Friday, July 29, 2005

The Politics of Hope, and the Hope of Politics

Act I: On the Wings of Discovery

While the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery went smoothly this week, it now appears that a piece of foam may have struck the wing of the orbiter, causing damage similar to that which caused the breakup of Columbia two and a half years ago. After countless modifications to the design, this just shows how much of space travel is beyond our control. NASA is traveling in a medium that we only have half a century's experience in. Clearly we have a long way to go and a lot left to learn.

But the crew of Discovery is not afraid. They are inspecting the shuttle for serious damage, testing new procedures, and conducting the mission that they were sent into space to conduct. They are following in the footsteps of great men and women who traveled into space before them, and carry the hopes of every child who wants to grow up to be an astronaut. The world is watching, and I am confident NASA and the crew of Discovery will rise to the occasion and the crew and the orbiter will return safely to the Earth.

For more on Discovery’s mission, go to NASA's "Return to Flight" page.

Act II: Frist's First

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced on the floor of the Senate today that he has changed his previous position and now supports opening more lines and allowing more federal funding for stem cell research. This marks a major break between Frist and President Bush, who adamantly opposes any increases in federal funding for this groundbreaking and critical research. Frist, a surgeon by trade, has realized that research on stem cells is a moral imperative, and that, as a physician, he has no other choice than to help people live longer, healthier lives any way he can.

President Bush has threatened to veto any modification to his 2001 limitations on funding for the research. But in losing his strongest ally on the matter on Capitol Hill, he now has to rethink his position. Senator Frist has taken a brave step, and while some might question his motives, as he is a potential 2008 presidential candidate, I do not. Instead, I see this decision as a doctor staying true to the oath he took, and I commend Senator Frist on his declaration of support.

Act III: Hope Springs Eternal

And, finally, we come to Great Britain. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in London, the Irish Republican Army has announced that it will completely disarm and has asked its volunteers to turn over weapons. After 35 years of armed conflict to try to force Northern Ireland out of Great Britain, the IRA has formally ended its armed campaign and will engage in negotiations. The prospects for peace on the Emerald Isle are better now than they have ever been, and the work done and the accords signed in recent years are finally coming to fruition.

The peaceful end to this long and bitter struggle gives hope to those of us who look forward to the day when all similar armed struggles will end, and the prospects for peace everywhere are improved and their potential realized. This goes for Israel, Sri Lanka, and everywhere else in the world where violence, war, and terrorism are daily facts of life. Hopefully the IRA disarmament is not the exception, but instead that we can look forward to peace in all of these areas soon, so that everyone can go about their daily lives without the fear of terrorism and without the strain of civil war.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

With Eyes Turned to the Heavens

And once again, we look towards the sky. After a long delay since the last shuttle launch, NASA has put human beings into space. All systems have been checked, both previously known and newly discovered problems have been fixed, and NASA can resume its mission and again explore the final frontier.

Space exploration is the only way to answer so many of our most fundamental questions. Where did we come from? Where are we going? How did this accident that we call life occur on this random rock that we call Earth? The answers are out there, and the only way to get them is to send a satellite to study the sun, a probe to crash into a comet, and human beings to go into space. The only way to see what is out there is to actually go there. There is no other option.

For nearly 50 years, we have been exploring space. Starting from the humble beginnings of Sputnik and the early Mercury launches, we now have satellites that have left the solar system and men that have landed on the moon. Yet we have so much more to learn, and so much further to go. The Hubble Space Telescope has taken the clearest pictures yet of the distant universe, looking not only out into space but back into time. We have seen the birth and death of stars and discovered new planets. But this is only the beginning. The Hubble needs to be replaced with a more powerful telescope before it is retired, and even then it should only be retired when it is no longer useful.

Space exploration is filled with dangers and its history is marked with failures. The first attempted launch of an American satellite never got off the ground. The first manned Apollo mission ended in flames. The third planned moon landing nearly ended in disaster. And, of course, there are the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia. But what all of the victims and near-victims of these disasters have in common, other than their drive to explore beyond our world, is the drive that exploration should not end with their death. They went out into the great unknown, and would want others to follow them.

