Friday, September 28, 2012

Drones vs. Up-Close-and-Personal Reality

(See previous reflection: Drones: Am I Responsible?)

by Joe Scarry

My sewing needle close enough that I
Can watch my father through the needle's eye,
As through a lens ground for a butterfly

- from "Supernatural Love" by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Obtaining "distance" from where war and injury is happening seems like a desirable objective, and drones have been championed precisely because they put members of the U.S. military (and, all the moreso, the rest of us) at the greatest possible distance from where the actually injury is taking place. What does a confession of faith suggest about this view?

Having gained some clarity on responsibility ... and knowing the right question to ask ("Where are they crucifying people?") ... it becomes very important to ask "What obstructs our understanding?"

As Jack Lawlor has written, "Drone warfare is the apex of misperception," and overcoming misperception is central to a Buddhist approach to the question of how to live.

I see tremendous resonance with this view within Christianity, particularly with the idea that, yes, there are aspects of our world that are "out of joint" -- we call this phenomenon sin -- but that our response to this out-of-jointness is not to flee, but instead to get up close and personal, and see what's really going on there.

It has always been somewhat perplexing to me what Luther meant when he said, "my Lord ... has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death ...." What exactly does "redeeming" mean here? I can (sort of) understand a kind of exchange -- symbolically -- but what exchange, what transaction is really understood to have taken place?

For me, this discussion gives clarity to the notion that "getting up close and personal" is necessary if there is to be any hope of getting a right understanding of others -- of not just abandoning ourselves to an acceptance of the sinfulness and unknowableness of others. And, of course, that "getting up close and personal" carries risk at all times, and, ultimately, results in in-this-world death.

Redemption. At a price.

Lest anyone think that I have become too detached from the here-and-now of the conflicts in which drones are used, consider two recent articles from the New York Times.

In an op-ed entitled, "A Pointless Blacklisting," Alex Strick van Linschoten discusses the recent designation of the Haqqani network as a "terrorist" organization, pointing out that this prevents us from talking to them -- the one thing that would offer any hope of moving away from a relationship based on nothing but conflict and death. In fact, "[t]he head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael T. Flynn, said in 2010 that the group’s leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was “absolutely salvageable” and open to reconciliation." But defining him as a "terrorist" makes dialog off limits. Thus "[t]he current war effort relies heavily on drones and night raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan." The result? "[T]hese tactics often increase radicalization and enmity."

I see these ideas being explicitly adopted by at least some thinkers in the government and military. As discussed in "How Resilient Is Post-9/11 America?", there is growing interest in the idea that real-world effectiveness -- especially including in military conflict -- depends on a characteristic called "resilience" in the face of hard-to-understand behavior and phenomena. "The best weapon against terror is refusing to be terrorized." When we encounter sin, do we retreat and become "brittle and clumsy and counterproductive"? Or do we find the inner resources to move closer and find hope in humanity?

I disagree with the notion that the military framework can be made a resounding success through greater "resiliency," but I do agree that we need to recognize and work against our natural, sinful tendency to turn everyone into the enemy. For instance: "The Homeland Security Department is trying to enlist the public’s help with a program called 'If You See Something, Say Something,' which urges citizens to report unusual behavior to authorities. Well-meaning, perhaps, but officials must offer more practical guidance to avoid creating “a climate of spying,” homeland security specialists say."

By now, we have all been exposed to stories of how military pilots and drone operators begin to see people as less than human. (I talked about this in a blog post called Drone Victims: Just Dots? Just Dirt?) But isn't drone use having the same effect on all of us? Nick Mottern, director of Know Drones, a program of public education about drone surveillance and drone killing, has said that drone use is the linchpin of an effort by our government to "systematically deprive us of empathy." I can think of no better way to sum up why the distancing that is brought about by drones is unacceptable - to a confessing Christian, or to anybody else.

Read more about the questions that I think we need to be asking ourselves about drones.

Next installment: Is God Urging Us to "Risk It"?

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Top Image: Sadao Watanabe Block Print Depicting Jesus Washing St Peters Feet

Bottom Image: Carl Dix, "Ecce Homo" (Dix’s works were based on religious allegories or depictions of post-war suffering. A veteran himself of WWI, Dix was latter drafted into Hitler’s Volkssturm during WWII and was eventually captured by the French and later released. Most of his latter works had a religious basis. Ecce Homo is one of thirty-three images Dix created in a suite called MatthaĆ¼s Evangelium, which accompanied the Martin Luther New Testament. Ecce Homo are the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate translation of the John 19:5, when he presents a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion. The King James Version of the Bible translates the phrase into English as “behold the man.”)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Buddha and a Culture of Violence

Previous installment: "The Buddha Meets the Drone"

by Jack Lawlor

Although a life-long idealist, the Buddha was no stranger to cultures of violence. As a youth, his father -- a local monarch -- insisted that he train to be a warrior. But the Buddha kept his own counsel.

