Mar 262011
Have you noticed lately that everyone thinks they’re a Constitutional scholar?  The Tea Party people decided to stage a reformation and affirm the priesthood of all readers.  They like to discuss their interpretations — also known as right interpretations — at all times.  Then there are the bloggers and talking heads that discuss the Tea Partiers…and various political issues.  They make a big deal about what others say about the Constitution and then offer their own two cents in order to “fact check.”  There are also journalists who like to report politician’s interpretations and then remind them of these later when those positions have been abandoned due to their inconvenience.  Everyone’s an armchair analyst.  I will leave you to determine to which category I belong.
The President — who actually is a Constitutional scholar — stated during the 2008 election that he did not think that grand document authorized the executive to launch a military action without Congressional approval, sans immediate and imminent security threat.  I’m not sure where he gets that.  The Constitution says the Congress has the power to declare war, but it doesn’t say anything about military actions that do not qualify as full-blown campaigns.  Even in the founders’ day, governments sometimes engaged in battles or martial action without a declared state of war.   Americans frequently had armed conflicts with Native Americans without declaration of war, and President Polk sent troops to occupy/claim Texas well before Congress declared war on Mexico (although there were no actual engagements prior to the declaration).  We never declared war on Hawai’i but the Marines went in to support the overthrow of the native government anyway.  Of course, more recently, there have been numerous military actions in places ranging from Korea to Afghanistan that were not sanctioned “wars.”  In 1983, President Reagan sent troops to Grenada, even though this was a “flagrant violation of international law” according to the United Nations.  Now, the U.S. has become involved in a military action in Libya, and the press has set upon the President for betraying his previous claims about the constitutionality of such.  Congressmen — eager to protect their territory and authority — have joined in the criticism and deem the involvement unconstitutional.  Even a local wrote in to my hometown paper to render his verdict in a letter to the editor.  Everyone wants to talk about the Constitution and law.
I want to talk about the history.  In colonial times, the Barbary pirates of Northern Africa dominated the Mediterranean Sea, and anyone wanting to run ships full of cargo through the area were their prey.  The only way around this was to pay a tribute (read: bribe) to the pirates to let you pass.  Since we were allies of the French during our Revolution, we benefited from their protection when our fledgling independent maritime endeavors began (Of course, previously, we sailed under the [first] Union Jack with British protection.).  After gaining full independence, however, we found ourselves in the same boat as other trading countries.  We began paying off the pirates then too.  When Thomas Jefferson took charge, however, things changed.  Jefferson initiated what became the First Barbary War (1801-1805).  We call it a war, but we never did actually declare the same.  Ironically, it began when the leader of Tripoli, of all places, demanded a new payment after Jefferson took office.  He refused.  Tripoli declared war, but Congress opted just to authorize expenditures for military action without the declaration.  Jefferson asked more than once for authorization, but repeatedly, Congress declined to give it.  Instead, it just approved action to resolve the issue — and probably wouldn’t have done that much if Jefferson hadn’t pressed it.  With the aid of five hundred paid mercenaries then, the U.S. Marines obtained our first foreign military victory in this conflict (“to the shores of Tripoli…”).  The U.S. Government ended up paying a ransom to get American prisoners back afterwards anyway though, and we signed a treaty to end hostilities significant for the fact that it expressly states ours is not a “Christian nation” and we have no religious beef with the Muslim people.  As a consequence of the “war,” the Navy and Marines remained permanent departments within the federal executive, despite the fact that they weren’t sufficiently developed to have us at the ready when the War of 1812 came shortly thereafter.  On the heels of that, it wouldn’t be long again before they were active in the Second Barbary War (1815).
The moral of the story is that we have been hostile with Tripoli/Libya for a long time.  We are still plagued by pirates in the Mediterranean two hundred years later.  From our earliest days, presidents have ordered military actions without the benefit of declared war.  When the matter has come up in court, the judiciary has refused to get involved — usually falling back on the lame claim that if the Congress really objects to the military action, it has the power to cut off funding for it (the courts being apparently unaware of ways around that, demonstrated at least by Charlie Wilson and the Reagan Doctrine and the Iran-Contra Affair).  The history here shows that all the armchair scholarship aside, presidents have repeatedly sent troops abroad to fight without the okay from Congress, and no one really does anything about it.  The talking heads, politicians, and Average Joes can complain, but that’s about all to which it will amount.  Eventually, something else will dominate the news cycle and the Libya issue will join the other “police actions” that litter our past.  If you’re really upset about U.S. intervention there and want to take it out on someone, I suppose you can blame Jefferson — he did start the whole thing.
 Posted by at 11:16 pm
Mar 132011
Sometimes I think that Americans can make anything ironic.  We can turn most everything upside down — and we do so without the slightest inclination that this is what we are doing.  It’s like we’re just an ironic people.  We can’t help it.  We go on about our lives littering irony all about us.  We’re like the King Midas of it.  Unfortunately, it’s not always good irony.  Usually, it’s crap:  we screw others without a thought to how that turned out for us the last time;  we get worked up to a fevered pitch on some ideological point (again) and go on a purging bender until we’re spent; or we commit any number of various political or economic flubs repeatedly, as if we are constantly trying to make the philosophical argument that life is actually like the movie Groundhog Day — without the learning (or with learning that is at an evolutionary pace).
I was thinking today about the hearings Congressman Peter King is holding regarding radicalism in Muslim communities here in the States, and I was struck by another irony.  To understand this, it is important to know the following historical facts:  Arab Muslims and Jews have become enemies in the contemporary age (although they share a common origin and lived in tolerance with one another for ages prior to this).  Christians and Jews have not traditionally gotten along.  Christians used to literally blame Jews for the crucifixion of the Christ and hated them for practicing money-lending when it was prohibited by the Catholic Church.  Christians also used to accuse Jews of kidnapping, murdering, and sometimes cannibalizing Christian children — using their blood for religious rituals and evil purposes.  That false accusation became known as a “blood libel.”
Rep. King has called for the hearings on Muslim radicalism because he fears that homegrown terrorism is the greatest threat our nation faces today and that this is fostered in Muslim communities in the U.S.  King accuses these communities of either promoting violent anti-American activities or tolerating them, which he also finds unacceptable.  Muslims, King believes, promote terrorism whenever they do not take a stand against it or work to put a stop to it.  They cannot — in King’s mind — be neutral parties because of their faith.  They must either be supporters of terrorism or opponents of it.  Whereas a Christian in America can have no dog in that fight, Muslims must — again because of their faith.  Being a Muslim means supporting terrorism (unless one takes active steps against it).
It struck me that King has made his own blood libel against American Muslims then.  He has falsely accused their whole membership of proponing terrorism.  The only way they can absolve themselves of this sin is to turn on their fellow congregates.  It isn’t enough for them to be good citizens like Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and others.  No, they must do more, and it is because of the false blame put upon their religion and entire community.
Herein lies the irony:  Christians used to make the blood libel against Jews because of their intolerance of them.  Now, King is making one against Muslims for the same reason — and King is not alone in this.  Many other Christian Americans share and have expressed the same sentiment.  So, Jews and Muslims are now in the same boat here.  Christians accuse both of spilling blood for their faith.  These enemies — Jews and Arab Muslims — are bound together and yet, they would resist any community between themselves.
Thus, again, Americans (Christian ones anyway) have done the ironic without any intention of doing so.  It wasn’t a conscious undertaking or concerted effort.  We just reacted as we have done before — we have been ourselves.  But in doing so, we created a new irony making strange bedfellows of heated foes.  It’s like we can’t help ourselves.  We are the irony-makers.
 Posted by at 10:35 pm