The Justice Chronicles, Volume 39: The First Monday In October

Historically the Supreme Court begins its term on the first Monday in October. Most of the time this date means little to anyone who doesn’t follow the court. But this year, well, it’s a different story.

For much of its history we’ve seen the court as being above politics and their decisions were unpredictable. Not so much today.

Today most descriptions of the court tell us that there are six conservatives: Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barret. There are also three liberals: Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

This matters because this year they may render a decision on an issue that has divided our nation for more than sixty years: abortion. Before 1973 the ability of a pregnant woman to terminate (abort) her pregnancy depended mostly on where she lived and how much money she had. In 1971 a pregnant Texas woman wished to end her pregnancy but she lived in a state where abortion was illegal. She filed a lawsuit claiming that Texas violated her right to privacy and the case, Roe v. Wade made it to the Supreme Court.

On January 22, 1973 the court decided, by a vote of 7-2, that abortion in the first trimester (13 weeks) of pregnancy was within the rights of the mother and cannot be outlawed. Pregnancies in the 2nd trimester (14-26 weeks) could be terminated with restrictions and pregnancies after 26 weeks were protected. Since then it’s been assumed that abortion was unlawful when the fetus/child was viable, that is, could live outside the womb. Opinions differ but it’s generally held that a child at 24 weeks can live outside the womb (full term is 40 weeks). It didn’t take long to divide the country.

Those who opposed abortion identify as Pro Life and those who supported abortion identify as Pro Choice.

At first the only strong Pro Life voice in the United States was the Catholic Church but by the early 1980s they were joined by Evangelical Christians

Since then these groups have formed an uneasy alliance and virtually all their energy has focused them on overturning Roe v. Wade. During the 1980s this became a cause for the Republican Party and since 1984 it’s been enshrined in their platform. Republican Presidential candidates since then have all promised to appoint Supreme Court Justices that will vote to overturn Roe V. Wade.

We may be on the cusp of that. Of the 9 justices all six who are listed as conservatives have been appointed by Republican presidents. During their confirmation hearings they all promised not to have preconceived opinions on abortion and would decide any case on its merits.

Nobody believes that. As I write this the Court has agreed to hear the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Mississippi passed a law that prohibits abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy. Since this case was filed Texas passed a law that prohibits abortion after the 6th week of pregnancy (often before the woman knows she’s pregnant). If the court finds in favor of Mississippi it will, in essence, overturn Roe v. Wade.

Cards on the table, I’m pro life. I know any number of people who describe themselves as “oops babies.” In other words their conception was unplanned and unexpected, but not unloved. I’m not naive and I’m not certain that we will ever get to zero abortions. But I believe we can look to Switzerland for guidance. Theirs is a three pronged approach. They provide sex education in schools, they make birth control free and universally available, and they work to raise the socioeconomic level of all their citizens so that nobody chooses abortion out of economic desperation.

Their abortion rate isn’t zero but it’s pretty low. But reversing Roe v. Wade also won’t eliminate abortions in the United States. It will simply allow states to write their own laws (as they did before 1973). Mississippi and Texas will certainly outlaw abortions but states like California and New York certainly will not. Women with enough money will simply travel to states that allow abortion.

But perhaps most troubling of all, women in those states without the ability to travel find themselves with few options. Some of them will choose to have illegal abortions that often lack the safety measures they need.

Some will say that people who choose to break the law shouldn’t complain about bad outcomes. But many of these women are barely past being girls. Some pregnancies are not consensual and some of them are the result of sexual abuse by someone they knew who broke their trust.

Simply put, overturning Roe v. Wade won’t get us to a pro-life nation. I fear it will draw us further away.

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Volume 3

OK, this is my final essay on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. I had hoped to finish this by 9/11 but that didn’t work.

In my last essay I spoke about how President Bush asked for and received Congressional approval to combat the “war on terror” without any way to measure either success or completion. This allowed him to avoid seeing 9/11 either as a criminal act or an act of war.

President Bush is and was a devout Christian. He credits his faith with his decision to stop drinking and change his life.

But he also believed that as Christians we struggle constantly with a world caught between good and evil. Among other things this caused him to proclaim the planners of 9/11 as part of the axis of evil in early 2002. He stated that Iran, Iraq and North Korea sought our destruction (interestingly omitting Afghanistan, the nation giving safe harbor to Osama bin Laden).

By articulating that we are “good” and those other nations are “evil” he set up a paradigm whereby only those who were on his side were worthy of God’s love. Opposing him wasn’t simply mistaken, it was sinful. And while he stated several times that we were not at war with Islam, he should have known he unleashed that very prejudice.

When he decided to invade Iraq in 2003 he justified it by claiming Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein were developing and stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” intending to attack the United States. The only link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden lay in the fact that both identified as Muslim, though their practices were dramatically different. At the time I claimed that Hussein and bin Laden were both Muslims in the same way Bill Clinton and Pat Robertson were both Baptists.

President Bush also hinted that Hussein helped plan 9/11 without any evidence. Shortly after the invasion his administration admitted there were no weapons of mass destruction even though his administration claimed we knew where they were.

In any war we need to articulate why we are right and our enemies are wrong. But President Bush went farther and laid the groundwork for the belief among many that all Christians are good and all Muslims are evil. The 9/11 terrorists may have claimed to be Muslims but members of the Ku Klux Klan identify as Christians. Muslims who wish us evil constitute a minuscule percentage of Islam.

I prayed after 9/11 that these acts of terrorism would not only bring us together but unite us in our determination to choose love over hate, courage over fear. Alas, I feel we are going in the wrong direction. Prejudice against Muslims and anyone who appears to be Middle Eastern continues seemingly unabated. Our fear has emboldened some of us to reject the very values on which our nation was founded.

I was blessed to witness an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution called A Nation of Nations that celebrated our diverse past and shared future.

I pray we will be that again and that the 30th Anniversary of 9/11 points in a better direction.

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Volume 2

In my last essay I spoke about my experience and feelings on the day of the attack. There I admitted I couldn’t encompass all I wanted to say in one entry. I hope to keep this to 2 volumes, but we’ll see.

In the first few weeks and months it was good to see that as a nation we came together. Like most Americans I had not voted for President George W. Bush the previous November. I felt he didn’t have enough experience, or frankly, smarts to run the country. But, like most of us, I fell in line behind him and I have to credit him with his ability to articulate our grief and pain.

But I felt at the time that he needed to make a critical decision. We knew early on that the mastermind of the attacks was Osama bin Laden who led a terrorist organization called Al Qaeda. We also knew that he was living in Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan (led by an ultra orthodox Muslim group called the Taliban) granted bin Laden refuge.

So do we treat these attacks as a criminal matter or an act of war? If we saw it as a criminal matter we would deploy the FBI to investigate and hope to capture bin Laden and those who planned the attack. If we saw it as an act of war President Bush could convene Congress and ask for a declaration of war against Afghanistan according to the Constitution. It should be noted that the Congress has not done this since December 8, 1941.

President Bush did neither. Instead he addressed Congress and asked for support for a war on terror. It was overwhelmingly granted.

Unlike previous declarations this did not specify a nation (even as wars in Korea and Vietnam did). The declaration gave no indication of our objectives or even when we would know the war was over. President Bush spent the rest of his administration using this equivocation to his advantage.

Shortly after the declaration we began to round up those we suspected had a hand in the attacks. So here’s the problem: if we saw 9/11 as a criminal attack these people would have been suspects and would have had certain rights (the right to remain silent, the right to counsel, the right to be arraigned, etc.). If we saw 9/11 as an act of war these people would have been prisoners of war (POW’s) and would have had certain rights (support from the Red Cross, the right to be treated within the rules of the Geneva Convention, etc.).

But the Bush administration skirted these rules and made up a category called “enemy combatants.” This allowed them to detain people with virtually no protections. They were sent to prisons in several locations, primarily to the US Naval station in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The Bush administration then argued that these detainees didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the United States as they were being held in another country (Cuba) but since Cuba has no jurisdiction over Guantanamo that was a blatant lie. Some of these enemy combatants have been held for nearly 20 years with no ability to argue their case or ask that prosecutors prove their case.

Twenty years later we still don’t know what victory in the war on terror is.

OK, this essay is long enough. Looks like I’m going to Volume 3.

Thoughts On The 20th Anniversary Of 9/11, Volume I

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking of the events of September 11, 2001. I originally thought I could do this in one essay but I can’t. Today I’m writing Volume I. Stay tuned.

We all remember where we were when we got the news. The previous April Nancy and I bought a house with her recently widowed father, Al. My parents came out for a visit to see our new home and were scheduled to return on September 12th. They didn’t and weren’t able to leave until the following Sunday the 16th.

