Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Crumbling Empire

Friday evening I did something I've never done in my life: I worked the phones, as they say, for one of the presidential candidates.

Since I often treat of religion in this blog (an explosive enough topic) and make no secret of being a Quaker, I avoid talking partisan politics. For one thing, I don't believe that religious organizations --although I certainly do not speak for anyone in the Quaker universe other than myself--should endorse candidates. Besides, our two-party system does not really allow me to vote my conscience. In my heart, I support one of the third party candidates. However, I feel that reality forces me to cast my vote for one of the Big Two. Be that as it may, I've decided to get involved in campaigning for one of them.

The "office" was the vacant banquet room of a local caterer, where I made phone calls in dilapidated splendor. Party tables --the standard, round, six-person type-- dotted the large room, many with their ruffled tablecloths coming detached from the rim. A chandelier glowed pale and glassy, its illumination only a pretense. The fluorescent bulbs provided the real light to work by. I sat in a high-backed chair trimmed with bamboo and had to bend over to make calls on the phone resting on the tiny matching table.

It occurred to me that the vacant banquet hall was a fitting metaphor for the crumbling empire that our country has become. Our laws, regulations, and even our rights have been deteriorating over the last few decades, unseen by the naked American eye. Invisible government agencies have covertly fomented revolutions, shored up dictatorships, and bullied third-world economies. Oblivious to our decaying moral and material infrastructure, we've kept ourselves busy working long hours at our jobs so we could spend our free time shopping in big-box stores for cheap, mass-produced goods. Because we were able to fill our houses with the latest gadgets at the lowest prices, we knew we were living in the greatest country in the world and enjoying the blessings of freedom.

But in recent years, the disintegration of our empire has begun to show on the outside as well. Assailants trained and financed by a mysterious, elusive enemy toppled three of four major symbols of our country's financial and political prowess and almost destroyed the White House too, killing thousands of citizens. Our massive nuclear arsenal, built with an obscenely bloated defense budget, was powerless to protect us. More recently, Americans beguiled into signing mortgages they couldn't afford began losing their homes, setting off a downward spiral that is bringing the major financial houses crashing. Closer to my home, toxic waste washed onto the New Jersey beaches this summer, depriving us even of our nearby areas of rest and recreation.

How did we become so undiscerning ... and so myopic, ignorant of anything beyond the bargain of the week and the winner of Survivor? How did we become
addicted to memories of past military victories and enamored of empty mottoes? We are the fearless Christian warriors, heroes of myths we concoct about ourselves, yet we live in such dread of the enemy that we justify even the use of torture. But I digress.

I have no illusions that the candidate for whom I'm volunteering will be our savior.
(Imagine: candidates who raise millions of dollars in campaign funds each week still depend on volunteers!) When I want to hear the voice of my Savior, I seek it in the silence of my heart. I simply believe --or rather fervently hope--that this candidate, if elected, will be a bit more mindful than previous presidents of his oath to defend the Constitution and will realize that our best safeguard resides in the justice of our laws. Finally, I pray that he will care more about the citizens that elected him than about the economic and political powers-that-be.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Confessions of a Sorry Ass

Hurricane Hanna came sweeping her way up the coast and was knocking insistently at West Chester's door. Swollen raindrops were falling, and the warm streets and pavements exhaled a vaguely saline odor into the air. Not the invigorating salt air that you breathe in at the shore, but more like a stuffy, chemical-laden vapor.

I kissed Karen hello and apologized for my lateness. We unrolled the "Torture Is Wrong" banner that I had brought, and three young men immediately took charge of it. Glancing across the street, I noticed some pro-victory vigilers mouthing invectives that I couldn't quite make out. I never feel any inclination to shout back. There's a lot of misplaced anger out there, I always remind myself, along with a desire for vengeance faithfully stoked by radio shock-jocks and others. "Country first," read someone's sign. "Country music first," I chuckled to myself, disarming the slogan in my head.

Ever since I've returned from vacation, an avalanche of work has kept me from participating much in peace or anti-torture efforts. Today I just felt like planting my feet firmly on the wet pavement and holding the "Torture Is Wrong" banner for an hour. But I had signatures to collect. That much I could do at least.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, in collaboration with Evangelicals for Human Rights and the Center for Victims of Torture, is calling on people of faith and others concerned about human rights to sign the Declaration of Principles for an Executive Order Banning Torture, to be presented to the next President. I placed a photocopy of the Declaration and a signature sheet on each of several clipboards, added a pen and handed them out. John returned his clipboard to me shortly afterward, having efficiently collected signatures from the vigilers standing around him.

At 11:30 a few of us began marching with the banner toward Gay Street, down to Church and then circled back. A passing motorist called us "sorry asses." He spoke more truly than he knew. This particular ass is unutterably sorry for the death of innocent men like Dilawar, pictured below, subject of the movie Taxi to the Dark Side...

whose legs were beaten into pulp at Bagram. I am also extremely sorrowful for the deaths of Ali al-Salami, Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser al-Zahrani, who hanged themselves at Guantánamo Bay prison and for Abdul Rahman Maadha al-Amry, also dead of an apparent suicide. Other children of God are being held illegally at Guantánamo and in "black sites" around the world, where they are subjected to sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation, sleep "adjustment," and other forms of torture.

Even a sorry ass is entitled to her convictions. Mine is that torture is never permissible. Never, ever. Period.

CCPM members read aloud the stories of illegal prisoners, while I circulated to gather signatures for the Declaration, pausing occasionally to trade a waterlogged photocopy for a dry one stashed in a plastic bag. After the group sang "We Shall Overcome," Karen helped me fold up the dripping banner. Then this sorry ass returned to her car and resumed her Saturday chores, feeling a bit less like an executioner, a bit more like a compassionate human being.
photo of Dilawar courtesy of Linda G. Richard of