Tom Paxton’s We Didn’t Know


(The first time I  heard this, the Vietnam War was raging.  It was sung either by The Kingston Trio or The Chad Mitchell Trio.  It requires no imagination to substitute words like, “I guess we’ve  gotta’  drop those bombs if we wanna’  keep Iraqis and Afghanis  free.”  Or,  “Torturing prisoners is an Al Qaeda game and you can bet they’re doing the same.”    Citizens and policy makers  who stand in the way of  a just reckoning for those who ordered torture  are writing   verses for all our children, grandchildren and theirs.)

We didn’t know said the Burgomeister,
About the camps on the edge of town.
It was Hitler and his crew,
That tore the German nation down.
We saw the cattle cars it’s true,
And maybe they carried a Jew or two.
They woke us up as they rattled through,
But what did you expect me to do?

[Cho:]
We didn’t know at all,
We didn’t see a thing.
You can’t hold us to blame,
What could we do?
It was a terrible shame,
But we can’t bear the blame.
Oh no, not us, we didn’t know.

We didn’t know said the congregation,
Singing a hymn in a church of white.
The Press was full lf lies about us,
Preacher told us we were right.
The outside agitators came.
They burned some churches and put the blame,
On decent southern people’s names,
To set our colored people aflame.
And maybe some of our boys got hot,
And a couple of niggers and reds got shot,
They should have stayed where they belong,
And preacher would’ve told us if we’d done wrong.

[Cho:]

We didn’t know said the puzzled voter,
Watching the President on TV.
I guess we’ve got to drop those bombs,
If we’re gonna keep South Asia free.
The President’s such a peaceful man,
I guess he’s got some kind of plan.
They say we’re torturing prisoners of war,
But I don’t believe that stuff no more.
Torturing prisoners is a communist game,
And You can bet they’re doing the same.
I wish this war was over and through,
But what do you expect me to do?

Words and Music by Tom Paxton

Torture Photos: Is a public release necessary?


It depends on our purpose.

In October 2003,  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  sent  a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)  request to the Departments of Defense,   Homeland Security,  Justice  and several  other Bush Administration agencies.  The request was for  documents related to the US Government’s role in the torture and/or rendition of individuals in its custody.  The ACLU claimed,  “[The  Government has] failed to address the numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of Detainees.  Nor have they explained what measures, if any, the United States has taken  to ensure compliance with its legal obligations with respect to the use of torture and the infliction of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or  punishment.  [And] to determine whether the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

Bush Administration officials refused to release the “torture photos” because, according to them,  the photos would inflame the Middle East, put unidentified individuals, groups and in-theater military personnel at risk and would run afoul of  international laws  prohibiting the public parade and humiliation of war prisoners.

In September 2004,  the US District Court in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) stated,  “Congress enacted FOIA to illuminate government activities.  The law was intended to provide a means of accountability, to allow Americans to know what their government is doing….  Yet, the glacial pace at which defendant agencies have been responding… shows an indifference  to the commands of FOIA.”  The judge also noted,  “As of today, eleven months later, with small exception, no documents have been produced by [the Department of Defense, et al].”

The District Court ordered the public release of  the photos after viewing a representative sample in camera (e.g. in the privacy of the Judge’s chambers).  Since then, the Federal judiciary has consistently ordered that the photos and other pertinent  documents be  redacted and released in compliance with national and international laws that prohibit the public humiliation of prisoners.

In August 2006,  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the SDNY’s order to release the photos after  noting that the Bush Administration had interpreted certain legislative amendments to FOIA as “a diffuse and nebulous authority for keeping inflammatory information secret (though, curiously, only inflammatory information in law enforcement files).”  The Court continued, “Release of the photographs is likely to further the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners.”

On April 23, 2009,  the Obama Justice Department informed the Court that the Department of Defense would release its photos by May 28, 2009.

On May 13, 2009, nearly six years after the ACLU issued its first FOIA request, President Obama’s Justice Department informed the Court that the President had changed his mind,  “…upon further reflection at the highest levels of Government, the Government has decided to pursue further options regarding that decision…”  including a possible appeal to the US Supreme Court by June 9, 2009.

Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs expressed President Obama’s concern that release of the photographs would inflame the Middle East and increase the threat to US personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Obama team does not believe the Bush Administration adequately portrayed those risks in its Court filings and appeals.

Yesterday, The Huffington Post carried this ACLU response, “These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib….  Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”

The U.S.  Federal Rules of Evidence state, “Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice… or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”  In short,  not all relevant evidence is equal or admissible. A judge must determine whether its value as evidence substantially outweighs its potential harm.

There’s also a notion in civil societies  that an inflamed person is unlikely to be judicious.

Is it reasonable to believe that “The Amorphous Middle East” would be inflamed by a 24-7  media blitz of photos in which an occupying military force tortures citizens of  foreign lands?  Will “The Amorphous Middle East” see the photos as evidence  of the  Bush Foreign Policy, distinct from Obama’s?  And,  will that Middle East view efforts to hide the photos as a continuation of Bush policies?

One friend I spoke with said she wants the photos disseminated publicly. “Maybe pictures will  make Americans feel shame.  Maybe pictures will provoke an American conversation about who we really are and what ethics we really believe in.  Maybe it’ll force the politicians to really do something.”

