Saturday, February 9, 2013

The 3 P.M. Phone Call

On the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American embassies and missions throughout the Middle East and Africa were attacked. In Cairo, capital of what was once the key American ally in the Arab/Islamic world, a mob stormed the embassy, sovereign territory of the United States, tore down the American flag and hoisted the pirate banner of Al Queda. Shortly thereafter, another Islamic mob committed the same breach of sovereignty in Yemen, again replacing the Stars and Stripes with a black pennant praising Allah.

And, of course, in Benghazi, Libya, the American mission and another installation came under a sustained military siege that lasted approximately seven hours. Four Americans--our ambassador, Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, a foreign service officer, and Tryone Woods and Glen Doherty, the ambassador's security men and former Navy SEALs, died during the battle.

The Battle of Benghazi began around 9:40 p.m. local time--twenty minutes to four in the afternoon in Washington. Once, there were questions as to President Obama's ability to handle the "3 a.m. phone call." After the testimony this week of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Gen. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we know now that the president was not prepared to answer the "3 p.m." phone call.

For we now know from these men, in sworn testimony, that President Obama personally did absolutely nothing while American property and lives were destroyed across the Middle East in a riot of celebration marking the anniversary of Islamic terrorism's greatest victory.

In considering the shocking, almost incredible, testimony of Panetta and Mullen, it is worth first noting the scope and ferocity of the Benghazi assault. It commenced with scores of armed men descending upon the American mission from all sides, firing AK-47 rifles and tossing grenades. They used jerrycans of diesel fuel to set the facility ablaze, trapping the ambassador and others behind a wall of flames.

From the first moments of the assault, as the mission sought to protect itself and acquire aid, the State Department in Washington was aware of the crisis.

A CIA team, located in a nearby annex, came to the rescue of the mission. The CIA men were able to evacuate the mission, though they could not find Ambassador Stevens amidst the flames. They spirited the survivors back to the annex. As they drove from the mission to the annex, the CIA vehicle came under heavy fire and made it back only with two flat tires. They reached the annex around 1 am local time, more than three hours after the assault commenced.

The Americans were holed up in the annex for another three hours, taking fire from time to time throughout the wee hours of the morning.  Eventually, a small security force arrived from Tripoli to assist in evacuating the annex. At about four in the morning local time, just as the group hoped to depart, the annex came under heavy military assault. Mortars landed directly upon the building, killing Woods and Doherty who were manning machine guns on the roof.

Finally, approximately seven hours after the attack on the mission began, the survivors escaped to the airport and safety.

Now juxtapose the account of the prolonged horror of Benghazi with that of President Obama's response to the attacks. During those seven hours, President Obama spoke with Leon Panetta and Mike Mullen once, for a half-hour, as part of a pre-scheduled meeting that took place more than an hour after the attack began. Contrary to comments the president made in the weeks after the attack, he issued no formal orders. In fact, he gave no specific direction to the Defense Department at all.  Neither Panetta nor Mullen spoke to president again and never spoke with Sec. of State Clinton. Panetta testified that he assumed the president's chief of staff was keeping the president abreast of developments.

The Panetta testimony is almost unbelievable. To credit the testimony is to accept that the highest levels of the United States government, the leadership of the world's most powerful nation, were inert, listless, incompetent and unmoved in the face of raging, prolonged attacks on its sovereign property and the lives of citizens who were in its service.

To accept the testimony is to accept that the president, the commander in chief, was either uninterested in the crisis, or a cowardly Pontius Pilate, or some combination of both. Regardless, Panetta's testimony unarguably paints a portrait of man guilty of gross negligence, a man who failed to discharge his most fundamental duties to the best of his ability.

To paraphrase Hillary Clinton in the midst of her greatest theatrics since the vast right wing conspiracy act, why, at this point, does any of this matter? It matters greatly, as a moral principle and for its practical effects.

