Thursday, May 9, 2013

On Right Speech

In the Buddhist tradition, Right Speech is one of eight practices which lead to the end of suffering. It is defined as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter (source).”  “Idle chatter” may be taken to mean unproductive speech, counter-productive speech, or vainglorious speech. 

The notion of Right Speech came to mind recently as I reflected on my own reaction to something Noam Chomsky wrote about the Boston Marathon tragedy. Specifically, he said, “On April 23, Yemeni activist and journalist Farea Al-Muslimi, who had studied at an American high school, testified before a US Senate committee that right after the marathon bombing, a drone strike in his home village in Yemen killed its target … There was no direct way to prevent the Boston murders [but] there are some easy ways to prevent likely future ones: by not inciting them (source).” Thus, Mr. Chomsky was implying that the bombing was “just desserts.” Americans will reap what they sow.  

My reaction consisted of intense, visceral feelings of disgust toward Mr. Chomsky. The question is why. I understand that the leadership of the United States government has, for many years now, engaged in despicable actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. In light of these actions, anti-American sentiment is easy to comprehend. I very nearly agree with Mr. Chomsky that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between American imperialism and Middle Eastern terrorism. 

Yet, the tone and the timing of Mr. Chomsky’s remarks are lamentable. When terrorism brings down suffering and death on Americans, it is fitting that Americans grieve the loss. In an era in which many people appear to be callous and without empathy for the suffering of others, it is profoundly reassuring to discover that we as a people are still able to mourn the deaths of complete strangers. Without the capacity for empathy, there is little hope that Americans will ever feel the loss of Yemeni lives. Mocking or trivializing or provincializing expressions of empathy will not encourage an increase in empathy. It will only harden peoples’ hearts. It will encourage people in the belief that politics matters more than human life.

It should go without saying that Mr. Chomsky is a hypocrite. He is an American like the rest of us. He pays taxes. He accepts a generous salary from MIT – also known as the “Pentagon on the Charles.” He is a beneficiary of the American right to free speech. He would not have been so quick to spin academic arguments equating terrorism and U.S. foreign policy if it had been his son or daughter who had been slaughtered on the streets of Boston.  

Nonetheless, Mr. Chomsky is, in all likelihood, sincerely motivated by anger and frustration at U.S. foreign policy. These feelings of anger and frustration evidently exceed the intensity of feeling he has toward the victims of the Boston marathon bombing. He has chosen to convey his emotions by producing inflammatory, malicious, and unproductive words. In this, he is like many Americans. He is similar to those who delight in hanging up effigies of President Obama for target practice. Expressions of anger and frustration have become a substitute for the hard work of attempting to persuade others of what is right or to learn from what others have to say. Venting emotions does not require the hard work of looking inward and assessing whether one’s own views exhibit integrity.

It is important to reflect on the meaning of Right Speech as Americans. Today, our country is heading down a perilous path toward tyranny. The only hope of altering the course of this country rests in the ability of Americans to transcend their partisan differences and agree on a plan of action. I fear that partisanship and divisiveness are the instruments of tyranny.  

Right speech, in this instance, means deploring American tyrants and Talibani tyrants with equal conviction. It means avoiding a hatred which divides, and cultivating a love of freedom which unites. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Four Dead in Ohio

On May 4th, 1970, a protest occurred at Kent State University which led to the massacre of four unarmed students by members of the National Guard. To clarify “unarmed,” at least one of the students killed had been seen throwing rocks at members of the National Guard. The members of the Guard, however, were equipped with M1 assault rifles. The incident prompted an FBI investigation. The FBI documents were initially kept secret, but later released through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The iconic flower-in-the-rifle barrel gesture of a 1960s "terrorist"
In these documents, the focus is not on the massacre itself, but on the fact that a campus ROTC building had been set on fire. The documents clearly convey the sense that, were it not for the existence of protests on the campus and the presence of a separate group of arsonists, the shooting would not have occurred. The FBI report (available here) describes the protest as a “riot.” Walter Adams, a Kent State professor at the time, said that the attitude of law enforcement was that, “we had brought this on ourselves, because, if you behave that way, naturally, someone's going to shoot you to death.” He likened it to blaming a rape victim for dressing provocatively.

Until the National Guard arrived, Adams did not see a riot. “Things didn't seem to be at all threatening. I had an impression of the atmosphere as being really quite pleasant (source).”
The atmosphere changed once the National Guard arrived in tanks and armored personnel carriers. Guard members announced, by megaphone, that the campus was surrounded and that protesting was not allowed. The student protesters, however, were determined to exercise their First Amendment rights.

According to Eldon Fender, a student who witnessed the events of May 4th

One of the most interesting experiences was, frankly, you felt like you made a wrong turn off of [Interstate] 76 going into Kent because of all the armed vehicles, military hardware, military vehicles on campus. You almost felt like you drove onto Fort Knox or something where you have a highly protected federal property or something of that nature. So the atmosphere on the campus certainly was very tense and very different than the way I left it (source).
The FBI was not concerned with investigating the National Guard members who fired the fatal shots. Instead, FBI investigators sought to identify students who could be prosecuted under the charges of criminal conspiracy, sabotage and sedition -- the latter, a capital offense. 

Cooperative students spoke of “hippie types,” “radicals,” “militants” and “hard core trouble makers” but few offered any substantive leads. Parents were also interviewed. One father describes becoming estranged from his son after his son allowed his hair to grow long. 

 FBI agents sought to validate their suspicion that members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had been involved in the incident. This would be significant because the Weather Underground Organization (or simply, "the weathermen") was a splinter group of SDS and was, according to conventional wisdom at the time, a terrorist organization.
Allison Krause, one of the four killed.

According to Mr. Fender, Kent State had been a relatively apolitical campus until Nixon announced an expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The news inflamed anti-war sentiment because many people were hoping that the war was drawing to a close. People believed that the decision to enter Cambodia would prolong the conflict. Also, Cambodia was an ally; the ruler, Lon Nol, was pro-U.S. He was, however, unable to control the Cambodian border with Vietnam, and Viet Cong fighter were able to slip into the country to move supplies and set up bases.   

The resemblances between the situation in May of 1970 and the situation today are striking. The word “terrorist,” then as now, is not confined to individuals who use violence against civilians to promote a political agenda, but is a label used to describe political opponents. This label legitimizes the unrestrained use of force. We bombed an ally in 1970 and today, we bomb Pakistan and other non-combatant nations such as Yemen. 

The differences are also striking. Nixon was a widely despised ruler; President Obama is relatively popular. Then, students protested the war even when confronted by a contingent of heavily armed troops. Today, students will occasionally muster up the energy to send politically-charged tweets.