’s pain by claiming to feel it, but I can sense their loss more acutely having gained a grandson just five days before the elementary school shootings. Little Bradley is safe and secure with his 3-year old sister, Zoe, in the United Kingdom where my daughter chose to marry and live. Though their distance limits my time with them, I take some solace knowing that they have greater protection from the gun-toting mayhem that rules the U.S. and takes cowardly sanctuary behind the fortress of our Second Amendment. While the United Kingdom has its share of profoundly disturbed people, the prevailing wisdom is to protect people from guns rather than protect the gun enthusiasts. The fewer guns in circulation, the less means the tragically deranged will have to snuff out life. The United Kingdom is far from perfect, but at least I know that my grandchildren will not have to attend an elementary school bristling with the characteristics of a minimum security prison that will soon become the norm at U.S. schools.
Becoming a man or a woman these days means making tough choices and often surmounting difficult obstacles. We eventually leave behind the security blankets of our childhood and learn that the best path to safety and happiness is through an open and creative engagement with others. The most society can to do is attempt to clear life’s minefield of man-made hazards like poverty, junk food, and yes, guns. And to better achieve that end may I suggest the repeal of the Second Amendment to henceforth be replaced with an amendment that reads: “A safe and healthy people, being necessary to the prosperity of a free state, the right of individuals to keep and bear arms shall be severely restricted.”
When Jorja Leap began studying Los Angeles gang violence in 2002, she encountered a myriad of proposed solutions to the seemingly intractable “gang problem” and set out to discover what was really going on. The stakes—then and now—could not be higher: a child or teenager is killed by gunfire every three hours—and homicide is the leading cause of death for African American males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four.
In Jumped In, Leap brings us stories that reach behind the statistics and sensational media images to the real lives of those stuck in—and trying to escape— "la vida loca.” With the eye of an anthropologist and a heart full of compassion, this small, tough woman from UCLA travels some of the most violent and poverty-stricken neighborhoods, riding along in police cruisers and helicopters, and talking with murderers and drug dealers, victims and grieving mothers.
Through oral histories, personal interviews, and eyewitness accounts of current and former gang members, as well as the people who love and work alongside them, readers come to understand both the people pulled into gangs and those trying mightily to forge alternatives and help their community. In delving into the personal lives of current and former gang members, Leap aims not only to find out what leads them to crime and how to deal most effectively with gang activity, but also to hear the voices of those most often left out of the political conversation and to learn from leaders who offer a different kind of hope, through community outreach and jobs programs.
As she forges lasting friendships in this community and becomes immersed in others’ triumphs and tragedies, Leap’s personal and professional lives intersect in sometimes incendiary ways. With a husband in the Los Angeles Police Department and a daughter in adolescence, she faces plenty of family dilemmas herself. Ultimately, Jumped In is a chronicle of the unexpected lessons gang members taught her while she was busily studying them, and how they changed her forever.
Yesterday people started sending me emails about how Andrew (Anders) Breivik, the Oslo mass murderer, had specifically targeted left-wing journalists and professors as well as feminists in his 1,000 page manifesto, 2083, A European Declaration of Independence.
Let me be clear. The real motivation behind Breivik’s attack was racism and xenophobia, pure and simple. But he saw the problem as not the Other coming to Europe, but Europeans letting the Other in. In particular, Breivik blamed “cultural marxism” and “feminism” for diminishing the ability of Europeans to create strong nationalist movements and strong men that would keep the Other out of Europe in the first place.
Galleycat ran a piece about how Breivik singled out left-wing cultural elites. As Breivik wrote
The thing is that many of our political and cultural elites, including politicians, NGO leaders, university professors/lecturers, writers, journalists and editors – the individuals making up the majority of the so called category A and B traitors, knows exactly what they are doing. They know that they are contributing to a process of indirect cultural and demographical genocide and they need to be held accountable for their actions.
And as Mona Willis Aronowitz, the daughter of feminist Ellen Willis (and Marxian scholar Stanley Aronowitz) was shocked to find out, Breivik targeted her mother by name. Willis Aronowitz wrote over at Good that Breivik was motivated by a real misogyny that played out as anti-feminism.
