Category Archives: Essays

“Hi We’re from the Government, We’re Here to Help You”

Yesterday the President announced a new executive order “to promote information-sharing within the private sector and with the government” around cybersecurity (I HATE that term).

I work in the private sector he’s talking about and have for nearly 20 years now. And I’ve seen and been part of a lot of really important collaboration and information sharing between government agencies and the private sector.

So I generally think this sort of thing is a good thing. The bad guys of all stripes always benefit when dealing with divided defenders.

But I don’t think this can and will be as successful as it could be or needs to be.

Because the fact is that in the security and privacy community, there’s a lot of lingering suspicion and bad feeling around the activities that government agencies are alleged to have engaged in as a result of the Snowden disclosures.

Information sharing will only happen and so only works where there’s trust. And a lot of people I know in the security and privacy space lost a lot of trust in the US government in the wake of those claims.

And that trust hasn’t been rebuilt or regained at all because there still hasn’t been an upfront discussion about what is and isn’t going on. And in that vacuum, a lot of people are assuming the worst, rightly or wrongly.

I’ve taken a very moderate stance on this all myself. I’ve worked with some very good people with intelligence backgrounds so don’t fall into the facile “the NSA is evil camp”. But I also don’t fall into the other, “the NSA can do no wrong” camp either. My views are more nuanced with an underlying respect, gratitude and appreciation for those people willing to do hard, thankless work to protect us (having done a lot of that myself).

Regardless of my own views on this all though, the fact remains that for any information sharing program to succeed, there has to be trust. And it’s hard to argue there’s trust to fuel information sharing when one of the biggest, most important players is involved in a lawsuit to prevent having to disclose information it believes it shouldn’t have to.

In the end, it’s too bad because the horrible way the Snowden disclosures have been handled in terms of a response will undermine what is an important initiative that ultimately will benefit everyone.

This is yet another example that how you handle and respond to what you do is at least (if not more) important than what you do itself.

A Trip to the Doctor

Or, more accurately, the local urgent care clinic.

I had to make a trip there today to get looked at for the latest crud that I’ve been battling for the last week.

My check-in was a good example of how you have to be assertive to protect your security and privacy these days. Sometimes, very uncomfortably so.

While I was doing the usual check-in paperwork, the admissions clerk asked me, “Can I get your driver’s license to scan please?”

I asked, “why do you need that?”

She replied, “Because the copy we have is expired.”

I looked puzzled and she rotated her monitor for me to see the black and white scanned copy of my old, expired license.

It’s been years since I’ve been here, but I don’t remember them ever telling me they were taking a scan of my driver’s license on check-in. Probably one time when I was sick I wasn’t paying enough attention to ask my usual “Why do you need it, what are you going to do with it” questions.

I explained to her that I wasn’t comfortable with her taking a scan. I was happy, I said, to show it to them, but not to retain a copy.

She then said that the point was to protect my identity. I said, I understand but holding that information is itself a threat to my identity. I said, when this clinic’s information is stolen like Anthem’s was it will be harder to steal my identity since they won’t have my drivers’ license.

She said she understood and we moved on in the check-in process.

Later, I was chatting about identity theft to try and lighten things after having to say “no”. While we were talking she told me how she was herself the victim of identity theft. Someone stole mail out of her mailbox and was able to steal her identity. She said it was finally cleared up but it took years and included a knock at the door at 3AM from a sheriff looking to serve a warrant on her meant for the identity thief.

It was a good exercise in real world security and privacy protection. It underscores how you have to be active and sometimes push back, even to the point of seeming like you’re being difficult. It underscores too how you have to always be paying attention since I can’t recall how they got my old driver’s license into the system in the first place. And it also shows that identity theft is very real, very prevalent, very hard to untangle, and has nasty consequences. Finally, it reminds me that we can’t just focus on the digital side of things. Physical mail theft and phone scams are old but still delivering; so they’re still active threats.

It really reinforces the fact that I think real-time identity theft monitoring and monthly checking of accounts and records are critical for all of us.