When we heard the news that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade centers we immediately turned on the TV. We were both getting ready to go to work and we pulled ourselves away from the TV. By that time we knew that the other World Trade center and the Pentagon had been hit. On my way to work I learned about the final crash in Pennsylvania.

We all spent the morning wrapping our heads around the reality of what happened, and as a Christian I first thought about how Heaven would have to open more lanes to accommodate all those now in line.

It didn’t take long for us to recognize that our world had changed and we needed to update our view of terrorism. Since the early 1970s we’ve recognized that planes were subject to hijackers but the prevailing wisdom was that the pilots should follow their directions and let those on the ground negotiate with the hijackers.

We had no plan for hijackers who demanded that the pilots surrender their seats. We had no plan for hijackers who never intended to negotiate but instead intended to kill themselves, all the passengers, and thousands of innocent men and women in buildings who were working at their jobs.

In the last 20 years I’ve thought a great deal about what they were thinking. I’ve thought about the passengers of American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175, who crashed into the World Trade Centers. Also American Airlines flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon and United Airlines flight 93 that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania but was likely headed to the Capitol. We don’t think much about this but I also think about those in the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon who watched planes headed toward them, recognizing that they were targets. At some point they must have known that they were living the last few minutes of their lives and must have felt a combination of anger, fear, and grief. They must have known that they were leaving parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends. I pray their last few seconds were filled with prayers.

Much has been written about those on United Airlines flight 93 who knew about the attacks and sacrificed themselves. They hoped to overpower the hijackers and land the plane safely but weren’t able. Their heroism makes us proud to be Americans.

I also think about those who didn’t die because of dumb luck. The man who overslept and missed a meeting at the World Trade Center. The woman who got caught in a long line and missed her flight. The soldier who found out at the last minute that he didn’t need to attend a meeting at the Pentagon.

More on my next essay.

Thoughts On Our WIthdrawal From Afghanistan

Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 we learned that Osama bin Laden masterminded the attack. We also knew that he was protected from capture by the Taliban, a terrorist organization who occupied Afghanistan. The Taliban identified as Muslim but denied basic rights and education to women. Most of us believed the Taliban to be evil because of their beliefs but felt we couldn’t invade another country only to impose our values on them, noble though they may be.

Osama bin Laden wasn’t a member of the Taliban but was instead the head of another terrorist organization (who also claimed to be Muslim) called al Qaeda. When we demanded that bin Laden be turned over to us Afghanistan refused.

At that point the administration of President Bush had a choice to make. They could either see the 9/11 attack as a criminal matter and dispatch the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or they could see it as an act of war and ask Congress for a Declaration of War.

They did neither. Instead, on September 18, 2001 Congress authorized President Bush to “prevent acts of international terrorism.” On this authority President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan. But here’s the problem: In December our troops were closing in on bin Laden in Tora Bora, in Afghanistan close to the border with Pakistan.

But at the time the Bush administration were more interested in invading Iraq because they claimed that Iraq stored “weapons of mass destruction.” They didn’t but the invasion of Iraq pulled out troops that could have captured bin Laden. Simply put, we were at war with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and bin Laden avoided capture.

That’s where things stood at the end of President Bush’s 2nd term in 2008. He was replace by Barack Obama. President Obama ended the occupation of Iraq in 2017. On May 2, 2011, on orders from President Obama, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

So if we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden and we did that over 10 years ago, why have we continued to be in Afghanistan? Good question.

President Bush famously claimed that we weren’t in the business of nation building and had no interest in forcing our American values on another nation. But that’s exactly what we tried to do. Both Presidents Obama and Trump claimed to wish to leave Afghanistan but neither did it.

This year President Biden found himself saddled with a war that none of his predecessors were willing to end, and he decided to end it.

Yes, it’s a mess. Yes, many good people in Afghanistan believed our promise to liberate them from the terrorists that drove girls and women from classrooms and the freedom to go outside their homes.

And yes, perhaps most importantly, we promised good, honest Afghans that if they helped us they could look to a better future for themselves and their families. Now many of these Afghans find themselves trapped in a country no longer their own, fearing reprisals from the Taliban, and wondering why they trusted our promises.

I don’t blame them if the regret helping us. War is an awful thing and promises easily made become hard or impossible to keep. Their vision was our vision for a free and inclusive Afghanistan, and that vision now lies in tatters.

I grieve for them. I also grieve for the brave and heroic American men and women who were placed in harm’s way. Some of them sacrificed their lives. Others came home with horrific wounds (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that will haunt them the rest of their lives. But all came home wishing for a different outcome, and many of them will likely never reconcile the guilt they feel in making promises they intended to keep.