Breivik mentions (my mother) in the same breath as Simone de Beauvoir (go Mama!) and blames them for the “skyrocketing divorce rates” and “plummeting birth rates” that created a “cultural and demographic vacuum” in the West. According to Breivik, this vacuum led directly to the Islamic takeover he cited as justification for Friday’s bombing and shooting spree.
After reading more about Breivik’s thinking, it started to sound depressingly familiar and so I started to read the damn thing. Yes, you can read it online. And there is much to find disturbing. First and foremost, Breivik is clearly not alone. In fact, he mentions distributing the manifesto to his 7,000 Facebook friends and their friends. Second, Breivik is not stupid. The manifesto is logical (to the point of psychosis), practical, offers all sorts of useful advice on how to carry out the revolution throughout Europe, and extremely well-written despite English being Breivik’s second language. And third, as I suspected, there is absolutely nothing unusual about Breivik’s thinking because it is exactly like the far-right thinking in this country.
The thinking goes like this: they are at war because their white and male privilege are being dismantled by a host of demons from Marxists and socialists to feminists and queers. They must join together with other white men and make war—literally, with lots of weapons—against these groups or see their world destroyed.
It is the exact same thinking that links the “Mexican threat” to the “socialist government of Obama” to the “Muslim threat” to “castrating feminist bitches” to the “Ivory Tower” to “left-wing journalists.”
In fact, what I read of the Manifesto sounds a lot like the far-right hate mail and, at times, death threats that arrive in my inbox on a regular basis. How often have I received notice that “after the revolution you will be shot first” because I am a “traitor”? Enough times that I mostly ignore these threats. In other words, Breivik’s philosophy is a lot like what many (white and male) people seem to be thinking here.
The only real questions that remain are:
Why do these men have such easy access to weapons?
Will our national security forces, so obsessed with looking for terrorism from without, begin to realize that some of the red-blooded American (or Norwegian) men who love God, country, and tradition so much that they are willing to threaten to kill all who disagree are in fact armed and dangerous?
Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.
It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.
Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping. That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.
When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail.The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”
And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.
When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.
I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name). Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you). Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.
It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.
I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.
It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.
Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.
I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.
Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible. Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Yesterday, we posted the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Today, we share the responses of Jay Michaelson, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, and Christopher Stedman.
Jay Michaelson is the author of the forthcoming book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is the founding director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. In 2009, Michaelson was included on the "Forward 50" list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.
The Jewish tradition is crystal clear that one is never to celebrate the downfall of one's enemies, even though the human tendency is to do so. We see this pattern again and again.
For example, Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Note that Proverbs 11:10 says that, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy," but that does not mean there should be such shouts. The two verses together suggest that while it is human nature to rejoice when our enemy suffers, we are called upon to do better.
Another example is at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the time, the Children of Israel sang the famous Song of the Sea, whose lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:4). But in The Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b), a story is told that God rebukes the angels for singing along. “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing," God says. Once again: it is human nature to rejoice, but we are called upon to do better.
Jews around the world recently concluded the Passover Seder. This entire ritual celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and part of that story is indeed the demise of the Egyptians. Yet when the ten plagues are recounted, the tradition is to spill a drop of wine for each one. Our joy is incomplete when others suffer.
Yes, it is human to fist-pump in the air when a murderer like Osama Bin Ladin is killed. But such vulgar displays of our basest emotions is precisely what religion is meant to curb.
Author photo by Sebastian Collett.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.
I find myself deeply disturbed by the death and collective responses to the death of Osama bin Laden. When I say "disturbed," I don't mean merely intellectually, but psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. I have found myself drained of energy, withdrawn. And I've had to ask myself why. Shouldn't I be happy, gratified that a monster of evil is now gone from the face of the earth? I note the celebrating crowds on television, in New York and Washington, DC, and understand their very human response, but I'm not there.
I think my disturbance comes from having to contend with conflicting values that all have their measure of truth--and yet none has the whole truth. And so I'm trying to reconcile these disparate values.