The practical consequences of the president's inaction and weakness are obvious and present glad tidings to both terrorists and enemy governments. If the president does nothing in the face of mob attacks, what is he expected to do in the face of Iranian determination to acquire a nuclear weapon? Why should Al Queda or Hamas or Hezbollah hesitate to attack American citizens or property anywhere in the world? The United States has a president who doesn't even bother to amble down to the Situation Room while mobs kill his ambassador and rampage through American territory.

But greater than any practical concern, grave as they are, is the moral failure of the president and the United States government. It is simply morally unacceptable for the president of the United States to absent himself from his duties as Barack Obama did. The government is not designed to act in these most serious moments without leadership from the president; without his direction and care, the ship of state cannot set a course and keep it. It is his duty to command; he shirked this obligation.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the president compounded his failures by his obfuscation and the lies of his Administration regarding the genesis of the assault. To this day, not a single person has been arrested or captured in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2012, rendering the president's day-after rhetoric on justice for the killers the mere empty talk of a man determined to arrive timely at his next union fundraiser.  

President Obama failed Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues not because he failed to save them that night, but because he did not use every power at his disposal to try to save them. He has failed them by his dishonesty in his refusal to take responsibility for the lack of security that led up to their deaths and his lack of interest in bringing their murderers to justice.

And in failing Stevens and Smith and Woods and Doherty, President Obama fails the test of the presidency. His dereliction of duty is an intolerable failure of the trust of the American people.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On New Year's Day, a Radical Faith for a Suffering World

As we begin 2013 this New Year’s Day, Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God, we look back upon a preceding year that, if nothing else, sadly reminded us of the evil and suffering that is abroad in the world. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, just before Christmas, senseless violence that took the lives of 20 small school children, shocked the country as no event has in the post-September 11th era.
The sadness that follows on the Newtown shooting, and the many other tragedies and outrages that have befallen us just in the last decade, force society to once more confront the ancient “problem of evil”—how could these events happen? If there is a God, why does he allow such things to occur? And what can be done about them?

Perhaps more so than in ages past, the modern world struggles to answer, or even approach, these questions. We are a rationalist and publically secular society. When confronted with a Newtown or Columbine, we turn almost immediately to various experts for answers. Experts on gun control—and so we argue about the wisdom and efficacy of laws that restrict access to firearms. Experts on mental health—and so we examine the need for better psychological treatments, commitment laws and the brand of mental defect that might explain the killer’s actions.
All of this is understandable and reasonable, to a degree. But these types of responses do not probe the ultimate question: why do these things occur and why must certain people, for no reason at all, undergo such profound suffering?

For those without faith, these random acts of violence and nihilism serve to confirm that there cannot be a God, and certainly not a good and loving one. The denial of God has a powerful appeal to the rationalist modern mind. Logic seems to hold that a loving and all-powerful God who cares for His Creation could never permit, for example, the random and horrific death of school children. Because we crave the “proveable”, this sort of thinking appears to offer a somewhat verifiable answer: evil acts demonstrate the absence of God.

The denial of God, however, is no answer. With the denial of God, one begs the question of whether the “evil act” may even be properly described as “evil.” For without a good and loving God who commanded “Thou shalt not kill”, it is not at all clear why murder—even the murder of innocent children—constitutes the moral outrage that we instinctively assign to it. The invocation of deistic or atheistic responses essentially confirms the nihilism of the evil it seeks to explain; it leads only to the conclusion that there are no conclusions.

For the faithful, the existence of evil poses perhaps the greatest and most longstanding challenge to Christianity. It is entirely true that the faithful man, like the doubter, cannot wholly and completely explain evil—why God allows it and why it visits some more than others. In fact, in this materialist and rationalist modern world, even the faithful often overlook the profound answer Christianity offers, opting instead for the vague comforts of religious traditions.

Yet, when fully embraced, it is the Christian world-view that gives the most coherent response to the problem of evil, suffering and death. In sum, the Christian answer is a radical faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Christian does not proffer a “comprehensive answer” in the sense the term would be used by the secular world. Christ’s Cross does not wholly explain why we suffer evil. Rather, the Cross instructs us that suffering and evil are a foundational reality of the created world, an essential aspect of human existence.

