Monday, September 2, 2013

Syria: Crises of Complex Proportions

Syria is a crises that tears at our hearts when we hear of innocent civilians massacred, most recently gassed to death.  Over 100,000 have died, a number equivalent to the population of my home town of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As Americans, we always ask "What should we do?"  We are a people that like to take action.  I think we feel better about ourselves when we take definitive action.  We like our action movies when the hero takes immediate action and gets back at the enemy.

We are more divided when it comes to nations that are neither our close friends or our enemies.  It took a lot of demonizing of Iraq before the Bush administration pushed for the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq.   We were divided about taking action in Kosovo, when we intervened for humanitarian reasons to stop the "ethnic cleansing." 

In the first case, the left generally opposed intervention while in the second, the right was generally non-interventionist.  While there are some who are non-interventionists in all situations, the 2 major political parties seem to see-saw back and forth on the question of when to intervene.

With this landscape, we come to September 2013 and the question of Syria.  President Obama looked like he'd announce a plan of definitive action, likely a missile strike against some Syrian military facility in retribution for stepping over the line with the use of deadly gas.  But, then he pulled back and tossed the hot potato to Congress.  Was this an act of an indecisive leader or a shrewd politician who knew he'd get a 80% negative rating on any decision he could make?  Was he wise to seek political consensus?

Immediately, we saw that Congress is all over the map on what to do in Syria.  Sen. McCain criticized the President for backing down from action, saying it would embolden our enemies.  But other Republicans opposed action, while some were for it depending on certain conditions.  Democrats were also all over the map, from supporting action to saying no military action should be taken under any conditions.  Weariness of the decades-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also feed into the political debate.  Also, many have a "we won't get fooled again" perspective, recalling how many were duped about Iraq's weapon arsenal in order to justify that war.

What to do?

Any action should be informed by a good understanding of the nation, its issues and its peoples.  This link is one a number of Syria 101 articles that are worth a read.  The article has many links to other articles and videos.

Does it help?

I found that about 50% through it I came to understand why in the US you'll hear about a dozen different perspectives from politicians.  Each tidbit of information on its own might lead to concluding on one approach for intervention or non-intervention.

Taken together, you might come to the same conclusion as Pres. Obama:  let's throw this out there for a debate on the issue.

I keep teetering between non-intervention and the urge to take action against the state-sponsored atrocities from murder of civilians (including children) to the use of deadly gas on civilians.  These are humanitarian crimes that cry out to heaven.  If not us, who will act?

But, I know that while definitive action may feel good, any action, any support for any side may have unanticipated negative consequences.  And increasing the level of warfare may not lead to a workable solution.

My recommendation would be to gather a coalition of our allies, the UN, and the Arab League to negotiate a cease fire and peace talks.  We need to end the bloodshed that is devastating Syria.  But peace, not more warfare, is the way.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

In the Matter of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

There is no reason that Trayvon Martin should have had to die.  There's simply no reason.

His death is not right (in my sense of right and wrong).  It is not just, even if it can be legally justified under the laws of Florida.  Being legally justifiable does not make something right, nor just.

Just walking around
Trayvon had a right to be there, in that gated neighborhood.  He was staying there temporarily.  Just walking around, he was not up to anything wrong.

In fact, before the encounter and confrontation, each man was just doing his own thing, if you will.  Trayvon was just going to the store and returning to the home he was visiting.  George was just doing his rounds of watching the neighborhood.  Neither of them knew the other. Neither of them had any beef against the other.

And, if on that evening of February 26, 2012, each of them had simply just kept on doing their thing, neither would have nationally known names.  Neither of them would have been in a scuffle.  Trayvon would still be alive today.

Let me first suggest that no one, regardless of their opinion on this matter, would have wanted Trayvon Martin to die.  Even the most ardent defenders of George Zimmerman will only defend George's innocence, that, under the laws of the State of Florida, he had a right to use deadly force in the scuffle at a point when George felt he had reason to believe his life was threatened.  They would defend George's right to self-defense and to stand his ground,  But, I will suppose that none of them believed that Trayvon deserved death.

Why did he have to die?
So what went wrong?  Why did Trayvon have to die?

