THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POWER, PAIN, AND PSYCHOPATHY

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in their annual “Joke Show” – and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is :

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Bush and Cheney tortured.”
“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”
“Sorry, that information is classified – and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior, and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)
This sordid history was resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as CIA Director – but let’s go a little deeper.
Part of the debate about torture was whether or not it was even a good way of getting information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.
Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.
Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, even in the face of contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?
Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?
Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at the photos from Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. These people weren’t just doing a job…
They were having fun.
There’s a word for that. That word is sadism.
(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition – wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)
There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation…”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence, and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?
Try reading the headlines through such a lens, and then you tell me.
PS. For more information on studies about torture and interrogation, see this recent article from Scientific American magazine: “We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work”

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

That is the question. – Shakespeare, HAMLET

On April 5, I attended a very moving event at The Cooperage in Honesdale – an “open mic” benefit for an organization called the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative. Besides the excellent musical performances, the evening featured heartfelt remembrances from survivors of loved ones who had lost their individual struggles, and inspiring testimonies from others who had faced the abyss but had been able to keep going.

The evening also included a skit performed by high-schoolers from the “Wallenpaupack Players,” illustrating some of the warning signs exhibited by a potential suicide, and demonstrating possible ways to intervene.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that suicide is an increasingly serious public health problem in the United States – the tenth leading cause of death, according to some studies. Nor do you need me to list for you the many external and internal factors that can contribute to a person’s decision to give up on life, from addiction to isolation, from depression to hopelessness, from economic distress to medical difficulties.

And you certainly don’t need me to draw you a picture to show you how much these factors have become more and more prevalent in the life of 21st-century America. A life devoid both of purpose and of pleasure, after all, leaves little reason to stick around to witness another sunrise.

But I want to put this problem into an even larger context.

I found myself thinking about this event a few days later, when Donald Trump issued his now-infamous “get ready” tweet, taunting the Russians regarding the escalating tensions around the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, a prospect that many of us may have thought was an unwelcome artifact from a long-gone era – the scenario of a rapidly escalating military conflict between Washington and Moscow, with potential nuclear consequences – re-emerged as a very real possibility.

The thought occurred to me: can a society… or a nation… or an entire sentient species… itself become suicidal?

And if so, who could possibly intervene?

“We’re like the dinosaurs,” wrote Percy Farrell in his song “Pets” – “only we are doing ourselves in / much faster than they ever did.” Maybe it’s just me projecting my own existential struggles – I’ve considered the lure of the abyss myself more than once – but it sure seems to me at times that we are collectively wrestling with what Albert Camus called the only “really serious philosophical question.”

After all, if we were truly sincere about keeping this thing called human existence going for the long haul, we might be taking better care of the things that make that existence possible. We wouldn’t be focusing so much on narrow-minded power games, short-term interests, and petty territorial squabbles. We might pay more attention, and devote more effort, to making sure that everyone has the chance for a meaningful and joyful existence.

There was one song I expected to hear at that suicide prevention event but didn’t – so let me close this by quoting it…

When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

(I’d like to dedicate this column to the memory of my friend and former TRR writer Tom Kane.)

Why must we wait

Why must we wait
Until our bloodstreams merge
On sidewalks and pavements
In hallways and classrooms
In the streets of pulverized cities
To see that all thse streams are the same

Why can we only flow together
Into puddles and gutters
Spattered across walls
Soaked into clothing
Filling up bathtubs
Circling the drains of tiled rooms

Why must we be shattered
Before we can be swept up together
Why must we decay
In the unmarked mass grave
Before we can greet the sun
As fields of flowers

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: LOVE WILL DO THAT

I was 40000 or so feet above the North Atlantic a few days ago, on my way back to the States after nearly a year away. I was speaking with my seatmate, a young German grad student in economics, who was traveling to Canada to visit his Colombian girlfriend, who’s at university near Toronto. Having met at a hostel in Thailand a year and a half ago, they’ve been maintaining a trans-Atlantic relationship ever since – but now he’s planning a move to Canada. “It’s been difficult, of course – and expensive,” he was saying. “But we know it’ll be worth it.”

I am thinking of the hostel where I stayed for a few days before leaving Belgrade – where one of the Serbian managers was having a tempestuous relationship with one of the guests, a refugee from Iran I believe. I couldn’t help but overhear as they had long and intense conversations out on the balcony of the large shared room where I slept. (English was their meeting ground!) Bit by bit, step by faltering step, they tried to negotiate the tricky, perilous spaces that culture and conditioning had set up between them, trying to reconcile what their hearts were telling them with the harsh realities of the world outside.  And I prayed for them, that they would find a way to build the bridges that would help them share their lives, and I thought of the song by Bruce Cockburn:

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time,
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime.
Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

This is more than wistful romanticism, though.

Think of cultures as tectonic plates – slowly drifting, colliding, sometimes scraping against each other. The interesting stuff happens in the places where they touch, where boundaries start to break, where new possibilities can emerge. In the middle, far away from these edges, the integrity of the whole is not usually threatened… if these collisions happen in the right way. If there is resistance, though… if unresolved tensions are allowed to build up along fault lines… if there is only pushing, and no yielding… if there is nothing to ameliorate the friction… that’s when earthquakes happen.   

Sometimes that amelioration is driven by commerce, sometimes by expedience. Sometimes it is driven by love.

We can’t merge, after all, without melting a little.

This was one of the things that I saw during my trip that gave me great hope for the future – to see young people from all over the world meeting and interacting with each other, finding common ground and common humanity, exploring how to transcend the limitations of nationalism and isolationism, laying the groundwork for entirely new ways of not only coexisting but flourishing together.

Because of course love will do that.

That’s what love does.

I’ll tell you more next month.

 

Long Distance Relationship

I’m gonna take all my dreams
Pack them in some boxes
Ship them across the ocean
To you

And then you can take them out
And keep them in your pockets
Till I come back to share them
With you

I’m gonna upload my heart
Put it in the cloud
Gigabytes of love
For you

And I’ll give you the key
So access is allowed
For nobody else
But you

(bridge)
Kilometers won’t kill our love
As long as I can see your smiles
I don’t care about the miles (2x)

I’m gonna livestream my tears
Of joy so you can kiss them
Until I am next
To you

And the lonely times
I know we’ll never miss them
Once we are together
We two
When once again I am one
With you

Favorite Love Songs

In response to a question from a recent conversation, I went back and looked through my post listing some of my favorite songs… and I was quite surprised to notice that with the possible exception of “The Story in Your Eyes” by the Moody Blues, I didn’t really have any love songs on the list.

So let me fix that omission right away!

As with the previous list, I’m just jotting these down as they occur to me, no particular order of preference yet…

  1. “Isn’t Life Strange,” Moody Blues
  2. “Love and Affection,” Joan Armatrading
  3. “In Your Eyes,” Peter Gabriel
  4. “What is Life,” George Harrison
  5. “Lay Lady Lay,” Bob Dylan
  6. “Heartbeat,” King Crimson
  7. “Come to Me,” Bjork
  8. “Follow Me Follow You,” Genesis
  9. “How Can I Tell You,” Cat Stevens

DEMOLITION CREWS

DEMOLITION CREWS
An Observation by Blind Peanut Nicholson

Mrs. Morgan just passed away
I think it was last Saturday
Today they came to clean out all her stuff
All her bric-a-brac, and her knick-a-knacks
Her collection of ceramic cats
She used to say she could never had enough

Demolition crews
They don’t stop to pick and choose
They just tear it out and haul it all away
All the things that you used to use
That you were so afraid to lose
That never more will see the light of day

A bunch of magazines from the 70s
That she’d kept around “for the recipes”
But I don’t believe she ever really cooked
Candle stands and praying hands
A talking fish, some jars of sand
I don’t know what else, I never really looked

Demolition crew
They’ve got no time to lose
They’ve got to do their job and do it fast
Memories and souvenirs
Leftovers from your younger years
Just like you, you know they’ll never last

Yes, they cleaned it to the walls
And put it all in a pile in the hall
That’s where it was when I came walking by
And I made myself a solemn vow
Which I suggest you take right now
To clean up all your crap before you die

‘Cause demolition crews
They won’t take an excuse
From someone who is not there anymore
Take a look at all your stuff
And figure out just what’s enough
And let the rest just move on out the door