Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Power, Freedom and Christmas

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

So begins and ends the role of the most powerful person on the planet in the greatest story ever told. Taken from the Gospel of Luke, these words set the context in which Jesus Christ came to be born in Bethlehem: An important man had a grand idea.

As Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus ruled supreme. Across the globe, his name was known and his word was obeyed. Yet at Christmas, as people celebrate the seminal union of creation and Creator, he rates only passing mention. Joseph and Mary, traveling to the City of David in accordance with Augustus’ orders, took refuge in a rude shelter so she could give birth to her child. As “all the world” moved to comply with an emperor’s proclamation, who would have imagined the destiny of humankind was laying in a manger?

This is one of the many welcome messages of Christmas: Man is not in control. Our ambitions do not rule the universe – and what an encouraging thought that is. God’s ways are not our ways, and though this sometimes brings suffering, as prayers seem unanswered and we struggle through the agony of a broken world, it also brings hope. Look at the world of men and wonder who would want them to have the final word. Many things that matter most to us – power, prestige, wealth and renown – do not reckon in God’s estimation. Even if, like Augustus, we achieve the pinnacle in each of these, we can still be confounded and forgotten.

The story of Christmas reminds us where true power dwells. It is in love, and humility, and evinced through God’s use of the weak to shame the strong. That means every one of us has a chance, and it means we all matter.

Each of us comes to Christmas – and every day of the year – with hopes and fears, clinging with joy or pain to those things we think are important. To be sure, some of these are important to God, as well. We may sense when our desires match those of the divine, as we are designed to appreciate the power of gentleness, the feeling of selfless love, and the warmth of a servant’s heart. But there are other concerns we carry around, priorities of men but pittances to God, and Christmas gives us a chance to set them down. Saint Paul offers simple counsel and encouragement to do just that: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”

There is liberation to be had by admitting we are not in command. As we recognize the limits of human power, we concede that our understanding of God is inchoate. This frees us from prejudices and serves to reinforce the Christmas message. For example, those of us who believe in the divinity of Jesus and the salvation obtained through his birth, death and resurrection must recognize that our appreciation of these events is incomplete. Indeed, the Gospels themselves give varying descriptions of Christ’s nativity and life, reminding us that we are reading the Word of God, rendered by imperfect people.

This means that as arguments over religion and belief swirl around December 25 and persist throughout the year, we can take peace in recognizing that none of us has all the answers. Whether we are great or small, Christmas invites us to embrace the precious simplicity pronounced by the angels two millennia ago: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men."

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The TSA Singers

Good Lord, they’re singing.

This column has been sharply critical of the TSA and its invasive screening procedures for American air passengers. Monitoring the TSA’s public responses to concerns raised by people across the country, one notices an unsettling selectiveness. In a chipper, useless hybrid of corporate communications and government-speak, the TSA responds to those matters it thinks it can manage, ignoring the major problems with its new system.

In case you’ve missed the last couple of months, the TSA has been ramping up its regime of full-body, naked scans of air travelers, complemented by intense pat-downs that amount to government-sanctioned sexual assault. Reports of abuse have been rampant, including the grotesque targeting of female travelers by male TSA officers, and questions about privacy, power, and how these procedures can possibly jibe with Americans’ Constitutional rights.

It was rightly to be hoped that as we move into the Christmas travel season, and as opposition to their vulgar policies grows, the TSA would remedy – or at least acknowledge – these glaring flaws.

Instead, we find they are singing Christmas carols. Yes, the TSA has returned to the headlines as a choir of its officers sings to travelers at Los Angeles International Airport.

TSA supervisor and tenor Ernie Perez says he hopes to put a “positive face” on airport security, adding, “We’ve been taking a lot of heat for what we do.”

If I may be of some help here, Ernie, that’s because what you do is really, really wrong. This Christmastime, millions of Americans who want to be reunited with their families will be forced to run a groin-grabbing gauntlet erected by you and your colleagues. Your “positive face” doesn’t enter into it.

How many Americans have seen their holiday cheer darkened by anxiety, knowing that they, or their loved ones, will be subject to government-ordered nude photos and/or physical violation by TSA officers before their reunion can take place?

Perhaps the TSA singers hope to alleviate some of that anxiety by belting out a few holiday favorites, but here’s an even better move: Stop taking naked pictures of people and grabbing their intimate regions. It’s not much of a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but these are the times in which we live.

If, as the TSA insists, their officers are Americans like anyone else, understanding the concerns of the flying public, maybe they should stop singing and start protesting this twisted system. Why have we not seen that? Are TSA spokespeople so thoroughly committed to defending the indefensible, and are their ogling officers enjoying their new powers too much?

Perhaps, as their bizarrely cheerful public pronouncements suggest, the TSA folks actually feel they are winning this debate. But I doubt it. As employees, whether they work in communications or at airport gates, they must know that what they are doing is dead wrong, and a disgraceful violation of people’s dignity.

At least one TSA officer has had the sand to speak out and say as much. “I truly feel that it is morally and ethically wrong to do it,” an agent in Pittsburgh told CBS. “This does not make flying safer. It’s just taking away American citizens’ rights.” He noted that those who are most often singled out for extra scrutiny are seniors, lamenting, “Just the looks on their faces, some of them, the fear.”

So again, why has the TSA not made changes? Do they suppose this controversy will simply blow over? Again, I am doubtful.

An issue on which Charles Krauthammer, the ACLU, Ann Coulter, David Corn, Kathleen Parker, Jeff Jacoby and Alan Colmes all agree is one that has legs. Simply put, the TSA cannot win this fight with the American people and their Constitution.

In defense of their new rules, the TSA continues to wheel out a dopey, months-old poll, taken before Americans realized the detail of the naked scans, the vulgarity of the new pat-down procedures, or the capricious power of airport officers, showing widespread support for “full-body x-rays,” presented as a binary choice with “ethnic profiling.” But as the country’s mood shifts, and anger mounts, the TSA keeps humming along, calling us “customers” and acting as though we’re all on the same side.

The TSA is losing in the court of public opinion and, one can reasonably hope, they will lose some or all of the legal challenges being brought against them.

One of the many things we Americans do well is sue each other. It would be optimal for our national security officials to recognize the error of their ways on their own but, if a court order is what’s required to stop this madness, so be it.

But back to the TSA choir. If you want to give a gift to the American people, you can stop grabbing their groins and photographing them nude. This Christmas, TSA, just do the right thing.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

If You See Something, Say Something

“If you see something, say something," our national security officials are fond of telling us. Indeed, the idea that ordinary citizens should be vigilant in spotting suspicious behavior was broadly encouraged long before this handy slogan was popularized. In the days after 9/11, as the anthrax scare ramped up, President George W. Bush was pressed by reporters as to just what sort of things folks should be looking for. The exhausted commander in chief replied, in a wordier iteration of the current motto, "If you find a person that you've never seen before getting in a crop duster that doesn't belong to you – report it.”