Here the details are only partial.  We don't have a video replay to document the events, step-by-step.  Piecing things together, we know that George called the police after seeing Trayvon.  There had been incidents of other crimes in the neighborhood, and apparently George suspected that Trayvon might be up to criminal intent.

About 7 1/2 minutes after George called the police, a shot is heard by a neighbor calling the police.

Somewhere in those tragic 7 1/2 minutes, Trayvon realizes he's being followed and runs, getting away from George.  Despite instructions from the 911 operator, George pursues Trayvon on foot.

In the last 3 minutes of Trayvon's life, the encounter escalates.  Somehow George finds Trayvon.  At some point the encounter turns into a scuffle.  One of them shouts for help.  A neighbor sees the fight and calls 911.

And then at 7:17 pm, the shot is heard.

Within a minute, police arrive.   Not too much longer, Trayvon dies.

Beyond these events, we hear how different people want to interpret the situation.

Some will say that George escalated things by not obeying the 911 operator's instructions not to pursue.  If he didn't pursue, when the police arrived, they might have only questioned Trayvon and interviewed George, avoiding the fatal encounter.

Others say George was just doing his job.  He found someone who might be up to no good, pursued him.  And when he felt his life was threatened in the scuffle, he defended himself.  They say he did nothing wrong.

How Doing "Nothing Wrong" Leads to Fatal Results
Why does the "he did nothing wrong" scenario end up in Trayvon's death?

Some will say that it was Trayvon who was attacking George.  And when the encounter changed to the point Trayvon threatened George, then George was justified in defending himself.

But on the other side, were Trayvon's actions tantamount to "standing his ground" when he felt threatened by Georges pursuit?

On another perspective, if not for George's gun, the scuffle may have been simply a "mano-a-mano" fist fight, perhaps with bloody results, but not with fatal results.  The deadly weapon was the variable that allowed the scuffle to turn fatal.

The "Loophole" in Stand Your Ground
On the surface, self-defense makes sense.  You're just minding your business, and some criminal comes up to you and threatens you.  Shouldn't you be able to defend yourself?  Most people will say this makes sense.

But now, change the nature of the encounter.  Say there's no one just attacking you out of the blue.  You're minding your business and so is the other person.  But you think the other person may be up to no good.  Then you do or say something, and the other person feels threatened.  With both persons now feeling somewhat threatened, an encounter or scuffle or fight follows.  The fight escalates.  Now, if either or both of the persons fighting feels their life is threatened, they can simply kill the other person can claim they're standing their ground.  

Does this mean anytime two people get in a serious fight, the stand your ground provisions apply and one person is allowed to kill the other?

Does this mean that someone can now go around picking fights, getting the other person all worked up until that person attacks, and the person picking the fight can now kill that person, justified by stand your ground?

Is this a justification for injecting a fatal conclusion is what should just be a fight?

If George escalated the encounter by pursuing Trayvon to the point Trayvon felt threatened, who is responsible for the scuffle that followed. Why does George get to claim stand your ground if he started it?

The Law vs. Right-and-Wrong
Somewhere, I believe there is a gut sense of right and wrong that is violated here.  Sure, I listened to the trial and based on the evidence and law, George was correctly found "not guilty."   But that doesn't make him innocent or even right in his actions. 

Only a lawyer can say that right-and-wrong of the incident boils down the the last 2 minutes of the scuffle, when George felt his life endangered and shot Trayvon.  I believe reasonable people would look at all of George's actions to judge what is right or wrong.

Thus, my sense of right and wrong encompasses the entire incident, from the first moment that George spotted Trayvon.

My sense of right and wrong looks at all the actions of each individual.  When you do that, we see neither was completely a victim.

When George first spotted Trayvon, he was doing nothing wrong and had every right to be walking through the neighborhood.  But seeing this young man in a hoodie, George made a judgement that he was suspicious, and then decided to follow Trayvon.  Observing only his race and attire, George wrongfully assumed Trayvon might be up to something criminal.  This act made Trayvon a victim of unjustified accusation.  

As a victim of unjustified accusation, was not Trayvon justified for feeling concerned about being followed?  For Trayvon, there was not an apparent reason why this guy was following him.  So, would not be reasonable for Trayvon to run away to escape from being followed?  Yet, George may have interpreted Trayvon's running as confirmation that he was up to something.

