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“A Day That Will Live in….”

May 5th, 2009 2 comments

News broke today that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who presided over that great metropolis during the September 11 attacks, failed to attend the wedding of his two close friends, Howard Koeppel and Mark Hsiao, in whose home the mayor resided for six months during his very public divorce, well before the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Giuliani, who mounted a campaign for the 2008 Presidency that was inexplicably unsuccessful despite his heroic efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks, had this to say in defense of his decision not to attend: “9/11. Since the events of that tragic day, I feel I can no longer support gay unions. Such support could anger other nations, thereby triggering a repeat of the events of September 11. September 11, 2001, that is. Unlike some other people, I can’t forget what those attacks of September 11 — usually referred to as “9/11″ — did to the City of which I, at the time, was Mayor. National security is a priority, and I now support the public waterboarding of gay couples if it can avert a tragedy on the scale we, as a nation, and I — as Mayor — suffered on September 11, 2001.”

“I wish the couple, with whom I stayed for several months at a time well before September 11, every happiness,” concluded the former Mayor of New York City, which apparently will never be the same after the events of September 11, 2001.

Categories: 9/11, humor, Marriage Equality Tags: , , , , , ,

Equality Forum Day 3 (Part 1): “Tomorrow Hour Zero”

April 29th, 2009 No comments

The day before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence intercepted a communication known to be from al-Qaeda, boasting that “tomorrow is zero hour” (literally translated above). This possibly interesting statement went untranslated, though, until September 12. According to Alex Nicholson, who apparently speaks all living and several dead languages (and also looked like he could take me apart with his bare hands), the military was short on Arabic translators. Why? Because of discharges resulting from the “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” — but do compromise national security — policy then and now in effect.

Nicholson and fellow National History Panelist Julianne Sohn were both victims of this insane policy. Nicholson’s colleague snooped the damning information about him from a letter he’d written (in Portugese, by the way), and then reported it a few weeks later apparently out of spite. This accomplished translator, and scion of a military family, was out of a job in less than a year. Sohn had a much longer career, that finally ended when a colonel called her (while she wasn’t on active duty) to “read her her rights.” In describing this event for the first time publicly, Sohn quickly lost her composure and dissolved into tears not seen since the final of this year’s Australian Open.

Just like that, I got it.

I’m not pro-military, generally. My dad was in the Navy, but only briefly and mostly he was, er, a lifeguard stationed in the less-than-hazardous State of New Jersey. I grew up  just close enough to the Vietnam era to have breathed some of the anti-military air (which, by the way, is mostly unjustified and more than a little classist). And I’m by temperment and philosophy a pacifist (mostly). So I admit that I didn’t exactly flush with excitement upon learning that this year’s history panel would focus on “gays in the military.” But listening to these stories — especially Sohn’s — was profound and arresting. Here was a woman whose life and identity were all about the military. Now, after years of what was surely a profound struggle to manage the cognitive dissonance that results from being a part of an organization that commands your silence, it was all falling apart. Of course this is painful to call to mind. But why did this happen to her, and why are these discharges still taking place? As scholar-panelist Nathaniel Frank put it: “Wait. You’re being investigated by the U.S. Government because you’re a lesbian? It’s 2009!”

Well, how did we get here? What justifies this ban? Frank issued “the historian’s challenge” to the audience: Step into the shoes of those you disagree with. Then see if you can understand their perspective. OK, I did. And I can’t.

Frank and panelist moderator Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) provided a thumbnail review of the history and justifications for the exclusion, which is been official policy only since the 1920’s. (Here’s the first of two book plugs from today’s Forum: Nathaniel Frank’s book, “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” — copies of which just happened to be available for purchase at the event — provides a comprehensive review of this history. It’s been favorably and informatively reviewed by Janet Maslin in The New York Times.) My simplistic take on the evolution of the military’s treatment of gay soldiers is that, as gay identity and culture became harder to  ignore, the military’s exclusionary policies became more Draconian and defensive. (In a similar vein, think of state anti-marriage equality constitutional amendments in response to a rising tide of open gay relationships.)

