The Begging Bowl

Buddhist monks, in practicing their call to holiness, rely upon the alms of the lay faithful to provide them with food, clothes, and other needs. Often, these alms come in exchange for spiritual services the monks perform for the laity such as weddings and funerals. The posture a monk observes when receiving alms is holding the empty bowl in hand so that the almsgiver may place the alms in the bowl. However, when a monk turns the begging bowl upside down, rendering the possibility of giving alms impossible, the monk is withdrawing consent from the the spiritual practice of the community.

In Burma, the upside down bowl became a powerful symbolic action in response to the military junta's repression of the pro-democracy movement. In a devoutly Buddhist country, the withdrawal of the monk's begging bowl represents the denunciation of the systemic violence and oppression of the country's military leaders.

21 January 2013

Inaugurate Justice: End the War on Terror

Today is Inauguration Day and the nation welcomes Barack Obama to four more years as President of the United States. The seminal event, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, is a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power with the 2013 inaugural theme billed as “Faith in America's Future.” With the exception of a few protesters here and there, President Obama will peacefully enter his second term as president to rebuild America.

It has been reported that President Obama will take his Oath of Office by swearing over the Lincoln Bible as well as a Bible owned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The symbolic nature of the gesture undoubtedly leads many to hope that a second Obama term will follow in King's legacy of fighting for equality, freedom and social change.

Considering the past four years, it's questionable that the staunchly anti-war Dr. King – who once famously said that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death" – would approve.

The continuation of the war on terror – drone strikes, policies of indefinite detention, prosecution of whistleblowers, targeted assassinations – is a troubling legacy for the Nobel Peace Prize winning president. And, looking at the trends from Obama's first term as the war on terror wages on, what will the future look like?
There have been four times as many drone strikes under Obama than under Bush – including increased numbers of civilian causalities which are points of contention in the Middle East and Central Asia. The codification of government “kill lists” into the legally questionable “disposition matrix” – under the leadership of the Obama administration – suggests a new, permanent reality of targeted assassinations becoming key in the war on terror. The legal architecture being constructed is eerily reminiscent of the Bush-era policies that led to torture, abuse, and extraordinary rendition that became common place within war on terror operations across the globe – all the while given cover by high-level administration officials within the federal government and military.

Repeated promises to close the prison at Guantánamo – where over half of the 166 remaining prisoners have been cleared for release by the Obama administration's Guantánamo Review Task Force – are left unfulfilled. Since the signing of a 2009 executive order on Obama's first day of office that promised to close the prison within one year, 66 men have been released from the prison. Only five men have been released in the past two years thanks to the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes $633 billion for military expenditures, contains provisions that ban the use of funds for closing the prison. In spite of threatening a veto due to the ban of prisoner transfers out of Guantánamo to other facilities, Obama again signed the NDAA into law on January 3, 2013.

In a signing statement issued by the White House, Obama said, “I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and strengthening our enemies.”

It costs approximately $133 million a year to run the prison – a cost of nearly $850,000 per prisoner per year. To house an inmate in federal prison costs about $33,000 a year but Congress has continued to oppose efforts to close Guantánamo and Obama has largely allowed Congress to direct the future of the prison.

The scope of indefinite detention was further expanded by the passage of the NDAA. First appearing the the 2012 NDAA and again in the 2013 NDAA are police-state provisions that allow for the military to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens — on U.S. soil — without charge or trial. While the practice of being held without charge, trial, or recourse to challenge one's imprisonment raises clear constitutional concerns for even amateur legal thinkers, the Obama administration continues to litigate against challenges to the NDAA provisions.

While Obama has signed into law new protections for federal whistleblowers who report on waste, fraud or abuse, when it comes to matters of national security the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act that all previous presidents combined.

And in Afghanistan, three times as many U.S. troops have been killed since Obama took over as commander-in-chief than under Bush – and in a quarter of the time. The president has promised massive troop withdrawals by 2014 to wind down the war – or at least U.S. military involvement in it, but options remain to leave as many as 20,000 troops in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in 2014. The White House has also suggested total withdrawal of troops. Time will tell if this promise proves to be true.

The Iraq troop withdrawal, overseen by Obama, drastically cut-back on U.S. personnel in Iraq but the State Department continues to operate, at $6 billion a year, the largest, most expensive embassy in the world in Baghdad. Is this the fate Afghanistan can expect? In a recent meeting between Obama and Hamid Karzai, it became clear that the U.S. will continue to have an influential presence in Afghanistan in providing military aid and hardware – including drones.

With the appointments of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to key posts for foreign policy and national security decisions – all of whom were staunch supporters of the war in Iraq and then changed positions – is Obama signaling to expect more of the same in the war on terror? Brennan, in particular, was instrumentally involved in Bush-era torture policies, amping up the drone programs, and in compiling the kill lists.

All of this, along with the recent interventions in Libya and, now, Mali, and the continued operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan suggests we are in a global state of permanent war. In contemplating a new American future – under the leadership of President Obama for four more years – what can we hope for from the so-called anti-war president at the helm of this endless war on terror?

If Dr. King were alive, surely his voice would be among those pleading to end the war on terror and dismantle its framework. Bringing to an end more than a decade of war and slowing an entrenched national security apparatus will, no doubt, take some time and bold leadership. Can we really expect President Obama to lead us to that future?

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