To be sure, civilians have been an important line of defense in the War on Terror since the brave passengers of Flight 93 took control of their aircraft, up through the citizen-led thwartings of attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid and would-be underwear-exploder Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. With these examples in mind, we can agree that any villain attempting to blow up a plane or train or shopping mall using identifiable methods will come in for an intergalactic beat-down from all decent persons within reach.

But what if the danger you see is something different and coming from an unexpected source? More pointedly, what if the threat you spot originates from the government itself? What to say then, and to whom do you say it?

One disgraceful example continues to stand out. To wit, there is no more egregious and obscene internal threat to our way of life than the TSA’s continued sexual violation of American travelers, in the form of full-body, naked scanners and invasive hand searches at the nation’s airports. Ostensibly in the name of stopping terrorism, our government is stripping us bare.

In response to mounting citizen protest, we hear, “Flying is a privilege, not a right.” What catchy nonsense. The government is not in place to dispense privileges, nor does it give us our rights. Moreover, on a practical level, the very idea that citizens of such a vast and various country as ours, who need to travel for work, family, and myriad other reasons, should simply stop flying because of repulsive rules established by government officials is bollocks on stilts.

But let’s revisit that concept of rights. The US Constitution was written by Americans, for Americans. The same is true of its first ten Amendments, which we call the Bill of Rights. Of particular relevance is the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from "unreasonable searches."

One wearies of those who insist we cannot understand the Constitution’s plain meaning without comprehension of case law, precedent, and a Yale-educated interlocutor to walk us through the document’s “living” nature. As we peruse the brilliant yet simple words of James Madison, they ask, “Who’re you gonna believe – a bunch of lawyers or your lying eyes?”

Simply put, if taking naked pictures of innocent travelers isn’t "unreasonable search," I should like to know what bloody well is.

And so we find ourselves at loggerheads with our own government, personified by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and TSA Chief John Pistole. As these two insist on expanding this odious regime, one wonders if they have considered how it will end. Two possible scenarios come to mind:

In the first, Americans become inured to these searches, accepting personal violations as the price of peace. I picture Pistole and his staff, huddled in his secure, undisclosed office, sipping Champ-Ale and congratulating themselves on weathering a media storm, coming through it to find a docile populace, arms raised in surrender, naked in the scanning gaze of government.

In the second, the scanners go away. Decades from now, we see them and their images flash by in retrospectives of “the year that was,” a quick reminder of a time we allowed our leaders to go too far.

I believe and hope the latter scenario will prevail.

Again – “If you see something, say something.” I see something, alright. I see a government that sees too much. I see federal officials contravening the supreme law of this land and robbing citizens of their dignity. I see you, Secretary Napolitano and Mr. Pistole, and I'm saying something. I say it to those whose consent your government requires – the American people. I say do not let this stand, and don’t become used to this.

I have written a great deal about these searches because I truly believe we are at a turning point for America. I’ve stated that a nation that will not tell airport apparatchiks to keep their claws out of their crotch cannot vanquish al-Qaeda. But it’s more than that.

It is anathema to a free country that a leering government officer can point to your wife or daughter and force her to hold still for a naked photo. Yes, we have to defeat Islamist terrorists who wish to destroy us, but we will have nothing left to defend if we surrender our liberty.

Stay outraged, America, and stay free.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Janet Napolitano's Appalling Judgment

When she ascended to her position as Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano let it be known that the “War on Terror” was over. Instead, she decreed, America would conduct an “Overseas Contingency Operation,” in order to avert “man-caused disasters,” of the type we experienced on 9/11.

Ah yes, “man-caused disasters.” One is struck by the passive sense of the phrase, as though folks may have set out with the best of intentions, but things went awry. By that definition, what else might qualify as “man-caused disasters”? The Titanic? The Hindenburg? “Showgirls”?

As to just who might be responsible for such future “disasters,” Napolitano opined that “rightwing extremists,” including returning military veterans, were cause for concern.

Such a peculiar world view would be troubling in any Cabinet official, especially one charged with keeping the nation safe. But Napolitano’s notoriously poor judgment has been reinforced for all of us in recent days, as she continues to insist that in order to wage the homeland portion of our “Contingency Operation” and prevent “man-caused disaster” in the skies, TSA officers must take naked pictures and grab the groins of American air travelers.

Much has been made of whether these measures are a trial run for some Big Sister society, and Napolitano has asserted that the use of nude, full-body scanners should be expanded from airports to shopping malls, sporting events, and the like. But I am doubtful a larger agenda is in play for the same reason I understand this is a bad system. That is, conspiracies rarely happen because so few people are competent.

Even so, freedom can be crushed without coordinated effort. What’s more, if you lead people into temptation, they will follow.

We hear reports from all over the country, and those of us who travel have seen it: young women lined up at airports, having been selected by male TSA officers to go through full-body x-ray scanners. The TSA continues with its silly-bears about images being viewed in separate rooms and not being stored, but they are unable to address the probability that their men in uniform relish sending nude female photos to one another, and they miss the salient point: It is disgraceful and dangerous for a government to give male officers such sexual dominance over women.

Look, you don’t have to be B.F. Skinner to figure this one out: A mostly male force, empowered to take naked pictures of the females under their authority, will do so.

But back to Napolitano, and her fear about “rightwing” bringers of “disaster.” Suppose some conservative-minded fellow, perhaps with a military background, saves up to take his wife and daughter on a trip. And let us suppose that, as the family goes through security, male TSA officers take a liking to the women and, with the glances and gestures we are coming to recognize at our airports, single them out for naked scrutiny. Finally – and to be clear as a millimeter-wave scan, I am not calling for or condoning such action – let us suppose the pater familias takes umbrage with the officers and a violent incident ensues. Will Napolitano have been proven correct?

There is resonance to John Tyner’s now-famous phrase, “Don’t touch my junk.” But ogle my wife or touch my child, and the conversation takes on a whole new tone. Why are we creating this problem for ourselves?

Oh, right – in the name of security. This is the claim, even as the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly informed Congress that naked scanners would not have caught the so-called “Underwear Bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – who in any case, boarded his plane in Amsterdam, and about whom the State Department had received prior warning from his own father.

So again, why is this system in place? Well, if you thought Islamist terror acts could be stopped by calling them, “man-caused disasters,” you might also be persuaded that nude photos of every American flier are worthwhile.

Napolitano is not a thorough person – aside from her inspection preferences for innocent civilians, of course. She railed against the recent Arizona immigration law, calling it “bad law enforcement,” until she was compelled to admit before a Senate hearing that she had not even read the 12-page bill – and this was after she had seen her Cabinet colleague, Attorney General Eric Holder, similarly humiliated in front of a Congressional committee by confessing he had not read the law either, even as he was threatening to sue over it. Whatever you think of the Arizona legislation, consider the intellectual laziness evinced by this behavior.

Simply put, if you want to create and defend a system that compels Americans to be routinely and obscenely violated, you had better be someone who has the faith of the nation and a record of stellar judgment. Janet Napolitano is no such person.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Stanford Prison Experiment at America's Airports

In 1971, researchers set up a prison in the basement of Stanford University’s Psychology Department. The idea was to observe how 24 undergraduate students would behave when divided into two groups – “prisoners” and “guards” – and allowed to play out their roles over two weeks. But within 6 days, the simulation had to be stopped. Students playing “guards” became sadistic, while “prisoners” evinced severe anxiety and distress.

