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"Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." --Romans 8:9
As we enter Holy Week, Christians recall that the central fact of our faith was the brutal death of Jesus at the hands of torturers who thought they were helping to keep order in the world. News continued emerging this month of the extent to which the Bush Administration encouraged torture as a matter of US policy, and the lengths to which they have gone to avoid holding accountable anyone in a position of authority. Despite reports of torture in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan, the Administration has acknowledged that they were contemplating transferring hundreds of prisoners from Guantánamo back to these and other countries. The reason in part appears to be their inability to bring formal criminal charges against most of these men, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision last June ruling that US law applies to the Guantánamo concentration camp and allows prisoners there to challenge their detention in federal court. A further fly in the Bush ointment was the ruling last summer by a federal district judge that the Geneva Conventions apply to Guantánamo prisoners and that Mr. Bush's "special military commissions" to try these men were unconstitutional.
New details also emerged about the extent of abuse, which is now known to involve US facilities in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly others. The NY Times reported that in 2002, two Afghan prisoners were kicked and beaten to death in US custody after being chained to the ceiling. Both of these deaths were originally attributed to "natural causes." A crowd of enlisted men are being held accountable for these and other abuses. Meanwhile, a military investigation has cleared a top American intelligence officer of responsibility for the abuse of detainees under her watch at Abu Ghraib, and she has been promoted to commander of a national Army Intelligence Center in Arizona.
The message of official sanction for torture is perhaps clearest in the drumbeat of nominations, as a parade of torture advocates are steadily placed in the highest government offices. First it was Alberto Gonzales, who provided legal cover for the Bush torture policy, taking over as the nation's highest law enforcement officer. Then Michael Chertoff was advanced as Secretary of Homeland Secretary. As head of the Criminal Division at the Justice Department in 2002 and 2003, Mr. Chertoff advised the CIA on the limits to which they could go in torturing suspects. He apparently indicated that it was acceptable to induce near-drowning as an interrogation technique, and referred the CIA to a memorandum from the Justice Department Office of Legal Council that gruesomely dumbed down the definition of "torture" to only those acts that induced pain at a level tantamount to organ failure or imminent death.
Mr. Bush then nominated John Negroponte, the former UN ambassador, as the first Director of National Intelligence. Mr. Negroponte was a key player in facilitating US support of widespread government-sponsored murder in Central America during the 1980s under the Reagan Administration. New information emerged this week that the killing of an Italian intelligence officer by the US military occurred at a "floating checkpoint" set up to clear the Baghdad airport road so Mr. Negroponte could have dinner with a US military commander there.
Now the Administration has nominated John Bolton to follow in Mr. Negroponte's footsteps at the UN. A leading apologist for the US support of official torture and death in Chile during the 1970s, Mr. Bolton has been a leader in the Administration's efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court that might some day hold the Bush Administration accountable for the unprovoked invasion of Iraq, the killing of scores of thousands of people there, and the economic control US companies have taken of the oil resources there.
How many people have to die in Iraq--500,000, a million, ten million?--before we all come to the realization that war is not the solution to the world's problems? Mr. Bush, and those who support him and his war, have rejected Christ's imperative for love of both friends and enemies. Indeed, they have thrown in their lot with that of the Roman torturers, somehow deaf to the central message of our Christianity that hangs on the fact of Jesus' death at the hands of those who believed violence could solve all their problems. Imagine if it was any one of us being detained without charge for years, or being tortured just shy of a threshold for organ failure, or watching as our child was burned to death by a US offensive "aimed at insurgents."
If you can judge someone by the company they keep, then the elevation of torture advocates like Gonzales, Chertoff, Negroponte and Bolton appears to represent the true contempt that Mr. Bush has for individual human dignity. In the words of St. Paul, Mr. Bush does not belong to Christ, and increasingly neither do we if we continue to support the pro-death policies of this Administration.
"This people pays me lip service but their heart is far from me." Jesus, quoting Isaiah 29, in Matthew 15:8
Adopting the language of the Catholic Church, Mr. Bush and Congressional leaders this week sought to exalt themselves as champions of a "culture of life" as the legal remedies to prolong the life of Mrs. Terri Schiavo were gradually exhausted. We are united now in praying for this Catholic woman and her faithful long-suffering family. But Mrs. Schiavo has fallen further victim to a stunning political bait-and-switch, as politicians who trumpeted her cause were simultaneously looking for ways to cut health services that sustain the lives of millions of our poorest citizens. Furthermore, the tragedy in Minnesota this week served to highlight the cost in lives of political inaction by these same conservatives in the service of the Gun Lobby. Perhaps most starkly revealing of the true Administration stance on the "sanctity of life" has been Mr. Bush's unsuccessful effort to persuade the Supreme Court to allow continued executions of minors and the mentally retarded, in direct violation of Catholic doctrine.
When it came to investing dollars in upholding the "sanctity of life," or losing contributions from wealthy constituencies, politicians on the right couldn't abandon the "culture of life" quickly enough. Republican House leaders sought to slice $14 billion from the Medicaid budget that supports nursing home care for the indigent, including Mrs. Schiavo. A six-month-old baby named Sun Hudson was taken off life support last week in Houston because the prognosis of his developmental disorder was poor and his grief-stricken mother had no money. His death was enabled by a 1999 "futile care" statute signed into law by then-Governor George Bush.
