Tuesday, September 09, 2014


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


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.