Scientific criticisms of the Stanford experiment notwithstanding, the elemental message lingers: It is human nature to abuse authority; and the fewer checks on that authority, the more obscene the abuse becomes.

With that in mind, let’s have a gander at America’s airports and see how the TSA’s new virtual strip-search, busy-fingered pat-down policy is going. To re-cap, government agents have been empowered to subject airline travelers to nude, full-body scans and/or highly invasive hand searches. TSA officers may choose anyone for such scrutiny, without explanation, and if the selected person attempts to avoid whatever search methods the officer decrees – even by opting not to fly – he or she will be detained, prosecuted, and subject to massive fines.

Even without the empirical evidence of eggheads from Stanford, most folks instinctively understand you cannot give people, no matter how well-adjusted, this level of unaccountable authority over others.

Take the example of former Baywatch star Donna D’Errico, who claims a male TSA officer grabbed her out of line at Los Angeles International Airport and forced her to undergo a naked scan. When the fetching Ms. D’Errico asked the officer why she was the only person chosen, he replied, “You caught my eye.” For good measure – and plausibly, to obscure his true motives – the officer also scanned Ms. D’Errico’s young son, and subjected him to an extensive pat-down. Afterward, Ms. D’Errico reports seeing the officer and a male colleague – possibly the one who was privileged to see her naked image on the scanner – smirking and watching her walk on.

Much has been made of the fact that Ms. D’Errico has appeared in Playboy, suggesting nudity ought not to trouble her. That is relevant only insofar as it seems the same assets that got her into the magazine also got her into the scanner. The point is that she was violated with no recourse, escape, or appeal.
Reached for comment, a TSA spokeswoman called the incident “funny.” Really, now? Ms. D’Errico does not find it “funny,” nor does her son, nor do millions of women and families who face the prospect of government-sanctioned sexual violation as the price of travel. Indeed, the word I have read and heard most from females anticipating a flight is, “Dread.”

Consider the case of Stacey Armato, the young mother who was shoved into a glass cage by TSA officers at Phoenix Airport for refusing to allow her breast milk to go through an x-ray machine. She was held for an hour in full view of other passengers, subjected to a thorough hand-search, and told to, “Be quiet if you know what’s good for you.”

No one thought for a second that the breast milk was a matter of national security. I admit I wasn’t there, but I’ll say it again: The breast milk was never a threat. You know it, I know it, and the TSA thugs who abused this woman knew it. But the “guards” were in control.

As the system now stands, stories like these will multiply. Unfortunately, TSA Chief John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano show little interest in making changes.

Some have suggested the TSA’s methods are part and parcel with the war on terror, and these are small sacrifices for civilians to make while our troops are overseas, fighting for freedom. That’s half-right – our troops are fighting to preserve a free country, not one where husbands and fathers stand helplessly aside while the government takes naked pictures of their wives and children.

Indeed, how might a soldier hunkered down in Iraq or Afghanistan feel, being told that at that very moment back home, a TSA officer was ogling his wife’s naked image, or thrusting his hands into his child’s crotch, ostensibly in the name of the freedom he signed up to defend?

Stop it. Just stop now. Call it whatever you like – a re-evaluation period, a budget cutback, a legal opinion. But turn off your naked scanners, wheel them out, and tell your officers to keep their hands in the sunlight. Learn the lesson from Stanford some 40 years ago and wrap this one up early.

Pistole and Napolitano do not appear to be listening. They imagine we will become inured to scans and gropes, and some day look back, in Virgil’s supposition, to laugh at how prudish we once were. That, I believe, is a miscalculation.

America eventually does the right thing. The scanners will disappear from our airports and the blue gloves will retreat from our inseams. I believe that because I believe in the people of this country. Stick with it, keep at it, and let’s end this together.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is the TSA targeting women?

The young, male TSA officer walks slowly down the line of airline passengers waiting to clear security. He looks down at tickets, up at faces, then points to those whom he selects for additional screening. In a theoretically possible, albeit unlikely, random sample, when the officer reaches the end of the long queue, we find that every passenger he has chosen for further scrutiny is female.

As I watched this scene unfold at Washington, DC’s Reagan-National Airport recently, the moment that struck me most was when the officer looked down at my ticket and seemed about to pull me aside. But when he raised his eyes to see my face, he veered his blue-gloved finger, already in mid-air, toward the woman standing behind me.

I readily admit I do not know what was in that young man's head, but the facts of the incident are straightforward: He appeared about to select me and, after he saw my face, opted for a female instead; further, everyone he picked was a woman.

Since the TSA stepped up its use of full-body x-ray scanners and invasive hand searches at America’s airports, almost every female traveler I know has at least one story of being scanned and/or patted down – and in some cases, they advise it happens every time they fly. Meanwhile, very few of the men I speak to report anything similar.

This is, of course, a wildly unscientific survey of my personal acquaintances, but anecdotal evidence is mounting that TSA officers are inappropriately directing their newfound powers to prod and peer at female passengers. Consider the father who reports hearing a TSA officer tell his colleague by walkie-talkie, “We’ve got another cutie coming through,” before sending the man’s teenage daughter into the scanner; or Eliana Sutherland, who claims two male TSA agents ogled her up and down at Orlando International Airport before one of them pulled her aside for enhanced screening; or Alyson Galen, who says Philadelphia TSA agents selected her for a thorough pat-down because she wore a Dallas Cowboys’ jersey.

The TSA does not provide information on how passengers are selected for enhanced screening, except to say that the process is "random," and these new measures are in place due to "classified intelligence" of imminent threats. But if you'd like further insight into that "random" process and you'd like to see some of that "classified intelligence" – as well as your fellow Americans naked – simply call the TSA employment number advertised on your pizza box and apply today!

TSA Chief John Pistole assures us that officers never see the naked images of the passengers they are "assisting," since the x-ray scans are viewed and deleted in a separate room, and those looking at the images "never interact" with the scanned person. As to the scans themselves, the TSA helpfully shows us, on signs posted at airport security checkpoints, as well on their website, "What Officers See," and it is a blurry image of the photographic quality usually reserved for sightings of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.

If that is what the actual scans looked like, not even the TSA could defend using them, so with all due respect, Mr. Pistole, serve it on toast. More believable representations are available in many of the television news reports on the new procedures available online.

But let's give TSA the benefit of the doubt on the privacy aspect, assuming they do not save or store images, and that officers don't see their "assisted" passengers nude. Human nature being what it is, how hard is it to suppose that if you are working a menial, hourly job at the airport, and you have opaque, random power to choose people to be exposed naked to whichever of your chums is manning the peep booth, you would be tempted to send pleasing shapes through the scanner, on the understanding he will do the same when it's your turn to do the ogling?

The TSA says its officers are 60 percent male, and 40 percent female, and there could be reasons besides prurience that officers might single out travelers for scrutiny – as in the case of Ms. Galen, above.