It really is dangerous out there. It really is hard to do the right thing, even when you know what it is.

At least some of us have job security.

Meet Michael Nyman

As we get back into the swing of things, today we’re reviving the “Treasures” category.

The point of posts in this category is to share things that I have found on my journeys that are special, beautiful,  or unexpected. In short, they’re true treasures that I have found that others may not be aware of.

One way in which I view this blog as a “travel blog of music”.

Today’s treasure is one that I found over twenty years ago: the modern British composer Michael Nyman.

I first discovered Michael Nyman when I went to see the film “Prospero’s Books” on my wife’s suggestion. We had recently arrived in Seattle and she saw a new Peter Greenaway film was playing and suggested that we go. I admit, I didn’t know who Greenaway was at the time. I’d heard of “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” but didn’t associate the name Greenaway with it. But I was game to try something new, especially if it was “arty”.

My experience of “Prospero’s Books” is still one of the most amazing and profound film experiences. The combination of Shakespeare’s text from “The Tempest”, the stunning visual elements, the acting of Gielgud (bravo to a man at his age being game to take his clothes off for the film) and most of all, the music.

It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And, to quote Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” talking about Beethoven’s Ninth: “Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”

I had to know what that music was and who it was by.

I was lucky that the local video and record/CD store (remember it was 1991!) had a copy of the soundtrack on CD. I snapped it up and started listening to it regularly.

So I met Michael Nyman for the first time.

Typical for me, I would learn what I could about him (much harder in those days before the Internet as we know it). I came to learn that he had been a music critic who took up the challenge of “I’d like to see you do better” by those he critiqued.

Nyman’s style combines so-called minimalist elements with jazz and especially Baroque elements. Purcell in particular plays an important role as an influence in some of his work. Perhaps more than other modern composers, you can get a clear sense that Nyman views himself as part of a long musical tradition and shows it. He’s not looking to distance himself from that tradition but instead be a part of it. And that tradition includes the innovations of the last century including jazz. In that way, Nyman is, in my opinion, a healer of the divides that have riven concert music since the end of the Romantic period.

To that last point, perhaps the greatest thing that Nyman has done is make this music after the era of modernism listenable once again. Nyman is capable of some amazingly beautiful, lyrical pieces. His work for the film “The Piano” is a good example of that. I find it interesting to note that if you know that piece well and watched the old dubbed Japanese Iron Chef (before they changed the music) you’d notice that they use his music from the piano while showcasing the dishes.

If you haven’t gotten to know Michael Nyman, you should take the time. As is typical of British composers, he’s not well-known and not given the credit that he’s due. He’s a true musical treasure and as you get to know his work more and more, you’ll love it and him more and more.

Profile in Courage: Winston Churchill

Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep admiration of Winston Churchill.

Not for the obvious reason that he led Britain against Germany in the darkest times of World War II (though that is definitely admirable).

Rather, it’s because I feel a lot of affinity for the man. He battled moods that would cripple lesser people (he referred to it as his “black dog”). Indeed, prior to returning to lead Britain in World War II, he’d spent a decade in what he would call “the wilderness”: rejected and on outs because no one wanted to hear the unpleasant, inconvenient truths he was speaking. This was a time of great depression and difficulty for him.

He also was a gifted writer and speaker. Indeed, he won the Nobel Prize for literature for his history of World War II, which he wrote after once again being unceremoniously dumped out of office by the very people whom he saved.

Churchill understood the need to struggle and fight and never give up. As a master of the turn of phrase, he described the sort of daily struggle I sometimes feel very eloquently. “When you’re in Hell,” he said, “you might as well keep moving”. He also would describe the importance of forward motion in hard times with the phrase “KBO” for “Keep Buggering On”. Again, meaning that you keep moving forward.

When I was in graduate school, I had a classmate who was older than me and British. He talked about a conversation he has with his mother who had been in Britain during the war. He asked her about the speeches from Churchill on the radio, asking if they were as inspiring then as they are now. No, she said, they weren’t inspiring: they scared the hell out of her. Because they didn’t know how it was going to end, unlike us.

