Saturday, September 6, 2014

Steven and James: Men of Faith

Thank you to Religious News Service for printing this information in the blog by Cathy Lynn Grossman.

From the RNS blog:

Now we know. Steven Sotloff, slaughtered by Islamic State radicals like his fellow journalist James Foley, was also, like Foley, a man of faith. Jewish, to be specific. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors. But his religion and his dual American-Israeli citizenship were kept quiet until after his murder because his family had hoped to avoid making his captivity even more dangerous.
His Miami family’s spokesman added to their statement,  switching from English to Arabic to say, “Steve died a martyr for the sake of God.” But RNS’ Brian Pellot in his blog On Freedom says Sotloff and Foley, a prayerful Catholic, died for freedom, not faith, and hence are not religious martyrs.
Bishop Peter Anthony Libasci of Manchester, N.H., speaks during a vigil on Saturday (Aug. 23) for slain journalist James Foley at the Rochester Commons in Rochester, N.H. Shawn St.Hilaire / Democrat Photo
Bishop Peter Anthony Libasci of Manchester, N.H., speaks during a vigil on Saturday (Aug. 23) for slain journalist James Foley at the Rochester Commons in Rochester, N.H. Shawn St.Hilaire / Democrat Photo

 This image is available for Web and printpublication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.
These radical killers are actually “a disgrace to true fundamentalism,” says London-based Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst and social theorist, in New York Times Op-ed. He calls them “terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued and fascinated by the sinful life of the nonbelievers.”
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I disagree with Brian Pellot: James Foley and Steven Sotloff are indeed religious martyrs because they died doing the work to which God was calling them, risking their lives for others to have information about the war in Syria.

Courage vs. Depression

Thank you to Debra Bowen, California Secretary of State, for coming out of the closet about her depression.

Like many others, she has missed a few days of work now and then because of this illness.

Unlike many others, she is now speaking about it publicly.

The death of Robin Williams prompted her to be more open about this problem, as reported by Patrick McGreevy in today's Los Angeles Times.

I voted for Bowen in the last election, and I admire her courage.  She is a recovering alcoholic, sober since 1995, and later recovered from an addiction to prescription pain medication.

A representative in the State Legislature for many years, representing Marina del Rey and nearby communities, she was reelected Secretary of State in 2010 and works from home when she can't get into the office.

Her work involves enforcing election laws, printing ballot pamphlets, and monitoring campaign spending.

Another touching part of her story: she decided many years ago not to have children, lest they inherit a tendency to the debilitating illness she has faced.

Friday, September 5, 2014

In Memoriam: Armando Villa

Armando Villa died last July at age 19 while being forced to climb the dry mountains of the Angeles Forest on a hot day without enough water or proper shoes. 


What perverted sense of brotherhood causes young men to physically torment would-be brothers to the point of killing them?

I don't get it.

What is there about some men that they want to prove their strength and force others to extreme tests in order to join their group?

Macho--does it mean being tough?  

Being tough on oneself is a personal choice--perhaps dictated by group pressures so that it is barely a choice.

Causing needless pain to others, however, is inexcusable.  Putting others' lives in danger through forced drinking of alcohol or forced "manhood" tests is stupid.

One example of the sheer, pointless, and cruel stupidity of this fraternity hike: Armando and others were forced to wear cheap, wrong-sized, non-hiking shoes that blistered their feet.  

Not allowing water during exercise in hot weather is more than cruel and ignorant--it's manslaughter. 

Throw these young men in jail for a long time.  Let them think about it.

Thank you to President Dianne Harrison for her leadership in ridding the Cal State Northridge campus of this pitiful excuse for a club.

Here is part of  President Harrison's statement on the hazing death of Armando:

"Hazing is stupid, senseless, dangerous and against the law in California. It is a vestige of a toxic way of thinking in which it was somehow okay to degrade, humiliate and potentially harm others. It has no place on this or any university campus, in any student club or organization, and it will not be tolerated."

Joyce Carol Oates wrote a short story, "Landfill," about a fraternity hazing event that resulted in a young man's death.  Her story was based on an actual event.

She tries to follow the many threads that provide an answer to "Why?"

LA Times reports on the circumstances of Armando's death:

Why do kids cross US border?

People ask, "How could decent parents send their kids to cross the US border alone?"

The story in today's Los Angeles Times answers that question, as does the memoir The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande (see previous post).

Kate Linthicum interviews one family from Honduras and tells their story.

It begins with the family's father, Marvin Varela, as a child dropping out of middle school to help his single mother sell tortillas on the street in Tegucigalpa.

When he grew up and married a local girl, Silvia Padilla, they wanted their daughters to have more opportunities than they had had.  Marvin left for El Norte, and later his wife followed him, leaving their daughters in the care of their grandmother.

They planned to return to Honduras, open a store, and build a house, but as years passed gang killings there changed their minds.

"Several of Marvin's childhood friends were killed for refusing to join," reports Linthicum.

They decided to send $8000 to have a coyote take their daughters from Honduras to the US, but the group was caught trying to cross the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas.

Dayana, 9 years old, and Katheryn, 13, were flown to a temporary children's shelter in Oregon and then released to their parents, who drove up from Los Angeles.

The two are now awaiting trial and plan to testify about the gang violence in Tegucigalpa and threats against their family, but their attorney says that most likely they will be deported.

The answer to the question "Why?" is simple.  

Most parents will make great sacrifices for their children, and international borders cannot stop them.