For Christ Himself, son of God, suffered in the most dramatic and horrific manner one might imagine. While we often focus on the excruciating physical pain He endured, the physical agony alone does not constitute the entirety of His suffering. Christ also suffered evil and unjust human actions against His person. He suffered betrayal at the hands of a close friend and follower. He suffered the caprice of the mob, senselessly denouncing him. He suffered under a callous and corrupt government that signed his death warrant as a matter of expediency with no finding of guilt.

So in the Passion and Death of Christ, the faithful are called to accept the reality of suffering in this life. We can speculate as to why God allows evil and pain—the price of man’s free will, for example—but in the Passion and in the Cross, we can know that suffering is fundamental to our human existence because the most truly human person who ever lived, Jesus Christ, endured suffering resulting from the evil acts of his fellow men. This is the lot of man, and in the suffering of His Son, God acknowledges this difficult truth of our condition in the most stark and dramatic way.

Yet it is not the entire reality. Christ’s Resurrection is as much of a part of the fundamental reality of our existence as is our suffering. And the Resurrection is not merely an event that happened to Christ, who returned to life after a death wrought by evil and filled with pain. Rather, it is the destiny offered to each person who suffers in this life loss, pain, grief and death. The Resurrection is the promise of eternal life.

And eternal life is the great equalizer. We all die. Some die with the awful notoriety of the children of Sandy Hook and the victims of September 11, 2001. Less noticed, by no less brutal, are the deaths of those who perish by accidents, fires, “routine murders” and disease each day. Others at last succumb to death in peace at an advanced age. There is no way to know the particular fate that awaits any particular individual. Neither wealth, nor power, nor righteousness, nor innocence, nor even age, is a guarantee of a prolonged or happy life.

But beyond death, however it may come, is the Resurrection and eternal life with God. The routes taken to this ultimate end are different, but we are all called to this terminus and, therefore, the way in which we meet God finally becomes unimportant. Eternal life makes sense of, and brings meaning to, any death.

This is a great and fearful thought. It causes us to admit that we having nothing approaching absolute control over our own lives. Faith does not offer us a shield against suffering, pain and death. It could happen to you, as they say.

But Faith offers us not only its sister virtue, Hope, but also intelligibility for our existence. Many generations of Catholic school children were taught by rote this simple but profound formulation of the meaning of life: “I was made to know and to love and to serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.” The children of Sandy Hook, in their own ways, knew and loved and served God. This is evident in the light and joy that they brought to their families, who so dolefully mourn their passing. Now, fulfilling their very purpose, they are happy with God in eternal life, taking their place among the saints and their spiritual mother, the Queen of Heaven. Someday, she will wipe the tears from the eyes of their parents, as they are reunited at last and forever with their children in Paradise.

Can we believe this? It takes mere observation to know that there is suffering and evil in this world. But can we believe that such pain is not the end; that the same wonderful destiny awaits each son and daughter of God, just as Christ promised?

This we cannot prove, and such matters do not belong to the rationalist world. Still, for the Christian, this is the ultimate truth about our existence and, without it, there cannot be much, if any, truth in the world at all.

But to truly believe it requires the radical Faith of the Gospel. Among the several themes of Christ’s ministry perhaps none is of greater significance than the call to a radical Faith. That is, total trust in God. Faith the size of mustard seed can move a mountain; Faith allows you to walk to the Lord upon the water; Faith that knows that a mere word from the lips of Christ can heal—he need not enter under your roof. Get up, go home, your Faith has saved you!

The radical Faith of the Gospel teaches us to fear God, not man. It teaches us that God Himself suffered for us and with us, so our pain has meaning because it is form of unity with the Lord. And death, whenever and however it may visit us, is the gateway to life eternal.

This is the point and purpose of our life. If we can accept and embrace this truth, a truth of a different nature than that which we can grasp by reason or science, a truth that can be at odds with our own personal desires, we can make sense of even the most lachrymose happenings in this veil of tears.

It is this truth alone that enables us to say: Happy New Year