Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Evening's Entertainment in D.C.: U.S. Constitution 101

A few years ago (ok: maybe it was like 15 or 20) I was in Washington, D.C., having dinner with my friend, Todd Kelly, and he said, "Hey, let's go over to Georgetown; Antonin Scalia is giving a talk . . . ." I didn't have a very clear idea at the time of who Antonin Scalia was, or why we should be interested in seeing him talk. But that changed very fast.

That evening was important for me in two ways. The first was "global" -- it was Todd's suggestion that, in any bit city -- and especially one like Washington, D.C., there are extremely interesting public events happening on just about every day, and you just have to keep your eyes open to find them. That has become an article of faith for me, and has come to define how I relate to the city of Chicago.

Justice Antonin Scalia

The second was specific -- it taught me that you can disagree with 99% of the things that someone says, but still be in total agreement with the remaining 1%. In the case of Scalia, that 1% was -- and is -- the idea that the U.S. Constitution is something that we all own, jointly.

I vividly remember Scalia reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a copy of the Constitution -- the obligatory phrase, I suppose, would be "a well-thumbed copy of the Constitution" -- and, yes, thumbing through it to a specific provision that he wanted to discuss. His message throughout the evening was, "See how easy it is for us to disagree? Lucky thing that we have this compact document, so at least we can agree on a starting point."

I also remember Scalia's tone of challenge to the audience: "You don't like these words? Change them!" He talked at length about the importance of the process for amending the Constitution that the Constitution itself lays out. (We IT geeks would call that "extensibility".) By the time I left that talk, I realized that this was a Supreme Court Justice who earnestly desires that people "out there" are critical enough of specific parts of the existing Constitution to want to fight to amend it.*

I'm embarrassed to say that, during the intervening years, the ideas that Scalia presented that night skimmed across the top of my consciousness, like a flat rock that had been skipped across a still summer pond. But in recent days, and particularly as I pondered the mess we're in in Afghanistan and with the War on Terror, I realized it was time to step up to the plate and get a better understanding of the rules. And so I went here.

There's a lot of material in there I'm struggling with. (Why a two year limitation on Army appropriations, but not for the Navy? When is the Militia used, vs. the Army?) But mostly I'm awed by the apparent way in which the framers stepped up to the plate to write rules that bring about a new way of governing, in contrast to the one they had just stepped away from. In particular, it is clear that having absolute rulers who just did whatever they felt like were a reality for them -- and they were hell-bent on figuring out an alternative way to govern. And that "original intent" seems well worth honoring today . . . .

Check out another great account of a similar Scalia presentation -- at University of Delaware.

Related posts

The story of the past decade-plus has been the story of the assertion by some that the conception of law that our society has is not sufficient.  Simply put, there are those who say that there is a third, "in-between" category of behavior -- and legal status -- that is not civilian (subject to criminal law) and not military (subject to military law and the laws of war). And since there are no rules about how to deal with that third category . . . .

(See Using the Good, Old Criminal Justice System: Worth a Try?)

Yesterday, as all the other senators sat patiently through the obfuscation of Barack Obama's Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey -- Rand Paul gave 'em hell.
"Stand up for us and say you’re going to obey the Constitution and if we vote you down — which is unlikely, by the way — you would go with what the people say through their Congress and you wouldn’t go forward with a war that your Congress votes against."

(See Obama's Syria "Vote" in Congress: Democracy? or Theater? )

Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon - a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War - deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.

(See Reviews of "Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry )

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Modest Proposal for Northerly Island: Illinois Microzones

A couple of weeks back, I went to a community meeting about plans to develop a park at Northerly Island. The City did a great job of gathering input from the hundreds of people who came out.

Proposal for development of Northerly Island in Chicago

The plan that got my attention called for a collection of several mini-environments on the park - the "Reef" Proposal (see image above). Why not feature some of the micro-zones that are particular to Illinois and Lake Michigan?

I've always been fascinated by the idea of microzones ever since my first visit to Monterey Bay in California. That's when I read John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and learned about the real-life Doc Ricketts, the marine biologist who authored the pioneering work Between Pacific Tides. Ricketts was onto one of nature's amazing facts: with every little variation in environmental conditions, a unique population of creatures emerges to take advantage of those conditions.

I experience this first-hand this past summer, when I started to pay attention to the wildflowers in some of the parks near the lake. I was fascinated to find that the species that show up at Montrose are different that those down by North Pond, which are different than those down by McCormick Place!

Wouldn't it be great if people came from places far and wide to learn about our Lake Michigan biomes in a jewel-like park right in downtown Chicago?

UPDATE 2018: Northerly Island today

Related posts

Cottonwoods! They serve to anchor the dune and create an environment in which a ridge can build up and more and more plants can take hold. (Good.) And then they take over everything. (Not so good.)

(See Cottonwoods!)

