Posted by: cctracker | January 8, 2012

Signs of the Times

Long before scanning several times a day was a part of my routine, I loved the New York Times. When I was a younger man, buying my own copy (usually at the airport) and wading into stories that pulled me down into the depths of an issue or transported me to another time and place was one of my favorite, non-guilt-inducing pleasures. It was like sitting down to a sumptuous, four-course dinner: each piece offered a more nuanced and complex set of flavors and textures than the one before. I tore out stories and added them to a stack on a top shelf in my office, compressing over the years like layers of limestone. I still fantasize about annotating and filing them all according to themes for future essays.

I’m a weekend subscriber now–at the educator’s rate– and I take the Times for granted a bit. For one, it isn’t the paper it used to be. But I also have to confess I’ve noticed a diminution of the will and discipline required for savoring and digesting those wonderful, long stories. It feels, at least in part, like a consequence of too much scanning. “I’ll tackle that one later,” I say to myself, “when I have more time.” I don’t need to tell you what happens in so many of those cases.

But the romance isn’t over. What I want to do every so often in these posts is share some reflections on NY Times stories that stir something up in me that connects to the theme of this blog. I’ll post them as “Signs of the Times” echoing one of my favorite phrases emerging from the second Vatican Council.

Here’s a piece that ran in today’s edition:

It tells the story of Lakhdar Boumediene. He was imprisoned while working for the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates in Bosnia-Herzegovinia October of 2001 . On May 15, 2009 he was finally released from the American prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay Cuba. He had missed the entire childhood of his two daughters.

He was accused of planning to bomb the embassy in Sarajevo, but was never presented with a shred of evidence. You can read the by now too-familiar story of  years of force-feeding and “stress positions” while he maintained his innocence. It is also a story of the eventual victory, at least in his case, of the core principles of the American justice system. At the last minute, just before his case was coming before a judge, the government abandoned its case about the alleged bomb plot.

But what lingered in my mind after reading it was a subject I’ve considered countless times when I encounter stories of this kind: the horror of the forced confession. What must it be like to be in such a position? To know that you are innocent but to know at the same time that your only path to temporary relief from the seemingly endless brutality of your circumstances is to admit that you are guilty. Even more to the point: What is it like–interiorly from the perspective of self-consciousness and self-appraisal– to be the instrument of such a system: the interrogator, the warden, the policy bureaucrat?

The sacred and inviolable character of an individual human life is at the center of nearly every secular and religious moral system. A large majority of the people on the planet are taught some version of this truth. Whatever one thinks of the failures of the West and the United States in the pages of history, our tradition has enshrined this principle more clearly and publicly than any other tradition in its founding documents and rhetoric.

And yet, here it is: as bald and inexcusable as it would be in any of the stereotypically morally bankrupt societies from which we hope to distinguish ourselves. Here is the horror of the community, the collective organism, utterly abandoning the sacred truth that has emerged from thousands of years of  evolved wisdom about how we ought to conduct ourselves. Boumediene’s captors already had the answers they wanted from him. He did not exist for them but as a thing, an object to be used.

What I’ve come to realize is that while I still affirm and even revere the moral perspective that holds to account before God and conscience every individual in the chain of command that lead to Boumediene’s abuse, there is an accompanying, and less comforting perspective, a more “scientific” perspective, I must also embrace.  If I want to comprehend these events, if I really want to know what goes on the hearts of those who enact them, I have to see biology at work here. I have to see social structures with evolutionary utility at work. I have to be willing to consider that many of those who ask the questions, tighten the bindings and write the phony reports have clear consciences. In an interior sense, they’ve partially vanished as individuals along with Boumediene. They, too, are being “used.” And not simply by a nefarious, crazed culture of super-villains, but by something incredibly complex, something blind and embedded in the very nature of being a social animal.

The culture of a community can surround and penetrate individual consciousness to such a degree that when the group perceives itself as threatened or faced with an urgent task that serves its own survival, it acts, in a powerful process of neurological commissioning, to direct individual members of the group to do its bidding and to feel right about it.

The generic name we’ve given to phenomena like this is “instinct.”  It goes by many names in spiritual traditions.  My own places it under the increasingly opaque banner of  “original sin.”  We are “fallen” creatures, still under the tyrannical regime of sin that would blind us to our own–and everyone else’s– inestimable and transcendent worth and would turn human beings into mere things to be used.

But  our communal and spiritual inheritance of  faith is as alive and as real as our inheritance of instinct!  Something new has emerged, something remarkable has evolved, even if it is as weak and vulnerable as a child. It is captured in secular documents like the The United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights. It is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. And for Christians,  it is at the heart of the Gospels.

“Lakhdar Boumediene is a human being. He must never be used, no matter the cause or the stakes of the contest.”

“Jesus Christ is Lord.”

If we cannot see the unity of these two statements and if we do not proclaim them both at once,  the dawn of  the “new creation” for which all people have been waiting, can never evolve.

photo James Burton

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