With the rest of the nation, I have witnessed the overwhelming grief of the families of the 9/11 victims. I have seen the pictures of the dead, read their stories. I have heard the goodbye messages of spouses, the children left without a father, the way victims jumped to their deaths, some holding the hand of a friend. I understand why the survivors want justice, and whatever closure they can find, and so they welcome the news of bin Laden's death.
I also understand the significance for our nation, in bin Laden's death. He has been not only the perpetrator of much suffering and death, but he had become the symbol of our impotence in failing to rid the world of terrorism. He has been thumbing his nose at us for ten years, making us fear what might happen next. The President's main job is to protect his people, and so Obama had to pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Which brings me to the next point. I have little doubt that the Seals were ordered to kill Bin Laden, whether or not he was armed, whether or not he surrendered. Taking bin Laden prisoner would have invited an international media circus for a trial that might have lasted years--and further provoked all kinds of national and international conflict. We weren't going to let that happen. He was going to be killed and then buried at sea. He was shot first in the chest, I would guess, as would be the normative first shot, and then shot in the head, to assure the death. I also understand the necessity of this decision, and if in fact I am correct, I do not fault Obama for proceeding in this way.
On the other hand, I am a minister and a wife and a mother. I abhor violence. In particular, gun violence disturbs me, for I have personally lost family members to gun violence, as have so many others in our gun-crazy country.
And then I imagine the scene in the compound that night. I imagine the fear that everyone in that compound must have felt as the Seals attacked. I expect Osama bin Laden knew he was going to die. One of his wives watched him shot to death, another identified the body. A number of his children were present in compound. What did the wives and children experience?
Still another dimension to this whole scene is that of the warriors. The Seals carried out what appears to have been an almost flawless plan in dangerous circumstances: their courage and skill are admired by all. And yet the man who killed bin Laden and whoever killed the three others will have to live with the memory of that night: the fear in the eyes of those who were killed or wounded, the gaping wounds, the blood pouring out--all this, and the knowledge that they they took a human life. This is what we ask of our warriors. To do these horrific deeds for us. We don't want to see the pictures. Obama spared us from that.
So what it comes down to, for me, is this: the terrible grayness of morality. The evil that we're all drawn into. The violence that is a part of our lives. The fallenness of us all. There are no good guys and bad guys, except in relative terms. We can only try to see as clearly as we can and act with as much integrity as we can. The Kingdom of God is not as yet at hand. Heaven help us.
Christopher Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is at work on a memoir to be published by Beacon Press.
Last Sunday night, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I’m no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it’s probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers; even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I’ve heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly ten years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the “eye for an eye” mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life – to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Today, we have the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Tomorrow, we will post responses from Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Christopher Stedman, and Jay Michaelson. (UPDATE: read part 2 here.)
I read about the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a Muslim with a strong Niebhurian streak. This is to say: we have to be clear-eyed in the recognition of evil, we have to put a stop to it if we have the ability and we have to seek peace in multiple creative ways. Niebhur believed this with regards to America's battle against Nazism, the Prophet did this with regards to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who were intent on destroying the fledgling Muslim community.
As has been said about Bonhoeffer, the Christian pacifist who plotted to assassinate Hitler: when you see a crazy man driving a car into a group of children, you have to stop the man.
America did that when it came to Hitler, Milosovic, and now bin Laden. In this case, it happened with targeted precision such that very few others perished in the actual operation. There is little doubt there will be more life (meaning, literally, fewer people being killed) in the future as result of this death.
I love my country, I love my flag, and I find absolutely nothing in the teachings of Jesus that supports the assassination of the terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden had, by all accounts, moved to the periphery, and we've been mesmerized by the developments in our Arab spring, where countless citizens were taking to the streets in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, to say that bin Laden was precisely the kind of leader they don't want.
And then we shot him.
Jesus talked about vengeance when He tweaked the notion of taking an eye for an eye. He told followers to match their enemies' evil with prayer and love. The most unthinkable evil (bin Laden) calls us to love.
