Wednesday, March 22, 2006

the air of atrocity

It is the air of atrocity
An event as ordinary
As a president

A plume of smoke, visible at a distance,
In which people burn.
--from Of Being Numerous, George Oppen, 1968

Monday, March 20, 2006

of monuments, money and the fall of man

The Paradise Post would have had a field day.
Evicted From Eden!
heavenly host pushes primeval pair from Paradise;
celestial court says pilfering fruit violates terms of creation

There’s trouble in Paradise.
The world’s first residents were ejected from Eden yesterday. Adam and Eve, the original homo sapiens, were pushed from their house by a phalanx of angry angels and ordered never to return to the garden they have called home since six days after the creation of the universe.
The heavenly marshals arrived at dawn with papers stating that Adam and Eve were being dispossessed for taking fruit from a tree at the center of the garden, and stood guard as workers tore down the couple’s stick, mud, and grass dwelling.
Standing silently before the remnants of the hut he had built for his family—the first human habitation ever constructed—Adam grunted and pointed at his wife when asked why they had been sent packing.
“This is absolutely unfair,” Eve said as she picked through the debris for objects that could be used again. “The garden was almost abandoned when we got here. The idea that anyone owns this land, or the fruit on the trees, is insane. We have lived here almost since the beginning of time.”
As night fell, the couple was at work on a new structure just outside the garden. They said they hoped to be moved in before sunrise.
In addition to eviction, the judicial commandment against the couple also called for the earth to be cursed for all time. The owner of Eden, an absentee landlord, could not be reached for comment.
The fall of man was a landlord-tenant dispute.

I thought of this over the past week as I read about the clash between politicos, a public agency, and a developer over the future of Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center towers, which collapsed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York City on September 11, 2001.

We the people of New York (and the nation) are the victims of a fundamental category error. We are acting as if real estate development is in the public interest.

Of course, that’s what developers and public agencies enamored of real estate would have us believe. It’s what they say in their carefully couched press briefings and public appearances.

I’ve got one word for them: Fuhgeddaboudit.

A developer exists for one reason only: to make money on his deals. I don’t care what a mensch developer Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease on the Trade Center site, may be in his private life. The guy is in the business of making money. That’s why he pursued double indemnity for his insurance settlement. And it’s why he’s playing hardball now.

Similarly, a public agency doesn’t get involved in real estate development unless it, too, is interested in money. That’s why the Port Authority started planning to build the towers back in the 1960s. The idea: bring high end offices to the lower end of Manhattan Island, prime the pump, make money (and, in the process, destroy Radio Row, a great and historic area whose only sin was that it offered limited opportunities for making maximum profits.) And that's why they want to rebuild now.

Here’s a quote from Reuters about last week’s squabble: “At issue is who will build which skyscrapers at the site to replace the lost 10 million square feet (930,000 square metres) of lost office space, what rent to charge, and how to divide up Silverstein's $4.6 billion in insurance proceeds.” In addition, the news agency wrote, “A deal is crucial to Silverstein getting $3.4 billion in tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, half each from the state of New York and New York City, which he needs to finance the project.”

This is not about September 11, 2001. It is not about tragedy or terrorism or heroism or consecrating ground that served as a mass grave for 2,749 innocent people, or anything remotely humane. It is about buildable square feet. The redevelopment of the World Trade Center site is nothing more than a real estate deal. And real estate deals are not about higher human emotions. They are about profit.

If the public wants a memorial or, indeed, anything that upholds values more lasting than the Almighty dollar, then let’s take this parcel out of the hands of real estate types. The fall of man hinged on much less.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Law of War and Peace

A centuries old text may not seem like the best tool for present-day political analysis. But when I cracked the covers of The Law of War and Peace, by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Hugo Grotius, originally published in 1625, his words seemed hyper-modern and specially constructed to address the situation that exists right now in Iraq.

Unlike most of today’s public figures, Grotius did not glorify military matters. He understood that there was little noble about armed conflict. “War,” he wrote with characteristic candor, “is not one of the honest crafts. Rather it is a thing so horrible that nothing but absolute necessity or true affection can make it honorable.”

In his tome, Grotius tackled a thorny ethical issue that dogs us in Iraq: can a war be considered just? If there’s to be an answer, Grotius argued, the reasons for the war had to be fully aired. This is because the consequences of pitched battle “are so grave as to require more than plausible reasons for war. The reasons should be evident to everybody.” This ancient analyst said it simply wasn’t right for a nation to go to war without persuasive evidence of an enemy’s wrongdoing: “A man who knows his cause is just but who has not documents sufficient to convince the possessor of the injustice of his position may not on that account legitimately go to war.”

The bogus claim about yellow cake from Niger? The spurious story that Saddam Hussein had a chemical arsenal that could be deployed in 45 minutes? The non-existent connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein? There seems little doubt: to Grotius, these busted justifications would make this war illegitimate.

The Law of War and Peace also offers some clear-headed ideas about occupation. Here, Grotius quotes the great Latin orator Cicero: “If, under the pressure of circumstances, individuals promise something, even to an enemy, their promise should be kept exactly.”

The U.S. has promised lots of things. We promised Iraqis a better life, with stability, services, security, civil rights and democracy. Even the Bush Administration has acknowledged that we haven’t yet succeeded in keeping those promises. We promised the world that we would respect human rights. Yet we have suspended habeas corpus (the right of a prisoner to confront the charges against him or her, which has been on the books in English-speaking lands since at least 1305), we have maligned the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture of prisoners, as quaint and outmoded, and we have put forth the notion that our government can spy on citizens without a warrant. We promised that we would tell the truth even if it wasn’t pretty. Yet our leaders continued to declare that we do not torture even as the photos from Abu Ghraib and descriptions of conditions in the prion at Guantanamo were beamed across the planet. We promised that we understood the responsibility of taking over another country. Yet, to this day, no major commander or administration official has accepted responsibility for our shortcomings in Iraq.

Small wonder, then, that we are increasingly viewed as occupiers rather than liberators—even by people who suffered under Saddam’s brutal regime. And small wonder that the insurgency seems to be able to operate with impunity, no matter how many thousands we throw in jail. As it says in the Bible (Proverbs 18:19), “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city.”

March 19th will be the third anniversary of the day we began the bombing of Baghdad. We tore through the country. By April 9, 2003, American Marines were helping Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. And on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush rushed onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce the end of major combat operations. In the three years of this war, more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers have died and more than 16,000 have been injured. More than 30,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the conflict began.

Grotius had strong words to characterize a leader who wades into war without sufficient justification, words that apply to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, and all the others who brought us to this point: “A king who goes to war for light causes, or in order to exact unnecessary penalties involving serious risks, is responsible to his subjects for repairing the damage resulting therefrom. For he committed a true crime, if not against his enemy, yet against his own people, by dragging them on slight excuse into so dire a calamity.”

--Robert Neuwirth