Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Quality of Mercy

Christian citizens of the United States will probably respond with as much dismay as did the official White House spokespersons and, later, President Obama to the release of Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds by the Scottish Secretary of Justice, Mr. Kenny MacAskill.  Most of the 270 victims killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December, 1988, were themselves citizens of the US.

US citizens are particularly keen on retributive justice, also known as revenge.  Not surprisingly, the US is the only western industrial democracy that continues to administer the death penalty.  Evangelical Christians largely support it.  Despite opposition to the death penalty by recent popes and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it appears that a majority of US Catholics also support it.  No wonder, then, that God-fearing, righteously indignant, and indeed grieving people would at least want to see Mr. Al Megrahi spend his few remaining days on earth locked in a Scottish prison cell.

But on Thursday afternoon as I listened to the live press conference and later interviews with Mr. MacAskill, I was impressed by the repetition of two words that he employed to explain his action which, be it noted, was not a pardon – the conviction stands, despite grounds for an appeal which Mr. Al Megrahi’s lawyers withdrew early this week, apparently in order to facilitate his release.

MacAskill spoke of compassion and mercy, values which the Scottish people hold dear, as well they might, considering their long, difficult struggle for freedom.  Others have spoken of compassion differently — some say that because Al Megrahi showed no compassion to his victims, he deserves none.  Nor mercy.

But is this the proper measure of compassion and mercy?

As MacAskill spoke, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus — 

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. [Matthew 5:38-45]

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. [Luke 6:27-29]

Could Mr. Al Megrahi be innocent, as he — and others — claim?  He would not be the first person wrongly convicted as a terrorist in a ghastly bombing — it took 15 years to clear the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six of the IRA bombings in England in 1974.  But even if Mr. Al Megrahi is in fact guilty, does that disqualify him from compassion and mercy?  If it does, then who of us dares ask for God’s forgiveness, “as we forgive those who sin against us”?

Taming Afghans

As elections in Afghanistan draw close, it is often heard in the news media that Hamid Karzai, currently running for re-election as President, is corrupt.  Of course Karzai is corrupt.  No one can hold power in Afghanistan, especially supreme power, unless he is politically corrupt.  The same might be said of Chicago and increasingly of Italy and Israel.  Power, as Lord Acton said (and we are often reminded), tends to corrupt.  The real question is, how corrupt?  The question might also sneakily arise in inquiring minds, what does “corrupt” mean in these matters?

Taking bribes for favors, doling out rewards, financial and otherwise, to political cronies, and padding one’s expense account at public cost, might strike many Westerners as corruption.  Elsewhere it may be viewed as the normal way of life.  But presiding over a country whose major industry is supplying 85 to 90 percent of the world’s opium supply is another matter entirely.  For a while, when the Taliban (armed and trained by Western allies in the bad old days of Soviet Russian occupation) first came to power, poppy-growing and the opium trade were severely curtailed.  Now, especially in areas under Taliban control, opium production is greater than ever.  The Taliban seems largely to be financing its operations through the poppy.

That’s hardly a novel idea.  Growing and selling coca and its derivative under government protection is standard practice in Colombia and Bolivia, the marijuana trade is politically brisk in Mexico.  The Provos and Paras in Northern Ireland could also have taught these Afghan lads a thing a two about how the drug trade can finance terrorism.  Perhaps they did.

As an aperture of semi-historical perspective, the well-meaning if clumsy 1966 UN-sponsored thriller The Poppy is Also a Flower now seems prophetic and once again, timely.  Besides sporting an all-star international cast, the film explored some of the long-standing heroin-lubricated connections between Kabul, Western Europe, and the US.  I think it’s still out there somewhere.

With presidential and local elections in Afghanistan only a day away, the outcome is widely expected to be a comfortable victory for Hamid Karzai, at least a close enough victory as to have to face down a close rival such as Abdullah Abdullah.  Whoever ultimately wins will face what seems to many to be insurmountable odds at unifying and governing one of the most fiercely fractious nations in the world.  He will also have to contend with powerful new drug lords as well as the traditional warlords who in fact govern what is a loose federation of ethnically diverse tribes.