Years later, after the Buddha left his father's palace to become a spiritual seeker, he encountered the armies of two adjacent kingdoms massing on the banks of the Rohini River to clash over disputed water rights on the occasionally parched plains of northern India. Did the Budddha linger to side with the kingdom that was historically allied with his homeland? Did he walk away?

No, the Buddha didn't walk away from this highly charged situation. He did something rather interesting. He walked up and down the assembled ranks of both armies, and talked to the soldiers. He then essentially mediated the situation. He had asked questions of both sides about the significance of the water rights in question and the value of the lives of the young men in each army and the amount of treasure it took to assemble troops, warhorses and equipment in place on the field of battle. He then reported to each side the attitudes of the other side. It proved that neither side thought it was worth viewing the water rights as an "all or nothing" issue, and shared water rights were successfully negotiated.

The Buddha did not always succeed in such efforts, but in many instances -- including disputes within his spiritual community -- he was able successfully to sow seeds of empathy, of being able to know and see deeply into other people, not limited only to what is wrong within them but what his right, what is healthy. He did not gain these insights through the use of drone aircraft thousands of feet above the earth, but by meeting with people and spending time with them, exploring their deepest, most genuine desires and aspirations. And this often led to defusing and disarming difficult situations. Are we even capable of such empathy today, in the wake of Bush-era political leaders who made fun of empathetic people, implying they are are weak?

Were the assembled armies along the Rohini River made stronger by avoiding violent conflict? Or would they have been stronger after battling each other, contributing their blood to the Rohini? Is our nation stronger or weaker in the wake of the war in Iraq?

What compass was the Buddha following? How would his source of guidance approach the subject of drone warfare?

Next installment: "The Buddha On Love"

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Drones: Am I Responsible?

(See previous reflection: The Apostle's Creed as a Focus for Thinking About Drones.)

by Joe Scarry

His slowly scanning magnifying lens,
A blurry, glistening circle he suspends
Above the word 'Carnation'. Then he bends

So near his eyes are magnified and blurred,
One finger on the miniature word,
As if he touched a single key and heard

A distant, plucked, infinitesimal string,
"The obligation due to every thing
That' s smaller than the universe." ...

- from "Supernatural Love" by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

I think that the most important question in any conversation about drones is, "What is my responsibility to think and care about this?" Until we address the question of responsibility, we haven't begun to establish a frame for the conversation. Are we talking about drones out of passing curiosity? Or because it's in the newspaper, so we're "supposed to" talk about it? Or out of some of true sense of obligation and responsibility?

In the past, I have found it appropriate to feel responsibility for U.S. warmaking on the grounds that the killing and injury are being done "in my name." In other words, I am required to act as a matter of "citizen responsibility."

As I have reflected on the words of the Apostle's Creed, it has become clear to me that the real response-ability that we should be talking about is that which comes in response to God's affirming relationship toward us. If, indeed, I believe that "my Lord ... has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death ...." then the parameters of what I am responsive to -- and responsible for -- must transcend a legalistic notion of what accrues to me as a U.S. citizen.

If one doesn't believe God's entry into the world is literal and in-the-flesh -- but rather some kind of abstract relationship -- much less if one has no conception of any kind to tie one to the the rest of humanity -- it becomes very hard to get beyond a concept of responsibility that is narrow and legalistic: "Well, how much, REALLY, did anything I did contribute to this situation? Isn't my responsibility, if any, infinitesimal?"

On the other hand, however, to say that we are responsible for EVERYTHING is not terribly helpful, either -- in effect, it conveys no information.

I would suggest, therefore that effective criteria of what I am to be responsive to and responsible for might include:

* Does something need to be done?

* CAN I do something?

* Am I uniquely situated to do something?
With respect to the last of these, Rabbi Alissa Wise points to an important concept in helping us think about when it is that we are well-situated to make a difference. "Tochecha [sacred rebuke] is about our obligation to tell someone when they have done or are currently straying and behaving wrongly – whether to us, or to another. What’s more, tochecha requires us also to engage with those we are rebuking and assist them and support them in the repair of the wrong you are calling out." (See Israel Palestine Mission Network, God Is In This Place.)

In a pre-modern world, the answers to these questions could be expected to be quite close at hand. (It had to do with physical proximity and a relatively limited set of possible social relationships.)

Today, the field of action is much larger: it is global. Let's face it: "today" can be thought of as having started once we began having empires, i.e. from Rome onward. The question, in effect, becomes "Where are they crucifying people?" and then, "Mustn't I be there?"