Today, after an additional delay due to a faulty fuel sensor, Discovery lifted off the launch pad. It will dock with the International Space Station, taking much needed supplies to the crew that has been living there, and perform scientific experiments and tests of new shuttle procedures before it touches down. NASA has worked for two and a half years to make this mission as safe as it can be, and the final delay shows how seriously NASA is taking every possible issue that crops up, but even so, space flight is inherently dangerous. The crew knows this, and yet they are flying into space anyway.

No matter what happens on this mission, and all hopes and expectations are that it will be safe and successful, we can never stop exploring and never stop learning. Be it in shuttles, space stations, or something as yet untested, we must continue to fly beyond Earth and out into the great expanse of space. There is no other option for a species that has a higher consciousness. We have to explore, to learn, to know.

Good luck and godspeed to NASA and the crew of Discovery. Come home safely with the proof that we can still bring astronauts safely to the Earth, and with the message that we have to keep looking for more and can never be satisfied with what we know right now.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Words and (Hypothetical) Deeds

Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo on Friday deplorably undermined the United States when he painted the war on terrorism as a war on Islam. Speaking on a talk show in Florida, Tancredo said that if the United States were attacked with nuclear weapons, and if it was determined that "extremist, fundamentalist Muslims" were responsible for the attack, then the United States could "take out" Islam's holy places, including the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Time and time again the war on terrorism has been stressed as not a war on Islam or on Muslims. The terrorists who committed the attacks of September 11, 2001 were just as he put it, extremists. Attacking Mecca because of the actions of a radical fringe group of Muslims is just as deplorable as incarcerating Japanese Americans was during World War II. Mecca is the holiest site in Islam for all Muslims, including those who live in the United States and want nothing more than to go about their daily lives. Osama Bin Laden's followers make up only a tiny fraction of the worldwide Muslim population. It goes against the very nature of the United States to punish the entire Muslim community for the actions of a few extremists.

This is not to say that there should be no response in the event of this kind of attack. The United States would have to respond, and bring those responsible to justice. Those who planned, financed, advised, aided, abetted, and carried out an attack should be captured, brought to the United States, stand before a judge, face a jury, have a fair, public trial, and sentenced to a prison term that will have them locked up for the rest of their lives in a federal prison. But their families, their friends, and their fellow Muslims are off limits. The Constitution expressly forbids punishing a family for the crimes of one of its members. We would deny our own identity if we resorted to this extreme measure to punish what would be a relatively small number of people who attack our country.

In addition, if the United States were to attack Mecca, we would quickly have on our hands a crime to fit our punishment. All over the world, Muslims would be united against America, and we would truly have a holy war on our hands, and this time it may even be on legitimate grounds. If the war on terrorism became a war on Islam, as the bombing of Mecca would indicate, then we would be justifying Osama Bin Laden, and the September 11 attacks, as well as this theoretical future attack, would look like a small riot in comparison with the world-wide bloodshed that would follow.

Congressman Tancredo tried to walk back his comments, saying he was speaking hypothetically, but a four-term Congressman should know better. His words mean something, not only to his district in Colorado, but to the entire country and the world at large. Words like these seem to justify the very hate that brings about the terrorism we are trying to fight. Congressman Tancredo should be ashamed of what he has said. His so-called explanation has left a lot wanting. His words portray him as an out-of-touch extremist filled with hate.

There is no appropriate time to speak about bombing Mecca, just as there is no appropriate to speak about bombing Jerusalem, just as there is no appropriate time to speak about bombing Washington. And beyond all of this, there is never a time when these words should be translated into deeds.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Moral Research for the Majority

In dealing with abortion and the Terry Schiavo case, the Bush Administration and conservatives in Congress speak volumes on the so-called "culture of life." They conveniently forget about that claim, however, when given the opportunity to improve the quality of life for countless Americans and millions more around the world. Stem cell research holds the promise of a better future for all of us, but it is very likely that, even if a bill currently under consideration passes the Senate, President Bush will veto it, leaving science without federal funding for this supremely important, cutting-edge research.