That is a telling thing: it underscores the strength and courage he had: to look into the abyss where there is rightly no hope and to continue onward. I myself believe that ultimately that strength was honed first and foremost in the crucible of himself and his struggles with mood.

My wife got me a bust of Churchill many years ago. Actually had it shipped from Britain. It sits on my desk. It’s the only statue I have. And it’s a reminder to me that strength and courage come from not giving up, from geting up every day and battling onward. And it reminds me that writers can be warriors too. Indeed, some of the best writers are warriors of a kind.

In writing this, I happend on a lovely homage to Churchill as a role model for leadership and life courage. It’s a nice article but most of all, it’s about the importance of having the courage to look square on at the scary things and not flinch, but instead to move forward. Much like I wrote before, the importance of moving towards your fears.

In closing, it seems most appropriate to let the man speak for himself. This is the famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.

But before you listen, try to put yourself in the place of my classmate’s mother. Pretend that you hear this not knowing how this will all end. Understand that this speech was to tell the people of Britain of the disaster of Dunkirk and the ejection of all British forces from the European continent. Realize that the next step everyone thought was coming was the German invasion of Britain. And so, when he says”we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills” you hear the real possibility that within six months time, you and your loved ones will be seeing German soldiers marching through London, York, Manchester. And there will be fighting and blood and death in those streets. And all you know and hold dear may be at risk of loss and death.

Paint that picture and then listen. And see if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you. And see too if you can better appreciate what what strength it took to look at that, speak truth to it, and yet end on a note of hope and defiance by saying “we shall never surrender”.

The Unalienable Right to be Stupid

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – United States Declaration of Independence

….and to do stupid shit when young and not pay for it for the rest of their lives. – Me

This is a posting I’ve had kicking in my head for a few weeks. I first thought of it in the wake of the Kristen Stewart furore. Now that there’s a new uproar, over semi-naked pictures of Prince Harry of Britain from Las Vegas, it seems like it’s time to vent my spleen.

In my day job, I do work around publicity and press. And I can say based on my years of experience that it’s a hard, mean, brutal and unforgiving world and has only gotten more so year by year. The combined impact of the Internet, social media, mobile computing has been a profound erosion of privacy and explosion of publicity.

I’m also a man of a certain age, which means I (somehow) managed to survive my teens and early twenties. And that means I remember (at least some) of what it’s like to be that age.

When I take those two points and bring them together, I have conclude that there is something profoundly wrong and damaging in how we’re subjecting teens and twenty-somethings to a 24x7x365 social media-driven gossip culture that rests on schadenfreude, tearing people down, and violates that most important and inalienable right young adults have (or should have): the right to be stupid and not pay for it for the rest of their lives.

Let me pause here and be clear that there ARE some stupid acts that should have life-long consequences. Bringing another human being into the world in an unthinking and irresponsible way, killing someone because you’re driving in a preventable, impaired state: all of these can and should have profound, life-long consequences because they cause profound, life-changing effects and often great pain to others. But, the covert optimist in me still believes that the majority of teens and young adults do mean well and don’t do things like this.

But certainly, these years are hard, confusing years for everyone. I’ve described hitting adolescence as you being given the keys overnight to a fully functional Ferrari without ever really getting driving lessons. Nearly overnight, your body goes from a child’s body to a near-adult’s body, with all the capabilities, hormones, emotions and feelings that entails. You get that all at once with no ease-in time, no training. And anyway there is no training that can prepare you since we’re talking about what you feel. The grown-ups can describe sex all they want but nothing can prepare you for the feeling of that first orgasm (and the near obsessive need to have more once you have it). Talk is cheap and sometimes downright useless.

Add to this it’s a time of increasing independence (by desire and cultural design) and you’ve got a period of life where there’s going to be a lot of swerving, bad turns, inelegant starts and stops. And yes, accidents, both fender benders and serious crack-ups.

