The first time I called the Congressional Research Service Hot Line to get an answer for a constituent inquiry I apologized to the researcher for the triviality of the question. "Oh, that's nothing," was her cheerful reply, "the first day I worked here I had requests for the recipe for fig newtons, and the pros and cons of child abuse."
In 1985 the notion of there being "pros" to child abuse seemed so far-fetched as to be darkly comic, a kind of anachronism or throwback to ignorance and superstition. It seemed a little surprising that the issue was even defensible outside the confines of religious sects. Like issues of nuclear weapons, pre-emptive war, and torture, I thought the civilized world had pretty much agreed that they were all inhumane and immoral, and that we could manage the world better without them, though I recognized that we had not yet brought them under control.
Yet 20 years later, we are engaged in public debate about the pros and cons of nuclear weapons, pre-emptive wars, and torture, while avoiding talking about worldwide child abuse by war, poverty, hunger, contaminated water, genocide, lack of medicine and education, and child labor . The other three are now not only defensible, but doable, and two of them have been deployed by our own nation.
I have neither the time nor the inclination here to argue the pros and cons of child abuse, nuclear weapons, war, or torture. I am personally inalterably opposed to all of them, and horrified that they are now defensible and doable.
These are terrible times. Fear follows me daily -- the sort of pit-of-the-stomach dread one gets from looking into the hell-flames of a blast furnace or out to the infinite icy void beyond the stars. It is not the exigent terror of suicide bombers, or fear of enslavement by Islamic militants, but the existential horror of three epistemological daemons abroad in the world. The first is that we must rationally consider and give our leaders the power to deploy nuclear weapons, war, and torture; that such things are defensible and doable.
The second daemon is that "The President sets the agenda for the Nation." Consider:
About a year ago Harriet Miers (now nominated for the Supreme Court) answered (on "Ask the White House" http://www.whitehouse.gov/ask/20040811.html ) a question about what White House staff does: "The President sets the agenda for the Nation, and we [the staff] help ... him to accomplish that agenda for the American people."
Is that the way democracy is supposed to work? The President sets the agenda and everyone in Washington scurries around to accomplish it? Somehow I thought that in democracy the people set the agenda, and the President and Congress worked to accomplish it for us.
Was pre-emptive war on our agenda? Not that I recall. We had to be hoodwinked into it. Or torture? Make no mistake: the war in Iraq and the use of torture, as well as the renewed development of nuclear weapons, came from the agenda of this President, not the people.
There is a third daemon: that Bush's agenda is the agenda of God.
In June 2003, President Bush is reported as saying "'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, "George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan." And I did, and then God would tell me, "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq...." And I did.... "
What makes Bush think he knows the agenda of God? What allows Americans to think they can bestow democracy, peace and freedom on the world by the use of war and torture? Indeed, how can we humans imagine that we are the crowning achievement of an Intelligent Designer? Because of our advanced weapons of mass murder and destruction? Because of our entrepreneurial exploitation of the natural capital of our planet and appetite for oil and material goods? Or perhaps because of our cleverness in finding reasons to abuse and neglect children, sacrificing them to our graspings for power, ideological control, and wealth?
To those of you who (inevitably) will say that abortion is child abuse, I say -Amen. Let us prevent abortion by giving all women and girls the means to prevent conception, and by offering full health care for all. And because we are imperfect and often fail, let us pray for the grace to see abortion not as crime and immorality to be treated with violence, blame and shame, but as the personal and public tragedy it is, to be treated with kindness, understanding and healing.
There is hope; this week, despite the White House's appeal not to "restrict the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bringing terrorists to justice," We-the-people have convinced our Senators to pass (90 to 9) the McCain amendment that would establishe uniform standards for prisoner interrogation and prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of those in U.S. custody.
We've told the President that our agenda does not include torture. Now we must do more. We need to make plain to the President -- and the world -- that the health and welfare of all children of the planet is at the top of our nation's agenda.
There are no "pros" to torture, war, or nuclear weapons. They are all child abuse, and indefensible.