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Archive for September, 2010

Dan Barry of The New York Times paints pictures with words, and his columns are a treasure. While today’s column made the front page, his piece from last Saturday is an example of Barry at his best.

Barry examined a case of small-town corruption in Rhode Island, in which the owner of a restaurant faces an ethical choice: Should he pay members of a local zoning board $5,000 bribe in order to win a permit to extend the diner’s late-night hours?

Although the eventual outcome isn’t much of a mystery, it’s the journey to the owner’s decision that fills the column with delight. Here’s how he describes the scene at the restaurant, Olneyville New York System, which is famous for its $1.80 wieners:

The restaurant became a singular Rhode Island place, where everyone gets along: the bookies, the cops, the college kids, the workers from the remnants of the neighborhood’s mills and factories. Where, for some reason, a wiener always goes best with a glass of coffee milk. Where customers ignore health-conscious additions to the menu. Where the cooks array a dozen steamed rolls “on the arm” — literally — and fill them to order; it is a form of culinary performance art designed to set a health inspector’s heart aflutter.

 Read the column and enjoy the small pleasure of a good story well told.

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Update: I’ve substituted the trailer for the new film, replacing a clip from an older PBS documentary on Nuremberg.

There’s a new documentary about the Nuremberg war crimes trials, a re-assembling of footage from a never-released film of the proceedings. The original film had been authorized by the U.S. government at the time of trials, and portions had been used in one government movie long ago. But much of the raw material was either destroyed or lost with the passage of time.

Much of what remains has been assembled by Sandra Schulberg, daughter of the Stuart Schulberg, who supervised the filming of the trials. In today’s New York Times, reviewer A. O. Scott notes that while “Nuremberg” does not reveal anything new about the crimes, “there is a raw immediacy in ‘Nuremberg’ that nearly closes the gap between past and present.”

Scott adds:

The guiding spirit of the Nuremberg trials is worth recalling now, in the midst of the continuing argument about how to deal properly with enemies who show nothing but contempt for the norms of liberal society. The Nuremberg answer was to hold onto those norms with a special tenacity, to afford the accused precisely the acknowledgment of humanity that they had denied their victims. That they were allowed to defend themselves also meant that they had, in front of the world, to choose whether to admit their depravity, lie about it or try to justify it.

That “guiding spirit” of the Nuremberg trials stands in stark contrast with the treatment of suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay. Law professor David Cole, in a review of recent books on Guantanamo, paints a picture of extreme secrecy designed not to shield government secrets, but U.S. complicity in torture:

Even the physical design of the Guantánamo courtroom is shaped by the desire to conceal our own abuses. A soundproof glass wall separates the onlookers from the trial participants, so that the only way an observer can hear what is going on is through headphones with a forty-second delay. The reason, according to Denny LeBoeuf, an ACLU lawyer advising on the defense of several detainees, is “the Rule: detainees are forbidden from speaking about their torture.”

Remarkably, the US government has declared “classified” anything that the detainees say about their torture, and has required the lawyers, as a condition of access to their clients, to keep secret all details of their clients’ treatment at the hands of their interrogators. But of course, the US cannot compel the detainees themselves not to speak of the unspeakable. The only way it can keep them from telling their stories is by keeping them detained, behind bars, behind glass, silenced. 

If there’s any film or video from the hearings in Guantanamo, it’s not likely we’ll see any of it anytime soon — and whatever we might see will likely be redacted.

It is one thing to open the courts and allow the world to see the crimes of others, as we did with the Nazis. It is another to examine our own wrongdoing.

In this case, our leaders’ refusal to look back at the torture performed in our name has not just compromised efforts to bring terrorists to justice. It has denied the world a full accounting of the terrorists’ depravity, while casting a shadow over our own humanity.

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In the midst of last Friday’s testimony during a congressional hearing, Stephen Colbert stepped out of his fine-tuned persona and (as Andrew Sullivan notes) let his Catholic roots show through:

I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that’s an interesting contradiction to me, and um… You know, “whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,” and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now, with the economy so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that. But migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.

It’s a moment like this that makes Colbert much more than just another comedian. He is a jester in the king’s court, and his best satire does more than shred our pretensions and expose our folly; it exudes the expectation that people owe one another a sense of decency and care.

With a statement like that, I know I risk overhyping Colbert, for I’ve watched plenty of moments when his bits misfire and I cringe. But still, there’s something different that emerges from Colbert’s comedy when you watch him consistently and see how his gems outweigh the chunks of coal.

He does not forget the least of these.

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Is it compassion, or is it defiling the environment?

This morning’s New York Times examines the ongoing debate over efforts to provide aid for those illegally crossing the border between Mexico and the United States. More specifically, it’s the simple act of leaving supplies of water in the harshest areas of the desert so that those who cross the harshest of desert areas don’t meet the same fate as the refugees in Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway.”

The Times focuses on Daniel J. Millis, convicted two years ago of defacing the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge when he helped drop off water bottles  — an act characterized as littering. Recently the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, noting that it is “ambiguous as to whether purified water in a sealed bottle intended for human consumption meets the definition of ‘garbage.’ ”

But the Times story notes:

The issue remains far from settled, though. The court ruled that Mr. Millis probably could have been charged under a different statute, something other than littering. And the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to forbid anyone to leave gallon jugs of water in the refuge — a policy backed by this state’s immigration hardliners, who say comforting immigrants will only encourage them to cross.

Millis is a member of a Christian organization called No More Deaths, one of several groups working to save lives along the U.S.-Mexican border. It is gratifying to see these Christians put their faith into practice, even if it amounts to an act of civil disobedience. It is also good to see that the Times’ story captures some of the complexity surrounding the question of aid to migrants, and it does not adopt the simplistic frame of casting the U.S. Border Patrol as unambiguous villains.

Still, though the question of immigration is complicated, the question of saving lives is simple and the answer is clear: If you err, you err on the side of saving lives. As Millis notes:

People are part of the environment.

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I saw this PSA over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog yesterday, and I was stunned. Yes, it’s difficult to watch, but it’s an important message conveyed in powerful terms. It is a shame that such an advertisement remains necessary.

The music adds to the spot’s emotional impact. I didn’t recognize the singer, but after a couple of viewings I recognized the song: Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street.”

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Never saw this story until it was rebroadcast last night on “60 Minutes.” Yes, overall it’s a story about how eyewitness testimony isn’t as reliable as we think it is. But it’s also a story about grace and reconciliation.

A college-age woman is raped by a man who broke into her apartment. During the crime she vows to herself to remember enough about her assailant to put him away. And that’s exactly what happens.

Except there’s a catch.

After the man spends more than a decade in prison, examination of DNA evidence demonstrates that he is innocent. The real rapist is already in prison on a different charge. When you compare photos of the two men, it’s stunning to see the similarity of their facial features.

The woman is devastated once again, this time filled with guilt for putting an innocent man in prison with her testimony in court. But in time they meet at a church (see the last three minutes of the “60 Minutes” report). She asks for forgiveness; he grants it. Since then, they’ve become friends and shared their story in a book. (See the video below)

My quick summary doesn’t do their story justice. Watch the “60 Minutes” report; you cannot help but be inspired and humbled.

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To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus.

To follow Jesus means that we can’t separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more, about feet as it is about ears and eyes.

— Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way

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