Some have proposed, bizarrely, that such potential abuses would be averted by paying TSA officers better. But a more practical, economical option is available: The government should stop taking naked pictures of people.

President Barack Obama has defended the TSA’s new procedures, while conceding they are, “a huge inconvenience for all of us.”

"Us," is it? Has the First Family found themselves wrapped up in this predicament? "Mr. President, you're fine, but Michelle, Malia and Sasha will all have to be scanned. Don't worry – the person who'll see them naked is 50 feet away and won’t interact with them – apart from seeing every inch of their bodies, of course.”
America, this is just wrong, and it must end now.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hands Off America

Alright, that does it.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have been willing to do their part for safety in the friendly skies. Indeed, citizens have generally been reasonable, even in the face of monumental unreasonableness, of the type only government can attain.

But now, it has gone too far. The Transportation Security Administration has begun offering air travelers an abominable, binary choice between nude, full-body x-ray scans and groin-grabbingly invasive “pat-downs.”

It is encouraging to read of danders rising all over the country, as people see this hideous overreach for what it is. It has occurred to me that this policy is in fact an elaborate prank, just to see if the nation still has any nerve at all. If, however, this federal initiative of naked pictures and government gropes is sincere, Americans’ response will determine their success or failure in the worldwide struggle with radical Islam.

Preposterous as it seems to suggest the war on terror will be won or lost in the trousers of America, what is at stake is nothing less than the character of the country. Has the Land of the Free reverted to such docility that its citizens will meekly let anyone in a uniform get to third base simply because those are the rules?

America has had a lot of rules in its time, some sinister and some asinine; segregation and prohibition come to mind, respectively. In each case, nonsensical or nasty regimes were overthrown when regular people, individually and en masse, said, “enough already.”

This is, or should be, such a time. A nation that will not tell airport apparatchiks to keep their claws out of their crotch cannot vanquish al-Qaeda.

Resistance to tyranny, petty or grand, is the spirit that created the country. If citizens cannot summon it now, even as twitchy, blue-gloved fingers creep below the equator, then America is simply living off the capital of previous generations as it whittles down to its inevitable demise.

One tires of those who shrug and say, “Go ahead and scan me – I have nothing to hide.” To them I’d respond, it isn’t about you and whether you can sell that look. Kids, families, or even just people who don’t share your ease with revealing their nakedness or watching their spouses do the same should not be subject to this insanity. Your comfort with your own body is admirable, whether well-founded or not, but if you suppose that your personal decisions should be good enough for the rest of the country, you are either a White House czar or you’ve simply missed the point.

The TSA and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have tried various tacks in responding to growing public outcry. Napolitano, in a USA Today column that reads like the copy of an automated complaint line, refers to this new system as “the evolution of our national security architecture.” Airport screeners who have received complaints from molested passengers have reportedly been parroting that, “The rules have always been the same.” Nice try, Charlie. I’m fairly certain we would have remembered that move, had you “always” been using it.

We are reminded, of course, that these enhanced techniques come in response to would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted Christmas Day attack in 2009. But Napolitano and her minions do not offer any counter to the argument that this new and invasive approach would not have stopped him.

And anyway, these are the same geniuses who responded to Abdulmutallab’s attempt by decreeing people couldn’t have books in their laps for the final hour of flights. What crack team gamed that one out? Besides the obvious incongruity – some guy stuffs explosives into his y-fronts so you can’t finish your chapter of Johnny Tremain until safely inside the terminal – what did they think would happen? That terrorists would seize planes using the complete works of Dickens? Perhaps Orwell would be more appropriate. To be sure, nothing cracks a cockpit door like Leon Uris.

But this is the way of bureaucrats. In lieu of doing the right thing, they must do something. The opportunity to stop Abdulmutallab came when his own father walked into the US Embassy in Nigeria and warned that the young man was a threat. For whatever reason – political correctness, overwork, under-interest – officials did nothing, so the first photos of your Disney vacation will be of you and your family without clothes.

There are, however, reasons for hope. Wednesday, November 24, which portends to be the busiest travel date of the year, has been declared “National Opt-Out Day” by grassroots organizers who are encouraging Americans to refuse to submit to full-body scans, thereby requiring TSA agents to perform pat-downs on all fliers. The prospects for this approach are unclear, but at least it’s something.

And that is what we need – people from all parts of the country finding ways to make their displeasure known. Moreover, folks must stick with it and keep up the pressure. Please do not get used to this nonsense. Stay outraged, America, and stay free.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We Will Remember Them

Just what do we remember on Remembrance Day? Certainly, we recall that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice was reached to end The Great War, as World War One was known. All wars did not end with that consuming conflict, as had been hoped, and successive generations have stood against tyranny to preserve our freedom. In the words of British Major John Etty-Leal, “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

But what, exactly, comes to mind with almost a century of war and peace gone by?

Author and veteran George Orwell averred, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” That is true, so far as it goes, but many of those whom we honour on November 11 are neither rough nor men, and they stand guard for the best interests of their fellow human beings, regardless of faction. Western militaries in modern times are an amalgam of destructive power, engineering genius and humanitarian outreach unmatched in history.

Whether they carry a gun, or a tool kit, or a doctor’s bag, these are real people in unreal situations. And, in today’s all-volunteer force, they are there by choice.

Ray Wiss, a Canadian Forces doctor and author of A Line in the Sand about his tours in Afghanistan, says that it is not enough to “support our troops” in the parlance of some who are unsure about the cause. Go further, he instructs, and, “Support our mission.”

If you differ from the surrounding politics – for which civilians, not our military, are responsible – pick some portion of their mission you can support, and do so with strength and pride. Perhaps it is allowing girls to go to school, or protecting them from rape and mutilation. Maybe it is bringing medical care and supplies to people who have known only brutality and hardship. Or perhaps it is just the telling humanity of our military doctors that wounded enemies are given the same treatment as our own injured troops.

The Great Lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, opined, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.” This bespeaks the monumental courage of those who face and return fire, but also the spirit of sacrifice evinced by those who sign up to serve. Most of us lack one or both of these towering qualities.

In honouring that spirit of sacrifice, we remember above all those who did not return, who died far from home in defense of the best things we know. As has been understood since the dawn of our culture, “Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Although they answered a higher calling, these were people just as we are. Canadian Army surgeon and In Flanders Fields poet John McCrae captured this commonality by reminding us, “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved.”

And so, on November 11, consider that each name on a wall is a life that was lived. With a thankful heart for those who serve, and a thoughtful prayer for those who are lost, we heed the declaration of Laurence Binyon’s immortal verses: “We will remember them.”

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Remember the Morning

Nine years ago today, our world changed. On the morning of September 11, 2001, four hijacked airliners crashed into targets in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 innocent people. The reasons and consequences would emerge in the weeks that followed – indeed, they are still unfolding in theatres of war around the world – but on that fateful day, the most we knew was that tragedy had struck and life would never be the same.

Everyone has images they recall of 9/11. Perhaps it is the planes hitting the World Trade Center, or flames rising from the Pentagon, or people clinging to the glass outside smoldering skyscrapers, or leaping to their deaths hand in hand.