See also this story in 2002 by LA Times reporter Sonia Nazario, later made into a Pulitzer-prize winning book, Enrique's Journey:

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Steven Sotloff learned Arabic, the language of the Qur'an.  He studied it while living in Yemen as a war reporter in training.

How could anyone cut off such a head?  Think of the intelligence, the languages that were stored there.

Steven then lived in Benghazi, Libya, to report on difficulties there that resulted in the murder of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens with three of his staff.  

How could any Muslim not respect Steven's effort to meet others on their own ground?

When civil war began to consume Syria, he went there to bear witness to the deaths and suffering of civilians, risking his own life.  He was taken hostage in Aleppo in 2013 and news of his murder surfaced today.

Where were you when you heard the report of his beheading?  It's the kind of moment many of us will remember.  I was parking my car, late for a physical therapy session.  

I felt a physical revulsion.  My body reacted to violation of the physical integrity of another human body.  Then came the emotional reaction.

Why do we react so powerfully to this kind of murder?  It's recorded in early epics, in the medieval tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, in stories of headless horsemen.  We call it barbaric.

Is shooting someone or using poisonous gas more "civilized"?  

There must be a deep, genetically based taboo against beheading, perhaps two million years old in its encoding. 

A request to everyone commenting on this murder: please don't call it an execution.  Don't dignify the brutal taking of Steven's life by giving it the same term we use for legally ending a life after years of trials and appeals. 

On the other hand, using the same term exposes the American practice of execution to scrutiny.  Is it ever civilized to take another human being's life?  European nations have decided that all executions are unworthy of civilized social order.

But back to Steven and to James Foley, whose death was reported on August 19, and to Daniel Pearl, decapitated in Pakistan in 2002: it's against the rules to kill journalists.  Like the Red Cross or Red Crescent, journalists are understood to be a special class of well-meaning civilian, deserving of respect.  

Clearly, however, obeying rules is not part of the thinking of these jihadists.  Their goal is to break all international rules in the most shocking way, like kids who post insults on Facebook, even insults against another child who has taken his or her own life.

I'm setting up a miserable attempt at logic:
1)  Beheading is horrific.
2)  Beheading journalists is even worse.
3)  Exhibiting a video of this crime is still worse.

The goal now is to understand how a cuddled baby, grown into a curious child, grown into an angry young man, can get to the point of believing he is defending his people by beheading a journalist.  

How was this callousness created?  How did hatred undercut the years of being an innocent, growing child?  Perhaps the child was never loved or had some short circuits in his emotional development.  Someone eventually will do a study of the mental development of brutal killers.  

Actually, these studies have already been done in the case of countries like Liberia, where children are kidnapped into armies and threatened with death unless they commit crimes.

Another parallel is gang culture, where young men are required to kill someone to demonstrate their commitment to the gang.  Perhaps that kind of psychology is going on here.

My effort to try to understand today's horrible news will have to end here.  The fact is, I can't take in today's news and find any kind of structure to fit it into.  

One beheading I took last August 19 as a terrible event and aberration, but the second today really throws me off.  Threats of continued video beheading have never occurred before in my 66 years on this planet.

It's time for prayer, everybody.  And that means you.  

From Malala to Hillary

Malala Yousafzai and Hillary Rodham Clinton-- 
two women's lives that span more than two thousand years.    

My mother-in-law, Rizz Arthur Dean, always gives me books for my birthday and always makes excellent choices, often signed by the authors. 

This year my birthday surprise was hardbound copies of Hard Choices, Hillary's fifth book, and I Am Malala, the young Pakistani girl's first book.  And yes, Hard Choices bears the hand-written signature of (perhaps) our next president of the USA.  

What a collector's item each is--and what a pair they make together!

Malala represents young women who are still being denied even high school education, while Hillary stands among the few who have achieved the highest levels of political leadership.  The two are polar opposites in today's world.

Malala survived an assassination attempt for her vocal support of young girls' right to be educated, and Hillary also is risking her life as a high-profile woman leader. 

We have come such a long way since 1962 when President John F. Kennedy first ordered a commission to examine the status of women in the US.

Episode 9 of CNN's documentary The Sixties shows a woman challenging JFK to do something about women's inequality and later him starting that commission, which was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt and published its report shortly before his death.

It's just shocking that in 1960 women couldn't do things we take for granted today: serve on a jury, get birth control pills (even if married), get a credit card without a husband's signature, attend an Ivy League college, find minimal equality in the workplace.

Prior to 1960, there had only been one woman in the US Senate at any one time; today we have 20 women senators out of 100 and we have a serious candidate for the presidency.

If we go back to January, 1920, women in most states couldn't even vote.  Not until August 26 of that year was the 19th Amendment to the Constitution ratified by enough states to become law. 

Receiving these two books from a woman whose life spans many these amazing changes is another point of significance.  

Rizz's own mother was not expected to go to college, though she grew up in New York City in an affluent family.  She had to argue to be allowed to attend Smith College in 1917 because her parents saw no need for it.  For Rizz in 1940, however, as well as her daughter and her granddaughters, college education was expected..

Today Malala and other girls in Pakistan, Nigeria, and other nations are being denied the opportunity to attend not just college but elementary and high schools.  Women's long road to equality stretches before them with difficulties we find hard to imagine.

May we all support Malala, Hillary, the kidnapped girls of Nigeria, and other women in their struggle to use their gifts and advance the cause of human rights. 

Hilary's account of her challenges as Secretary of State records additional milestones for women.  She was preceded by both Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice in holding that position, fourth in line of succession in case of the death of the president. 

I'm so grateful to Rizz for these two memorable and well-chosen gifts on my 66th birthday.

On the history of progress for women, see also: