Tuesday, September 09, 2014

TRUE FAITH; TRUE COURAGE



A local critic recently challenged me to summon up the courage to comment on Kansas politics and the upcoming gubernatorial/senatorial races. My responses will be brief. (1) Kansas politics in this election cycle is all about money and (2) I don’t have a donkey or an elephant in the race, so I honestly don’t care who wins.

I am, however, interested in the relationship between journalism, courage, faith, and the love of humanity. Those four inter-related elements constitute, to me, the essence of someone who is operating at the pinnacle of the journalist’s craft.

How much courage would it take, for example, to comment on Kansas politics? None.  How much courage would a writer like me need to summon up in order to take an editorial position against Sam Brownback or Paul Davis? None. Would it be courageous to report on the doings of our city or county commissioners? No.

To be honest, I’ve heard too much chatter about courage lately. When it comes to courage, we all too often take the part for the whole and assume that courage automatically comes with the press credentials. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Courage is a very easy word to use; it’s very difficult to practice. It’s hard to define, but it’s much easier for us to understand what it is by seeing it practiced. With that said, I can define courage in two words – James Foley!

Nancy and I were privileged to have a journalist named Jonathan Katz as our guest a few nights ago. During the course of our conversation that evening I found out that he knew James Foley. I told him that I thought that Mr. Foley was an eminently decent man. He agreed and added that he was an even better man up close than he seemed to be at a distance.

Now, as I ask myself why James Foley was willing to crawl into the belly of the beast that is ISIS, I find myself coming to an inescapable conclusion. His mission in life was motivated by love of God, family, and humanity. It was under-girded by faith and buttressed by courage. He was, in a very real sense, a digital age prophet, showing us that the barbarians had stormed the gates of civilization.

We live at a time when the existence of evil in the world is too often denied. This is the 21st century. We’re told that evil has been tamed. James Foley’s reports from Syria and the pain being inflicted on the Syrian people showed us how wrong we were. Evil is as much a modern phenomenon as it is ancient. As Lance Morrow put it, “Each age and place has its own style of evil. Evil exploits available resources – turns them to parody and destruction. Evil is an industrial program among the industrious, and an apocalypse in the hands of religious fanatics who have abandoned the smaller moral human decencies for visions of righteous obliteration.”

ISIS is the 21st century embodiment of that evil.

About a year before he was kidnapped in Syria, Mr. Foley was taken captive by Muammar Gaddafi loyalists in Libya. When he was given a brief opportunity to speak with his family during the 44 day ordeal, he spoke of the importance of his Roman-Catholic faith – “I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed… And it helped to keep my mind focused.”

After he was released he spoke to an assembly at his alma-mater, Marquette University, about the impact his Jesuit education had on his life -Later I volunteered in a Milwaukee junior high school up the street from the university and was inspired to become an inner-city teacher. But Marquette was perhaps never a bigger friend to me than when I was imprisoned as a journalist.”

The final chapters of James Foley’s life were spent as a captive of ISIS in Syria. According to fellow prisoner, French journalist Didier Francois, He was tortured, endured mock executions, and was once crucified to a wall. The torture got even more brutal when ISIS found out that he had two brothers serving in the U.S. military. Yet, he remained faithful to the end.

Foley’s final words to his family came in the form of a letter that was committed to memory by a fellow hostage who was being released. As it had been throughout his professional career, faith was central to him even in the face of death. These were his last words to his parents: “I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”

James Foley poured out his life faithfully and courageously. The so-called “courage” it takes to report on Kansas politics pales by comparison.

Friday, September 05, 2014

BRING BACK OFFICER FRIENDLY



The sight of demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri facing off against police officers dressed in full military gear, brandishing machine guns, and perched atop surplus military Humvees and MRAP’s seems like it’s light years removed from our everyday life here in Emporia, Kansas. There are no tear gas canisters exploding on our streets. There are no Molotov cocktails flying through our air. Our daily newspaper’s “crime blotter” is almost always full of tidbits about “dogs at large” or some citizen “failing to obey a stop sign.”

As I watch events unfold in Ferguson, I wonder if something like that could ever happen here. I don’t think so, but I’m not as sure as I was a few years ago. I wish that the police response in Ferguson had been an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. Police on citizen violence in this country is becoming more and more frequent and violent.

On June 21, 2012, for example, 68 year old Louise Milan was at home with her adopted daughter when an Evansville, Indiana police SWAT team broke through their door, looking for someone who had allegedly issued on-line threats against the police. As it turned out, the source of the threat was a neighbor who had pirated the WI-FI signal from Ms. Milan’s router. After the smoke cleared, Ms. Milan told a reporter from Police State USA, “I’m afraid of the police.  I’m afraid of them.  I used to speak [to officers] and wave.  I don’t do that anymore, and I don’t trust them.”
 
In early 2013, Dave Eckert was forced by the Deming, New Mexico police to endure multiple anal cavity searches, enemas, and a colonoscopy when they suspected him of hiding drugs. The searches revealed what Eckert had told the police when they first stopped him. He had no drugs…period!