For me, the image that keeps returning is a man in a dark suit, maybe 100 floors up, hanging from the outside of one of the World Trade towers. He has what appears to be an umbrella, which he hooks to the frame of a shattered window as he tries to swing from a burning office to the floor below. It is a pitiful scene – a desperate man with inadequate tools, unprepared for his final moments. He loses his grip and departs this life.

I wonder, as he fell, did he curse, or pray? Did he think of his children, if he had any? We can never know.

1,616 death certificates were issued without a body at the World Trade Center site. Of the approximately 20,000 body parts collected there, among the most affecting was a man’s large fist, clenched around a tiny hand.

Today, and in years to come, how will we mark this date? Will we don black arm bands and read the names of the dead? Will we observe moments of silence and prayer? Perhaps, and rightly so.

Some will want to discuss political, cultural, and historical matters of varied importance – foreign wars, recrimination for past acts, and so on – but today is about those who died on September 11, 2001. In what way should we honour them?

Maybe we should remember how survivors and citizens behaved on 9/11, in contrast to the manner in which the innocent were taken from us.

The victims of 9/11 were not killed by accident. They were murdered. And everyone who died that day was the most important person in the world to someone.

How can we contemplate and counter so great an evil, that would bring such death and pain to so many people?

As then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani observed at the time, “We have met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity.” That is the strongest legacy of this tragic date.

Examples of 9/11 heroism abound, from firefighters and police who ran into burning buildings, even as others were running out, to the passengers of United Flight 93, who crashed their hijacked plane into a field in Pennsylvania, rather than let it strike some target or civilian-populated area in Washington, DC.

As for humanity, there are countless instances, large and small, of people reaching out to one another – from strangers offering their homes to stranded travelers, to those who ensured their co-workers were safe before evacuating, to people watching the news and simply appreciating their loved ones a little more.

A banner on one of the myriad 9/11 remembrance websites shows an image of the September sky, emblazoned with the words, “Remember the morning.” To be sure, this is a call to remember each precious life lost. But it also reminds us of the things people did and felt as the tragedy unfolded.

The nobility of the human spirit rose above the rubble, even before the sun had set that day. 9/11 will always be with us, and to honour the dead, we embrace courage and compassion. Most of all, we hold fast to hope. Even in our darkest moments, when we stare deep into the face of fear and recognize the smirk of evil, we can know that there is still good in the world. For that, we may be thankful, and remember the morning.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What Does Victory Look Like?

Sixty-five years ago today, World War II officially came to an end. On September 2, 1945, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu boarded the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay and signed the Instrument of Surrender in front of American General Douglas MacArthur.

It was a formal and solemn ceremony, coming weeks after atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, concluding six years of warfare, with some 70 nations fighting on three continents.

Today, we find ourselves in another global conflict, and it is broadly understood that there will be no such official declaration if and when we win.

Who would sign the surrender, and where? Would Osama bin Laden apply his imprimatur to some document at Ground Zero, perhaps in the Great Hall of Faisal Abdul Rauf’s planned “community center”?

In 1945, Japan’s leaders, like countless signatories to surrenders of centuries past, were agreeing on behalf of an entire population that hostilities would cease. In today’s war, where terrorist cells attack civilian and military targets all over the world, no leader is empowered to make that peace, even if he cared to.

Without a surrender, how will we know when we have won? Victory will take years, if we can manage it, but what will it look like and how do we achieve it?

Military might alone cannot win this war. And so, the adage goes, we will conquer by the strength of our ideas. Swell – but what’s that mean?

Often, the delineation of “our ideas” takes one of two forms. First, there are people like me, banging on about “freedom,” whatever that might be. Or, we are told, standing up for “our ideas” means making some absurd concession to antagonistic forces, in hopes our good intentions and intellectual bio-diversity will green the souls and stay the hands of our enemies (Mayor Bloomberg, call your office).

Political correctness is no match for radical Islam. The latter has shown its commitment, time and again in locations around the world, to winning this conflict. The former, meanwhile, is a tiresome modern reflex, whereby poseurs take a quick assessment of common sense, then put all their energy behind the contrary view. This tic can manifest itself in straightforward fashion – as in, when people aver it is offensive to erect a nativity display at Christmastime – or abstractly – such as, you demonstrate how a cut in capital gains tax rates spurs the economy, then someone calls you a racist.

In either case, this is no way to win a war.

That brings us back to freedom. But the question remains: Just what would the victory of “freedom” mean to us? Would we breathe a little easier? Would the Kabuki dance of airport security be curtailed? Most important, would the brave members of our armed forces be spared from injury and death on foreign soil?

Intelligent and experienced people have struggled to define victory in Iraq, where the US combat mission has just ended, and Afghanistan, where human rights abuses abound and military casualties continue – to say nothing of the almost-nuclear, terror-sponsoring Iran. What does “freedom” look like for Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, and others?

There will be no top-hats and ceremonies when this war ends. And so I put the question to you, gentle readers – what does victory in the war on terror look like?

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hearts and Minds

A young couple died a cruel death last week. According to BBC News: “A man and a woman who allegedly had an adulterous affair have been stoned and killed in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.”

The pair, both in their 20’s, were hauled into a crowded marketplace and murdered. The woman, named Sadiqa, was brought out first. Taliban thugs threw rocks at her for half an hour, at which time the man, named Qayum, was pulled into the bazaar to suffer the same fate.

Apparently, the couple had run away together. Sadiqa had been betrothed to someone else, while Qayum was already married. This dreadful story conjures a number of thoughts.

First, there is the sheer horror of the scene. Consider, if you can, what it would be like for you and the person you love most to be in such a circumstance. Your own torturous death is compounded by the inability to protect someone you adore.

Next, there is the frequency with which Taliban forces are inflicting brutality in areas of Afghanistan that fall under their control. I wrote recently of Aisha, an 18-year-old girl whose nose and ears were cut off on the order of Taliban authorities for the crime of running away from her husband. There are reports that the Taliban flogged and killed a pregnant widow in the western province of Badghis this month.

In early August, ten medical aid workers were lined up and shot, one at a time, by Taliban terrorists in the northern province of Badakhshan. The chief crime for which these noble souls were tried and executed on the spot was, “preaching Christianity.”

Writer P.J. O’Rourke, having just returned from Afghanistan, quotes a female MP who says Taliban forces make a simple demand of villagers they subjugate: “Son or money.”

The reaction of Afghanistan’s government to the stoning deaths of Sadiqa and Qayum is disconcerting. Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is quoted as saying, "Even in Islam this [stoning] has to be done through proper judicial systems.”

While Omar suggests the government would condemn the incident, his comments imply that their chief objection would be that the Taliban did not complete Form Z-914B Rock-Hurling Requisition in triplicate before proceeding.

This raises the much larger concern of the Karzai government in general. Western forces are forever picking the wrong allies in regions they don’t understand, then clinging to them like grim death.