And that's immeasurably hard, according respect to someone we just don't respect, giving fairness and decency to someone who's responsible for the death of so many.
But that, nevertheless, is the rule. I think those crowds celebrating bin Laden's death outside the White House that night were clinging to the idea that his death would somehow balance the scales. It hasn't and it won't. Killing -- and burying him at sea -- stole our opportunity to bring him to trial, and let him defend himself -- with complete transparency in our judicial system, not a military tribunal. It robbed from us an opportunity to reaffirm that these are our values -- and to remind the world that we are bigger than a terrorist act. By treating bin Laden far better than he ever thought to treat those he killed on 9/11, we could have told the world that even our most despised enemy can expect fairness and decency. We could have told everyone that we are bigger than that.
Or, rather, I wish we were.
Author photo by Marc Yves Regis.
Dan McKanan is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.
The tenets of Unitarian Universalism do not require me to respond in any specific way to the death of an enemy. Instead, Unitarian Universalism—as would be the case for most other faiths—offers me a rich array of resources for developing an authentic individual response. These resources include the Unitarian Universalist Principles—which are commonly affirmed by Unitarian Universalist congregations but not doctrinally binding on individual Unitarian Universalists—as well as the collective stories of those who have preceded us in the faith.
Two of the Principles shape my own response to the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the deaths of enemies in general. The first principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” suggests that my response to the killing of an enemy should be one of prophetic protest. “Not in my name!” I say to all those who celebrate bin Laden’s death as retribution for the murders he perpetrated on September 11. If all people, those who kill and those who are killed, have inherent dignity, then mourning and reconciliation are better responses to violence than retaliation.
The question, of course, is not specifically about the killing of enemies but more broadly about the death of enemies. What would my response be if bin Laden had died of natural causes at the end of a long life? In that case, I think, the appropriate response would be simple mourning. Indeed, in one sense the death of an enemy is more an occasion for lamentation than the death of a beloved grandparent. My thinking here is shaped by the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of existence.” If all life is interwoven, then every enmity is a rip in the shared web—and the death of an enemy means we have lost our best opportunity to weave the broken threads back together. We often use the phrase “celebration of life” to describe the funerals of our friends, and when those friends have lived full lives those funerals often have a truly celebratory feel. That is as it should be. But even if bin Laden had lived to be a hundred, his death would have been an occasion for sackcloth and ashes if he had remained unrepentant, and thus unreconciled with all those he harmed.
In reaching beyond the UU principles toward the shared stories of faith, I turn especially toward the story of Jesus, because I identify as a UU Christian, just as other Unitarian Universalists may claim Jewish, Buddhist, pagan, or humanist identities. Like other Christians, I find in Jesus’ story reason to hope that death does not have the last word. Some would express this hope in dogmatic claims about resurrection and eternal life; I prefer to speak more tentatively about the experiences of Jesus and his friends. In the face of the death-dealing powers of empire, Jesus lived a full, rich life. Even after the empire killed him, his friends experienced him as still alive in their circle. When they gathered to break bread and tell stories, they felt he was there with them. Curiously, Christians have seldom reflected on what this experience might teach us about the death of our enemies.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that some of Osama bin Laden’s disciples and admirers are currently having an experience not unlike that of Jesus’ disciples between Easter and Pentecost. In the midst of their mourning, they may have felt bin Laden’s spirit still moving among them, still inspiring fervent love for their faith and fervent hate for those of us they regard as enemies. Many of us may regard this analogy between bin Laden and Jesus as monstrous. But perhaps what remains alive of bin Laden’s spirit is not so much his hate as his fervent faith. In his own life, that fervor was terribly twisted; as it is carried by his followers, it still has the potential to be untwisted. If death does not have the last word, our mourning of bin Laden’s death should lead us to redoubled efforts to reconcile with his friends.