As we were returning from vacation earlier this year we watched a television report about the 26 fatal police shootings that had occurred in the Albuquerque area during a recent four year period. The U.S. Justice Department called “many of these deadly shootings unjustified, saying a culture of “aggression” exacerbated the problem.”

In the summer of 2013, 22 year old Raymond Herisse was killed by the Miami Beach and Hialeah police. It began when Herisse allegedly fled from police after he’d had an altercation with an officer on bike patrol. 116 shots later, sixteen of which hit Herisse, the incident ended. According to the Miami Herald, some of the errant bullets “struck and wounded four bystanders.”

Earlier this year, a police SWAT team broke into the Atlanta home of Alecia Phonesavanh¸ searching for drugs. They fired flash grenades, one of which landed in Ms. Phonesavanh’s young son’s crib, leaving him in a coma, with a huge hole in his chest. The police found no drugs. After the incident Ms. Phonesavanh told reporters, “This is happening every day to people [who are] being relentlessly and unnecessarily militarized by police who think just because they're supposed to be upholding the law, they are above the law themselves.”

As the incidents continue to build, the relationship of trust between the police and the public is slowly, but surely, eroding. It shouldn’t be that way. As Robert Peel, the founding father of Britain’s Metropolitan police, once noted, “The power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”

Being a policeman is a really difficult job.  Unfortunately, the profession doesn’t really get the attention it needs. Here in Kansas, for example, becoming a licensed cosmetologist requires about 39 weeks of training while becoming a police officer with a badge only requires 24 weeks. Is it really fair to expect a person to do all that’s required of a policeman with less training than it takes to learn how to cut our hair or give us a manicure?

Over the past few years, more and more police departments are compensating for the lack of needed training with the use of surplus military equipment. Our police are looking more and more like Darth Vader these days than Officer Friendly of old. They’ve got drones, machine guns, body armor, Humvees, Mine Resistant-Ambush Proof vehicles, etc. We even got our own MRAP here in Lyon County not long ago. We’ve been told it’s needed “just in case.” In case of what? Has ISIS taken Lebo? Are King George’s Hessians marching down from Americus? Have you and I, like Louise Milan and Alecia Phonesavanh, now become potential targets for a quasi-military invasion of our homes?

It’s time for the madness to end. Our police and sheriff’s departments, including those here in Emporia and Lyon County, need to ship all that military equipment to the Peshmerga in Iraq so they can use it against humanity’s real enemies. Once they’ve done that, they can get back to the business of serving and protecting us.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

BREAD AND CIRCUSES



“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt”
-          The Roman satirist Juvenal (circa 100 a.d.)

The primaries are finally history. Thank God! No more shameless political pandering for a while. Sadly, though, we’ve only got about a one month reprieve before it all starts up again.

If you’re anything like Nancy and me your days and nights have been interrupted incessantly by politicians violating the sanctity of your homes. One minute it was “Vote the old carpetbagger out.” The next it was, “Have you seen those Facebook photos?”

If I’d gotten one more robo-call I’d have ripped the telephone off the wall. That was about the only way I could stop them. I find it odd that I can keep telemarketers from pestering me, but not politicians. Like so much they do, they carve out exemptions for themselves when they pass laws. Somehow I cling to the hope that justice will someday prevail. Every once in a while I channel my inner Dante and I see politicians stoking the blast furnaces and walking on hot coals in the deepest bowels of hell for all eternity.

About a week before the primary, Pat Roberts sauntered into town, pandering for all he was worth. He hadn’t been in town very long at all when Milton Wolf set up shop not far from him, itching for a chance to have it out, rhetorically speaking. I was hoping for some fireworks, maybe even a Lincoln-Douglas style debate on the street, but the good senator nixed the idea. “Milton, Milton,” he scolded. “This is not the time.”  The surrogates started to circle around one another and I thought we might get treated to a confrontation.  Visions of future dime novels and legends danced in my head. Twenty-second century Emporians might get to see classic westerns like “The Dustup at Dynamic Discs” or “Gunfight at the Granada.” There might even be room for film noir. How does “Catastrophe on Commercial” sound?

But it wasn’t to be. The two camps parted ways and set off for other campaign stops. Apparently, we weren’t the only Kansas town in need of bread and circuses.

Looking back at it now, I think it would have been fun to see a slobber knocker of a debate. If I’d been Pat Roberts, I would have told my surrogates to grab a couple of stools and then instructed the media king-makers to grab their microphones and notepads and pay attention. If I’d been Milton Wolf, I’d have done the debate a la Clint Eastwood.

When I started this essay I cited the Roman satirist Juvenal’s famous words about bread and circuses. I’m sure that when he wrote them he had men like Nero and Domitian in mind. But, Juvenal was apparently a man for all ages, as evidenced by the spectacle of Kansas politics we got to see played out on Commercial Street. It was all very cheap and very tawdry, but I guess that’s the nature of politics in Kansas and everywhere else nowadays. As Libertarian author P.J. O’Rourke once put it, “Politics violates not only the first commandment about who’s God, but it violates the other nine as well. Politics could hardly function without bearing false witness. Likewise, without taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

After all the political posturing and robo-calls, I actually did vote, in part because Nancy insisted and, in part to placate my buddy Tom Haskett, who is forever telling me that if I don’t vote I don’t have the right to complain. Well, Tom, if you happen to read this, I did vote and I am complaining. It’s a right I’ve really earned this year.