Finally, one wonders about the 150 or so people in that marketplace who watched as Sadiqa and Qayum were slowly killed. Those are 150 of the “hearts and minds” we hear so much about. Reports are that the Taliban did the actual stoning (they finished Qayum off with bullets), while villagers were made to observe and contemplate the fate of those who behave in “un-Islamic” ways.

Those villagers have seen the face of evil. And as human beings, they must want something better for themselves and their families. One has to think that in this battle for hearts and minds, forces of freedom and dignity can outdo the stone-throwers, nose-cutters and son-snatchers.

For the sake of those people – and for Sadiqa and Qayum and for every person in Afghanistan who does not share our good fortune – let us show them a better way.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ashtiani Has Confessed

Sakineh Ashtiani has confessed. Ashtiani is the Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of “adultery,” and whose cause was championed by people around the globe. Owing to public outcry, Iran’s mullahs, in their mercy, commuted her sentence to death by hanging. But this week, Ashtiani appeared on Iranian television, where she confessed to various charges, including being an accessory to the murder of her husband.

Ashtiani’s lawyer advises that she was tortured for two days before she appeared on television. This is not the first time Iranian authorities have broadcast a forced confession from someone they seek to condemn. And using history as a guide, fears are mounting that Ashtiani’s execution – by whatever method – could come at any time.

The mullahs’ move, it seems, is to paint Ashtiani as a murderer – indeed, it was an investigation of her husband’s death that started Ashtiani’s ordeal back in 2006 – and execute her, just as other countries, including the United States, do to killers in their midst. The absurdity of the regime’s ploy is twofold – first, that they would attempt it; second, that they would expect anyone to believe it.

Originally cleared of involvement in her husband’s death, that investigation uncovered Ashtiani’s apparent “adultery,” for which she received 99 lashes in front of her teenage son. A re-opening of the murder case led religious authorities to determine that penalty had been insufficient, and they decreed she should be stoned to death.

Now, exposed as the fanatical monsters they are, Iran’s leaders want to tack the murder charge back on, and do away with this inconvenient person. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Even Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – a sometime ally of Iran and no snuggly-bear on human rights – has offered to give Ashtiani asylum in his country. Iran has declined. To sweeten the deal, I’ll even take her place. No doubt, Ashtiani is a far finer person than I am, and I have shattered any number of God’s laws in my time. Come and get me, mullahs, and I will confess to any crime you care to name – adultery, regicide, coveting my neighbour’s ass – if you’ll let Ashtiani go free.

But this isn’t about crime, or even a country. It is a perverse prescription for the entire planet. In the words of the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini: "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."

Given their druthers, Iran’s rulers would murder Ashtiani, and me, and you who are reading along, in order to realize their vision. This poor woman is one of countless thousands caught up in a twisted experiment.

It bears mentioning that the Iranian people, 60 percent of whom are under age 30, are not on board with this madness. During and after their stolen elections of last year, the citizens of Iran did what they could to bring about change. It is to the shame of free nations that we did not do more to help them.

But here, in the person of Sakineh Ashtiani, we have another chance. Let us keep her hope alive.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Democrats Dread November

WASHINGTON, DC – Democrats are already nervous about November’s congressional elections. The bad news for them – and good news for America – is that their defeat may be even worse than they think.

In 1994, Democrats knew the midterm elections would be tough. First-year President Bill Clinton had reversed course from campaign promises and announced the largest middle-class tax hike in American history. He took on, and booted, divisive issues like gays in the military, and tasked his wife with constructing a schmozzle of a health-care package.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s Republicans offered the country a concise alternative in their ten-point “Contract with America.”

The result, when voters went to the polls that November, was more dramatic than people expected. Republicans captured both chambers of Congress in a nationwide sweep.

In 2010, indicators for the ruling Democrats are worse than they were 16 years ago. The generic ballot, which polls voters’ preferences of Republican or Democratic congressional candidates, was tied on Election Day in 1994, and the GOP only saw its first, slight, lead that autumn. Today, Republicans are ahead in the generic ballot by 6 points, according to the average, and have enjoyed leads since June of 2009.

Then, there are the issues. This Democratic Congress actually did pass health-care reform, in a monstrous piece of legislation that they did not read, and which a majority of Americans want to see repealed. Unemployment remains high as businesses groan under massive regulation and impending tax hikes. As federal debt surpasses the nation’s GDP, and trillion-dollar deficits are projected for the next decade, a newly engaged citizenry is taking a look at its elected leaders. They do not like what they see.

As the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi is the most powerful legislator on the planet. She is also ridiculous. One could spend a lifetime outlining the absurdity of Pelosi’s positions and statements on issues from the economy to health-care to immigration to the CIA. But a handier approach is to send folks to, say, YouTube, and invite them to watch a clip of the Speaker – just pick one at random – and suggest they make up their own minds. After watching Pelosi opine on any matter, ask yourself – would you trust this person to work an electric can-opener? Now consider that this is the top lawmaker of the world’s sole superpower.

Consider, also, that Pelosi became Speaker because House Democrats looked around and said, “Yep, she’s the best we’ve got” – and, from a group that includes Charlie Rangel, Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, et al., they may be right.

As for President Obama, Americans are not seeing the brilliant, moderate, outcome-oriented leader they willed him to be, but a hard-left ideologue who wouldn't know the answer to a doorbell if it weren't printed on his teleprompter.

To win the House, Republicans need to pick up 40 seats this November. In 1994, the GOP added 54 but, based on this climate, commentator Bill Kristol calls for Republicans to gain 60 seats or more.

The Senate will be tougher, but political consultant Dick Morris, who helped rescue Clinton’s presidency after the 1994 shellacking, says Republicans should win the 10 seats they need to control that chamber.

A lot can happen between now and November, but welcome change seems on the way.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Win This War

I wondered, in last week’s column, whether the war in Afghanistan is still a worthwhile enterprise, nine years on. As American and Canadian governments contemplate withdrawal in 2011, commentators far wiser than I – George Will comes to mind – have opined that it is time for allied forces to pull out. Indeed, I had begun to congratulate myself on my reasonableness and good intellectual company.

Then, I saw the cover of Time magazine. The photo and story are of a young Afghan woman named Aisha, who was apprehended and sentenced to mutilation by Taliban authorities for running away from her husband’s house. As writer Aryn Baker puts it: “Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.” Baker adds, “This didn't happen 10 years ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It happened last year.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some U.S. policymakers have floated the idea of reconciliation with the Taliban, in hopes of achieving stability and peace. Personally, I prefer freedom and human dignity.

But even if a reconciliation were possible, would we want it?

Have we fought and sacrificed for nine years only to leave Aisha and millions like her to their fate? Afghanistan presents a challenge, in which we are already engaged, and in which the delineation between barbarity and civilization is plain to see. If we cannot see this through, in what way will Western nations, blessed beyond the comprehension of most of the world, stand against evil in our time? By recycling? Driving hybrid cars? Gimme a break.

But let us say we depart, giving a finger-wag to the grinning maniacs left in charge, admonishing, “Now, no terrorist acts! And keep the amputations and honour killings to a minimum. Okay? We’re really, really cereal!”

