Critical Request: Pay Attention to the News

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Liberty and Justice For All Podcast. Recently, I have been watching the first season of the award-winning TV drama “Line of Separation” on PBS. Also called “Tannbach,” it is a German mini-series that first aired in 2015, and I recommend it – if you can handle watching subtitles. The series is a marvelous account of how Germany transitioned from Hitler’s fascism to a Russian-owned, communist state at the end of World War II.

The story, which follows the format of Russian literature greats such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, takes place in a rural town located on the east side of what had become the border between East and West Germany. Traditionally comprised of land-owning nobles who employed local peasants, the town’s nobles were stripped of their land deeds by Russian communists that had taken control. The Russians then separated the land into smaller plots and awarded it to the peasants.

In addition, many of the landowners were put in prison for being members of the Nazi party. These wealthy nobles were the loyalists who had enabled Hitler’s Reich. When they joined the Nazis in the mid-1930s, most could not comprehend the violence and human rights abuses that would ensue, and many did not know until the end of the war of the fate of the Jews, who had been forced onto trains out of their communities and killed in concentration camps. Some, upon realization of the truth, sadly ended their lives when they realized the fate of their beloved country, a destruction that would take generations to heal.

I do not consider myself to be an alarmist – and I understand the gravity of comparing modern-day leaders to the Nazis and communist Russia – but I am stunned to see the similarities between the conflict in “Line of Separation” and our current national affairs in the United States of America. I, for one, agree with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who refers to the holding facilities on our border with Mexico as concentration camps.

AOC has been criticized by some for saying it, because of the genocide component experienced by the Jews in World War II concentration camps. Gratefully, the present operations at the Mexican border have not come to that, but people simply seeking asylum in the U.S., and who have not broken any laws, have been separated from their children and placed behind chain link fences in terribly overcrowded, stiflingly hot, inhumane conditions. Many have inadequate food and water and have suffered greatly.

These people in U.S. custody have been dying of disease, neglect and malnutrition on our watch. The government didn’t initially establish a tracking system to use when parents and children are separated, and only some have been able to reunite once the parents are deported. I am not able to sufficiently express my horror and outrage about the situation on the border. It has not gotten as much press attention for several months, but we know conditions there are still acute with hardship. These stories are not fun to dwell on, but what is happening to some should affect us all, especially when it is being done in the name of our country using taxpayer dollars. As they say, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

However, just recently, their story returned to the media when we learned – again – of extreme white nationalism and racism in the Trump administration. Several hundred emails sent from Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller to Breitbart, an ultra-conservative news network, were leaked from a former Breitbart employee. In the emails, Miller offered hundreds of suggestions for adding white nationalist and racist content. Stephen Miller is credited with much of the administration’s current immigration policy, and as such, many democratic congressmen and women feel Miller’s racism is a conflict of interest, and have called for his resignation.

In college, I studied books about the holocaust like “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom and “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and I saw Spielberg’s “Shindler’s List.” I also studied Russian literature, much of which discusses the Russian revolution in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, including “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy and a play called “The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov. Those works testify of the intense upheaval that these revolutions caused, including the break-up of families and the loss of whole cultures and dialects. Unfortunately, we know that many countries have experienced similar revolutions in the 20th century, such as China, North Korea, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Venezuela – to name a few.

The United States has been an inspiration to those who do not enjoy our freedoms. We are “the city on a hill” and “an ensign to the nations,” as referenced in the Bible. But do we as citizens even know what that means? I get emotional at the part in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” when Gandalf tasks Pippin to light the beacon in the city of Minas Tirith in Gondor. It acts as a distress signal to teams stationed on mountaintops, which light their beacons in a chain that extends for miles upon miles.

The distress call is successful is reaching Rohan, Gondor’s sister country. But so much could have gone wrong, as there are so many moving parts in the process. Each mountain station plays a critical role in transmitting the alert until it could be successfully received. Each station had to be constantly at the ready with these gigantic wood piles prepared with fuel properly distributed in order to respond within a moment’s notice. The exchange is such an act of solidarity, of organization and order. That’s the way it is supposed to be, despite the lack of leadership by the maligned Denethor, Gondor’s temporary ruler until the king could return.

