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 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 America’s Declaration of Independence

I’ve been ruminating and thinking about this post since the 4th of July (our annual celebration of alcohol and pyrotechnics). We celebrate this day, and we should, but in some circles it comes with a certain amount of anger and division.

Some groups think we should feel gratitude for our freedom and any criticism equates to a lack of patriotism. Others steadfastly insist that our nation continues to fall short and celebrating our freedom is premature as it’s not complete.

Let me, once again, take the middle ground and hopefully shed some light instead of heat. By the way, if you’ve never read the Declaration of Independence it’s worth a read. You can find the text here.

The document makes two declarations: we are no longer a colony of Great Britain, but instead we are an independent nation; and we are all created equal, given our rights by God and not a King.

The first was easy: we are no longer British subjects. Of course the British didn’t agree to this until 1783 when they signed the Treaty of Paris and acknowledged our independence. That was the easy part.

When Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) agreed to write this document he was only 33 years old, but was well read in philosophers of the time. His most famous phrase, our entitlement to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” actually came from John Locke (1632-1704).

Mr. Jefferson also declared that “all men are created equal” even though he would continue to own slaves for the rest of his life. He and the rest of the signers recognized that the survival of this new nation depended on the continuation of the institution of slavery.

I believed Mr. Jefferson struggled with these two aspects of his life. I believe he wished this new nation didn’t depend on slavery but he was aware that it did and was aware that there was no way he could have run his plantation without slaves. I’ve formed this opinion after reading Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. It’s less than 300 pages and it’s worth a read.

I believe we can equate equality with the ability to vote; if you can’t vote you can’t fully participate in how our nation is run and are always subservient to those who can vote.

But in the late 1700s only a few Americans could vote, basically white, male landowners. Children couldn’t vote (and still can’t). Women weren’t able to vote in all elections until 1920. Residents of Washington D.C. couldn’t vote for President until 1964 and still don’t have representatives in Congress.

And, of course, adult, male, newly freed slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 but their actually ability to vote was spotty at best (and nonexistent at worst) until civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.

In short, a look over our history in the last 245 shows that the those eligible to vote has gradually increased. I say this with some irony as I am a white, male, landowner myself.

Several states are passing legislation that I believe intends to discourage voting among certain groups, and I believe that we need to fight against this. And sadly there is reason for discouragement in the short run.

But the phrase “all men (sic) are created equal” has always been inspirational. I believe that if Mr. Jefferson came back to life he would be pleased that the institution of slavery was gone and I hope he’d be embarrassed that his long term relationship with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, was known.

In the end I believe we should celebrate the 4th of July while at the same time recognizing that the phrase “all men are created equal” continues to challenge us.

Thoughts On Watergate, 49 Years After the Fact

On June 17, 1972 a small group was arrested in the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C. Twenty six months later, President Nixon became the first American President to resign from office. He knew he would otherwise be impeached and removed from office.

It was worldwide headlines at the time but you really have to be either 60 years old or a political junkie (guilty on both counts) to remember this. Here is the elevator pitch on what happened:

In 1972 President Nixon ran for reelection against Senator George McGovern. It was a runaway from the beginning and McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But the Nixon administration formed a committee called “The Committee to Reelect the President” in the hopes of not only winning, but winning big. A few members of the campaign decided to find out what the McGovern campaign was doing and broke into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building to wiretap their phones. On the second try they were caught and arrested. President Nixon knew nothing about this until reading it in the newspaper but ordered his aides to pay money to the defendants to plead guilty and say nothing about the break in. In return their families would be taken care of. Obviously it didn’t work and by the end almost everyone involved went to prison.

I find Watergate particularly topical today. President Nixon served our nation well in many areas but not here. He believed he was above the law and bribing people to remain silent was justified. He didn’t see himself as subject to the law.

During this time many Americans were frightened that getting away with this would embolden him to continue to consolidate his power and violate the balance of power that our Constitution demands. We may have come closer than we ever knew. President Nixon continued to insist that he did nothing wrong and there was a “silent majority” who would support him.

Perhaps the greatest indication of our democracy happened on August 7th and 8th, 1974. A President resigned and a new President took office. We showed that nobody is above the law.

I write this at a time when the most recent former President believes his reelection was stolen from him and expects to return to office in a few months. He won’t.

We are still a strong democracy that believes nobody is above the law.