Would that achieve our humane and practical goals?

Either way, the strategic and humanitarian missions are not mutually exclusive. And to accomplish both, we must win this war.

Often, when the concept of total victory is put forward, people suddenly become military historians. “Ah,” they say, “even the Soviet Union couldn’t win in Afghanistan.” For those who missed the 20th century, there were any number of things the Soviets could not do, including, but not limited to, basic economics and intentional comedy. You’ll excuse me if I don’t use the regime that brought us the collective farm as the benchmark for what can and cannot be done.

Along these lines, accommodation with the Taliban should be akin to Ronald Reagan’s prescription for rapprochement with the USSR: “We win, they lose.”

When he was Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier told me, “There is no such thing as a doorstop defence.” That is, no nation can be an oasis to itself and, as we have learned during this decade, darkness from elsewhere in the world comes to find us at home. Lest we forget, we went into Afghanistan to deprive Islamist terrorists of safe haven after they killed thousands of people in North America.

Not only do we have a human obligation to succeed in Afghanistan, but the strategic argument still obtains. As the poet Terence averred, “Nothing that is human is foreign to me.” For Aisha and the people of Afghanistan, let us remember that.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where to from Here?

In last week’s column, I put out a call for proposals to solve the heretofore intractable Israel-Palestinian situation.

Readers did not disappoint. I have tremendous respect for those who take the time to read this space – like a true Irishman, I admire the wisdom of those who seek my opinion – but even I was surprised by the strength of the responses.

Some of the sagest suggestions began more or less like this: No matter your sentiments on this issue – whether you feel the creation of the State of Israel was fair or not, and whether you believe Israel has merely been defending itself against overwhelming odds or oppressing unfortunate people – both sides have suffered. Most important, the past is prologue and there’s no going back. So, we must stop being concerned with who was right or whom to blame, and focus on what to do next.

There are myriad challenges about which we could ask similar questions. The war in Afghanistan was a necessary undertaking when it began, but what is our best move today, nine years on? The invasion of Iraq may not have yielded WMD, but what steps can be taken now to help that recovering country, comprised of three distinct groups, develop into a secular Middle Eastern ally? Western nations may have mishandled Iran for decades, but what should be done as its despotic regime nears nuclear capability? This week, Canada announced, in conjunction with other countries, it would stiffen sanctions against the Iranian government. Was that the right thing to do? (Hint: Yes, it was.)

To find the future you want, you must put aside the past. Learn from it, certainly, but don’t allow your judgment to be clouded by injustices. In this way, forgiveness can be highly practical. It is difficult, nonetheless.

But on the Israel-Palestinian matter, let us give one another substantial credit and assume we can take a purely objective, forward-looking stance. Now what?

Several readers took issue with the premise of my original question – “What should Israel do?” – pointing out that the plight of the Palestinian people is not solely a responsibility of the Jewish State. Their Arab neighbours can also take steps to help.

As columnist Khaled Abu Toameh recently observed, “Not only are Palestinians living in Lebanon denied the right to own property, but they also do not qualify for health care, and are banned by law from working in a large number of jobs,” adding, “Ironically, it is much easier for a Palestinian to acquire American and Canadian citizenship than a passport of an Arab country.”

So if we want to help the Palestinian people – and as a matter of human decency, all good folks share that goal – perhaps the best approach is to spread the pressure. That is, rather than focus solely on, say, Israeli checkpoints and Jerusalem building projects, we might also find the dialing codes for Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, ring them up and ask, “Could you find a path to citizenship for the Palestinians in your midst?”

We might add, “We’d love your help in achieving a peaceful Palestinian state and, in the meantime, would you please drop any restrictions on them working as journalists, pharmacists, physicians, what-have-you, so they can earn a living?”

It’s not perfect or complete, but it’s a way forward.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Always, Always Israel

For some people, it’s always about Israel.

Over the past few weeks, I and other columnists have written about Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for the crime of “adultery.” The good news is, folks from all walks of life and political persuasions have rallied to Ms. Ashtiani’s cause. The strange news is, some still suppose Israel is the problem.

You can extrapolate the Ashtiani case to any number of issues – the growing danger of Iran, the cruelty of Sharia law, the misogyny of Islamic regimes – but even if you spend a paragraph, as I did last week, pointing out that Israel is irrelevant to the topic, that’s still the part that gets people animated.

Every public opinion engenders some measure of response, and there are those who perceive hypocrisy whenever one injustice is given press, rather than another. They’ll complain, “I notice you didn’t write about the expulsion of the Acadians” or “the theft of the Elgin Marbles” or whatever. But as a reliable tangent and an object of anger, the Jewish state stands alone.

And I don’t just mean anonymous ravings by people who post opinions online. I’m a sanguine sort, but even I don’t expect to read surpassing wisdom from “ChunkyLover54” on some Internet comment thread.

Awhile back, I was invited to speak at an educational institution, which posted the transcript of my remarks on its website. The speech was not about the Middle East, but one member of the school’s community, on poring through the canon of my columns, discovered that I had, from time to time, written positive things about Israel. He demanded that a disclaimer and link to an Arab advocacy group be posted under my comments.

After a business partner and I went our separate ways, he opted to punctuate our relationship by sending me a hand-written screed about “the Arabs” – a topic we had never discussed and on which I was unaware he held any view – stating that he had harbored anger with me for years because of public statements I made in support of Israel.

One of the most affable journalists I know (to the extent that’s any kind of distinction) finds it impossible to discuss current affairs for any length of time without making reference to my “twisted defense of Israel.”

Look – I’m just a Presbyterian. Why should these people care what I think about the Jewish state? The answer is, they don’t care about my opinion, but their anger is so strong that it blinds them to anything else. And Israel, as with politics in general, becomes the focal point for their other frustrations.

But you know what? Let’s use that energy. Herewith, I put out a call for proposals.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, you have millions of people in a small space that most of them consider holy, and home. Without forfeiting your spot at the grown-ups’ table by ranting like a nut, tell us what Israel should do.

Would you then turn to the plight of Ashtiani? Or do you imagine that solving the Israel-Palestinian situation would somehow civilize the entire Middle East, eliminating the region’s many problems with human rights? I might disagree with you on that but, if you’ve got a great idea, let’s give it a try.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

One Person Matters

Last week, I wrote about Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman who has been imprisoned, beaten, and sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for the crime of “adultery.” Recently, Iranian authorities announced they probably won’t stone Ms. Ashtiani after all. That’s tepid progress, inasmuch as she may yet be hanged and at least 15 other people await stoning deaths in that nation.

Mine is one of many voices calling for Ashtiani’s release, and I am encouraged that her supporters include folks from various countries, cultures and backgrounds, spanning the political spectrum from right to left. I am fascinated, however, by those who insist on staying in the middle.

For example, I participated in a BBC radio program about Ashtiani and the brutality of the Iranian regime. Bafflegab was thick on the ground, and at one point the host mused that Iran’s death penalty for homosexuals is a moral judgment akin to the United States banning gay marriage.

