Time to be scared? Let’s hope not

 

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This photo appeared in 1947 Cardinal Pennant, the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin high school annual. These students had hope for world peace. Is that hope dead?

I am as scared today for the future of humankind as I have ever been in my 87 years.

Mind you, I’m not personally scared; I’ve far too few years left for that. My fright, of course, is for our children, grandchildren and the generations to follow.

In three weeks, President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated, elected on a wave of xenophobic sentiment that bodes ill for any form of peace in the world.  He wooed his crowds with promises of tough talk to destroy ISIS (the Islamic State) while welcoming an “arms race” that he says the United States could easily win.  Trump threatens to seriously decrease, and perhaps end, U.S. support and involvement in NATO and the United Nations.

Most seriously, he has called for beefing up our nuclear weapons arsenal, ending a process toward ending nuclear proliferation that began more than thirty years ago in the Reagan Administration and has been embraced as a bipartisan policy of this nation since.  Such action on the part of the United States would certainly lead other nations to do the same and eventually plunge the world into an “arms race” that no nation could win.

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To the present day, the nuclear nonproliferation treaties have stopped nations from developing these devastating weapons, a policy that led to the recent treaty that halted Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons program.  Such world-wide consensus on nuclear weapons (except for the outlaw nations like North Korea) has saved the world from nuclear devastation.

The president-elect further wants to spend billions more on the military and close our borders to all but white Christians and Jews, vows that won wide hoorays from his worshippers.  It appears his goal is to mold the United States into a bunker mentality – a situation of false security.  He’s too young to remember the Maginot Line created by the French after World War I to protect it against invading Germans; the fortress of cannons shooting from concrete bunkers failed miserably in World War II when the Nazis simply maneuvered around it to invade France and march triumphantly down the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Repeatedly, Trump blamed President Obama for creating a “mess” in the world, blaming him for weakness and indecision.

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In this old man’s view, President Obama has done remarkably well in maintaining a modicum of peace in an extremely “messy” world.  We need go back no further to President George W. Bush’s ill-advised Iraq war against non-existent weapons of mass destruction to see that Obama inherited a world in which terrorism would be nutured.  The invasion of Iraq helped to build a sentiment among many Muslims that the United States was engaged in a “holy war,” and became a rallying cry for those terrorists who wished to spread their hate and violence throughout the world.

One can argue with some of the tactics of Obama (his ill-advised drawing of a “red-line” in the Syrian use of chemical weapons, for instance), but if you believe in a peaceful world you can’t argue with his general strategy of building coalitions with like-minded nations to fight terrorism and by seeking to strengthen the United Nations.

Trump’s “go-it-alone” strategy would change all that, forcing this nation to bear even greater military and armament costs, possible loss of military lives and the ill-will of much of the world.

To be sure, Trump is an enigma and has a facile ability to do just the opposite of what he promised.  Maybe all of his bluster and braggadocio was merely campaign talk and he will become a more serious leader; so far, he hasn’t exhibited such a possibility.

Meanwhile, the Far East is in turmoil with a bellicose North Korea, a growing expansionist threat from China and unrest in Malaysia.  President Obama has been seeking to build up our presence in the area and it’s an area we can’t neglect.

On January 20th, our new president will inherit a tense world.  It is my hope for the coming New Year that he will shed his ego, his pettiness and tendency to act without thinking and listen to wiser heads.  In any event, it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to sound off in the best ways we can to head off our new President from his worst nature.

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Seventy years ago, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 – a date that has lived in my mind all these years.  The devastation to that Japanese city was unbelievable to my sixteen-year old mind.  It was then that the possibility of a World War III became unthinkable. In my junior year in high school I joined with about fifteen other kids to form a school-sanctioned chapter of the United World Federalists, then a popular movement that called for ending the nation-state that led to wars.  In its place we believed we should create a “United States of the World,” a one-world government.

While our idealistic dream never came true, it did form the basis for the belief that peace can only come by breaking down borders and by realizing that America may be a “great ” nation, but that it is not the only great nation and that we must learn to live with all the nations of the world.  Donald Trump appears to have different ideas.  I believe I am right to be scared for our nation and our world. — Ken Germanson, Dec. 30, 2016. 

 

 

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Is too much patriotism bad for America?

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem at a  San Francisco 49ers game has caused a broad national debate.

Kaepernick performed his act before thousands of fans and millions on television to bring attention to a particular cause — the ongoing killings of black citizens by police officers throughout the nation.  It did that, of course, but it also has prompted a broader question:  Just exactly what constitutes patriotism and can there be too much patriotism?

Recently and particularly since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation has been subjected to an excess of phony patriotism; American flags are festooned all over the place.  If you’re a candidate running for office, you are constantly flanked by a phalanx of red, white and blue, regardless of your party.  Sporting events of all types are awash in patriotic symbols.

All this flag-waving is much more than an innocent show of patriotism; it reinforces the nationalistic trend that blinds us from the truth and that more often than not colors our thinking about the role of the United States in the world.

Extreme nationalism is dangerous; it leads to dictatorial rule.  Witness how Adolf Hitler stirred up support for the Third Reich and its unconscionable strategies.  He did it with constant showing of the Nazi flag, with rousing patriotic marches and with other reminders of how great that nation was, even when it was slaughtering millions of people.

In more modern times, witness how Kim Jong Un has kept his North Korean people in line with the same kind of imagery.  Just recently the New York Times reported that the Chinese government has required all school children to view a 90-minute documentary on the “Long March” of 1934-36, turning it into a victory for the then-fledgling Communist Party, when it was actually a retreat.  The Chinese government is engaged in a constant propaganda campaign to indoctrinate its citizens.  It’s a reality of all totalitarian governments.

To be sure, the United States is a truly great nation; it’s still among the most powerful in the world, both militarily and economically.  Its success comes from its democratic underpinnings and it is indeed the world’s longest surviving democracy.  But we are wrong to think that the world circulates around us, that we can continue to wall ourselves and act independently, and that our nation always acts in the wisest and most humane way.

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North Korea’s extreme nationalism fuels blind allegiance to their leader.  It is an extreme form of patriotism.

After the end of World War II, a significant number of Americans believed it was important for the U.S. to shed some of its sovereignty and participate in the community of nations.  Some even proposed forming a world federal government, a United States of the World so to speak.  Obviously that never happened, but the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did.  Although the nations retain their sovereignty in both the UN and NATO, the nations often act in a collective spirit.

Today, we live in a world that festers new and different types of terrors; we can’t afford to think the oceans protect us from direct harm in a war, as they did in all our wars up to the 21st Century.  Now the threats can end up in the streets of any community of the nation.  The only way to protect our future is to face the issues honestly and openly.  We need to more fully understand what turns people to terrorism, both at home and abroad.  And we can’t do that without looking at the problems openly and critically.  We can’t afford to be blindfolded by a patriotism that declares:  My country right or wrong!

Yes, we must honor our flag.  It is my hope, however, that as we honor the flag we recognize that we’re honoring a proud nation that has the world’s most diverse population, that it has the strongest and most continuous democracy and that it has achieved unexpected economic successes for its people.  We must also recognize that sometimes our people and our elected leaders have not always done the right thing, that they may have engaged in foreign adventures unwisely and committed cruel and inhumane acts, that we have subjugated whole peoples by removing them from their lands or by supporting slavery and then institutional racism and discrimination.

Colin Kaepernick was being patriotic when he knelt down; he’s telling all of us that we have some ills in our nation and that they must be resolved to save this great nation.

Yes, let’s honor the flag, but let’s do it without being deafened by singing too loudly or blinded by seeing too much, red, white and blue.  Kenneth Germanson, Sept. 26, 2016

Hiroshima: A memory persists for 70 years

Perhaps no date stands out more in my long life than August 6, 1945.  It was two days before my 16th birthday and it had been a warm summer day.  I had biked home, carrying my ragtag golf clubs on my back after playing 27 holes of golf.  It was six o’clock and my parents sat in the living room listening to a news report on radio. They had shocked expressions.

I heard the radio announcer state in somber words, describing “a bomb equivalent in size to 100 blockbusters.” What was that all about? I asked my parents.

My dad said that we (meaning the U.S.) had dropped something called an atomic bomb on a Japanese city called Hiroshima.  “It may mean the end of the war,” he added.

The relief I might have felt by the possible ending of World War II was blunted by my realization that our country had caused terrible devastation, even though at that time I th-2believed, along with just about everyone else that “the Japs deserved it.”  Hadn’t we sung — and hadn’t I plunked out the song on the piano — “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap?”   (I feel shamed today to write “Jap,” but feel it’s needed here to show the tenor of the times.)

The concept of 100 blockbusters blew my mind. That would mean 100 blocks were destroyed by one bomb; the United States had instituted the use of blockbuster bombs on German cities late in the war and it was not until many years later that I learned of the terrible devastation Allied bombers had done to cities like Dresden.

President Obama has announced that he will be visiting Hiroshima at the end of May, the first US president to make such a visit since the tragic bombing more than seventy years ago. A debate has arisen over whether the President should apologize for the devastation.  Whether such an apology is necessary or not, it’s not mine to answer.

There are lessons we should learn from Hiroshima. I remember seeing early news photos from the bombing and noting there was but one relatively tall, slender building still standing among the devastation.

One year later, one of our next-door neighbor’s sons showed snapshots he had taken while in Hiroshima as a member of an army occupational force.  Even though his black-th-3and-white photos were of the tiny-size typical of the era, the impact couldn’t have been more striking.  There, standing like a lone sentinel was the same singular building amid the rubble, a tragic symbol of the bombing that cost some 200,000 lives.

