Friday, June 29, 2007

What's Best for America?

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Not long ago, President George W. Bush made one of the most elitist, most egotistical statements in modern American political history. On Tuesday, May 19, 2007, speaking at the nation's largest law-enforcement training center in Glynco, Georgia, he said, "Those determined to find fault with this [immigration] bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like. If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it." Essentially, he equated opposition to his and Ted Kennedy's immigration bill to wanting to destroy America.

Observers of the recent American political scene have been witnesses to many examples of such "I [or we] know better" rhetoric coming from politicians lately. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not informing us about the need for ethics reform in government, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is giving us a good scolding about what is best for the United States in Iraq. Senator Trent Lott recently opined, "Talk radio is running the country, and we have to do something about that problem." And not too long thereafter, a gaggle of politicians—most of whom are admittedly left-of-center—decided that what this country needs in order to do what is best for America is to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, the law that supposedly grants "equal time" to opposing political beliefs.

Beyond the particulars of any political opinion is the underlying philosophy of the politician or citizen. Usually, with a little bit of rumination on a person's stance on an issue, one can deduce at least the outline of his or her philosophy. The philosophy itself, rather than a person's various positions on issues, is more determinative of his ideas about what is best for America. Figure out a politician's philosophy, and his aims become plain.

For instance, how about George Bush and his immigration policies? What do we know about him? What drives him? We can tick off a few points that help us to understand his position:

  • He is a political blue blood, that is, his family is among America's political elite and has been since at least the Hoover Administration.
  • His family is wealthy, having made its money in West Texas oil and other subsequent ventures. He and his Vice President Dick Cheney have many close ties to Big Business, to the point that they have been accused numerous times of allowing business interests to shape their policies exclusively.
  • His father's politics were centrist rather than conservative, and though George W. Bush ran his political campaigns as a "compassionate conservative," he has governed very much like his centrist father. His foreign policy, overshadowed by the Iraq War and the War on Terror, has been resolutely pro-American, but his domestic policies have earned the praise of liberal Democrats.
  • His career has been guided by Karl Rove, a political genius whose main idea has been to expand the Republican Party into a "big tent," that is, able to include many ideas and diverse types of people and thus expand the voter base. "Compassionate conservatism" was an idea designed to change the perception of the Republican Party from hard-line conservative, in the Ronald Reagan mode, to welcoming and sympathetic, which, frankly, is the façade of none other than former President Bill Clinton, who made such an "I feel your pain" image work twice.
  • As a former governor of Texas, and having grown up in a state with a large Hispanic population, he seems to have a soft spot in his heart for their "plight."

From these few points, we can begin to understand his pro-amnesty stance. First, he thinks he knows better what is best for America because he and his family have been part of the machinery of government for nearly a hundred years. As average Americans, we do not have either the perspective or the experience to make an informed decision on such a momentous issue.

Second, developed nations everywhere are crying out for laborers, and we have a ready pool of cheap labor aching to come here and work. What businessman would not leap at such a gift?

Third, his domestic policies tell us that he believes the socialist lie that America is a tossed salad, a diverse, multicultural nation that can only be enhanced by the addition of millions of immigrants. Is that not how America became great—by the influx of millions of immigrants? So he argues that America should open its arms wide to admit this new wave from the south to enrich its culture with its vigor and dreams.

Fourth, he hopes that, in gratitude for his compassionate stand on this issue, many of these new citizens will register to vote as Republicans, giving the next generation of Bush protégés a leg up in their future elections.

Finally, he can return to Texas as a hero of Anglo-Hispanic relations after his second term, build his presidential library at the University of Texas, and become the kingmaker of the Republican Party for the next few decades. Perhaps my analysis is a bit cynical on this point, but it cannot be too far off the mark in terms of his aspirations. As for reality, the bill's defeat this week makes such a fantasy coming true less likely.

What is best for America? In terms of Constitutional government, exactly what happened this week. The Congressional switchboard had to be shut down because it was receiving too many calls from concerned citizens. Talk radio was wall-to-wall talk on the immigration issue. Pundits and bloggers all gave their opinions. The will of the people became clear, despite the machinations of politicians to ram their destructive bill through. As Abraham Lincoln said, the American government is supposed to be "of the people, by the people, for the people"—not of, by, and for politicians and their elitist cabals.

Of course, what is best for America would be for all Americans to turn to the God of the Bible and begin to follow His ways (Ezekiel 33:10-11). If only they would!

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Haditha Non-Story

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A year and a half ago, the bloodbath at Haditha, a city in the western Iraqi province of Al Anbar, was big news. The major media outlets in the United States and worldwide reported that on November 19, 2005, Marines from the Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment slaughtered 24 Iraqi civilians in retaliation for the killing of a comrade, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, by an improvised explosive device (IED). When the military's account of the fighting did not match media reports, which accused the Marines of wantonly massacring unarmed civilians—and even killing some execution-style—the Marine Corps opened an investigation, ultimately charging eight Marines with crimes, four of them with unpremeditated murder.

From media reporting, it sounded an awful lot like a My Lai-style atrocity. A company of soldiers, angered by the death of a respected brother-in-arms, goes rogue, taking its revenge on innocent villagers, killing until its bullets are spent and no one remains to be killed.

But not so fast.

Now that sober investigations have been done and pre-trial hearings have taken place, it seems that the media was once again horribly wrong. In fact, in the media's rush to judgment on these Marines, the reporters got the story backwards. The Marines were doing their jobs in accordance with the rules of war, while Iraqi insurgents used civilians as human shields, letting them suffer for the insurgents' terrorism. The situation is reminiscent of a wise proverb of Solomon: "The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him" (Proverbs 18:17).

A more accurate account runs as follows: Intelligence gathered before the day in question pointed to an insurgent ambush of the Marines in Haditha. Two facts were certain: About twenty insurgents would participate in the ambush, and a white car was to play a major part in the attack. As the company rolled into the area, an IED exploded near a Humvee, killing Terrazas and seriously wounding at least one other Marine, Lance Corporal James Crossan. Due to the intelligence, the Marines were ready for such an occurrence and quickly went on the offensive.

A white Opal taxi skidded to a stop on the Marines' left, which was exposed to attack, and five men jumped out, and seeing that the Marines already deployed, turned to flee. The ambush had failed to surprise its targets. Sergeant Frank Wuterich and Sergeant Sanick P. Dela Cruz ordered the fleeing men to stop, and when they did not, the Marines opened fire, killing them. It was later discovered that four of these five men were known insurgents.

Shortly afterward, Lieutenant William T. Kallop arrived on the scene, and the Marines began receiving small arms fire from a nearby house, into which a known insurgent was seen to run. Kallop ordered the company to take the house. The remaining nineteen victims were killed when soldiers used grenades and automatic rifles on the house and the two houses adjacent to it. To a civilian, this may seem excessive, but Marines are trained to "clear a house" in this manner. Four of the dead in the houses were later identified to be known insurgents. Other insurgents fled from the rear of the houses.

It is true that the initial military report on the incident was misleading, as it said that fifteen Iraqis had been killed by the IED. As details began to be amassed, this report was soon proved to be wrong. For instance, a gruesome video soon turned up, supposedly showing the atrocity in all its gore. It was shot, wrote Tim McGirk of Time magazine in March 2006, by a "budding journalism student," later learned to be 43-year-old Taher Thabet al-Hadithi, the head of the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoring. This group has members across Iraq, two of which, al-Hadithi and Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashhadani, had been held for five months in the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison as insurgents or insurgent-sympathizers. Al-Hadithi was shooting film that day and in that place because Iraqi insurgents routinely film their ambushes and terrorist acts for propaganda purposes. It was later learned that the initial intelligence on the ambush had been intercepted from cell phone calls between al-Hadithi and al-Mashhadani.

Reporters also took the word of local Iraqis at face value. A nine-year-old boy told a story of the cold-blooded murder of his grandfather and grandmother, but his claims of Marines entering the house and killing his grandparents at close range do not accord with what is now known. In addition, a local doctor said that the 24 bodies brought to his hospital that evening did not contain shrapnel wounds, as the Marines claimed, but many of them had been shot in the head and chest at close range. However, the walls and ceilings of the houses were filled with shrapnel from the Marines' grenades, so his testimony is untrustworthy. No official reports on the state of the victims' bodies has yet been made public.

We must also recall the political environment surrounding the Haditha "Massacre." By November 2005, it was clear that the U.S. military would be in Iraq for an extended period, and support for the war at home was eroding. The President's political opponents were gearing up for an all-out assault on his Iraq policy in order to win the 2006 congressional elections. They had many willing accomplices in the media—in fact, it has just been reported that journalists support Democrat and liberal causes over Republican or conservative causes by a 9-to-1 margin. Thus, a "massacre" by Bush's Marines was just what the doctor ordered.

What can we learn from this? Simply, and unfortunately, we cannot trust what we are being told by the media. Or, at best, as Ronald Reagan said so famously regarding the Cold War's weapon's treaties with the Soviet Union, we should "trust but verify" what they report. This is especially true in "breaking news" stories. Not all the facts are known as an event occurs, and sometimes, as in this case, not for months or years later. In The Merchant of Venice, one of William Shakespeare's characters says, ". . . at the length truth will out." In other words, we should not be too hasty in judgment, which often cause a person subsequently to make serious errors, but we need to let the truth speak for itself as it becomes known over time.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Following the Bean

Sometimes, watching world events can be a little like a street-corner shell game. We carefully watch where the bean is placed under one of the shells, and we try to follow it as the dealer, or "operator" as he is known, rapidly slides the shells around the table in a dizzying, chaotic course. Yet, somewhere along the line, our eyes become distracted, and we lose the bean in the confusing flurry of hand movements. Where the bean is becomes a mere guess.

Right now, and for the past several years, the bean has been passed among the shells labeled "Iraq," "Iran," and "Al Qaeda." We have watched news pour out of the Middle East in an almost incessant stream of bombings, attacks, retaliations, offensives, captures, initiatives, talks, and a host of other significant and trivial events. They are enough to make one's head swim! Where is the bean, the nugget of knowledge that will indicate where world news and prophecy begin to align?

In actuality, the news game is worse than the shell game because the former contains far more than three shells. Obviously, there is an "America" shell, a "Russia" shell, a "China" shell, a "Japan" shell, a "Germany" shell, a "Vatican" shell, a "U.N." shell, an "Israel" shell, a "Palestine" shell, an "Arab" shell, an "environmentalist" shell, an "IMF" shell, an "NGO" shell, a "rogue regime" shell, and a bucketful of others. Which ones do we follow? We need more than a scorecard to keep track of them all as they converge, crisscross, scatter in various directions, change speeds, and generally follow no rational pattern. We fear that if we look away for more than a few seconds, we might miss something important and lose the bean.

The game intensifies even further because we have to watch more than just a little table. Though they are rapidly losing market share, newspapers—especially giants like The New York Times—still lay out the playing field. Television and radio news outlets pick up the newspaper headlines and run brief stories based on what the print editors deem to be newsworthy. Internet news sites give the headlines their due, but because of the web's nature, they can also feature stories that hit the cutting room floor at The Times. Beyond this, bloggers have the ability to dig even deeper still, supplying the curious surfer with minute details—and opinions—on just about any news event in the world. Also to be considered are news magazines, governmental and corporate analyses, foundation studies, and of course, private-party knowledge. The amount of available information is staggering.

Perhaps the most worrying feature of the news game is that the bean may not actually be under any of the shells on the table. In other words, there is always the nagging fear that events are happening "under the radar"—and so far out of sight that very few people even become aware of their significance. Because of this worry, a whole cottage industry has sprung up around the edges of the news business, the shadowy realm of conspiracy theories. Here, facts mingle with suppositions and distrust of institutions in an uneasy alliance. Could the bean be hiding out of the mainstream?

One element in the shell game remains to be considered: the operator. In reality, the shell game is a confidence trick, not a fair game of chance. A skilled operator can shift the bean in and out of any shell he desires, and the player will never be the wiser. On the mean streets of New York and other metropolises where this game is common, the operator often works with a pickpocket, further swindling distracted players and spectators. In the end, the shell game is a ruse, a distraction, to carry on other nefarious purposes.

Thus, we must ask the question, how profitable is watching current events in a world awash with information? Is it vital to our salvation, or does it distract us from more important spiritual activities? Does it keep us keyed in on what is really happening in the world, or are we being suckered by Satanic sleight-of-hand? Can we be ready for Christ's return if we are not riveted to the news ticker?

Jesus warns in Luke 21:34-36:

But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and the Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.

It is plain that He commands us to watch, but watch what? He does not say, "Watch world events." We have traditionally interpreted verse 36 to mean that, but the context only tells us to be observant, aware, on guard, alert, on duty. What we focus on is up to us, but Jesus' introduction to His command to watch is heavily weighted toward "watch your step" rather than "watch world events."

The parallel passage in Matthew 24:36-51 gives equal time to being aware of conditions around us and of our behavior toward others. This argues that we take a more balanced approach to following the news bean. Becoming fixated on the intricacies of world news will lead to neglect elsewhere in our lives, and ironically, too often it is our relationship with God that suffers. If fact, we must give priority to prayer, study, overcoming, and living God's way of life, and if we do, God will be sure to reveal the bean's location to His saints when the time comes (Amos 3:7).

Friday, June 1, 2007

A Lesson from the Diamond

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Please indulge me a moment as I boast about my eight-year-old son, Jarod. Thursday evening, in his last baseball game of the season, he hit a two-out, inside-the-park grand-slam home run, scoring what would become the winning run of the only game his team has won all season. Jarod's team just barely won the game, as the opposing team scored five runs in its half of the next inning. The final score was 13-12. Afterward, his elated coach gave him the game ball.

This was Jarod's first year of playing organized baseball. For Sabbath-keepers, finding a nearby league that does not play most of its games on Friday nights and Saturdays is a chore. We are fortunate that a local community, just a few miles from the church office in Fort Mill, runs such a league. So, Jarod and his cousin, Zachary Onisick, 7, were signed up in the hope that they would be put on the same team.

No such luck. Zachary was chosen to play on the black-and-tan team sponsored by Pineville Rehabilitation, while Jarod was picked by the red-and-white team, whose shirts displayed the cute but not very athletic moniker, Punkin's Awards. However, both Jarod and Zachary both wore the number 5 on their jerseys. Joe DiMaggio would be proud.

Punkin's Awards was behind the eight-ball from the beginning. Evidently, either the league was late in choosing a coach for the team, or the coach himself was tardy in contacting the boys on his roster, because the team lost a few days or a week to the other teams in terms of practice time. As the first practices showed, this team would need a great deal of work to hone it into a winner. Only a handful of the boys could throw well (half of one practice consisted of the boys throwing ball after ball into a fence), and only one or two of them could be counted on to stop any of the balls hit in their general direction. As for hitting, well, it looked as if it would be a long season.

Jarod, if I may say so, had the most natural swing from the beginning, and proved to be among the most consistent hitters on the team, eventually being chosen to fill the important leadoff slot. He is a natural athlete with good hand-eye coordination and a desire to hustle and play well. When members of the local congregation played softball during the summer months, Jarod had participated as much as he could, especially on the offensive side of things, and those experiences helped him immensely. Though lacking baseball experience, he brought with him a good feel for the game, so he was not at all far behind the other boys who already had a few years of tee-ball and coach-pitch baseball under their belts.

Thursday's game against Zachary's team, Pineville Rehab, started out slowly. First, the tan-shirted boys put a few runs on the scoreboard, and the Punkins scratched out a couple of runs of their own. Jarod and Zachary both struck out, helping neither cause with their bats. And then the bottom half of the fourth inning occurred. Ironically, Jarod led off the inning by striking out a second time, which was quite unusual for him. Then, like a switch had been flipped somewhere, his teammates began to get hit after hit—seven straight, scoring four runs and loading the bases for the number-nine hitter in the lineup. He struck out on three pitches for the second out.

While Jarod stood on deck, taking a few practice swings, I told him, "Forget about all those things I told you before. Just go up there and smack the ball." As he walked to the plate, it must have passed through the minds of the other team's coaches, if they remembered, that Jarod had struck out twice before and that this already long inning would finally be over with this batter. Jarod stepped into the batter's box and did his normal dance as he settled in, seemingly unaware of the pressure of the situation—perhaps he was not aware.

I do not recall if it was the first pitch that he hit or the second, but when he hit it, there was no doubt it was his best hit of the season. It was a short line drive that skipped past the shortstop and into left-center field. Jarod charged off for first base as the crowd erupted in cheers—most of them yelling, "Run!" or "Go!" And that is what all the boys did, all the way around the diamond. Jarod had hit an inside-the-park grand-slam home run—his first home run and first extra-base hit.

As he ran back to the dugout, excited but hardly realizing what he had done, Jarod was hoisted into the air by his coach, and his teammates gave him high-fives all around. He sat on the bench, panting from the long run around the bases and grinning with the thrill of it all. It was the perfect way for him to end the season. It will keep him coming back.

However, the game was not over yet. Zachary's team came up in the top of the next inning, exploding for five runs—in which Zachary himself singled and scored—to come within one run of tying the score. For the parents of the Punkin's Awards players, it was agonizing to watch the lead shrink nearly to nothing, which made the eventual win all the more gratifying. That sort of game keeps the parents coming back too.

All of this is just a nice story, though, if no lesson can be learned from it. One pops out immediately: It is possible to over-coach a player. In my pre-game instructions to Jarod, I had told him several things that he needed to do to "correct" his swing mechanics: He was not stepping toward the pitcher, he needed to rotate his hips through the swing, he should be moving his weight from his "back" foot to his "front" foot, etc. I was forgetting that he already had a good swing, had developed his hand-eye coordination, and could make contact with the ball more often than not. "He is eight years old!" I scolded myself later. "Just let him have fun!"

We all have high expectations of others, especially parents of their children. But children, students—and disciples—have to be brought along at a pace that they can handle. First-graders are not ready for calculus quite yet, just as Jarod is not old enough to understand fully and to apply consistently the intricacies of swinging a baseball bat. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, such a skill is not that important. Right now, "swing hard" and "put the bat on the ball" are really all he needs to remember; his natural athleticism will fill in the gaps.

Obviously, this applies spiritually too. We can have all knowledge about a certain virtue or activity, but depending on our spiritual maturity, we may not be able to put it into practice except on a limited level. We may not be quite ready for the big leagues, as it were. We still need more practice. Thank God that He is not only aware of this principle, but brings us along in spiritual understanding and practice over an extended time according to our own aptitudes and resolve (II Peter 3:9, 15, 18). And every once in a while, we probably surprise and delight Him—and ourselves—by hitting a grand slam.