Chicago has a tremendous head start in being a place that is inspired by the beauty all around us to do the difficult things that are needed. And Chicago is so beautiful all summer long, there's no reason to leave the city. Think of all the carbon emissions save on car and jet travel!

(See "One Word: Wildflowers" on Zero Carbon Chicago)

Does "God" "care" that the ultimate outcome of the damage to the Earth's climate may lead to the end -- not of the Earth itself, nor of life on Earth, but of the existence of the human species on Earth?

(See Does "God" "care" about the climate crisis?)

One of the really interesting things about looking at how Rachel Carson used her writing to wake the world up -- particularly with her prophetic Silent Spring -- is that we can then go back to some of the earliest parts of the Bible and see them as living and urgent. And reading Silent Spring as well as Biblical stories like the account of The Flood points to the urgency of changes that need to be made here and now in the way we all live our lives.

(See Looking at Rachel Carson (at St. Luke's "School for Prophets") )

Friday, November 20, 2009

Understanding What Guantanamo Means

On reflection, I think the biggest event of 2009 for me turned out to be a screening of "The Response" --a film about Guantanamo detainees and the military tribunals at the Siskel Film Center this past summer.

The experience was a knockout for me, for at least three reasons. My most prominent memory is of one of the stars of the film -- Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek fame -- participating in a panel after the screening. I was blown away when she said, "I did this because our civil liberties in our country have been gravely damaged and we all need to contribute to repairing them."

The Response
Kate Mulgrew, Peter Riegert, and Sig Libowitz portray military judges
in a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo

The second thing that struck me was the presentation by Thomas Sullivan, a prominent Chicago lawyer who also participated in the panel and described his work defending Guantanamo suspects pro bono. I thought to myself, "Here's this hugely successful big city lawyer, and yet it's important enough to him to spend a massive amount of his time making sure these guys get the benefit of a proper defense."

Third, but far from least, was the quality of the film itself. It raised the basic question: is due process important? What does it really look and feel like when corners are being cut? The filmmaker, Sig Libowitz, did a spectacular job of bringing the core issue -- legal process -- into the foreground and making it compelling. (That's probably why the American Bar Association gave the film its prestigious Silver Gavel Award.)

"The Response" and its creator, Sig, have spurred me to learn a lot more about this issue, share what I've learned with others, and try to contribute to solutions in any way I possibly can.

This past week, the Governor Quinn announced a plan to house Guantanamo detainees at a correctional facility in Thomson, IL. When I went to see "The Response" months ago, I had no idea at the time that Guantanamo -- and all the issues related to it -- would soon become a special concern to all of us in Illinois!

 Related posts

The French Embassy's cultural center in Washington, D.C. screened The Response Tuesday, February 16, for a crowd of about 220 - including many representatives of the military, legal, government, and media community. Screenings of "The Response" are supposed to stimulate engaged discussion, and this one succeeded.

(See Guantanamo: "The Response" and Obama's State Department )

I believe Easter is God's gift to humanity of victory over death, hopelessness and frailty, and I believe that God is alive and in our midst. The witness of the Guantanamo lawyers has confirmed me in those beliefs.

(See Easter Victory: The Guantanamo Lawyers )

Chicago was the site of major protests against U.S. detention practices in Guantanamo, as well as in Bagram, other prisons throughout Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world, on and around January 11, 2012. We called for an end to indefinite detention, unfair trials, and torture.

(See Chicago Protests Guantanamo Detention)

I think the U.S. is in the midst of a big shift.  I think that for over a decade following 9/11 people have been so enmeshed in fear that their instincts weren't working properly. I think that we are in the midst of a slow process of awakening: people are emerging from the shadow of fear to a wider range of sensibility -- and they are realizing there are some things that are out of joint.

(See Too Much State Power? (Asymmetric Warfare and Asymmetric Policing))

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Too Much Thinking in the White House?

Is it just me, or is anybody else amazed that the political right can't wrap their collective head around the idea of a president who takes time to think through issues, and leads an extended deliberative process involving many members of his administration?

Afghanistan is a big decision. The last time we were in this situation -- the Vietnam years -- we spent a solid decade getting the decisions wrong. I, for one, am thankful for a leader who's giving this one a good think.

Yes? No?

Related posts

The problem with "Afghan good enough" is that it doesn't recognize that "a militarized Afghanistan is NOT good enough." The gaping hole in the CSIS paper is that it doesn't address the legacy of militarization that the U.S./NATO have put in place in Afghanistan, and that must be reversed.

(See Obama's Plan for Afghanistan NOT "Good Enough" )

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Goal for November: Figure Out Twitter

I've tweeted from time to time over the past few months, mostly on the Afghanistan issue.

Compared to how satisfying I find Facebook, and even LinkedIn -- as well as one or two other social tools that are specific to the work I do -- Twitter still remains more random than useful.

I continue to poke around . . . using the search function . . . hoping to find a way to integrate it into the other ways I connect to people.


How to use Twitter to make news, a PR workshop in 10 tweets