Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden's death, Barack Obama, and the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States: A response to my brother

In the last 24 hours, everyone has been talking about Osama bin Laden's death. Last night, after the President's speech, people around the country celebrated. Here in Boston, this apparently became another excuse for college students to get drunk. I heard well into the night screams of "USA! USA!" and at one point an attempt to sing "America, Fuck Yeah!" from Team America.

There were more measured responses including a piece in the Huffington Post by my brother Nathaniel. Unfortunately, many of the more measured responses, including this one, are misguided.

Nathaniel listed five aspects of the President's remarks which in his view stood out:

1) Obama emphasized that America and al Qaeda are "at war." This is an important shift from the president who wanted to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York, and who vowed to shut down Gitmo during the 2008 campaign. The tone here tonight was clear: The terrorists who plot against the United States are (illegal) combatants who deserve the full front of our military fury, not our legal rights.

2) The president gave a nod to his predecessor, in an acknowledgment that America has never been, nor ever will be, at war with Islam. This took class and grace, and Obama merits credit for it.

3) This speech was traditional. From the inclusion of "under God" in his closing remarks, to the references to retributive "justice," Obama channeled the Judeo-Christian values that still define our nation -- again, a welcome shift from the president who went out of his way to give a nod to "non-believers" in his inaugural address.

4) Somehow, Obama managed to take this moment to combat feelings of American declinism. The memo: We can do anything we set out to do. Compare this simple yet effective message to his recent flop of a State of the Union speech, in which the example of our greatness was the fact that "America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad." This moment disproves those who sing the song of the "fall of American Empire," resolve, and spirit.

5) Most importantly, Obama tonight reaffirmed America's role as a force for good in the world, a force that extends beyond our borders. After U.S. troops took a backseat in NATO operations against Muammar Gaddafi, many (including me) worried that our will to "oppose any foe" in the defense of liberty played second fiddle to the whims of the UN, EU, and the Arab League. Thankfully and surprisingly, Obama reaffirmed our commitment to be a "shining beacon on a hill" to light the world.

I don't have any significant problems with the second or fifth points, but the other three are problematic.

In his first point, Nathaniel portrays as a positive that which isn't. He also confuses a variety of different issues. Targeting high ranking terrorists and killing them is distinct from whether or not people such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should get civilian trials once they are in our custody. But we can direct our military against targets at the same time that we use civllian trials for those who are captured. The first World Trade Center bombers and the Oklahoma City bombers were both tried successfully in civil courts. Being at war does not mean we need to ignore due process.

Nathaniel's third point is deeply wrong. The Judeo-Christian heritage of this country is deeply exaggerated. The US Constitution bears almost no signs of Judeo-Christian values. There are only three signs of such religious influence in the Constitution, and all are comparatively minor. First, laws presented to the President become law in 10 days after presentation to the President, excepting Sundays. Second, the treason clause requires two witnesses of an overt act to convict or a confession in court. This requirement echos the Old Testament rule for conviction of severe crimes which requires testimony of two witnesses. Third, the Constitution is dated "in the year of our Lord," a conventional phrase at the time.

Moreover, Nathaniel's statement portrays the Judeo-Christian heritage in the worst light possible. I'm proud of my Jewish heritage. But there's something deeply wrong when that heritage's primary lesson is an endorsement of retributive justice. It is noteworthy that the most substantial impact of the Bible on the text of the Constitution is to make conviction and punishment more difficult, not to endorse retribution. Indeed, it is a common theme in that heritage that we understand that even our enemies are people who can suffer. At the Passover Seder, even as the deliverance of the Israelites is celebrated, we remove a drop of wine from the cup for each of the Ten Plagues, remembering the Egyptian suffering.

Most troubling of all is the notion that mentioning God constitutes a " welcome shift from the president who went out of his way to give a nod to "non-believers" in his inaugural address." Approximately 10% of the people in United States self-identify as having no religion, and about 2% of the U.S. population identifies as either atheist or agnostic. Non-believers in the US have ranged from Carl Sagan to George Clooney, from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Bill Gates. Non-believers are an important part of the United States, intertwined with everything that makes America a great nation. All citizens deserve the same respect, whether they are differ by skin color, politics, or religious beliefs.

Nathaniel's fourth point is also misguided. The building of the transcontinental railroad was a triumph of the American spirit. And yes, America is really in a decline when our example of "we can do everything" is to kill our enemies. We are the only nation that has ever sent people to the moon. Yet, no one has walked on the moon in forty years. The shuttle will soon no longer be operational, and the US will need to rely on Russia for space flight. We are in a decline. No speech can hide that. And pretending otherwise is not a good thing. We must fight that decline. But we cannot fight it if we do not acknowledge the threat.

Nathaniel ended his piece by saying that he was proud of the troops and proud of the President. I can understand being proud of the troops. They risked their lives. We should be thankful to those soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect what we hold dear. This is not a good reason to be proud of the Ppresident. Nothing he did substantially impacted this result. It is possible that actual policy changes by Obama somehow lead to these events by making it easier to track down Osama. But I've seen no indication of that. Let's not give him credit that he isn't due. It is likely that in the 2012 election I will vote to reelect Obama, but that has almost nothing to do with these events, and it shouldn't. Instead of responding to these recent events, we should all vote for whichever candidate we think will be the most competent President with the policies that are best.


TG said...

I agree with most of your points, but I have a big problem with the last one. President Obama's ability to prioritize directly contributed to the success of this mission, as did his keeping the war on terror a global one, rather than focused on two countries. It is possible that the killing of bin Laden would have happened under any president, but the policies of the current one greatly helped its success.

President Obama has made cost-benefit analysis a hallmark of his foreign policy. He will keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, including the opportunity costs. He will use force to defend civilians against Qaddafi but not at the risk of jeopardizing other missions. This means that special operations units will not be used to train locals or attack minor targets when they could be accomplishing more important missions, training, or standing by when needed, such as in the successful rescue of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates. The long training period that the US personnel received before departing on their mission to kill bin Laden, allowing them to plan for every scenario, was a pillar of their success. The longer deployments and less training time favored by President Bush might have jeopardized that mission.

Furthermore, the President realizes that al Qaeda is a global organization, requiring a global fight. He has pressed other countries to fight against al Qaeda and helped them do so. He has also shown, as he did on Sunday, that he will act when they can't or won't. Intelligence and covert action resources are, like any other, scarce. This operation was possible because the President kept an appropriate level of them focused not only on today's threats but tomorrow's as well and even opportunities too. It is all too easy for a president to spend his time worrying about what happened yesterday and not focus on the big picture. Fortunately, we have a President who keeps his eyes on the future.

Joshua said...

Your comment makes a strong case that Obama's policies actions and policies directly mattered in this situation. I'm not sure if it is enough to convince me without looking into it more, but it does strongly push me in that direction.

Mellock said...

Hello, just cruising past, and all I have to say, Joshua, is that you made a truly brilliant rebuttal. Congratulations! (Of course, I would add that the very term "Judeo-Christian" is both moronic and oxymoronic. For starters, it ignores such ancient examples of Jewish-Christian "friendship" such as blood libels and pogroms, but that's another story...)

To be perfectly honest, you appear to have a firmer grasp on what is transpiring than your brother. Keep up the good work!

Garrett Moffitt said...

Nice blog, I'm glad I found it.

I would like t point out the the Presidents decisions are a pretty bold one. If anything had gone wrong, it would have been the end of any political future.