"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Monday, October 17, 2011

Render unto Caesar

As Americans, we hold religious freedom and the freedom of conscience as the most essential of all rights. The First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and protest all in their own right, but at their heart these rights all depend on the basic right of belief. At Mass this past Sunday, the Gospel reading centered on Jesus' command to the Pharisees and the Herodians to, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Almost two thousand years later, this is an important insight into the debate over separation of church and state in our country.

Whether by requiring taxpayer funded abortions in the healthcare law and by executive order, allowing military chaplains to perform same-sex marriages, or by providing taxpayer funding to openly political groups like Planned Parenthood, the Obama Administration has waged an all-out assault on traditional Christian--and especially Catholic--belief. Indeed, while many of President Obama's initiatives have met with failure, his attack on religious freedom has been devastatingly successful.

Meanwhile, the persecution of Christians by liberals has reached a new low as the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to Europe with a new decidedly anti-Christian twist. Whether in the Soviet Union, Castro's Cuba, or the anarchist protests of our day, left-wing politicians have always been hostile to religion. Obama appears to be no different. Although nominally a Christian, he has nevertheless provided encouragement, if not an outright endorsement, to the Occupiers' reign of terror.

Even for non-Christians and non-believers, the lesson of history is clear. When a democracy is intolerant of different views, disaster and tragedy soon follows. In one especially vivid example, Ken Burns' recent documentary demonstrates that the deadly consequences of prohibition were in large part fueled by religious persecution. When a minority is persecuted, it is never long before the majority begins to suffer as well. As our laws encroach more and more into the private sphere of our daily lives, the danger only increases.

In all this, we can look to the example of Thomas More who was forced to choose between allegiance to his king and to his faith. When King Henry VIII made it a crime to deny his supremacy as the head of the Church of England, Thomas More stood fast to his faith as a Catholic. Throughout his life, More was obsessed with the meaning of virtue. In his study of theology, philosophy, and the law, he came to believe that above all, virtue cannot exist without integrity. In the end, he chose to die rather than sacrifice his integrity.

Whether Christian or not, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-gay marriage or not, we have a duty as Americans to be tolerant of the views of others, but it does not mean we should accept the views of those with whom we disagree. Although it is inevitable that the government will do things that are objectionable--even to a majority of the people--it is also imperative that the government does not violate the essential freedom of belief. It is one thing to pay taxes for dubious government projects, but it is quite another when the government uses tax dollars to persecute those who pay the bill.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In Defense of Christopher Columbus

Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn from the U.S. Capitol Rotunda

With each passing year, a vocal minority uses Columbus Day as an occasion to clamor for the rebranding of the holiday as “Native American Day,” if not its outright abolition. Aside from cute slogans about colonialism and Columbus’ accidental discovery of the New World, there is little substance to these objections. It is true that Columbus did not prove the earth was round and he was not the first person to set foot in America. However, for good or for ill, Columbus’ voyages changed the course of history.

The principal objection is that Columbus symbolizes a legacy of genocide and brutality that we should not celebrate. However, the Europeans were no worse than the native peoples. In particular, the early Spanish explorers documented with horror the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism by the Aztecs and other indigenous cultures. If roles were reversed and the Aztecs had discovered Europe instead of the other way around, the clash of civilizations would have been just as brutal and bloody.

Alternatively, the tired cliché of our time is that Christopher Columbus did not discover America because there were people already here. However, just because a thing is seen does not mean it is understood. Before Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment, people knew that lightning existed, but they did not understand its significance. In the same way, the native peoples of the Americas did not realize that they inhabited a continent in a larger world until Columbus made contact in 1492.

That said, one could reasonably argue that the credit should go to Leif Ericson, who set foot on Newfoundland around the year 1000. However, Ericson was illiterate, and the only accounts of his voyage that survive were passed down by oral tradition for several centuries before being written down, by which time the only Norse settlement in North America had long since been abandoned. In contrast, Columbus was an expert navigator who kept detailed accounts of his voyages so that others could follow his route.

As a result, Columbus is just as important to the history of America as the first Thanksgiving. There are hundreds of towns, cities, mountains, rivers, roads, parks, museums, schools, monuments, statues, and sports teams—and even the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia—all dedicated to the memory of the man who truly discovered the American continent. We can lament that the early European explorers did not share our modern cultural sensibilities and candidly admit to Columbus’ personal failings, but as Americans, we cannot condemn Columbus’ achievement without condemning our entire existence.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Newton's Apple

A visionary is someone who has foresight beyond the horizon that limits the vision of those around him. This word is often thrown around carelessly, but in the case of Steve Jobs, who passed away last night, this description is truly appropriate. As Issac Newton once wrote in a letter to a friend, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The same can be said of Steve Jobs, who was in some ways the Issac Newton of the personal computer.