Recently we watched as President Trump abruptly removed support for the Kurds in Syria. He did so upon the request of Erdogan, the president of Turkey, who intended to attack our partners, the Kurds, a minority religious group that differed from them in ideology. The Kurds had been helping us fight ISIS as boots on the ground for the last several years. The effort was critical to our national security after ISIS had caused multiple terrorist attacks on American soil and had threatened many others. The Kurds were loyal to our cause and fought valiantly, so leaving them behind so abruptly was a shocking turn of events for much of our military.

U.S. troops were initially instructed to leave immediately, and upon such short notice, they were forced to bomb our U.S. base there in order to prevent it from getting into the hands of the Turks, Syrians, ISIS or other threats. Many of our ISIS detainees were also able to escape in the chaos. We know that Trump reversed course and maintained troops in Syria anyway – but only to protect the oil reserves there and to claim them as property of the United States. We basically kicked the Kurds to the curb, and many are asking how this will affect future relations with our allies in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. Will they even trust us to be good as our word?

President Trump made a spontaneous, rash decision to remove these troops, and he did so without seeking counsel from the State Department or leaders at the Pentagon. He did not consider the delicate arrangement we had there or the consequences that an abrupt action could present. For example, without the U.S. there, Hezbollah, a militant group based in Iran, has been able to establish a base in Syria, the consequences of which remain to be seen. But more importantly, the Kurds were forced to move somewhere else. And we know that, for their protection against the Turks, they have now been forced to ally with Syria’s leadership, which has been the Kurds’ enemy in a civil war for generations.

Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, was likely the culprit of the illegal use of sarin gas in a chemical attack upon its own people, and the death toll was estimated in the thousands. Sarin is highly poisonous, and exposure to it results in a terrible, painful death. From a U.N. investigation, it is believed that Bashar al-Assad, who is allied with Russia, directed contracted militants to carry out the attack with the intent of blaming their opposition for it.

An additional complication to all of this is that Turkey appears to be allied with Russia also, despite its NATO membership. So Russia is aligned with both sides of this fight, not to mention their alliance with Iran, as well, which gives them tremendous control of the area now. And many are asking, how did moving the troops out of Syria benefit the United States at all? Didn’t our adversaries benefit more?

So why do we even care about things happening half a world away and that are so complicated? I will reiterate that we got in this fight because ISIS was causing terrorist attacks on American soil, and as such, they continued to be a national security threat.

President Trump chalked up his action of removing U.S. troops in Syria to that of fulfilling a campaign promise, but even Republicans have been in shock. They agree that Trump should have handled the situation more delicately in order to achieve better diplomatic results. Efforts after the fact by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to clean up the mess have been completely ineffective – the five-day cease-fire that they supposedly established with Turkey didn’t even last one day, and more Kurds have been killed as a result. Some critics have identified Trump’s action in Syria as additional evidence that he, as well, is likely personally aligned with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

Somehow the media has stopped paying as much attention to what is going on in Syria now that the House’s impeachment investigation has gone full-throttle, but things are still a mess there – just like on the Mexican border – and it is just one more example of Trump’s many ill-advised and haphazard actions during his Presidency. Trump’s dealings in the Ukraine is presently the subject of the impeachment investigation. But the results of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference of the 2016 presidential election still beg to be acted upon. And certain House committees likely still have plans to continue their inquiries regarding Trump’s knowledge and involvement in Russia’s interference, not only in 2016, but in the 2020 election, as well. So Russia continues to be an ongoing threat to one of our most sacred democratic functions – the voting of our citizens. And just recently, the British parliament released a report detailing Russia’s meddling in their 2018 election that decided on Brexit, or the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

Can you can see why I pay so much attention to the news right now? There is so much happening, and I am particularly concerned with how these bits of news connect with other previously reported events. To keep track of things, I have been tempted to make a war board on my living room wall, complete with lines of string and thumbtacks, but the effort would be futile. We will spend the next century analyzing things that are happening before our eyes right now, and in 40 years, we will be the witnesses from this time who will tell the next generations what we experienced.