As Americans we need to stand for the promises we make. We are a nation founded on the belief that each and every one of us has the God given tools to create a nation that embodies truth, justice and love.

Finally, and we didn’t learn this after Vietnam, we should never land boots on the ground without deciding in advance what victory would look like. If our goal was to kill or capture bin Laden, we achieved that 10 years ago. If our goal was to create a new Afghanistan in our own image, we should have had that debate 20 years ago.

Thoughts on Turning 61

Earlier this week I celebrated by 61st birthday. I confess I keep hearing about people who hit the birthday that makes them feel old and launches a midlife crisis (to say nothing of hair plugs and convertible sports cars) but I’ve never experienced that.

And yet for some reason this birthday has caused me to reflect on what it means to be living in my 7th decade and it’s been an interesting exercise. Let me share a few observations:

  • I’m far beyond a midlife crisis. If my life is only halfway over I’ll live to be 122 and I don’t want that. I enjoy life as much as the next guy but if God wants to call me home when I’m 70 or 80 I’m down with that. I’ll miss everyone and I hope I have enough time to make sure I don’t leave any complications for my loved ones. I’m also aware that the older I get, the more people I will miss.
  • My body is definitely on the decline. When I was 15 I participated in a 25 mile walkathon to raise money for charity and I did it without any preparation. The next year I roller skated for 12 hours (11PM to 11AM) and when I was 23 I rode 100 miles in one day on my bicycle (it’s called a “century”). For many years I contented myself with the belief that if I spent time training I could do any of these things again. I now know those days are gone forever. No matter how long or hard I train I won’t be able to replicate these events. And that’s OK. Those are good memories and I have no desire to do them again. I’m happy with my ability to walk the hills at the San Diego Zoo and enjoy what I experience.
  • Even as a teenager peer pressure wasn’t much of a problem for me (and spared me the horror of wearing a leisure suit) but it’s less so now. I’ve learned that doing something stupid for a short term gain ends up costing much more in the long run. I don’t remember standing up for a principle or another person and regretting it. And I do regret all those times I didn’t.
  • I no longer feel a need to have an opinion on everything. We live in a society of pollsters and customer service surveys that seek our opinion on everything from Presidential approval to flavors of dental floss. I’m certainly not without opinions but a few years ago I realized that it was OK to not have an opinion on everything. At the time I saw a news report on chocolate milk being served in school lunches. Some thought this would lead to an increase in milk consumption and that was good. Others felt children shouldn’t be given chocolate at school. Me? I have no opinion.
  • Related to this, I’m fine with people disagreeing with me. After an animated discussion I told a friend this: “I know how you feel and you know how I feel. You won’t change my mind and I have no desire to change yours so let’s stop talking about it.” I think he’s still baffled by this but I’m fine with that too. I guess I find less power in my opinion than I used to.
  • I don’t have to do something because someone tells me so. I don’t have to see the new movie that changed your life and I don’t have to taste your recipe for liver because “you’ll like my liver.” If it changes your life for the better, good for you. But leave me out of it.
  • On a related note, if I don’t share you anxiety or panic over something you’re going to need to live with that. And while I’m aware that we need to do more to reverse climate change and rising extremism I don’t think the world is going to end. When my parents were children they feared Hitler and Mussolini; my childhood lived under the shadow of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capability. These threats were valid, but in the end good won over evil and I’m convinced we will do so again.

I recognize that some of these things come back to bite me, but that concern ran too much of my life when I was younger. My future has always been finite and every day “the rest of my life” gets one day shorter.

As a friend of mine says: “Don’t piss of an old person. The threat of a life sentence doesn’t mean as much as it used to.

The Four Chaplains: May We Never Forget Their Courage

I don’t remember when I first heard this story, but something incredibly brave happened on 3 February 1943. During World War II the SS Dorchester, a civilian ship pressed into service to transport American troops to Greenland, was torpedoed by a German submarine. As the ship began to sink it became clear that there were not enough life jackets for all the troops on board.

Among those on board were four chaplains: Rev. George Fox (1900-1943), Rabbi Alexander Goode (1911-1943), Rev. Clark Poling (1910-1943), and Fr. John Washington (1908-1943).

When they recognized that there were not enough life jackets they gave up their own and stayed on the sinking ship. Those who were saved because of their life jackets remember seeing these four chaplains linking arms and praying as the bow of the ship sank.