It is especially important for those who are suffering from diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. It is not just the individual who suffers, but it is the families who often suffer even more. Alzheimer's disease is a terrible thing to watch a family member go through. As the mind disappears, it is so frustrating to see the shell of what should still be a great man reduced to the mental capacities of a small child. We all take for granted the ability to control our bodies, but the patient with Parkinson’s does not have that luxury. There are other diseases and conditions that stem cell research has the potential to find a cure for. Among them are diabetes, some spinal cord injuries, and some types of cancer.

How can the President and Congress deny these people the chance at a cure? The "culture of life" should go beyond simply preserving life at any cost. Instead, it should be focused on improving the quality of life, and should try to better the lives that already exist. While it will take more than the stroke of a pen to cure these diseases, it is an extremely important step. Federal funding will allow the research to make great leaps forward and bring us so much closer to the day when we will not have to worry about watching a grandparent disappear into a fog or a friend lose control of his body.

The Senate needs to pass the Harkin-Specter bill on stem cell research, and President Bush needs to sign it. There is no other moral option, and if the President wants to make a claim that he is doing his best to improve the every day lives of the American people, he has to take this concrete step that will provide funding to this groundbreaking research.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Half a World Away, and Yet so Close to Home

I am consistently amazed by my personal experience of locations where events around the world take place. A suicide bomber murdered four people and wounded 90 others in the Israeli city of Netanya today. While it has been posted on various news web sites, America for the large part has ignored this type of attack since the war in Iraq began. While the Israeli peace process is still said to be important to this country, very often it is ignored and relegated to the back burner in the field of foreign policy. Of course it is true that a war that has American troops in harm's way should take precedence in our government over another country's security, but the security of Israel is and should be linked with the security of the United States.

Israel sits on one of the most inhospitable strips of land in the world, and has thrived in the region. It is a beautiful land, rich in history and culture. It is the center of the three great western religious movements, and, until the recent elections in Iraq, the only democracy in the Middle East. For nearly 60 years, Israel's single goal has been survival. Everything else has been secondary and subordinate to this one thing. To this end, Israel has pursued peace with its neighbors as well as with the Palestinians, and has offered everything that has ever been asked of it, only to have the offer thrown back in its face and rejected.

The bombing in Netanya today strikes especially close to home for me. Five years ago I spent six weeks in Israel, traveling around the country getting to know the culture and history personally. I spent a long weekend in Netanya, including a good amount of time at that same shopping mall, and am struck by the prospect that for at least the third time in my life, I have personal experience at a place that has seen an attack of one sort or another. Shortly after I returned home from Israel in August of 2000, the second major Palestinian uprising against Israel began. A news clip showed a group of youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem at an intersection that I recognized as being about a block from a hotel where I had spent over a week that summer. In June of 2001, I took a tour of the Pentagon, and walked around the hallways of the Department of Defense headquarters. We all remember what happened there less than three months later. Now I read about the bombing in Netanya at a place that I can picture with complete clarity in my mind.

Israel has been living with this kind of attack on almost a daily basis for close to its entire history. We in the west have only started to experience it on a larger scale for the last decade. The solution is to be vigilant, to watch for attacks, to be careful, but most importantly, to continue and maintain our way of life, and not to have the reaction that they are going for, namely to instill terror in all of us. We can find their leaders and freeze their funding, but in the last analysis the only way to end terrorism long-term is to capture the hearts and minds. The vast majority of Arabs want peace with Israel. The vast majority of Muslims want the United States as an ally. The vast majority of the followers of Islam in Great Britain just want to go about their daily lives. The few who actually want to conduct terrorism will die out. The hope is that we do not lose the next generation of minds to terrorism and extremism.

"Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost." – Abraham Lincoln.

Friday, July 8, 2005

On Open Society

On June 7, terrorists attacked London's mass transit system. Three bombs were detonated in the subway, and another destroyed a double-decker commuter bus. The attacks are deplorable. While they are on a smaller scale, and, thankfully, fewer people were killed, the attacks are no different than the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. A faceless enemy struck a vulnerable city center, killing indiscriminately and grinding the city to a halt.

Hopefully, however, this is where the similarities end and the stories of September 11 and June 7 diverge. Hopefully our friends in Great Britain will learn from the disastrous mistakes that the Bush administration, aided and abetted by the Republican-controlled Congress, has been shoving down the throats of the American people over the last four years. The Patriot Act, habeas corpus violations, and military tribunals have been hallmarks of this administration that is driven to "protect" us from anything, including ourselves and our neighbors.