The people of the United States, of course, have ample opportunities to pursue such reconciliation. Many of bin Laden’s most devoted followers remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. (Many who never had much to do with him are also held there, but here I want to focus on those who are truly enemies—those who committed horrible violence out of twisted love for bin Laden or for Islam.) For ten years we have treated these traumatized and idealistic young people as if they were not part of the interdependent web, as if their suffering could not hurt us, as if they had no gifts to share with the world. Bin Laden’s death can be a time for us to open our ears to their voices and our hearts to their truth. I am not suggesting that we “forgive” them without talking to them, but simply that we start treating them as human beings rather than enemy combatants. Some of them may be more than ready for reconciliation. Others may not—but even for those, a bit of kindness may open up a long path toward repentance.
As I write these words, I am conscious that many of us may feel more visceral enmity toward those who have harmed us personally, or even toward our political rivals, than we do toward bin Laden. It is easy for me to preach about what the U.S. should do in Guantanamo; much harder to pursue genuine reconciliation with my own most intimate enemies. When I mourn bin Laden’s death, I mourn those enmities as well. And, since all life is interwoven, it is likely that reconciliation with those intimate enemies will create more chances for reconciliation with bin Laden and his friends.
Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. This post originally appeared on his blog The Faith Divide at the Washington Post.
As I listened to President Obama explain the chain of events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Eric Greitens. Eric’s doctorate at Oxford was on the effects of war on children. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he was training to be a Navy Seal.
“But you know how terrible war is, you have been with the orphaned children,” I sputtered. “How can you participate in it?”
“It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” he told me.
Eric deployed four times over the last ten years, earning a bronze star and a purple heart. One of his missions was to command a Navy Seal cell that targeted al Qaeda. It was likely some of Eric’s buddies - guys he trained with, maybe guys he trained - that got bin Laden.
Eric titled his book,The Heart and the Fist, for a reason. He knows as well as anyone that you may well need the fist to crush evil but you need the heart to radiate good. The fist is fine for defeating enemies, but the heart is what builds societies.
That’s what I liked about Obama’s speech yesterday. He was very clearly our commander in chief - recounting how he told C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to make the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden his top priority, getting frequent briefings on the relevant intelligence and giving the final order that authorized the fatal mission. His demeanor was focused and serious. ‘I did what had to be done,’ he seemed to be saying.
Vanquishing evil is necessary but insufficient.
Obama seemed most human to me, most American, most presidential, when he spoke of life, not death. He recalled America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a nation shocked and grieving, a country focused more on community than revenge:
“On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”
That line brought to mind two key moments. The first involves George Bush. A lot of Americans think of the fist when they think of the post-9/11 George Bush. But I think at least as defining as his roar at Ground Zero and his boasting of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters was his visit to an Islamic Center six days after 9/11. There, he spoke movingly not only of Islam being a peaceful faith but about how Muslim women with headscarves ought to feel safe in this country:
“I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.”
He went on to make it clear whose side he was on, which America he hoped to build.
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”
The second moment took place nearly a year later, on September 25, 2002 - Bruce Springsteen at the United Center. During the climax of “The Rising,” as Springsteen was singing - Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life), Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life) - I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman in a Muslim headscarf, eyes closed, hands raised.
Woody Guthrie had a message scrawled on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
Sometimes you need the aid of guns in that mission. But when we think of who we want to be, not just what we need to destroy, American guns are second to American guitars.
"You should not have to be subjected to being raped or sexually assaulted because you volunteered to serve this nation." -- Susan L. Burke, lead lawyer in a case filed this week against the Department of Defense.
On Tuesday, two men and fifteen women filed a class action lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and current Secretary Robert Gates, claiming that the Pentagon leadership failed to protect servicemembers against sexual assault. We asked Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, about her book, which chronicles the lives of several women serving in the military, and the accusations in the case.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was unhappy about the Iraq War from the start, but I wanted to hear what the soldiers who had actually been fighting it thought. Then I met my first woman soldier, and she told me, "There are only three things the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military: a bitch, a 'ho, or a dyke." She also told me that no one believed that she'd served in a war because she's a woman. Then I discovered that more women were fighting, being wounded and dying in the Iraq War than all US wars put together since World War Two. All that made me know I had to write about women soldiers.
How long did it take, and how many people did you end up interviewing?
