March 2007

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News and Opinion

Letters to the Editor

Partners or Peons?

Tom Engelhardt's analysis of President Bush's pointless escalation of his pointless war is thorough and insightful, but I would like to add a perspective that he does not address.

In the Bush/Cheney model of government, we see an autocratic approach -- the leaders make the decisions and hand down the orders, and the role of the people is to unswervingly obey and carry out those orders for "the good of the nation," where of course "l'état, c'est moi." It is hard to imagine a less democratic and less American approach to government. And if we look back a few decades, it's hard to imagine a less Republican form of government, too -- the Republicans of Eisenhower and Goldwater feared nothing more than an all-powerful government dictating to our nation of independents.

Our Founding Fathers shared this concern, and took great pains to design a system that was inherently responsive to the needs of the people -- because it was the people. This integrated partnership, where the people advise and consent, and often dissent as well, is what has made this a nation of laws, not of men, and one that has become a shining example to the world for more than two centuries. If we value our democracy, it is not only our patriotic duty, but an exercise of our power as free citizens to stand up, to become involved, to become active partners in our government.

The neocons now in control of our government are fond of telling us that we must continue the war on Iraq or else those who have died will have died in vain. This is a recipe for endless war (there will always be men and women who have already died), one that will concentrate ever more power in the hands of an ever less-responsive oligarchy.

The neocons are also fond of telling us about our duty to serve God and country (which they often confuse, but that's a separate issue). But they forget that our leaders also have a duty to serve the nation. Messrs. Bush and Cheney, and all their crew, owe their soldiers a patriotic duty to use them wisely and well, to safeguard them to the best of their ability, and not to send them casually, capriciously, and criminally into the jaws of death. But their autocratic model of government provides only for responsibility upward, treating us citizens as mere chattel to be moved about or slaughtered as the leaders see fit. We have no rights, we are not partners, we are property.

I reject this perversion of American democracy. We are all full partners in this government, and we are entitled to decide for ourselves how it should be run. That's what "public service" means -- that our public servants should serve the public. If they can't or won't, then it's time to replace them with someone who will.

-- Paul B. Gallagher, Horsham, PA

How Hard Should We Hit Hate Speech?

While I am positive that Bruce Ticker's advice -- that we oppose hate speech with truth speech -- is excellent advice for American society, where we have a tradition of vigorous and not always polite advocacy, is entirely appropriate in countries which are still dealing with the aftermath of the Nazi experience, and which are only now experiencing the kind of mass immigration from the Third World, on which the United States was built. David Irving was aware of the manner in which he violated Continental European law, and attended a meeting in a country where he knew he would be apprehended and dealt with according to those laws. While much of the hate speech legalisms in Europe are holdovers from United States military government after World War II, such laws are on the books still six decades later because Europeans sense the need for such self-protections from the "Monsters of the Id" in their own "Forbidden Planet." Now that Irving has challenged his European civil rights denial unsuccessfully, he has to live with the consequences.

The case of Congressman Keith Ellison has proceeded to its American conclusion: the Muslim Congressman swore his oath of office over a religious document which held emotional significance for him, a Koran donated to the Library of Congress by President Thomas Jefferson. The bigots who opposed his action have been widely ridiculed in the press; and the precedent will make it possible for Jews to swear oaths over a Tanakh, rather than a New Testament, should they wish in the future to do so, or for Asians to swear their allegiance over Sutras or other emotionally significant documents in their religious culture. The broader symbolism of taking oaths over objects which are significant to the person actually taking the oath is a significant one, which also surely has limits (for instance, by taking an oath over a magotty corpse); but Ellison's case surely has not tested those limits for most Americans.

The case of the 20 year-old Long Island young adult who damaged a menorah, and degraded the public religious symbols of another culture, is not whether he should go to jail for committing property damage: the property damage by a is a crime that needs to be dealt with through the usual mechanisms. The question is whether this property damage rises to the level of burning a cross to intimidate racial minorities, and deserves the aggravated punishment such intimidation is due. As Judge Holmes once wrote, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." The panic of Anti-Semitic violence, even against symbolic objects, is one which we should be very circumspect to cede, lest it be escalated to the recurrence of Yankel Rosenbaum's death in Brooklyn, or to a death like Michael Griffiths in Howard Beach.

-- Ben Burrows, Elkins Park, PA

Was Saddam Really A Threat?

Orly Halpern cites Israeli experts who felt that the Middle East was actually safer with Saddam Hussein. This is an interesting contrast to the Bush administration's oft-stated opinion that they did the world a favor by eliminating him.

After the first Gulf War I had a surprising conversation with a good friend who is an Iranian expatriate (and a Muslim). He told me that the smartest thing that Bush I did was to leave Saddam in place. My friend's rationale was that Saddam was a buffer between the Saudis and the Iranians, that he was intractably opposed to religious extremists, and that he was not a threat to the US or Israel. On reflection I came to agree with him.

Another friend who was a UN weapons inspector in 1998 told me that while it was clear that Saddam had chemical weapons in 1990, there was no evidence in 1998 that such weapons, or the capacity to make them, still existed in Iraq. This opinion, widely shared among the weapons inspectors, was based on an exhaustive on-site efforts to find evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Few would argue that Saddam was a good guy. He used poison gas (supplied by the US) in violation of the Geneva accords. He tortured and killed people he thought were enemies. His sons, psychopaths both, tortured and raped indiscriminately. On the other hand, could our friends the Saudis, or many other MIddle Eastern Arab states, pass a rigorous inspection without uncovering evidence of torture or worse? I wonder.

Saddam, until forced into acceptance of Islam as a tactic to fight the post Gulf War I embargo, ran a secular country where women were treated as equals and education was widely available. Had the world responded differently after Gulf War I Iraq might have remained a bastion against Islamic terrorism.

It is entirely possible that Israel, the US, and the world are actually worse off because Saddam Hussein is gone.

-- Kenneth Gorelick, Newtown Square, PA

The Philadelphia Jewish Voice welcomes the submission of articles and letters to the editor letters @ pjvoice.com. Please include name, address and phone number for identification purposes. We cannot publish every submission we receive. We also reserve the right to edit submissions for length, clarity, grammar, accuracy, and style, though we will never intentionally distort the author's intent.

Editor-in-chief Charles Smolover editor @ pjvoice.com

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