In the movie “The Post,” Meryl Streep’s character Katharine Graham, is the publisher of “The Washington Post” during its release and analysis of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. She says, “You know what my husband said about the news? He called it the first draft of history.”  The media, often referred to as the fourth branch of government, plays an important role in documenting history. They don’t always get it right the first time, but they often do, and in that capacity, they hold people accountable by shining light on their acts.

The consequences surrounding the release and analysis of the Pentagon Papers by the news media is certainly included in most college curriculum in the communications field. The associated Supreme Court decision in The New York Times vs. the United States was a landmark decision that set the course for journalism in the United States regarding what latitude is given for freedom of the press. Yes, it is mentioned in the First Amendment of the Constitution, but this Supreme Courts decision permitted journalists to be critical of the United States’ government.

In one of my favorite quotes ever, Justice Hugo Black states the following in his concurring opinion in the decision: “The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

However, some conservatives disagree with the Court’s findings and believe that our government leaders should be afforded certain protections from the media, and they consider such as an act of patriotism. But should our leaders be given such blind obedience when, more than ever, the media is legitimately unearthing serious corruption? And why is it fair for conservatives to support investigations of liberal politicians and not of conservative ones?

For example, Republican congressmen and women are doing everything they can to discredit the Ukraine investigation and Impeachment hearings, even though Congress is following much the same format as established by former Speaker of the House John Boehner. The format was used in the very partisan Benghazi investigation, where Hillary Clinton was believed – but was never proven – to have helped facilitate the 2012 attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of having a double standard regarding whether they credit or discredit another politician’s statements or platform. Often a congressman will base their opinion on what side of the aisle that the politician sits, and not on anything related to truth versus falsehood. Instead of honesty and integrity, politicians stick to their party narrative in fear that any deviation could leave them without monetary support in the next election.

Party loyalty among Republicans, in particular, has gotten very extreme during the Trump administration. But is maintaining party control worth the health of our country and global status? With President Trump as the current head of the Republican party, congressmen are practically being held hostage with the charge to look past blatant evidence of Trump’s misgivings and inadequacies, all in the name of appearing patriotic.

It is almost a given that President Trump will be impeached by the Democrat-managed House of Representatives, and in quick order – likely before Christmas. But once it is passed to the Republican-controlled Senate for the trial, will Republicans, despite ample evidence of guilt, continue to follow blindly and absolve Trump of his constitutional offenses?

The things we have been taking for granted for decades just may be shifting. Now is the time to pay attention to national politics so that we may continue to have Liberty and Justice For All.

References:
“Line of Separation,” PBS. German mini-series, also known as Tannbach, 2015-2018.

All In with Chris Hayes, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Guest: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Merriam-Webster.com. “Concentration Camp, definition.”

Narea, Nicole. “Stephen Miller promoted white supremacist, anti-immigrant articles in private emails to Breitbart,” Vox.com.

Kanno-Youngs, Zolan. “Squalid Conditions at Border Detention Centers, Government Report Finds,” The New York Times, July 2, 2019.

Ten Boom, Corrie, Sherrill, Elizabeth and John Sherrill. “The Hiding Place,” copyright 1971 and 1984.

Wiesel, Elie and Wiesel, Marion. “Night.” 1956.

“Shindler’s List,” directed by Steven Spielberg, 1994.

Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” 1886.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Cherry Orchard.” 1904.

“The Bible, King James Version,” specifically:
            “the city on a hill” – Matthew 5:14
            “an ensign to the nations” – Isaiah 5:26 and Isaiah11:12

Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King,” Book 5, Ch. 1. 1955.

Kristian, Bonnie. “Does Trump really want to get us out of Syria? Apparently, not so much.” Op-ed, USA Today, Nov. 14, 2019.

Gilsinan, Kathy. “The U.S. Moves Out, and Turkey Moves In,” The Atlantic, October 9, 2019.

DeYoung, Karen, Cunningham, Erin and Fahim, Kareem. “Trump declares victory in northeastern Syria as Russian troops move in,” The Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2019.

“The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg. 2017.

New York Times v. United States, The Supreme Court, Concurrence, Justice Hugo Black.

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