I interviewed for about three years. I interviewed over 40 women who'd served in Iraq, as well as some who had served in Afghanistan and earlier wars. I also talked to male soldiers. Of all these people, I picked five women to spend a lot of time with, visiting their homes, seeing them several times, talking to them for many hours, both in person and on the phone.
What surprised you in the course of your research and interviewing?
I never expected to hear so many stories of the women being relentlessly harassed, sexually assaulted and raped by their own comrades – while they were training or actually at war. I was also surprised by how engaged in ground combat these women were, despite the Pentagon's ban against women doing this job. They were raiders and gunners and guards. They were fighting.
Finally, I was surprised by how much I liked and sympathized with the women, and how touched I was by the idealism of the young.
A play was produced as a direct result of your book. How did that come about, and what was it like for you to see your book come alive?
I wrote the play myself, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Then, through sheer luck, I found a director (William Electric Black) who had a theater ready to go. He suggested I expand the play, and he figured out how to stage it.
It was humbling to see the words come alive on the stage, but as the play was in the words of the real soldiers I had interviewed, it was also odd. As I watched the actors perform, I could see the actors, the real soldiers behind them like ghosts, and hear the words in my head as I had written them down – all at once. I also learned how many fewer words you need when a human being adds expression and gestures to them. I learned how much I could cut!
What kind of effect has the book and play had as far as you can tell?
The effects have been gratifying, and numerous.
Top members of the Defense Department have read the book and implemented some of the changes I suggested.
I have been invited to testify to Congress twice on behalf of women soldiers.(Read testimony from May 2010 here.)
Many articles have been written about the book and its subject, here and abroad. (The book is out in Italy now.)
And a lawyer named Susan Burke came to see the play, and subsequently read the book, and then she contacted me and we met. She said she was inspired by the soldiers' stories to start a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of military women who have been sexually assaulted while serving. That suit is now a reality.
I have also received dozens of emails thanking me and the soldiers -- and the actors -- for bringing this great injustice to light.
Last, but not least, the real soldiers came to see themselves portrayed in the play, and it was a moving experience for them, the actors and the audience alike.
The class action lawsuit you mentioned accuses the Department of Defense of allowing a military culture that fails to prevent rape and sexual assault, and of mishandling cases that were brought to its attention. The case claims that the Pentagon violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Can you explain the claims in the case? Do you think that the leadership has failed to protect service members?
This case came about for several reasons. Too many female servicemembers have reported rapes and assaults only to be countercharged with threat of court martial to keep them quiet. Military culture fosters and encourages a blame-the-victim attitude that intimidates women out of telling anyone about sexual persecution. And among those cases that are brought the trial, the vast majority are either dismissed, or result in non-judicial and absurdly light punishments for the perpetrators. The details are in the book, but, in short, the command from the top down has done little to either prevent or punish the sexual harassment and assault of its female servicemembers, and this has been the case since women were first allowed into the military over 100 years ago.
In Do It Anyway (Beacon Press, 2010), author Courtney E. Martin looks at the work and lives of eight activists who are striving to make a difference in their communities and the world. Among others, we meet Raul Diaz, a prison re-entry social worker at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.
Diaz recorded this video to explain what Homeboy Industries does and why he works there. (Watch video below or at YouTube.)
Mother Jones magazine recently ran an adapted excerpt about Diaz from Do It Anyway.
Raul Diaz is crushing flowers underfoot as he runs. Though he doesn't have the stamina of his teenage years, he's grateful that his legs can still take him up a hill at thirty-four. He pauses at the top of a slope in Elysian Park, puts his hands on his hips, and looks out at Los Angeles, the city that has formed him in all of its beauty and violence. He can almost make out the outlines of Boyle Heights, his courageous little neighborhood—just east of downtown L.A. and the Los Angeles River, César E. Chávez Avenue rolling boldly through.
Up here Raul can get a break from life down there—the way the boys drag their feet as they head back to their cells in Chino when his visits with them are over, the sadly predictable swollen bellies on teenage girls hanging out in the project playground, the incessant needs of his clients (housing, jobs, work clothes, car insurance, food), unmet unless he figures out a way to meet them. He runs up here because it's a way to leave all that behind. But even more, he runs up here because he has never figured out any other way of staving off the sadness.