As the United States, Britain, and Spain increase the number of troops battling for peace and democracy in Afghanistan, the question of opium production will inevitably have to be faced.  In the meantime, it might be well to recall that no “outsiders” have won a war in Afghanistan since the time of Alexander the Great.

Hollow Be Thy Name: The Triumph of Capitalism

It did not require the new encyclical by Pope Benedict, Caritas in veritate, to remind us that capitalism is not an unmixed blessing.  At best it is a two-edged sword, at worst an economic compressor wielded by powerful interests that concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, increases the misery of the poor, and stringently constricts the middle classes.  So much Marx and Engels insisted, but the evidence was clear even to churchmen as clear-eyed as Pope Leo XIII.

Recent events here in Ireland illustrate the point.  Liam Carroll, one property developer (among many who with risk-prone bankers brought the economy to its knees), owes the banks 2.5 billion euros and can’t pay up.  He owes a single institution, Allied Irish Banks, over one billion in unpaid loans.  Six of his companies are teetering on the edge of receivership.  Smart fellow, though.

It doesn’t take a degree in economics to recognize that the much-vaunted “trickle down effect” predicted by disciples of libertarian economist Milton Friedman back in the 1980s didn’t work.  Money trickled up.  And, it would now seem, not only in increasing amounts, but into the coffers of financial barons whose borrowing and lending practices were all too often dodgy, to say the least.  And now it has mostly leaked out.  One wonders where it all went in the end.

Friedman, who died in November 2006, luckily did not live to see the dismal outcome of his brand of economic deregulation.  As central governments throughout the EU and the US attempt to shore up the houses of cards built by property developers and bonus-loving bankers, it is refreshing to recall one of the principal tenets of the Friedman credo:

“The preservation of freedom is the protective reason for limiting and decentralizing governmental power.  But there is also a constructive reason. The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or in literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.”

Only the New Deal, the Second War, the end of polio, the space program, and now, the effort to combat the H1N1 virus.  Had Friedman been a better historian, he would have realized that the great contributions in art during the classical period, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, were made possible precisely because kings, dukes, princes, popes, and bishops funded them.  Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael did not set up shop in the back streets of Sorrento.  From the pyramids of Egypt to Mount Rushmore to the Hubble Space Telescope, a good case can be made out for the constructive role played by central governments, not to mention the eradication of smallpox and the struggle against AIDS.  If the next stage of the H1N1 virus is going to be addressed with any measure of success, it will not be by the local pharmacist working alone in his cellar laboratory.

Unreconstructed Friedmanian Reaganomicists will point out that socialism has not worked any better than capitalism in meeting the world’s needs and providing great art and architecture, and in fact conspicuously failed in its most aggressive forms to date.  But there is a significant difference in objectives – capitalism seeks to create more wealth for the wealthy, even in its most benign forms.  Socialism seeks to promote the general welfare, at least in its most benign forms.  Benignity aside, both seem to come to grief on the shoals of power, greed, short-sightedness, and ambition.  Again, this is hardly news.  But the surprising economic collapse of 2008 resulted  mainly, I think, because the supportive restrictions placed on restive capitalism, particularly the avarice of financial entrepreneurs and large financial institutions, were increasingly and systematically removed in the 1970s and 1980s in the interests of Big Capital.  Perhaps the greatest blunder of all in the US was the repeal in 1999 of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, one of the central pillars of President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic reforms and an effective bastion against robber barons for the next sixty years.  Score one for the Neocons.  But hardly the only one.

Here in Ireland, the true scope of the national economic plight was made clear by the recently unveiled McCarthy Report, a specially-commissioned proposal outlining ways to trim five billion euros from the national budget to save the country from the foolishness of brash developers and big bankers – mainly, it would seem, by cutting social services and raising taxes.  Targeting the most vulnerable members of society – children, especially impoverished children, the elderly, the chronically infirm, people with special needs – hardly seems worthy of mention in a civil, nominally Christian country.  But there it is.

Caritas in veritate came at a propitious moment.  But will anyone in the corridors of political and economic power bother to read it?