It was in the imperial context that, as Pastor Erik Christensen has pointed out, we can see "the early Church’s emerging understanding of who Jesus was in relation to God." Thus, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, "Jesus Christ ... though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8). We see this crystallized in places such as Mark's gospel: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

(I found echoes of this in Rabbi Wise's statement of faith in "God Is In This Place": "God is the impulse in me to serve the Other out of a sense of responsibility that stems from the Source of redemption.")

Does theology (e.g. the Creed) help make choices about responsibility? Does it move us effectively from the "something oughta be done" stage ... through the "I can do something" stage ... up to and including the "I am doing something" stage?

A possible way to test whether this particular theological way of thinking is helpful is to consider some other situations of killing and injury, not just the killing and injury being done with drones. For instance, what if one were to consider suicide attacks, such as those reported September 2 in the New York Times?

For both drone attacks and suicide attacks, one might ask:
* Does something need to be done?

* CAN I do something?

* Am I uniquely situated to do something?
As we think about and discuss issues such as distancing ... authority, collateral damage, and pre-emptive violence ... surveillance ... and technology in the days and weeks ahead, perhaps we can compare and contrast these two distinct types of killing and injury to help us clarify our thinking.

Read more about the questions that I think we need to be asking ourselves about drones.

Next installment: Drones vs. Up-Close-and-Personal Reality

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Top image: Corpus of Christ, Spanish, Catalonia (Banyoles), 13th century Art Institute of Chicago.

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Related posts

"Because of the intensified division of labor," the narrator explains, "many technicians and scientists can no longer recognize the contribution the have made to weapons of destruction." "Our department extracts lareic, oleic, and naptha acids . . . . "  "I'm a chemist. What should I do? If I develop a substance, it can be good for humanity . . . ."  "Besides napalm, Dow Chemical produces 800 other products . . . ." Does this familiar to you?

(See American Fire: Still Spreading, Still Inextinguishable)

GAZA: Israel has a story about how all these people are there enemies, and the people of Palestine have a story about how all these people are innocent bystanders. Could both stories be true? . . . 9/11: "How could one set of people think that the towers and the people in them were legitimate targets, when others saw them as innocent victims?"

(See Gaza and 9/11: Innocent Bystanders? Legitimate Targets? Acceptable Collateral Damage?)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Buddha Meets the Drone

by Jack Lawlor

From time to time, we need to experience how what is wise and compassionate is indeed possible.

My family attended a lovely retreat with Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh in 1989 which included not only adults, but also children. As is often the case, Thay ( the Vietnamese term of endearment for "teacher" ) invited the fifteen or so children in attendance to perform a skit one evening after dinner. The children chose the unlikely topic, "The Buddha Meets the Jetsons", which actually proved to be as telling as one of the retreat's many fine Dharma talks. Why? The children at the retreat portrayed 25th century-ish Jetson adults as stressed, overburdened, rather hyper and erratic beings who often ignored what was obvious in front of them and who often were caught in misperceptions of what was actually happening, leading to error and injury.

What the children were portraying so accurately, of course, was their own 20th century parents. It was obvious that the children were very diligent and accurate in perceiving adult behavior. So was the other character in the skit: the 6th century BC time-traveling visitor to the Jetsons, Shakyamuni Buddha -- whose demeanor, depth of character, and attentiveness compared starkly to the distracted, hapless, and overwrought George Jetson. It was interesting to see the Buddha attempt to instruct the Jetson family in such ancient practices as sitting meditation and walking meditation, all based on the primal practice of awareness of the breath. The Jetsons shook, strained and complained loudly about being exposed to this form of teaching, but without question in the skit these mindfulness techniques had their intended effect. The children attending the retreat were, in essence, submitting an optimistic report to us that in the last several days they were -- despite all their previous skepticism -- beginning to see how ancient contemplative practices were having a calming, insightful effect on their parents, who were becoming more open-minded, loving and sane.

Why have we given up on what could be a favorable outcome? Is our cynicism that hard, that deep? Can't we, as Christ urged, become more child-like in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which according to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, "is spread before us but men do not see it"? Is there room for robot drones that attack civilians in foreign countries in such a Kingdom, such a world? How did we come to need to use drones in this way? Forty-two years ago I came upon Tolstoy's following description of a boyhood friend and the thrill of the possible, which still challenges me today:
"It goes without saying that under [his] influence I involuntarily adopted his outlook, the essence of which was a rapturous adoration of the idea of virtue, and the conviction that man's purpose lies in continual self-improvement. To reform all humanity and eradicate all human vice and unhappiness seemed plausible enough to us at the time, just as it seemed an easy and uncomplicated matter to reform ourselves, to master all virtues and be happy...

God only knows, however, just how absurd those noble dreams of youth were, or who was to blame that they were never realized...."

Leo Tolstoy, Boyhood. Childhood and Youth
Next installment: "The Buddha and a Culture of Violence"