So, the situation between the two strangers has escalated, with George in pusuit of a potential criminal and Trayvon angry about why this unidentified guy is following him.

For any person, regardless of age or race, being followed for unexplained reasons puts one on the defense.  Many of us have had some situation where they are followed by someone.  It happened to me once at age 22, when two men pulled me down and robbed me.

According to the event timeline, there was about 3 min. between the end of George's call to the police, when he said he lost track of Trayvon, and the shot that killed Trayvon.

Clearly, in those 3 minutes, the pair found each other.  After finding each other, somehow a  scuffle ensued and likely punches were laid on George.

While a fight is never justified, we can see where the emotions of each person could lead to it.

But, who was the instigator?  George took the first actions, and created the encounter.  Without his pusuit, the two would have gone on their own ways.

Yet, under the law and in court, we see George made into the victim, fearing for his life in a scuffle lasting 2 minutes at most.  

Think about this.  George is the guy with the gun.  Trayvon is unarmed.  If Trayvon knew George had a gun and was pursuing him, did not Trayvong have  the right to stand his ground and defend himself in the only way he could by using his fists, as he was unarmed.

Yet, under Florida law, it is George that is justified for "standing his ground" (ironic for a guy lying on his back, loosing the fight that he instigated.

My sense of right and wrong is both of them are wrong in fighting.  But, once the fight began, both of them can be justified in "standing their own ground."

Finally, if this incident was left to trained law enforcement and not this amateur, self-appointed armed watchman, there is no reason for the incident to end in death.  But, thanks to the provisions of Florida law, we have a young man dead for no good reason.

The death of Trayvon was not right.  It was not just.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Marriage and the Supreme Court

The high court issued two land-mark decisions on what is popularly called "same sex marriage."  In separate 5-4 decis-ions, the court's decisions came out with decisions favorable to supporters of same sex marriage.

We will shortly see the barrage of political spin on all fronts.  But, from my analysis, the court decided in a logical manner.

Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Decision
In this case, the court correctly determined that DOMA violated the constitution.  In simple language, since same-sex marriage contracts are equally legal as two-sex marriage contracts in certain states, the Federal Government is acting unconstitutionally by saying some of these valid contracts can be honored by, say the IRS or other Federal agencies, whereas other equally valid contracts are honored.  There is no simple logical or legal reason for this.   (Technically, DOMA was found to violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as made applicable to the United States through the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.   Thanks to my friend Josh for the legal details.)

So, here's my analysis of the decision:
  • Simple logic:  This decision is simple as the Feds can't uphold some marriage con-tracts while not upholding other mar-riage contracts.  Fair-ness demands they honor them all or honor none of them.
  • States rights:  So, today, the left is championing state's rights to define marriage, whereas certain conservatives who oppose the decision want the heavy hand of the Federal government to say "wait, we have some overriding principal and we'll impose our will on everyone."  Here, these conservatives are wrong.  They proclaim a weaker Fed, until some issue comes up when they can control the lives of those who differ from them.
  • Theocrats:  We will hear religious leaders and religious politicians decrying the government cannot redefine the "traditional" marriage.  But these are the leaders who what to impose the principals of their interpretation of religion on all.  The want to encode tenants of religion into national law.  Here I have many things to say:
    - I do not believe in any encodement of any religious principals in national law.  This is both unconstitutional and against my religious beliefs
    - I am a Christian and I belief in teachings of Jesus Christ.  Jesus clearly had many problems with the high priests and scribes who wanted to hold all to their beliefs without walking their talk.  The theocrats are the high priests and scribes of our days and we must not follow them as they do not have authority in the eyes of God.
How Should Marriage Be Defined and by Whom?
We have been delivered to this point in time when this is the real question and this is where all sides want to prevail.  But before I tackle the issue, we need to look at the background:  how did we get from marriage as a local mercantile contract between business partners to marriage as something that spans the realms of religion and government?

A Brief History of Marriage  (taken from a previous post)
Forms of committed relationships between a man and woman date back millennia in many cultures. In many of the earlier forms a woman was considered given to a man. In European history, this was often seen as more a business deal, arranged by the families, where the woman may have been given as part of a transaction involving material goods.

Cultural traditions for marriage vary around the world and date back centuries, though the particulars typically evolved over the years. Often religious beliefs or superstitions were entwined in these traditions.

Formal state and/or religious recognition are relatively recent additions. In Europe, the first example of requiring a religious ceremony of marriage was in the Catholic Church, after the 1545 Council of Trent. However, religions ceremonies did occur for centuries before this date, but they were optional. Civil marriages emerged in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s.

The emergence of state recognition of marriage, particularly in Europe, roughly parallels the transition from state religions to tolerance for multiple religious traditions. Before that, the bureaucracy of state and church were so intertwined that the need for separate state involvement was not needed.

Back to the Question at Hand
We, in western society at least, have over the last 200 to 300 years come to move marriage into the public realm.  But, the major religions still believe marriage is theirs to define.

Thus, the conflict between church and state to define marriage.  Even in some religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, there is a divide.   Some sects cling to what they call "traditional marriage" yet others do marry same-sex couples.

This is the driving force in the power struggle for defining marriage:  does government in a multicultural society let the traditionalists, who may claim this is how it always was and always shall be?  Does government simply put it up to a vote?

As I have no trust of the theocrats, I can't accept any one view point strong-arming their opinion into law.  And, we all know the "Bible-based" marriage argument is weak, in light of many figures in the Hebrew scriptures who were unfaithful, or who had a lover on the side, etc.   The argument that it takes a man and a woman to conceive has a degree of merit, but, even in the arguments at the Supreme Court, the justices pointed out that marriage is not solely for propagation.  And there are many 2-sex couples who can't conceive as well as many ways that infertile couples and same-sex couples can conceive and have children.

In an equal manner, I don't like the idea of the definition of marriage being decided by a elected politicians or a ballot question or a judge in some court case.   Either, we end up with what DOMA tried to do, namely use the strong arm of the Fed to define marriage, or a patchwork of state-by-state decisions.

The Many Facets of Marriage
So, is marriage mostly for the propagation of the species?  Or for the committed, intimate relationship of soul-mates?  Or for the financial security of one or both spouses?  While traditionalists would say "all of the above" this is not always the case.  Some couples don't want to have children.  Some marry later in life so it's more about companionship.

Marriage has a somewhat different meaning and purpose for each couple, even if the traditionalists only put forward the model of a young couple marrying and having a family.

What Does My Faith Tell Me?
While many Christians will disagree with me, I can't say that a same-sex relationship is an abomination in the sight of God. I think we have to look hard at the teachings of Jesus and how Jesus lived and interacted with the people of his time on earth.   Yes, Jesus attended a "traditional marriage" at Cana and help out with the wine shortage.  Many take this as his endorsement of "traditional marriage,"  which it may be.   

But Jesus, unlike the scribes and pharisees of his day and the theocrats of our time, did not preach the prescriptions of what we should not do.  These folks love to be seen in public doing "good" things and following the rules.

Rather, he focused us on the greatest commandment of loving God and neighbor.  This love within needs to bring us a change of heart.  We must accept all, especially those on the fringes.  In Jesus' day, this was the tax collectors, prostitutes, and widows.  In our day, when we see who the theocrats rail against certain groups, those in the fringes include the undocumented aliens, minorities, LGBT folk (aka, "abominations"), the poor and homeless.

I know many same-sex couples who are motivated by love for each other.  I have many LGBT friends who have a strong faith in the Lord.  They don't exhibit the vile and hatred we see from the theocrats.  So, the question to me, is who is closer to the kingdom of God?

What to Do?
My proposal is simple: get the government out of the marriage business. A good pragmatic Libertarian has to always ask: “Does it make sense for the government to be involved in this?” I say: “No!”

The states should deal with legal contracts, which is one of the necessities of “being married” -- for example, ownership of common property, joint custody of dependents, rights related to health care, inheritance etc. So, I say any couple should be able to draw up a state-recognized legal contract regarding these matters.

And let the marriage ceremony return to the cultural traditions of the couple, be they religious or non-religious. Those traditions that recognize same-sex marriage can perform them; those opposed don’t have to.

Freedom and choice for all with no government intervention. That’s my solution.