About a week after the primary I had a brief conversation with Don Hill, who ran unopposed in the primary and will almost certainly win in the general election. I like Don. Unlike most politicians, he’s not thin-skinned. He’s an all-around nice guy. He makes his constituents feel comfortable and safe. I think if you put a trench coat on him, he’d be a dead ringer for McGruff, the Crime Dog.  I issued a mock threat to chase him around town when the next primary comes around. I think he knew it was an empty threat, because he chuckled a bit in response. Don will keep on running unopposed as long as he wants, and he’ll keep on winning. I’m almost sure it’s got something to do with the Divine right of legislators.

So, the primary season is over and I’ve got about a month to get my mind back on the Celestial City, the place where there are no robo-calls, no pandering, no soliciting bribes on the side, and no bread and circuses. There’s not even a need to wonder who’s running for President up there because the job’s already taken.

After participating in so many earthly spectacles for so many years, I can hardly wait to pass through those pearly gates!  

Saturday, August 09, 2014

SAUSAGE, PAINT CHIPS, AND GUINNESS









Life for Nancy and me right now is a series of great and small events that sometimes challenge our ability to make sense of life.

The most important of these events is Nancy’s responsibility as caregiver for her mother, who is nearing the end of her earthly journey. She’s 95. She’s suffering from congestive heart failure. The bones in her back have been shattered. She has difficulty breathing. Everything is slowly shutting down. Pain is her constant companion. It’s often excruciating. The episodes of dizziness and nausea are becoming more and more frequent.

It could be even worse if it weren’t for the care of the good people from the Jones Health Center and Hand in Hand Hospice. We’re very grateful for that.

But, that doesn’t make this once in a lifetime event any less painful to watch. A couple of days ago, Nancy and I visited her mother on a particularly trying day. At one point it appeared that she was succumbing to the inevitable, but by some force of will she snapped herself back into the land of the living. We’ve seen this before. Nancy’s theory is that her mother is a child of the depression era. She clawed her way through the Great Depression and World War II. Heaven is just a whisper away, wooing her, but she’s so used to fighting and clinging to this life she can’t seem to let go.

On the way home I found myself begging God to not let my life end like that. I uttered a silent prayer, half in rage. “I’d like my last sensation in this life to be the rush of adrenalin that comes with living dangerously, Lord. I’ll do anything. I’ll take up bungee jumping from the Royal Gorge Bridge. I’ll swallow flaming swords.”

Years ago, cardiologists told Nancy’s father that the sausages he loved for breakfast would probably cut his life short, but he kept eating them. He died at 81, a happy man. I think she’s decided that a hearty breakfast of sausage would also be a fitting exit for her.

While we’re trying to make sense of what’s going on with her mother, the smaller events seem to be confirming the futility of clinging to the wheels and gears this life.

This series of mini-confirmations began when we tried to make arrangements with AT&T to have a landline connected in Nancy’s mother’s room. After three weeks of exasperating phone calls and pleas, the line was installed. Unfortunately, it was installed in the home or room of someone named Phyllis, who was every bit as stunned as us. The easiest part of the process was cancelling all the orders. It only took a couple of minutes.

While the phone saga was unfolding, a couple of college students were painting our house. They were doing a great job, but had a few delays, particularly one caused by a really irritating visit from a state “operative” who told my wife stop sweeping the front porch and ordered the students pick up every paint chip on the property. Everyone complied, fearing that if they didn’t they’d wind up in the hoosegow. I’m sure he was sent by some state agency named “Department of Agents Who Protect the Public from Paint Chips by Hassling College Students Trying to Make a Buck.” They probably sit in dreary grey cubicles and suffer from an exceptionally virulent strain of cranial-rectal inversion syndrome.

The piece de resistance in this chain of events came last week when the Postal Service taught me the meaning of service. I tendered a couple of time-sensitive packages on Tuesday and was told to expect delivery on Thursday. When that didn’t happen, they told me they’d changed their minds and to expect delivery on Friday. When that didn’t happen they told me to expect a Saturday delivery. It’s what the Post Office calls their “never late” or “always on time” service.

The more things unfolded, the more I felt like a character in a Kafka short story.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have time to pay attention to the news. If I had, my head would have exploded.

The more I try to make sense of this world, the more I find myself asking why we cling so desperately to it. Do we really believe that government operatives protecting us from paint chips can add a nanosecond to our lives? Can AT&T or the Postal Service open heaven’s gates for us?

Bungee jumping or sword swallowing aren’t really practical, but I think it would be quite fitting for Nancy and me to spend our last moments in a Dublin pub, with the strains of Paddy Maloney and the Chieftans playing in the background.  We’d order bangers and mash, a side of sausage and paint chips, along with one last pint of Guinness to wash it down.

Now, that’s living dangerously. And, that would be a fitting exit!