Equating two obviously unequal situations is not clever or nuanced. It is idiotic and irresponsible. Similarly, asking the insipid modern question, “Who are we to decide?” only serves to evince moral vacuity but, if you must pose the query, let me help you with the answer.

You are a human being, born with the capacity to determine right from wrong. Further, if you are reading this column, chances are you have the magnificent good fortune to live in a part of the world that allows freedom of thought and expression. If you grew up in Western society during the last generation or so, you have likely been browbeaten into believing there is no absolute right and wrong and even if there were, you have no business deciding which is which, since your ancestors probably owned slaves or didn’t recycle.

There is evil in the world, uncomfortable as that is for people who yearn to reduce any situation to a contest of two extremes, placing themselves in the serene center.

Certainly, there are issues where the line between right and wrong seems blurry, but bashing people’s brains out with rocks should not be one of them. If it is, though, on what other topics would you demur to pass judgment? Child slavery?

The logical extension of this approach is that folks become open-minded imbeciles, incapable of making a decision.

Or, people want to make a case like Ashtiani’s about something else. Let’s suppose, for example, you strongly disagree with the State of Israel and consider their treatment of Palestinians to be criminal. That does not mean everything happening in the world, or even the Middle East, pertains to that issue. Ashtiani’s predicament has nothing to do with Jerusalem settlements, and even if a peaceful two-state solution were achieved in Gaza and the West Bank today, she could still be killed tomorrow.

One person matters. It is easier to love mankind than to love your neighbor, as author Eric Hoffer opined, but if you remember that each person is the most important in the world to someone, it becomes less difficult.

As you read this, Ms. Ashtiani is sitting in a cell, not knowing if she is about to die. You have the privilege to be as philosophical as you like, but if you care about what’s right, this woman’s fate really ought to be enough.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Way of Life

Every Monday, for 15 minutes, a young man speaks to his mother through prison glass. She is Sakine Mohammedie Ashtiani, and since 2006 she has been tormented by the government of Iran for “adultery.”

Ashtiani was originally condemned to 99 lashes, a sentence which was carried out in front of her 17-year-old son. Now, after re-examining her case, Iranian authorities have decided she should also be stoned to death.

To be clear, these maniacs want to throw rocks at this woman’s head until her brains are dashed out.

Treating people like this is evil. Regimes that do such things must be exposed, rattled and, at times, replaced. And in countries fortunate enough not to be subject to such brutality, we ought to recalibrate our priorities from cozy concerns like reality shows and “climate change” to the plight of our fellow human beings.

This struggle is cultural, psychological, military, and economic. Most of all, it is a test of wills. Do we have the strength to call evil by its name and resist, or will we fumble about and find reasons not to until it’s too late? Iran is only the most prominent and dangerous among the entities that oppose us, and Ashtiani’s story is one of heartbreaking thousands, chronicled by Amnesty International and others.

An opportunity existed, after the uprising that followed Iran’s stolen elections last year, for good people of the world to show their support. There was one guy in particular who could have made a difference with a single speech. Unfortunately, Barack Obama demurred.

To understand the value that a few words from the American president can have to folks who are under repression, consider former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky’s reaction to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “Tear down this wall” address in Berlin: “That was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us.”

On an individual basis, Western nations, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have been hopeless at protecting their citizens when they are imprisoned or unjustly treated in basket-case countries. The closest thing to a victory on this front came when Bill Clinton flew to North Korea last August to rescue two American women from the clutches of Kim Jong-il. The former president even posed for a forced photo-op in a room so hideously decorated that sanctions should be suspended until the regime has time to buy something tasteful.

So if free nations cannot protect their own people abroad, what can they possibly do for Ashtiani? And what could anyone reading this column do to help her? Perhaps, provide profile for her cause.

I’d like to see her on more t-shirts than Che Guevara. If a fraction of the energy evinced by those who showed up at the G20 in Toronto to protest the evils of “globalization” (or whatever) were instead directed toward, say, not hitting women with rocks until they die, we’d be getting somewhere. Or, if the zeal of feminists who demand the freedom to abort a child right up until he goes to his first hockey practice were pointed toward sparing their sisters from state-sanctioned death by blunt-force trauma, their help would be invaluable.

We enjoy a way of life in this part of the world. We owe our support to those who do not.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great and Good Country

A 143rd birthday is as good a time as any to consider one’s health. This Canada Day, we can contemplate a storied past and wonder if we are headed the right way for the future.

The short answer is yes, Canada is going in the right direction. Moreover, we have attained this trajectory by way of the best elements in our national culture. But first, some context on the state of other countries and what sets Canada apart.

At the best of times, the world is a dangerous place. This is nowhere near the best of times, as nations are still struggling out from under a worldwide recession, and much of the Earth is bound up with wars and rumours of wars. The planet’s condition is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Speech to the Graduates: “Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

But within this maelstrom, Canada stands tall, distinguishing itself in military and moral conflict, maintaining an economy and financial markets that are the envy of all.

There are institutions that require reform, certainly – Parliament and the Hockey Hall of Fame come to mind – but in the main, this land is doing alright. Further, it is encouraging that other countries have taken note of Canada’s relative good condition.

Author Quentin Crisp opined, “Americans want to be loved, the English want to be obeyed.” If nations can be written down to such singular motivations, then perhaps Canadians simply want to be noticed.

Canada’s hosting of the recent G8 and G20 conferences, which came just as other parts of the world began to observe this country’s economic strength, may do something to scratch this itch.

Over so many years, in any photo of international heads of government, Canada’s prime ministers would wear hopeful smiles that invariably went unrecognized. They seemed like good-natured hangers-on, in the company of well-known statesmen from seemingly more important parts of the world.

Owing to reasons perfectly in keeping with the national character – caution and circumspection – Canada’s economy has finally brought the country the respect it craved.

For ages, we heard nationalist cries for Canada to “punch above its weight,” which always seemed an inapt incitement for a land less likely to punch than to compose a strong letter. Tin-eared monikers like “moral power” were fashioned, ascribing a level of influence the nation never really had.

It is not that the country’s ambition exceeded its grasp, inasmuch as I think Canada is capable of anything to which it aspires. Rather, all this talk of power, and yearning to stand astride world affairs like some wintry colossus, is at odds with the national character. The image has always been incongruous, like Paul Martin in a cowboy hat or Stephen Harper attempting a freestyle rap.

We are not chest-thumpers, by and large, though we do engage in a unique and gentle sort of self-promotion. This is often misguided, from unwatchable, publicly funded television series’ to successive generations forced to read Margaret Atwood at bayonet-point.

Indeed, the only endeavor in which Canadians cannot accept also-ran status, or even second place, is hockey, and it is ironic that a country of measured expectations and pre-emptive apologies would choose such a fast, physical game into which to pour its national pride.

There is something endearing and healthy about this exception to our rule of modesty. It shows Canadians are capable of consuming passion, just like anyone else, but the nation knows to channel that energy into something enjoyable and good, rather than, say, imperialism or mime.

We are, therefore, a nation that does one thing very well, and most everything else with the best of intentions. Canada is great because Canada is good, and with this in mind, we may press on with hope for even better days to come.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.