This is not how a free society operates, and this is how terrorists win. When we change the very foundations of our society, when we give up those very rights and freedoms that they were trying to attack, when we give in to the fear, to the terror, that they tried to implant in us, then we are letting the terrorists win. Spying on the American people, be it through library records, phone taps, or any other totalitarian method, takes away from what we stand for. America should stand for freedom of speech and of thought, as well as freedom from fear and from tyranny. America should not be about authority and power, except for the power to persuade that comes from being honest, open, and respected.

Britain, and specifically Tony Blair, is now in the unenviable position of having to make decisions about the security of the citizens of his country. He has to decide if he will follow a model of freedom, or the model of the United States. I wish that these were the same, or at least similar, but this administration has denied all of us that. Britain now needs to lead the way in showing how a democracy responds to terrorists. Increase security in the subway, but do not go digging into personal records.

There are risks that have to be run in order to have an open society. One of these risks is that people from all over can come into the society and change it. Sometimes, as in the case of Congressman Tom Lantos of California, who came from Europe and today chairs the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, these changes are for the better. Sometimes, as in the case of terrorist attacks, they are for the worse. But an open society has to take the bad with the good. The only other option is to change the very nature of the society, and to become something that we have always fought against. The Bush administration made the wrong choice for the United States. Hopefully Tony Blair will make the right one for Great Britain.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Musings and Philsophy for July 5

"I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other." – Napoleon Bonaparte

Revealing the name of a CIA agent sentences that agent, as well as any secret contact they may have had, to death. Causing someone to be unjustly executed is also a capital offense. Being against capital punishment, I think it is fair to be merciful and to sentence Karl Rove to life in prison. Of course, everyone knows that a presidential pardon is probably already written and sitting in Bush's desk drawer, but at least someone responsible will answer for it. Maybe now Rove will back the idea of a journalist's right to keep his sources private.

"Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." – Benjamin Franklin

The USA Patriot Act is showing its true colors as a war on Americans. Richard Kreimer, a homeless man, has filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey suburb saying that they used the Patriot Act as an excuse to evict him from the train station where he was sleeping. Already an unconstitutional, anti-American piece of legislation that violates our most fundamental rights, the Patriot Act is now taking us another step closer to a totalitarian government, spying on its citizens and preying on the weak.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." – Nelson Mandela

Commercials over the weekend coinciding with, and having the same goal as, the Live 8 concert series featured Nelson Mandela speaking to a crowd about debt relief and aid to Africa. "We know what to do, and how much it will cost," he said. Mandela is a great world leader, and a man who has dedicated his life to the betterment of those around him. We can only hope that the world leaders meeting this week in Scotland at the G8 Summit listen to him and pledge the aid needed. The richest owe a debt to the poorest. We can and must spend the money and send the aid. To borrow from the Declaration of Independence, whose anniversary we celebrated yesterday, nothing less than our sacred honor is at stake.

"Justice is rather the activity of truth, than a virtue in itself." – Horace Walpole

President Bush now has the opportunity to nominate a new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Bust has repeatedly declared his admiration for Justices Scalia and Thomas, the most conservative members of the Court. Instead of following this line, Bush should look to Earl Warren as the ideal justice. A man of vision and daring, Warren presided over many of the greatest moral decisions the Supreme Court has ever made, including the landmark Brown v. Board decision in 1954. Oh, and by the way, Earl Warren was a conservative Republican from California appointed by President Eisenhower.

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." – Galileo Galilei

On July 4, NASA successfully crashed a probe into a comet to learn more about the origins of our solar system. Another success for the oft-ridiculed agency deserves accolades and applause. Revealing our past can help us learn about the future. Where we come from can help point us to where we are going. Hopefully more successes will be forthcoming, and NASA can return to the prominence it had in the heyday of Apollo success.

America has come a long way in 229 years. Our nation was founded on the ideals of freedom and justice. There are people who work every day for these causes, and towards furthering freedom around the world. We stand in the shadows of great men and women who have gone before and worked to bring us to where we are today. I only hope that it does not all come undone before our eyes, and that we can, in the words of the Constitution, "secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."