Maybe;  but I doubt  the photos will stimulate the American public to a greater outrage.   Many of the people I know have been outrage- saturated by a plethora of criminal actions and a dearth of incarcerations.  Thankfully, the ACLU has a ton of arrows in its quiver.

Germany was shamed after World War I and a handful of years later we fought World War II.   We fire-bombed Germany during World War II and held them to account at Nuremburg. Germany is now home to one of the world’s fastest growing populations of Skinheads and other xenophobes.  Whether or not  cause and effect can be proved  in those examples,  they tell us  that shame is not a cure-all.

Our purpose, as opined by  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, should be to deter “future abuse of prisoners”  and to ensure, as the ACLU demands,  that  “the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

We have a system of justice intended to do just that.  We place the accused on trial.  We hear the evidence against and for  them.  We release or punish them.  As a matter of course,  we  parade our convicted felons publicly.  We hope that their shame will deter others – will demonstrate our adherence to the rule of law.

With that in mind, whether the photos are released publicly or viewed in camera or by a jury,  the real issue is not which evidence will be presented (there’s tons) but rather, will Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Dick Cheney, et al stand in the dock.  Will they be paraded publicly to cleanse rather than inflict shame?

A public trial of those who conceived and implemented the torture policy would stimulate a discussion about the American ethic and reassure the world of our honorable intention to uphold our ideals. Without that,  publishing the photos is just more Bread & Circuses and I fear, provocation.

******

Legal documents at ACLU website

Election Day, Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving


In early  November,  we come together on Election Day to cast our votes — to  pick the candidate whose  priorities and manner  we most approve.  It’s hard to beat the excitement of an Election Day that dawns on millions of citizens  re-enlisting in the future of our Republic.

On November 11th, Veterans’ Day, many of us  honor the military service of our men and women.  We stand in mourning beside their families.  We visit them in crowded  VA hospitals.  We see them in divorce courts or on sidewalks outside  homeless shelters.

According to emails exchanged by a  VA physician (Dr. Katz)  and The VA’s Assistant Deputy of Health in 2007:

“18 veterans kill themselves every day and this is confirmed by the VA’s own statistics.  Is that true?  Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million veterans.”  That same day, Dr. Katz responded: “There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.”

Despite our poor track record in caring for our veterans, the earliest European settlers in The New World intended to defend and protect them.  The Plymouth Colony legislated pensions for veterans of the “Indian Wars”  (1636).  However, the vague language of the old law should be noted  (bold added for emphasis):

“That in case necessity require to send [forces] abroade …  any that shall goe returne  maymed [and]  hurt he shall be mayntayned competently by the Colony duringe his life.”

In 1930, Congress established the Veterans’ Administration  in order to streamline its provision of services.  Unfortunately,  a system of  shell games  was promulgated  wherein  services were underfunded by the Feds and under-delivered  by the States.

Thanksgiving is the third of our November days  and through the years, its date and purpose have been remarkably fluid.

Residents of  The Virginia Colony gave thanks to God in 1619 at the end of their grueling journey across the Atlantic.

In 1621, The Plymouth Colony gave thanks to God for the bountiful harvest.  In years to come, they would fast in prayer and penance when their stores ran thin.

When wars ended in victory, our political councils decreed that the populace should rejoice before God and praise Him.  In Charlestown, Massachusetts, for instance,  the good people gave praise and thanks in 1671 for their “advantages” over,  and  defeat of,  “the Heathen Natives.”

In our darkest national moments,  the people have been urged to praise God officially and pray for Divine Intervention. On November 1, 1777,  The Continental Congress declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving.  By its language and exhortations, the early legislature seemed to hope that  the nation’s piety would appease The Almighty;  that soldiers and commanders would gain vital courage from the Colonies’ renewed bond with The Father.

The next month,  General George Washington declared another day of Thanksgiving after the Continental Army’s victory  at Saratoga.

During the Depression, depending on whether November had four or five weeks in a given year,  Franklin D.Roosevelt  designated Thanksgiving  the third or fourth Thursday of the month (1939 and 1940).  Roosevelt   had hopes that an  additional week of consumer spending  between Thanksgiving and Christmas would  stimulate the broken economy.

How would it be if we designated November as our national month of remembrance?

What if every November we studied The Constitution — the only thing our soldiers are sworn to defend and protect.

We could renew our gratitude for religious freedom.

We could study the peoples and cultures we usurped when we swarmed the continent.

We could learn from our history.  We could develop humility.

We could teach our children civility and the richness of debate.

We could designate Election Day a  National Holiday — a national day of citizenship and conscience.

Perhaps  our Veterans would fare better if our political will was more comprehensively pricked.

*   *   *   *

Much of the information in this article can be found at The Veterans’ Administration’s (VA) history pagehttp://www1.va.gov/opa/feature/history/docs/history1.pdf,    The Plymouth Colony Archive Project: http://www.histarch.uiuc.edu/plymouth/laws1.html ;  the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs http://veterans.house.gov/news/PRArticle.aspx?NewsID=242 ; and Early America’s Thanksgiving pages:   http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/firsts/thanksgiving/

As a matter of medical interest, you might visit The Veterans’ Administration’s  Research & Development page: http://www.research.va.gov/