More than anything else the killing of those Japanese citizens, including many women and children, dramatized the terrible losses that are foisted upon all of us by war.  A scene from Erich Maria Remarque’s famous book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has further pointed toward the terrible foolishness of war.  That book, written from a German soldier’s point of view during the First World War, has the hero seeking shelter in a bomb crater and finding a dying French soldier in the same shelter.  After a few tense moments, the French soldier dies.  Guiltily, the German soldier searches the dead man’s pockets, finding a wallet, containing a small picture of a smiling woman and a young child.  It was obviously the man’s family, a family not much unlike his own.  The German solder cries.

Some of us hoped immediately after World War II that we could take steps to end the terrible nationalism that brought about the wars of that Century; why not form a federal world government — modeled after the U.S. Constitution that in 1787 developed a process to bring together our disparate states into a central government that could ensure peace between the states?  The dream failed, though a hamstrung United Nations emerged.

Wars haven’t ended; in fact today’s world is spawning an epidemic of violence.  Now, however, added to the fear of one nation fighting another, we have tribes and terror groups that know no borders engaged in hateful killing sprees.

Those of us who preach peace and urge restraint on “revenge” and “retribution” are castigated as being “weak” and “dreamers.”  Let’s reject that: we recognize the need to sometimes bear arms to enforce peace, but we must resist the inclinations — so often stirred by ambition politicians — to act first in starting a fight, to use a pledge of “making America great again” as an excuse to start bombing again — and killing many innocents along the way.  Ken Germanson, May 15, 2016.

An incident on the Lakeshore Limited

It was surreal, almost like a scene from a World War II movie in which trains are stopped and troopers run down the aisles checking everyone’s papers.  I was awoken from a fitful sleep by the squawking of some radio message and the clumping of shoes in the wee hours of the morning on Train No. 49 – the Lakeshore Limited from New York’s Penn Station on a 20-hour trip to Chicago.  I squinted up to see a large man in a dark green uniform shirt stomp down the aisle, his police radio loud in my ears.  I muttered to myself “what’s that idiot doing awakening this whole car?”  I looked out the window, could see a sign showing Rochester, realizing the train had stopped at this aging New York State community to take on passengers.  My watch said 1:20; it was Monday, July 25.

Soon I heard more commotion, and a voice from the front of the railroad coach saying “Are you a U.S.citizen?”  There was a grunted reply, and then another request, apparently of some other passenger, “Are you a U.S.citizen?” And on and on down the car.

By the time a couple of the uniformed folks got near me, I could see emblazoned in yellow, “U S Border Patrol” on the back of the dark green shirts.

They didn’t awaken everyone; they skipped me!  I’m a very white old guy; they tend to leave us alone.  But trains these days are full of people who speak little or no English and apparently don’t look “American,” whatever that is supposed to mean these days

What were the “past-midnight” marauders up to, I wondered.  The tones of their voices were authoritative, but not particularly nasty.  Nonetheless it was a shock to see how they roamed the aisles randomly awakening passengers with the question, “Are you a U.S.citizen?”

How pervasive, I wondered, is this new U.S.mentality prompted by fear to assure no one is here illegally and perhaps ready to cause mayhem?  We were in Rochester, New York, nearly a hundred miles from the U.S.-Canadian border and I wondered what the U.S. Border Patrol hoped to find on Train No. 49.

It got me to thinking that we have become a nation that is accepting of more and more police-state actions.  It appears too that President Barack Obama has done little to alter the course of begun in the Bush years, and, in fact, may be intensifying them, much to the chagrin of those of us who felt Obama’s more enlightened ways would curb this readiness to step up surveillance of our people.

To me, at least, the appearance of the Border Patrol on Train No. 49 in the early hours of July 25 was most alarming indeed and a sad portent of where this nation has been going.  – Ken Germanson, July 27, 2011.

NOTE:  After I wrote the blog, I decided to query the U.S. Border Patrol, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.  The Patrol maintains a quality website and even invites complaints.  So I queried them raising the question of why such searches were necessary.  Less than two hours later, I got a long response, part of which I reproduce here:

“Border Patrol checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool for securing the Nation’s borders against all threats to our homeland. The National Strategy recognizes that control of the border cannot be achieved by merely enforcing at the line and therefore includes a substantial defense-in-depth component. We will not be able to achieve control of the border unless our apprehensions demonstrate the futility of attempting to enter the United States illegally in the first instance. For that reason, some of our enforcement actions will take place away from the physical border, at interior checkpoints, and lateral from those checkpoints. . .

“All persons, baggage, and other merchandise arriving in or leaving the United States are subject to inspection and search by CBP officers and agents. Various laws (including 8 United States Code (U.S.C.) § 1357, 19 U.S.C. §§ 482, 1581, 1582) enforced by CBP authorize such searches. . . All Border Patrol checkpoints operate in accordance with the Constitution of the United States and governing judicial rulings. . .

“Thank you for your consideration when traveling through a Border Patrol checkpoint. We appreciate your cooperation in allowing us to continue to safeguard our Nation’s borders.”

You are welcome to draw your own conclusions.