It’s a time that is so hard to begin with that putting actions during that time into the public gossip machine is beyond cruel. And as a society, it’s unwise. If we don’t want a society of passive cowards we have to honor the need for experimentation and yes, failure, by giving people space to fail and to recover. Creating a society that harshly enshrines a culture of one wrong move and you’re done is a sure way to make everyone conform, follow the path of least risk and resistance and take no chances.

And anyway, it’s not fair to judge what people do in this time. It’s arguable if it’s ever fair to judge but certainly it’s not at this age. How many times do I remember the rational part of my brain futilely trying to call me back from the edge of a bad decision, only to be muffled and drown in a rising flood of seminal fluid and sex hormones? At that age you can know what the right thing is and still be unable to do it. You are like the person in the back seat screaming while the crazy driver goes barreling down the highway laughing at the death that you’re sure is coming for you soon: helpless, terrified and doomed.

The funny thing is, relative to my peers, I was good, smart, responsible, and considerate. And yet, even I did some stupid, stupid shit. For me, my stupid shit tended to center around sex (not surprisingly) and was key in my figuring out that I was a failure with monogamy. There was the time I cheated on my girlfriend within days of her going home from college and ended up cheating with three different people in two months (and likely would have with more given the opportunity). I actually ended up in Seattle as a direct result of that period but I sure wouldn’t want any part of that story to be plastered on Google news. Hell, I’m not even sure how I feel about mentioning it here, but it’s been over 20 years and maybe that summer of spectacular failure can give me some credibility on this topic.

Maybe I feel strongly about this because both these cases relate to love and sex and I had such challenges myself. Regardless of why, though, I do know that this isn’t the right way to support teens and young adults while they figure out what they’re going to do with that Ferrari they’ve just been given the keys to. We all respond to shame and judgment with avoidance: we cover up, we lie, we do all we can to ensure we don’t bring that opprobrium from others onto ourselves. And if I’ve learned one thing about relationships as I’ve gotten older, and about publicity and PR from my work, it’s that the lying and the cover-up is always worse than the act itself. We should be making it easier not harder for people to be open and honest about love and sex. And yes, that means trying to make it safe to fuck up and do stupid shit, admit it, and move forward.

So, give Kristen Stewart a break. Cut Prince Harry some slack. Let them flail and struggle and figure it all out and exercise their inalienable right to be stupid and not pay for it for the rest of their lives. Because it’s not just about them: it’s about everyone that age. You can be sure teens and twenty-somethings are watching and learning from this all.

In the end, my old rule of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” pertains here. Just because you can read about this, share it, tweet about it, take pictures, text, etc. about something stupid doesn’t mean you should. And besides, do you want to be under this spotlight? I didn’t think so. I sure don’t.

Running Towards Your Fears

I had just poured water into the heating filter for a Captain Country Chicken MRE, and was preparing to remove some layers of clothing beneath my flak vest (the weather had turned hot after the freezing night), when RPG and small-arms fire rattled the scrap iron that formed the roof of the filthy garage headquarters.

The fire directed at us did not let up. Over the ICOM, Smith learned that it was coming from a mosque on Michigan about 300 yards away. The mosque was promptly targeted for a possible air strike, and everyone began a fast march toward it.

Smith did not have to order his Marines straight into the direction of the fire; it was a collective impulse—a phenomenon I would see again and again over the coming days. The idea that Marines are trained to break down doors, to seize beachheads and other territory, was an abstraction until I was there to experience it. Running into fire rather than seeking cover from it goes counter to every human survival instinct—trust me. I was sweating as much from fear as from the layers of clothing I still had on from the night before, to the degree that it felt as if pure salt were running into my eyes from my forehead. As the weeks had rolled on, and I had gotten to know the 1/5 Marines as the individuals they were, I had started deluding myself that they weren’t much different from me. They had soft spots, they got sick, they complained. But in one flash, as we charged across Michigan amid whistling incoming shots, I realized that they were not like me; they were Marines.

