Friday, June 30, 2017

Path to Ruin

On that grisly morning when the Twin Towers fell, a monument was torn down. A monument that took almost five years to build and stood for three decades was brought down by the sheer force of an appetite for destruction. This moment would leave a deep scar on not only Americans but all those who saw it "live" on television across the globe. But what no one saw coming, was it would not be the last monument to fall.

In the past I have written about the shock and deep sorrow I have felt, witnessing ancient monuments being blown to smithereens, by madness spawned by war. In war there is no pause for beauty. All that rises, is an insatiable appetite for total and complete destruction of all that the human spirit creates in the name of beauty.

So this month when I read about the destruction of the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, that same feeling of despair returned. A mosque in all its exquisite beauty and human expression had stood for 800 years calling people to prayer and community, was now but a cloud of dust. According to reports it was leveled up by Islamic State (IS) militants as they retreated Mosul, relinquishing their grip on a city that had been reduced to rubble. Iraq's second largest city now stands in total ruin and the destruction of the mosque was the final flourish. A gash left behind on many, which would probably never heal.

The Islamic State and its members have always had a problem with any expression of beauty. The kind of Caliphate they proposed to build seemed to be based on total fear and domination, devoid of any human spirit. They often quoted the Quran to justify their means and call others to join their ranks. In their demented frenzy as they went about destroying mosques, ancient antiquities in  museums and then the famous Roman ruins in the city of Palmyra, which had stood the test of time for two thousand years, it was not clear what their true motivations were, other than that they found non-Islamic idolatry offensive. By drawing the Shia Sunni line, they justified blowing up Shia mosques. But most of all they craved for international attention by these acts, much like they did with the public beheadings they posted on youtube. To shock was their modus-operandi and for the most part they achieved their psychotic goals.

Not far from Syria in 2001, the Taliban attached dynamite to the imposing 5th century Buddha statues of Bamiyan and reduced them to rubble in a flash. Watching its destruction on video was akin to experiencing the towers fall in my backyard. No matter the deranged demented ideology that may have led to this unpardonable act, it seems to be a symptom of our times, at least in the war torn regions of the world.

There is nothing unusual or uncommon about monuments being destroyed in war. When the British and Americans carpet bombed Dresden, Germany in 1945, they reduced one of the most exquisite cities in the world to ruin. Known as the "Jewel Box" for its exquisite Baroque and Rococo architecture, the city had stood since the 12th century and was reduced to dust within a matter of days.

On the night of March 9th, 1945, the United States Airforce conducted what is know as "the single more destructive bombing raid in human history". Known as Operation Meetinghouse, 16 square miles of central Tokyo were charred to the ground by relentless B-29 bombing raids. The ancient exquisite city of Tokyo was reduced to ashes.

Since the ignition of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the United States, a generation has grown up only knowing war and destruction. The "war on terror" launched by President George Bush is still ongoing and its repercussions have thrown a large swath of the Middle East into chaos, leading to mass murder and a mammoth refugee crisis not seen since the last great war. Today Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan are on the verge collapse and the American involvement has not ended. Instead of taking responsibility, America is trying to extricate itself by issuing travel bans on people trying to flee the chaos and by pursuing policies that exacerbate matters rather than heal. The current belligerent administration, continues to push policies of confrontation and disengagement rather than coalition building. There is no question the world is a complicated place where global powers lock horns with economic interests and strategic alliances in mind. While we want to hold corrupt regimes accountable for war crimes and human rights violations, the onus has to be greater on super powers to walk the walk just to maintain integrity on the world stage. One thing that has been lost in the fog of war, is any semblance of virtue.

The human appetite to create beauty is limitless but it is always countered in equal measure by its appetite for destruction. What we are beginning to see now, is that the very existence of the human race is proving to be toxic. Human consumerism is devouring everything in its path and is pushing the planet at the brink. As coral reefs bleach by rising ocean temperatures and pollution and the oceans become repositories of plastic, one need not look far to see the impact the human race is having on the one place we call home. The beauty that we create from our imagination, and then destroy by our madness can be restored to a certain extent by peace, much like Dresden was. But the beauty of nature once tarnished by human negligence can never be reclaimed. The recognition of this and only this can save us from the path to ruin.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Plight of our Times

While contemplating what to write about, yet again terrorist attacks claimed lives of children in Manchester, Kabul and Baghdad. Yemen was on the brink of complete collapse and America upheld its stature as the world's biggest arms dealer by signing a multi-billion dollar deal with Saudi Arabia. Peace in Syria was elusive as ever as the world continued to grapple with the idea of Donald Trump as he dismantles the world order and stifles any hope of a better future for our planet.

Then someone dear to me shared this quote from the book Fourth Uncle in the Mountain - The Remarkable Legacy of a Buddhist Itinerant Doctor in Vietnam which perfectly summed up the plight of our times, and took my breath away.

"In the realm of people, Good and Evil tumble in and out and through each other, 
and so weave the stories of nations. 
Many believe the Good will always overpower Evil, 
but I know that Evil has a marked advantage. 

Evil, according to its nature, stalks the earth like a hungry ghost and preys on us when we have lost heart, while Good sails up to heave without leaving much of a trace at all. 

And so there are those among us who must consciously draw the Good back down to earth, where it may take root and grow strong in our hearts and minds, strong enough to subdue Evil."