This cascade of policies has led to the “don’t ask, blah blah blah” policy now in force. As Frank states: There’s no evidence of any kind to justify it. It’s a remnant, a soiled selvage from an era when gays were regarded as sick and sinful. That image still has enough purchase in the military for them to be able to use coded arguments, such as “troop  cohesion,” in defense of the indefensible. Frank then raised a related point that I’d not considered: By putting gay sexual orientation forward as a ground for exclusion, the policy has the unintended consequence of putting the issue of sexuality “on the table” for all service members. “Am I acting straight enough (even though I am straight)? How will my  actions (or inactions)  be interpreted?” Does this seem like a positive effect on “unit cohesion” to you?

The policy may disappear as soon as this year, but maybe not, either. The panelists seemed to agree that Obama’s vocal support is absolutely vital; support he pledged during the campaign, but hasn’t articulated since taking office. I had the sense that their patience will run out soon. All emphasized the need for education and activism. Sohn and Nicholson have really taken up this cause with fervor, as has Frank (in a more academic but also compelling way). Sohn’s biography, detailing her impressive service, is here. Nicholson is now Executive Director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy organization for gay and lesbian military and the issues affecting them. (His blog is pretty good, too.)

At some point towards the end of the presentation, Sarvis put this question to the panelists: “Why should we care about this issue?” By the time he did, only a true and committed blockhead could have failed to understand its importance. Frank said it best: We should care because this policy “is a blemish on the integrity of our Armed services and on our entire nation.”

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Let me take a step away from reporting for a moment to make a broader statement. As I was listening to yet two more stirring panels tonight (OK, it’s last night by now), I had this thought: Perhaps by now I should be numb to all of this, my interest starting to flag. In fact, quite the opposite is happening. I remember that “the madder Hulk gets, the stronger him gets.” I’d say that “the more I hear, the more urgent all of this seems.”

There really is a great deal to do, on seemingly scores of issues big and small. These zealous panelists (including those on the family law panel, about whom I’ll blog after getting some sleep) who donate their time and enthusiasm to Equality Forum and countless other events, should inspire us all.

America Betrayed

March 20th, 2009 1 comment

Hurricane Katrina was a bit player in the disaster that befell New Orleans; a Category 1 hurricane (there, although stronger elsewhere), it was able to swamp the city only because of an egregious, decades-long failure on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the levee system protecting New Orleans was sound.

This failure, which received considerably less attention than the horrific failure of government at all levels to respond to the disaster, is the subject of Leslie Carde’s searing documentary, “America Betrayed.”  The film, about to come out in limited release (so far, only to Portland, Oregon and New Orleans), features prominent scientists, award-winning journalists, and some of the many residents whose lives were tragically and needlessly upended by a combination of neglect and corruption.

I’m in it. Leslie Carde contacted me  because of this article I had written on the generous compensation that had been awarded the families of 9/11 victims.  The compensation, running to millions of dollars of taxpayer money in some cases, represented a dramatic and unprecedented departure from our usual response to disasters, which is to provide just enough government funding for people to struggle back to their feet. Leaning into a strong headwind, I argued that the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund had to be justified by principles of distributional fairness on a society-wide level, and that it could not be so justified.

Based on this article, Carde thought that I might have something to say about the comparatively poor treatment that the victims of Katrina had received from the government. She was on the beam. I had just written another article expressly comparing these two cases. (You can find and download it here, under the title: “What Does Justice Owe the Victims of Katrina and September 11?”)  In polite academic terms that I can cast aside here, I strongly criticized what I saw as disparate treatment in the government’s financial response to the two disasters. While the horrors of 9/11 engendered the Victim Compensation Fund, New Orleans residents received meager FEMA relief, including those now-infamous, formaldehyde-riddled trailers. This appalling disparity was heightened by the fact that the government was in large part to blame in the case of Katrina, but not so much with regard to the events  of September 11.

So in my brief — yet career-making — appearance in “America Betrayed” I call into question this disparity, and invite us to wonder at the reason for it. This comes towards the end of the film, when Carde expands her lens beyond Katrina to talk about deeper problems of infrastructure, readiness, and — ta da! — justice. For most of the film, prepare to be awed (not in a good way) by the horrific failures of your federal government to protect its citizenry. Can we please devote some of the stimulus money to infrastructural improvements that might reduce the chances of another needless catastrophe?

Oh, wait: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — more concerned about his own future star within the out-of-touch Republican Party than with (for example) the citizens of his state, has turned down some of the stimulus the money. In his career-destroying response to Obama’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress, he also criticized money in the stimulus package for monitoring volcanoes for possible eruptions — you know, eruptions that could spell disaster for those in the path of the lava.

Quick study, that Gov. Jindal.