This past week's issue of the American Heart Association's journal Circulation is dedicated to documenting the significantly greater burden of cardiovascular disease among our minority communities, and the health care disparities that in part contribute to their substantially increased mortality compared to other Americans. Rather than working to fix this unconscionable disparity, the Bush Administration is selling it as a reason to pour Social Security money into private accounts.
Now comes special federal legislation, rushed through Congress in the middle of the night and focused on the fate of Mrs. Schiavo alone. This law signed by Mr. Bush explicitly excluded similar legal remedy for anyone else in the same situation. These three legislative acts—slicing Medicaid funding in our federal budget, protecting Texas hospitals from charity care expenditures, and creating a privileged status for Mrs. Schiavo's life—send a message that the lives of the poor matter much less than the well-to-do, unless they can be used as political symbols that mask this double standard.
In the one most concrete case of a loss of life that Congress could immediately correct, we continue to see total indifference to the spread of gun violence in America. Highly publicized gun massacres have now occurred three times in the past two weeks. But the Congressional leadership has directly sabotaged renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban, sought to repeal gun laws in our national capital, and offered sweeping legal immunity to those who profit the most from gun sales. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, guns kill more than 30,000 people annually in the US, and African-Americans are more than twice as likely as others to be killed by guns.
This past week the Catholic Bishops issued a statement reaffirming our Church's unequivocal opposition to the death penalty. Politicians of every stripe have long pandered to the general public's fear of crime by seeking to execute the poorest and least well-represented criminals. This Administration even argued in the Supreme Court for the continued execution of minors and the mentally retarded, but thankfully from a Catholic perspective those arguments were ultimately rejected.
As Catholics, we are called to pay more than lip service to our respect for life. If the right-wing politicians want to stand up for the "sanctity of life," let us see a truly consistent ethic that recognizes the increased likelihood of death among poor Americans resulting from cuts to the federal healthcare budget, massive political contributions by the gun industry, and the continued addiction of weak politicians to the injustices of the death penalty in America. Terri Schiavo has helped us all, particularly we Catholics in this Easter Season, to contemplate again the fragility of life and to reject the selective valuing of one life over another.
Terri Schiavo now rests in the arms of a loving God. May she rest in the eternal grace of God and her family find peace and solace to replace the political and media circus that so exploited her suffering.
Terri's death raises grave questions concerning the true commitment of our leaders to consistently protect life, despite their having forcefully coopted the language of the Catholic Church in all their statements to the press. On the day of her death, President Bush spoke again in purely Catholic language, stating: "I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life, where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others. The essence of civilization is that the strong have a duty to protect the weak. In cases where there are serious doubts and questions, the presumption should be in the favor of life." As Catholics, we are appalled at the straight-faced hypocrisy of these words. It is now clear that his Administration gladly "takes a stand" on "life issues," like end-of-life care and abortion, but has not spent any meaningful funds in alleviating these problems. One can only conclude that the Republican stands on these issues are pure window dressing, and that shouting about these problems is more valuable to them than actually solving them.
Perhaps the eeriest foreshadowing of the manipulation to come was evident in remarks made Thursday in Congress by House Majority Leader Tom Delay. He said, "We will look at an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president...We will look into that." His office released a statement, saying, "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today." Mr. Delay appears to be preparing the groundwork for using the Schiavo family's situation to make the argument that Bush judicial nominations must be approved in order "to protect innocent, vulnerable people from being preyed upon." Federal court nominations, and eventually Supreme Court selections, will become a "moral battleground" for the Right, possibly viewed as so important that the Senate filibuster must be eliminated to win the battle. We predict that Terri Schiavo's plight will become the rallying cry for dismantling nearly 200 years of Senate protocol.
But what does a "presumption of life" mean when 300,000 people and counting have died in the Darfur Region of the Sudan as our country stands idly by? What does a "presumption of life" mean when 40,000 children die every day around the world from hunger, disease and violence? Will Bush and Delay interrupt vacations and gather their faithful in Washington anytime soon to address the increased mortality among over 45 million Americans without healthcare? Being "Pro Life" means protecting all life, not just those who can afford it or those who will attract the most media attention.
Like Bush and Delay, some Catholics such as Priests for Life's Fr. Frank Pavone, the Catholic League's William Donohue, and Senator Rick Santorum have exploited Terri Schiavo's suffering to promote an extremist agenda. They are essentially "cafeteria Catholics," pursuing a vindictive and counterproductive campaign to criminalize abortion, helping drive further increases in military spending, and obsessed with more tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% as social services to the poor are slashed. Their narrow definition of "the sanctity of life" shows substantial ignorance of the Catholic Church's clear teaching on a consistent ethic of life. Their misrepresentation of the Catholic Faith to promote their extremist agenda hurts us all, and devalues the moral standing of our Church in the world.
Mr. Bush's words about Terri Schiavo ring very hollow, when he and his ideological soulmates completely sidestep all the killing in Iraq, the bloodbath of gun violence on our own streets, the domestic suffering that will result from the impending cuts in Medicare and Social Security, and any truly effective action to protect the unborn. They may use Catholic language, but they are completely ignoring the Catholic Church's clear teaching on a consistent ethic of life.
"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
First Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama