Friday, December 28, 2007

Thoughts about Benazir Bhutto

Like millions, if not billions of others, I was saddened and depressed by the news of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. I spoke to friends, read blogs, and dialed in to talk shows to learn what others’ reactions were, and heard many of the emotions I was feeling. I also heard many struggling to understand what the real issues behind all the Middle East violence are.

For many, it seems to me, the struggle to understand is itself the barrier to understanding. The various groups involved make no secret about what the issues are- indeed, much of the violence is intended to draw attention to their statements and demands. The problem is that many of us are psychologically incapable of accepting their words at face value.

The exact nature of the demands vary wildly from group to group- that is why so much of the violence is Muslim on Muslim. But the heart of all their demands is the same: our interpretation of scripture is the only correct one; this is the will of God and you must obey. And because they truly believe, they are not afraid to kill or die to enforce the will of God; eternal reward is theirs.

Because so many in post modern liberal churches are incapable of that depth of faith, they cannot believe that the problem is that simple and so try to force it into a template they can deal with. “It’s not really about religion,” the Marxists say, “It’s about class struggle, the haves and have nots”- and they are shocked to learn that some of the most stable regimes have the biggest gaps between rich and poor, and some of the worst violence occurred in societies that were reforming. “It’s not really about religion,” progressives say, “It’s about ignorance and want. Educate them, get them into the 20th Century, and the violence will stop”- and they are shocked to learn that many of the terrorists, including suicide bombers, are doctors and engineers. “It’s not really about religion,” the Neocons say, “It’s about disaffection. Bring in Capitalism, get them invested in their own economy, and it will be in their own interest to stop the violence.” Well, Anwar Sadat did exactly that when he cut a multi-billion dollar deal with Israel and the US- and they killed him for it.

I find myself thinking of the movie “Star Trek II”. In the opening scenes, a class of cadets are on a training mission in a simulator; they have to rescue a crippled freighter, the “Kobayashi Maru”. It turns out to be a trap; they are ambushed by Klingons and everyone “dies”. Furious, the cadet in command demands and receives permission to speak freely. “That wasn’t a fair test of our abilities,” she says, “There was no way to win.” “There was no way to win,” Admiral Kirk agrees. “Everyone at some point in their life will face a no-win scenario. This was a test of character.”

For all of humankind- including billions of nonviolent Muslims- dealing with the Jihadists may be our “Kobayashi Maru”. None of the solutions that have stopped violence are working, and we’re operating under a deadline: when will they get weapons of mass destruction? Don’t kid yourself that non-proliferation treaties and technology bans will prevent it forever.

Later in the movie we discover that just one person had beaten the no-win scenario: cadet James T. Kirk- by hacking into the simulator changing the conditions of the test. If we have time, perhaps we can change the conditions of our trial, too- but how? We can’t force peoplee to change their beliefs; that’s impossible to do and immoral to even try. Nor can we force all of mankind to abandon faith, as Dawkins and other atheists would have us do; that, too, is impossible.

But if a universal faith is impossible, a universal agreement, a covenant, may not be. Mankind must give up situational ethics, and adopt certain absolutes, certain behaviors that are never the right thing to do. There must be means that cannot be justified by any end, not even a holy one. Surely that’s an easier sell- how can holy ends come from unholy means? Of course, there will be disagreement at first over just what is and isn’t acceptable, even in vengeance- but just starting the conversation will force people to think about it. Sooner or later, surely even the hardest heart will have trouble publicly declaring the conditions under which it would be appropriate, to use an example from the book “1984”, to throw acid in a baby’s face. There must be limits somewhere that would be universally acceptable... and having found the first set, the next set will be easier.

You think an ethical covenant is impossible? Ok... let’s hear your idea.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas to all...

and God bless us, every one!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Life and death in New Mexico

My blogging has been erratic the last month because I have been busy preparing for and taking an extended trip west- The California Zephyr train to Grand Junction, Colorado, Thanksgiving with family in Cortez, Co., a ride on the Durango/Silverton honest-to-God steam engine, Arches and Mesa Verde National Parks, and return home on the Southwest Chief train. I intend to write about these experiences, and the deeper thoughts they inspired, but first I want to discuss four hours of the return trip, between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM.

We had pulled out of Albuquerque on time, 12:55 P.M., having just finished yet another wonderful meal in the dining car. Something over an hour later, the train came to a sudden stop. We thought nothing of it; this is a common occurrence, which would be followed shortly by an announcement about the slow freight or whatever ahead of us. Except it wasn’t. The lights and air shut down, and the emergency lighting came on. Then the sleeper car attendant came through, telling us we had to leave the train. No, not through our own exit downstairs; walk to the last car and then exit on the right. We started walking, confused but obedient.
The confusion deepened as we encountered crowds in cars to the rear who had either been given different instructions or had misunderstood them, and were milling around in the aisles. It eventually got through everyone’s heads that something bad had happened, and standing in the exits swapping rumors wasn’t a good idea; the train emptied in minutes. Once out of the train, the explanation became clear even before the Conductor’s briefing: perhaps a thousand feet behind us was a road crossing with wreckage in it; a few hundred feet ahead the nose of the train had wreckage wrapped around it.

The train had been evacuated because there was gasoline everywhere; it was still pouring out of the ruptured tank as we watched. Fortunately, the local Fire Department responded very quickly, and started watering the front of the train as if it were a potted plant, to dilute the gasoline. As they worked, the train crew passed out bottled water and tried to keep us herded away from either the crossing, where half the car had been sheered off on impact, or the front of the train, where the half of the car containing whatever remained of the driver was deeply imbedded into the front of the engine. It was a lost cause; those few who were interested in such ghoulish sights were impossible to herd, pulling out their cell phones to take photographs. I have no such pictures to share, thank you.

There was much clucking over people who try to beat the train through the crossing, although I later learned locals don’t believe that’s what happened . And from the victim’s life story , what they say seems reasonable.
When the gasoline had been diluted, they allowed people to re-board the train, but I stayed outside- I had been having trouble breathing at that altitude, and they had not turned the air back on inside the train. This allowed me to watch my fellow passengers react and cope, which was probably MY method of coping. Nearly all, except those who just had to get pictures, were solemn at first. But as minutes stretched into hours, many other reactions developed.

There were stabs at humor, of course. “You know what the last thing to go through his mind was? The engine!” Others talked with the Fire Dept. Chaplain, who arrived in the first fire engine. The ravens, who had showed up even faster than the Fire Dept. to orbit around both halves of the wreckage were the subject of much discussion. Some were angry, others philosophical, still others pondered the question of why ravens rather than vultures? Some just became very quiet, not initiating any conversation at all.

Eventually wreckers arrived to winch the imbedded car out of the front of the engine, replacement crewmembers arrived, and we were on our way again. Perhaps it was merely the shock of this happening in the middle of the holiday season, i don’t know... but I’m proud to say that not a single passenger complained about being late.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I'm back

from a trip to the other side of the country, via Amtrak! We got back in the wee, small hours this morning, 27 hours late, because of an incident outside Albuquerque; but I can't complain- we're not as late as the driver of the car that tried to beat our train through the crossing. More tomorrow after some recovery.