The youngest of eight brothers, Raul was raised by one firecracker mom who fled an abusive husband, the father of her six initial sons, in Texas and relocated to the Pico projects of Boyle Heights without a single friend in 1968. In the early seventies, she met Raul's father—a Vietnam vet—who would end up shirking responsibility for his two kids. By the time Raul was five years old, his father was mostly absent, with the exception of a few random Saturdays when he would pull into the parking lot of the projects and start drinking. On those days he might show one of the boys how to fix a car or give them advice about girls, but Raul mostly stayed away.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I wanted a dad, but I realized that not having a dad at all was sometimes better than having one that abused you."
First, there was Fist Stick Knife Gun, a memoir by Geoffrey Canada, President and Chief Executive Officer of Harlem Children's Zone. The Zone was praised by the New York Times as "… one of the most ambitious social experiments of
our time. It combines educational, social and medical services. It
starts at birth and follows children to college. It meshes those
services into an interlocking web, and then it drops that web over an
entire neighborhood … The objective is to create a safety net woven so
tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through." Canada has been called, "One of the few authentic heroes of New York and one of the best friends children have, or ever will have, in our nation." And Publisher's Weekly said of his memoir, "A more powerful depiction of the tragic life of urban children and a
more compelling plea to end 'America's war against itself' cannot be
A couple years ago, Beacon Press began work on a few graphic books. Fist Stick Knife Gun was one of the first titles chosen, and Jamar Nicholas was brought on board by editor Allison Trzop to bring it to reality. Jamar posted on the blog early in the process, and shared some sketches with us along the way:
Recently, This American Life re-ran an episode from 1997 called "Guns," which featured Geoffrey Canada discussing his childhood in the Bronx, the violence he faced there, and the changes brought about when guns became more commonplace among young people in the city. You can listen to the episode online, with Canada's segment beginning at about 15 mins, 50 seconds in (although I recommend that you just sit back and take in the whole episode—it's riveting). On the show, Canada read the following excerpt from his memoir, Fist Stick Knife Gun.
In 1971, well before the explosion of handguns on the streets of New York City, I bought a handgun. I bought the gun legally in Maine, where I was in college. The clerk only wanted to see some proof of residency, and my Bowdoin College I.D. card was sufficient. For a hundred and twenty-five dollars I was the proud owner of a .25-caliber automatic with a seven-shot clip. The gun was exactly what I needed. It was so small I could slip it into my coat pocket or pants pocket.
I needed the gun because we had moved from Union Avenue to 183rd Street in the Bronx, but I still traveled back to Union Avenue during holidays when I was home from school. The trip involved walking through some increasingly dangerous territory. New York City was going through one of its gang phases and several new ones had sprung up in the Bronx. One of the gangs liked to hang out right down the block from where we now lived on 183rd Street and Park Avenue. When I first went away to school I paid no mind to the large group of kids that I used to pass on my way to the store or the bus stop back in the Bronx. The kids were young, fourteen or fifteen years old. At nineteen I was hardly worried about a bunch of street kids who thought they were tough. But over the course of the next year the kids got bolder and more vicious. On several occasions I watched with alarm as swarms of teenagers pummeled adults who had crossed them in one way or another. Everyone knew they were a force to be reckoned with, and many a man and woman crossed the street or walked around the block to keep from having to walk past them.
And I crossed the street also. And there were times that I went out of my way to go to another store rather than walk past the rowdy group of boys who seemed to own the block. On more than one occasion I rounded a corner only to come face to face with the gang. I could feel their eyes on me as I looked straight ahead, hoping none of them would pick a tight. That September in 1971, when I got back to the serenity of Bowdoin College I was more tense than usual. I realized that those kids had me scared. After having survived growing up in the Bronx, here I was scared to go home and walk down my own block. The solution was simple, and as I held the small gun in my hand I knew I had found the answer to my fears.