I spent twenty two years as a hospice chaplain and the title “chaplain” means a great deal to me. When I see a chaplain acting with courage I feel pride and when I see a chaplain acting cowardly I feel anger. When I think of these men I feel great love and admiration.

They did us proud and we need to know that.

COVID and the 1918 Flu: Lest we forget

Several years ago I discovered Findagrave. It came out of my interest in genealogy. Volunteers like myself tramp through cemeteries and set up memorials from the headstones to honor those who have gone before us. Sometimes we know them, oftentimes we don’t. But we don’t want their memories to disappear.

Today I came across a few headstones for the Chiappe and Carniglia families at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery here in San Diego. I’m not entirely certain how, but these two families are related to each other. What caught my were four memorials:

They ranged in age from 5 to 57 and all four died in the span of 10 days. Given their age and the proximity of their dates of death I think we can safely assume they all died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic.

Over a century later we find ourselves in the face of another pandemic. But we also find ourselves surrounded by people who believe it’s all a hoax and we don’t need to socially distance or wear a mask.

Don’t listen to them. Instead listen to the voices of those who died within 10 days of each other in 1918.

Looking Back on 2020, Forward on 2021

I’m writing this at 8:30 on New Year’s Eve (Pacific Time). We have a few hours left in 2020 and almost everyone I know is celebrating the end of the horrible year.

But I’m struck by the fact that New Year’s is an artificial marker but so many events are. I wasn’t eligible to drive a car alone when I was 15 years and 364 days but the next day I was. At 17 years and 364 days I wasn’t able to vote, etc.

The change of one day doesn’t in itself make a huge difference, but we commemorate it all the same.

Tomorrow morning we will still battle COVID-19 and Donald Trump will still be President. Our planet will continue to warm because of human activity and we will continue to have complicated relationships with other nations in the world.

But we still look forward to 2021 because we (at least I) hope that some things will turn around and begin to get better rather than continue to get worse.

There’s no way I can talk about the pain of 2020 without talking about President Trump. Last year at this time we started hearing about a new and dangerous virus coming out of China. In February I spoke with a respiratory therapist who told me that this virus was really, really bad.

At the time President Trump told Americans it wasn’t our problem and was being controlled by China. This was before be began blaming China and referring to it as Kung Flu.

From Day 1 our scientists have spoken about the importance of wearing a mask and keeping at least six feet apart. But time and again our President has refused to wear a mask and has ridiculed those who did. Time and again he hosted gatherings of unmasked people in close proximity to each other. And time and again those who gathered got sick (including the President).

Tomorrow morning little will be different. But it’s a new year and 2021 could be a good year. I pray 2021 will be the year we eradicate COVID. I pray it’s the year we begin to take seriously the challenges of climate change and partner with other nations. I pray 2021 is a year when we rebuild relationships with our allies and stop craving the approval of the dictators of our enemies. I pray that in 2021 we inaugurate a President who respects his office and doesn’t believe his power is absolute. I pray that in 2021 that our President doesn’t see journalists as Enemies of the People.

I hope to still be blogging on December 31, 2021. And I hope I’ll have more to celebrate.

It’s Been 19 Years and We Still Need to Remember

Nineteen years ago today most of us woke to horrible news: nearly 3,000 people woke up on the last day of their lives. We watched New York (NY), Arlington (VA) and Shanksville (PA) with horror as terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville.

I remember telling a friend that at the end of my life I’ll tell someone about this about who wasn’t even born in 2001. In the days following 9/11 I spend time listening to hospice patients who needed to tell me about their experience hearing about Pearl Harbor.

But they told me about how Pearl Harbor brought people together, how young men (and many women) lined up to volunteer to defend our nation. They told me that World War II was hell but at the end of the war they were proud to have contributed to victory over fascism and allowed Europe and Japan to embrace democracy.

In the following decades the United States helped rebuild Japan and Europe.

But in the nineteen years since 9/11 we’ve gone in a different direction. Many Americans turned anger against Muslims in the false belief that they hate us and were somehow complicit. They weren’t. Currently there are 3,000,000 Muslims in the United States and they overwhelmingly love the US as much as we do.

Unfortunately the current US President, Donald Trump, loves nothing more than blaming his troubles on “others.” We are a nation who deserves better than this. We are a nation who needs to continue to mourn our losses and at the same time looks forward to healing, peace, and reconciliation.

Next year we will commemorate 20 years since 9/11. Let us work toward being a nation worthy of their sacrifice.