“Five Days in Fallujah” by Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic July/August 2004

This is an essay that I read years ago out of my interest in history and military history. It’s by the journalist Robert D. Kaplan and details his experiences as an “embedded” journalist, accompanying the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment in 2004 as they worked to take the Iraqi town of Fallujah. The battle for Fallujah in 2004 was some of the hardest fighting in the Iraq war, and Kaplan’s article gives a good feel for what it was like on the ground.

While my interest in military history has waned some lately, I find that this excerpt has a lot of value outside of its military context. For while it’s talking about how Marines are trained to respond instinctively under fire in combat, it’s more about how human beings respond to fear and danger. And in that vein, it’s actually an important lesson and example for everyone and how we approach life and the fears and anxieties we face every day.

The simple fact is that fear is a part of being human, like I outlined in my word meditation on fear. We don’t get to choose whether we will experience fear or not. We get to choose what we do with our fear when it comes upon us.

Our reaction to fear is instinctive. Our body and mind urge us to either run away from our fear, or to hide and wait for it to pass us by. Both of those are natural responses and they have their place and purpose.

But we have another option, one that is not natural but can be learned. We can run towards our fears and face them. Unlike this example, when we run to meet our fears we’re not necessarily looking to fight them or overcome them. Rather, we’re looking to dispel them somehow. Oftentimes, once we are face to face with our fears, dispelling them is simply a matter of listening to them and understanding what they have to say. After all, fear ultimately isn’t an adversary; it’s a part of us that’s doing a job that’s meant to benefit us. But to do that, to engage with fear, we first have to run towards it, not away. And that’s no easy thing: many times we can feel that what we’re afraid of and have to run towards is something that could well destroy us.

That’s what these Marines did under fire, run towards something that could destroy them. And it’s instructive to look at how they came to be able to do it. They trained for it, they practiced it, over and over again. Through drills, exercises, and real-life experiences, they slowly developed new instincts, new responses and new habits. Until finally, the first, immediate response, without having to think about it, is to run towards rather than away.

I used to be a very fearful person. Then, I spent ten years working in crisis management. And over time, I learned to run towards things that I was afraid of, because running away only made it worse.

Over time, I learned to apply those lessons from work more broadly in life. And now, as I’m more focused once again on questions of spirituality and growth, I find that this is an important lesson for all of us. All of us can stand to learn how to run towards our fears rather than away from them.

It’s not easy. It’s not safe. Sometimes you get hurt. But it’s the right thing to do, the right way to approach life. And the lesson from this particular episode is that it can be done successfully and the key to that success is through practice.

Fortunately, being humans, we have a chance to practice running towards our fears every day.

A Tale of Two Cultures

As I come back from the sumer hiatus it seems appropriate that my first post should be inspired by someone who’s made a career helping us figure out what to do with our summertimes and also happens to be a local here in the Puget Sound region: Rick Steves.

According to the Seattle PI, Steves has decided to donate the money that he’s saved from the Bush-era tax cuts to local arts causes. Specifically, he’s “giving $1 million over the next 10 years to meet all facility costs  of his hometown Edmonds Center for the Arts as well as the Cascade Symphony Orchestra.”

In this time of shrinking arts budgets, it’s good to see some positive news about funding for arts and music in particular.

Beyond that though, Steves’ comments in the article give one something to really think about as they raise questions about the importance of music and arts in our culture, as well as the ideas around financial support and patronage.

I will be upfront and say that I myself tend to be of a mind that the arts as a whole would be better served by reducing reliance on government funding. Having watched the NEA funding battles in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, that taught me that what the government giveth, it can just as easily take away. Having art and artists in a state of dependence on the Government for their livelihood creates a dangerous and worrisome dynamic with regards to free expression. Funding can be cut if artists fail to please their government overlords, as we saw in those battles. But even without that, the mere threat of that can prompt a degree of self-censorship that is harmful.

But getting government out of arts funding creates a vacuum for which there is no easy replacement. This is where Steves’ comments about the importance of the arts and patronage really strike an important chord.