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.

Thoughts on President Biden’s First 100 Days

Ever since the beginning of President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in 1933 we’ve graded Presidents on their first 100 days. A few days ago President Biden hit that mark.

On one level 100 days is an arbitrary mark. But on another level it’s a little like his “first report card” and we can see how he’s doing. And he’s doing well. His approval rating among Americans is 57% and he gets props for that.

But more to the point it’s been 100 days since we’ve had to endure President Trump. It’s been nice.

Economic growth so far in 2021 is 6.4% and generally most of us feel the economy is going in the right direction.

Additionally most of us believe he is doing a good job in fighting COVID-19. And in fairness, President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed helped accelerate the development of the vaccines. Nevertheless it appears our worst days are behind us.

But I’m most pleased that I no longer hold my breath when I open the newspaper. I don’t have to wonder what the President is going to lie about in a tweet. I don’t have to read how (once again) the President is fawning the approval of President Putin while alienating our allies. I don’t have to endure another story about how he is diverting funds from the mmilitary.

Simply put it’s nice to have a President who tells the truth, who cares for all of us (not just himself) and guides our future in a good direction.

Thanks President Biden.

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.

Auschwitz, 75 Years Later

Today, January 27th, we commemorate the day in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated the most famous of the Nazi’s concentration camps, Auschwitz. From 1940 to 1945, 1,100,000 men, women, and children were murdered. Most were Jews, but the Nazi’s also murdered Roma (Gypsies), political prisoners, and gays. It’s important to remember them too.

Seventy five years out it’s easy to parrot the phrase “Never again” but that’s not enough. This genocide didn’t begin with the opening of Auschwitz, it began much earlier and “never again” commands that we challenge and call out antisemitism before it becomes the norm, before it becomes acceptable.

Germany after World War I was a mess. Not only did they lose the war, but they were forced into poverty by England and France who demanded crushing reparations.

A few years into this an Austrian who fought for Germany as a lance corporal saw an opportunity. His name was Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). He decided that the real source of German suffering wasn’t the Treaty of Versailles but the Jews.

He was a brilliant communicator and was able to convince much of his adopted country that if they could only get rid of the Jews their future would be bright. He was raised Catholic and used a longstanding myth that the Jews killed Jesus Christ to make antisemitism reasonable to Christians. It worked.

Seventy five years ago, when we learned the horrors of the Holocaust, antisemitism became unacceptable in most quarters. But every year since then we’ve seen antisemitism become more and more acceptable. In August of 2017, at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, we heard, to our horror, the phrase: “The Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

This was part of a larger campaign called “Unite the Right.” Our President, when asked about this campaign, claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

He’s wrong. Fine people aren’t white supremacists. Fine people aren’t anti-Semites.

If we want to ensure there will never be another Auschwitz we need to call out antisemitism when it begins, not when it becomes deadly.

Remembering This Day Eighteen Years Later

September 11, 2001 began ordinarily for us. It was a Tuesday morning and my parents were in town to see the home we purchased five months earlier. It was a good visit and they expected to return to Virginia the next day.

Shortly before 6AM our alarm turned on the radio and we began to get ready for work. But we soon learned that a passenger plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In the next few hours we learned that another plane crashed into the South Tower, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth plane crashed into rural Pennsylvania when passengers gave their lives to prevent a crash into the White House.

On that day many of us went to work in a blur of grief, fear, and uncertainty. I spent the morning in a meeting. After the meeting we planned to have lunch to celebrate the birthday of one of my coworkers. It was a hard lunch as we spent the whole time watching the television in the restaurant.

I spent the afternoon and the next few days visiting patients who wanted to talk about Pearl Harbor. They recognized the bewilderment and the fear of knowing that outside forces drove us into a frightening future. In some ways their memories comforted me because they told me how this attack drew our nation together and good eventually triumphed against evil.

This is a day to remember those who stepped up: the passengers of United Flight 93 who gave their lives and saved the White House; the first responders in New York who gave their lives running into the fire; the Pentagon workers who ran into the fire to save their coworkers.

Also those who spent weeks and months at Ground Zero digging through the rubble who were lied to about the risk and suffer to this day.

To those who lost loved ones, that day and since, I say this: One day we will all be in Heaven and all will be well.

Evil isn’t powerless but it will never defeat good.