Issac Newton realized the impact of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler while his contemporaries were still trapped in a geocentric Aristotelian universe. Similarly, Steve Jobs realized the true impact of the graphical user interface, the internet, and wireless communications. Ironically, the two inventions for which Jobs will be most remembered were invented by other people, but it was Steve Jobs who would bring these ideas to their fullest potential.

The graphical user interface was developed by Xerox. In 1979, Jobs was given a glimpse of the Xerox Alto which Xerox had stored away in a back room. Xerox failed to grasp the potential of the personal computer and by the time Xerox began to take interest, Jobs had already created the enormously successful Apple Macintosh. For the first time, the power of the computer was available to ordinary non-technical people at an affordable price.

Similarly, before there were smart phones, there was the aptly named Apple Newton, which was created in the 1990’s while Jobs was running Pixar. The CEO of Apple at the time, John Sculley, even coined the phrase, “personal digital assistant.” Unfortunately, the Newton tried to accomplish too much, too quickly, and was limited by the high cost of miniaturized components at the time. Also, the Newton was created before cell phone networks had the capability to provide wireless internet connectivity. As a result, it was an enormous flop.

After his return to Apple in 1996, Jobs aggressively restructured the company to focus on its core strengths. As always, the hallmark of Jobs genius was the simplicity and intuitive nature of his products. The iPod and iPhone can trace their beginnings back to the Xerox Alto and the Apple Newton, but it was Jobs who built on the work of others to make these ideas attractive, profitable, easy to use, and ubiquitous. In short, Steve Jobs put the internet in your pocket.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Due Process, John Wilkes Booth, and Anwar al-Awlaki

Judge, Jury, and Executioner?

Last week, a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military Special Forces dispatched Anwar al-Awlaki to meet his maker. Awlaki was a radical imam who recruited and encouraged terrorists to attack the United States, but he was also an American citizen. Leading Libertarian figures claim this incident represents a dangerous threat to the right of due process, but a look at history shows us that it is not without precedent. According to Wikipedia:

Before dawn on April 26[, 1865], the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett's tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered, but [John Wilkes] Booth refused [Colonel Everton] Conger's demand to surrender, saying "I prefer to come out and fight"; the soldiers then set the barn on fire. As Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him.

Colonel Conger, a Union intelligence officer, immediately arrested Corbett for violating his orders to take Booth alive. During the investigation, Corbett claimed that he saw Booth moving toward his weapons, but the other witnesses disputed this account, stating only that Booth was moving around inside the barn, likely searching for some means of escape from his desperate and hopeless position.

Despite the evidence that Corbett shot Booth in cold blood, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton dismissed the charges against Corbett stating, "The rebel is dead. The patriot lives."  Corbett was later given an honorable discharge from the Army but later descended into madness, likely caused by the use of mercury which was then common in his civilian profession as a hatter.

Although the 14th Amendment did not exist at the time of Booth's death, due process rights were guaranteed to all American citizens at the federal level by the 5th Amendment. However, civil rights were sharply curtailed in the occupied confederate states following the end of the war. In particular, thousands of Virginians were arrested and their property seized without due process for providing support and aid to the Confederacy.

The fate of Anwar al-Awlaki is remarkably similar. Although an American citizen, like Booth, he joined forces with al Qaeda in order to commit acts of terror against the country of his birth. On the other hand Booth was given a chance to surrender, whereas Awlaki was blasted away by a robotic drone. In both cases, due process was likely violated.

After the death of John Wilkes Booth, the country did not descend into totalitarianism. Quite to the contrary, passage of landmark legislation with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution greatly expanded the protection of civil liberties which was finally consummated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960's.

Despite the horrors of slavery, civil war, Jim Crow, and segregation, America has emerged from the struggle stronger and freer than before. However, Booth was killed after the war was over, whereas Awlaki was killed at a time when there is no clear end in sight.

Today, al Qaeda is trying to radicalize American citizens so they can use our laws against us. The longer the Global War on Terror drags on, the more our rights will slowly be eroded in the name of "security."  As the war goes on, terrorist masterminds like Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Anwar al-Awlaki will devise ever more insidious and diabolical means to attack at the very heart of what it means to be an American.

Rather than the legal implications, the greater concern should be that the use of targeted killings could encourage new recruits to follow in Awlaki's misguided path to "martyrdom."  Over the past several years, President Obama has relied heavily on Special Forces to carry out assassinations of Somalian pirates and al Qaeda kingpins instead of engaging our enemies with conventional military resources.

If the death of Awlaki hastens the end of this war, a return to peace, and a higher standard of justice in the future, it is not all bad--and perhaps the deaths of bin Laden and Awlaki will be the fatal blow to al Qaeda that will allow a return to domestic tranquility. But if not, we must reassess and rethink our strategy before the killing of Awlaki ceases to be the exception that proves the rule.