It is what it is.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Death Sanctioned

There is something sadistic and perverted about strapping someone to a gurney and injecting them with fluid and watch them descend into death. I always wondered what goes through the minds of those who are invited to view this ghastly ritual, let alone the person sinking. What solace does it bring to those who have lost loved ones to witness the death of the person who brought them misery? What gratification can be drawn from viewing the controlled death of another human being no matter how soulless that individual may have been? People say it brings closure, but at what cost and what purpose? Can the death of another person seared into one's memory ease the pain? I personally have not experienced the murder or rape of a loved one to walk in the shoes of those who have. But I cannot fathom being a spectator to the death of another, to quench my thirst for justice or seek closure. 
Sanctioned death as a form of justice was instituted since murder began and it has always been a spectacle. From  medieval times to the wild west, going to see public executions was a family outing. Even in recent times public executions in totalitarian states were used to instill fear and were often carried out in stadiums or city squares for all to witness. Hanging, stoning, decapitation, burning, boiling, crushing, dismemberment by horses, shooting, gassing, electrocution and lethal injection were some of the methods devised to kill. Death by hanging, shooting and lethal injection is still common around the world.

When the world emerged from the horrors of World War II, the move to abolish capital punishment began to gain ground. Taking someone's life by state sanction was seen as a gross violation of one's human right. As a result most developed nations abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. The United States is the only western nation that continued to put people to death. Out of the 50 states that make up the United States, 31 use the death penalty and so does the federal government. Today there are approximately 2900 inmates on death row across the nation, and 1400 have been executed since 1976.

On April 25, two prisoners were put to death by lethal injection in Arkansas in a single day. A double execution on the same day had not occurred since 2000 in the United States. On April 20th, another inmate had been executed and there were five more to follow. The state of Arkansas had not carried out a death sentence since 2005 and there seemed to be a sudden rush to put eight people to death who were condemned more than a decade ago. The reason, the drugs that are used to carry out the executions, were to expire. The drug of choice Midazolam was hard to come by, and the state was not willing to let it go to waste. So they scheduled to kill eight over a span of eleven days, the fastest pace of executions in decades. In all they managed to execute four. An injunction from a federal judge halted the executions citing, that the method of execution violated the inmates eighth amendment rights, which guaranteed a painless death. And the drugs being used to carry out the executions could not guarantee that. The Judge wrote "If Midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are 'botched, ' they will suffer severe pain before they die". Many drug manufacturers have objected to having their products used in executions and have refused to sell to prisons for this very reason. Previous botched executions by lethal injection around the country had created a climate of bad PR for the drug companies.

 A family member of one of the victims thanked the Arkansas Governor and the Department of Corrections for "flawlessly carrying out" the executions. According to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed one of the executions, the person "lurched and convulsed 20 times during the lethal injection".

All those who were sentenced to die, had no doubt committed horrific crimes. Their public death was no less horrific.

The debate around capital punishment and its use has always been a contentious one. Those who support the death penalty are seen as conservative in their viewpoint and those who oppose liberal. Those who support it offer a narrative which states that it deters crime, and some crimes warrant swift justice. Those who oppose it say, it is inhuman for a state to oversee the death of an individual as murder is murder either way. And statistics show that having the death penalty has not deterred crime and caused any significant dent in the murder rate. Amnesty International, the human rights organization that meticulously documents every execution around the planet, states that "the death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment". Also the death penalty disproportionately befalls those who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, the poor and people with mental illness.

Capital punishment is a popular position to take on the conservative side, as it sends a signal that they are tough on crime and therefore care for society at large. But what creates a criminal is seldom addressed. It is paradoxical that on one hand a gun culture is promoted and endorsed, which to a large extent leads to violent death, and then the death penalty is seen as a solution to deter crime.

The gravest problem with the death penalty is that it is so absolute that it is irreversible. Since 1973, about 150 prisoners have been sent to death, who were later exonerated of their crime. Others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt. Some of those who were executed in Arkansas claimed they were wrongly convicted. DNA testing has exonerated many on death row and it is routinely denied in many cases.

A very important question to ask is, what is achieved in tangible terms by executing someone other than maybe some sense of closure to those violated. An often expressed heartless comment is, "well it saves tax payer dollars". The upkeep of a prisoner is a drain on the system. In reality what saves tax payer dollars is an investment in society that provides better mental health to those in need and not executions. While politicians squabble over health care and gun control, peoples lives are constantly put at risk.  The American prison system is overburdened disproportionately by African American inmates. Violent death from guns in the United States is the highest in the developed world. Investing in addressing these societal problems actually saves tax payer dollars and improves the health of a nation.

The debate on what kind of punishment suits a crime is an old and fierce one, around which complex laws have been formulated. The depraved custom of state sanctioned death is always seen as the final solution to extreme criminality. Two films Dead Man Walking and Into the Abyss, captured the complexity and humanity of a system that puts people to death with great dramatic effect, nuance and weighty introspection. To me the most profound commentary on capital punishment in popular culture was made by Anthony Burgess in his 1962 dystopian novel, The Clockwork Orange. The book follows the life of a deviant, antisocial, delinquent Alex, who engages in "ultra-criminal" behavior. After he is arrested, as an alternative to being executed, he is put through a controversial psychological rehabilitation program to cure him of his criminality. Alex plays along as he is subjected to various invasive experiments and is later proclaimed cured. As he walks out of the prison a free man, he briefly relapses into contemplating images of violence in his mind in front of an applauding audience and says "I was cured, all right"!. What Anthony Burgess conveys, is that the onus of creating a better human being is on all of us. There is no absolute antidote to prevent aberrant human behavior. But the legalized killing of someone for their crime is pointless and barbarous. Rehabilitation may not be totally possible, but for a humane society, it is a goal worth pursuing. State sanctioned executions are unethical and immoral in any society as they only bloody the system. It is what it is.