The simple fact is that in our culture arts and music are viewed as frivolous luxuries or entrainment. There is a real lack of any sense of the arts and music as something inherently ennobling and important in its own right.

One new area of interest for me is classical Chinese poetry. And if you spend any time studying classical Chinese poetry, you’ll quickly find that the arts and music are reckoned very highly in classical Chinese thought and civilization. Indeed, music, poetry, and calligraphy were all viewed as activities that a refined, noble person pursued for their own sake. Indeed, two of the Confucian classics that has formed the bedrock of Chinese thought and culture for millennia are on poetry/song and music. Indeed, as I was preparing to write this posting, I found this interesting post that talks about how Confucian ideals around music still influence Chinese culture today. In that vein, too, I think it’s noteworthy that some of the most vibrant activity in support of artistic, concert music is in China and other Asian countries heavily influenced by Chinese thought and culture.

Which brings us back to Steves and his donation. Imagine for a moment what the state of arts support would be if the arts were viewed not as entertainment but something central to being a good person and citizen?  If instead of expecting our kids in school to be playing football, basketball or cheerleading, instead there was an expectation that they would learn music and poetry?

What a wonderful world that would be.

And perhaps may be yet. After all, globalization is hardly a one way street. Maybe as we learn more and more about Chinese culture, we’ll learn the importance of this from them and slowly adopt it into our culture.

Wikileaks-ification of Journalism

I just noticed that MSNBC has posted a digital archive of email from Sarah Palin’s time as governor. As they describe it:

[This] free, public, searchable archive is now complete, with 12,045 documents and 24,361 pages, hosted by msnbc.com at http://palinemail.msnbc.msn.com.

That’s a lot of email to wade through.

What I find interesting though is less what’s in the the archive and more the fact that MSNBC has made the archive itself.

Whatever you may think of Wikileaks and their release of information, their work has made a fundamental change around expectations for information. People now want access to the full raw materials themselves. They will welcome the analysis and digesting that journalists can do. But they want access to the raw materials now on their own as well.

Journalism outlets understand this and want to keep eyeballs on their sites. So they’re moving to copy the Wikileaks model and keep people on their sites.

Given that, it makes sense that MSNBC would do this. They’re not the only ones doing this, though. Al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal and others have been talking about building their own competitors to Wikileaks in terms of where people can submit documents. There is a lot of discussion about whether they can match Wikileaks’ guarantees that protect the submitters. But the fact that they’re entering that side of this game is telling too.

What this all means is that the era of hyper-full-disclosure isn’t going away, likely ever. The increasingly fragile distinction between purely private and purely public communication is pretty much gone now. All communication in any digital format can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion in case of a crisis.

That’s inherently neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s just a reality that we all need to understand and adapt to.

V is for Violence that Caused Us Such Pain

(Title homage to Edward Gorey and his “Gashlycrumb Tinies“)

Before reading this post, you should first read this news article on “therapy” pursued in the 1970’s at UCLA to “help” make boys who were too “feminine” more “masculine”.

This is a very hard article for me to read. The timing of it is interesting because I have recently been working through a bunch of stuff related to gender issues and my upbringing. Specifically, growing up, I was a boy with “feminine” traits and was subjected to ridicule for that by my peers and even by adults in my family. While I wasn’t subjected to a level of physical and emotional brutality and abuse like those Kirk Andrew Murphy was, I recognize his story. Our stories are different by degree not kind. That history is one of the things I repudiate.

If you open yourself for a moment, though, and take in the fullness of the story with true compassion, the scope of the violence and brutality is staggering. Kirk Andrew Murphy a victim of horrific violence inflicted on him by others and then, later, by himself. But he’s not the only victim. If indeed,  his tormentor George A. Rekers is gay, then he too is a victim of whatever it was that turned him against himself and, in the doing, against others. The axiom that those abused often become abusers themselves is material here.

Taking in the fullness of the violence that is present in this story is staggering, mind-numbing.

In a way, I don’t feel quite so alone in my own experiences. But in a way, I’m sorry to have company.

The Moral/Ethical Test of a Generation

I don’t write on current events like I used to. There’s many reasons for that, and enumerating those is perhaps for another posting.

But the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden is more than current events. It is one of those critical moments of history that shape not only the news and current events but we ourselves. What we make of it, what it makes of us: these are all critical questions and ones that we all by rights should grapple with.

Moments like this become logical points of reflection too. For example, there is this very interesting and astute analysis of that photo from the situation room during the raid. It looks at that photo as a snapshot of who we are as a country at this particular moment.

But most of all, this whole event is really a moral and ethical test writ large in the real world. Many of us have gone through the “what if” exercises around critical ethical and moral dilemmas in history. “You have a chance to go back in time and kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you”? “You’re Harry Truman and have to decide whether to use the atomic bomb or force an amphibious invasion of Japan, what do you choose”?

Whatever one may think about Obama (and me being me, my thoughts are complex), there is no denying that he had the unenviable task of answering this class of questions and having it count in the real world. He had to decide whether to kill bin Laden or capture him. He had to decide what to do with the body. He had to decide how to speak of it and frame it. He had to face a host of difficult moral and ethical questions. He had to answer the biggest moral and ethical test of this generation and do it where the answers really count.

I have to say that my own feeling is that he rose to the occasion and answered them with an appropriate mix of realism and nobility. As I say, my feelings on Obama are complex, but on this particular issue, I have nothing but admiration for his handling and gratitude for having someone in charge who handled these challenging questions so well.

I think there was no choice but to kill bin Laden. I am not happy for that fact, I don’t celebrate it. Robert E. Lee once remarked “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it”. Nietzsche famously wrote “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”. One of the foundations of the Buddhist point of view around forgiveness is that hate and anger themselves cause harm in those who hold on to them. Mark Twain summed that point up when he noted “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”.

And yet, we live in a real world. And the fact is that bin Laden and his followers were not going to stop until they or we were dead. We didn’t choose this fight but the way he joined the fight made it a fight to the death. And so there was no choice: we had to kill him. Even the Dalai Lama has spoken to the necessity of “counter-measures” here.

With that heavy necessity, with the choice of what to do essentially made for us by necessity, the focus of moral and ethical questions then move to the how. How do we set out to do the needful and avoid the dangers Lee, Nietzsche and Twain all spoke to.

Obama’s choices around these questions where solid ones. They were grounded in the necessities of the real world but strove to do only as much harm as needed. The entire operation and handling is a strong lesson in the idea of proportionate force. Choosing to take the risk of sending American troops in rather than bombing the complex minimized civilian casualties, collateral damage and the risk of mistakenly killing someone else. Taking bin Laden’s body and disposing of it in a way that left no shrine for followers was necessary. But choosing to not make a trophy of his body, to not bandy it about in victory, and to not release the photos are all important choices that temper and humanize the harsh, necessary actions. They are, too I will note, choices that bin Laden and his followers haven’t made: witness the terrible murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl beheaded and his head raised as a trophy all on video tape. Burying bin Laden at sea was not something that is generally within Muslim practice. But preparing his body and giving it rites and respect in accord with Muslim practice tempers that fact. And the simple fact is that burial at sea is the only generally accepted means of disposing of a body to leave no trace that isn’t viewed as desecration in Islam. Here again, Obama gave Osama merciful treatment that the latter certainly wouldn’t have given the former.

In the days that have followed, Obama has struck a tone of grim determination and necessity. And that is the right way to speak of these things. We did what we had to do. We are not proud of it, we do not like it. But it had to be done, it has been done, and now we move forward.

In a quiet way, this whole episode has made me proud of being an American. Not in the “USA” chanting way of some. Rather, proud that we did something difficult in the best possible way. Wherever else I may have issue with Obama (and I do, like I do every politician), on this matter I am truly grateful and will never forget.