12th Grade: The Assassination of Anwar al-Awaki


One of my main goals for our first few weeks was to try and see how our current ‘War on Terror’ raises difficult questions and puts great stress on key democratic values and practices.

As an example of the kinds of questions and dilemmas we face as a nation we spent some time discussing the drone attack/assassination of Anwar Al-Waki.  No one doubts that he was a “bad guy” whose English ability made him a unique voice for terrorists.  He likely had an indirect hand in the Fort Hood shootings, as well as the failed Times Square bombing.  Here is a Youtube of his last video message before his assassination:

What makes his death especially debatable is that he was an American citizen.  Should we be allowed to, in effect, execute citizens without a trial?

There are different sides on this issue.

In favor of the action, we might say that:

  • He was a known enemy who fled the country and who advocated and perhaps facilitated attacks upon us.  This is the very definition of treason.
  • We had no access to arrest him.  In taking refuge in Yemen, he put us in an extremely awkward position. Yemen’s unique political and social dynamic make it a kind of no-man’s land.  If he wants to go into a ‘no-man’s land’ where normal political rules don’t apply, then he forfeited his right to a trial.

Against it we could say that:

  • Civilization as a whole, and our legal system in particular, is inconvenient and creates inefficient burdens to us that we simply have to abide by in order to have civilization at all. Citizens must be dealt with through the legal process, no matter the person or circumstance.
  • Do we want to give the president the power to execute citizens without trial?  Would this not continue the disturbing trend of increased presidential power that we have seen since World War II, and that has only accelerated after 9/11?
  • If we want a government to deal with all evil under the sun, we ask for an omnipotent state.  Such a state would give its citizens no liberty.  We must simply tolerate some evil (and evil people) for the sake of liberty.

Two articles about the incident can be found here and here.

In the broader context, I hope students saw this as another instance of our theme for this first unit, how the “War on Terror” does not just put stress on our security, but on our democratic system as a whole, our values, and so on.

Last week in the update I mentioned that we discussed the nature of our values as a country, and whether or not these values helped or hindered the war against terrorism.  Students disagreed on this question, with most believing that our values hamper us, or leave open the possibility that we will be taken advantage of because of our values.

What we as a people think of this question will have a significant impact on how we deal with enemies abroad and at home.  One student mentioned the famous account of a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan in book called Lone Survivor.  The book details “Operation Redwing,” in which a small team was charged with killing a dangerous bomb-maker behind enemy lines.  Unfortunately a few random shepherds discover the SEAL team in the early stages of their mission, and the soldiers must decide what to do.  Some on the team advocated killing the shepherds to prevent them from possibly giving away their position.  Others wanted to let them go, seeing as how they were civilians.  In the end the team leader let them go.  The Taliban discovered their position (likely because of the shepherds told others about what they saw), and only one member of the team made it out alive.

Upon reflection, the book’s author wishes he had killed the shepherds instead of letting them go, and most of the students agreed with him.  The mission, and the perceived “greater good” of the mission, took precedence over the lives of the shepherds.

This specific mission touches on the broader ethical questions we face as a nation in general, and as a democracy in particular.  If we believe in equality, that all lives have equal value, does that apply on the battlefield?  Do we believe in “innocent until proven guilty” for others?  Do these values apply in wartime?  If we fight consistently or inconsistently with them, what are the consequences for our society?  Students that advocated for letting the shepherds go argued that 1) Killing them would be a direct evil balanced out only against a possible, indeterminate good, and 2) Killing them would be an explicit admission that American lives were more valuable than the lives of Afghanis.

This decision also forces us back to the tensions in any democratic nation, for as we discussed in the first week, the natural community for democracies is “everybody.”  We preach a universal ethic rooted universal values.  Can we maintain our identity if we fail to act consistently with this?  But how can we outside our borders?

There exists another possibility. . .

Perhaps it is when we fight in such a way that prioritizes our lives over others that we in fact, fight according to our values and not vice-versa.  After all (say some), we have a “me-first” culture.  Of course, human nature has always been “me-first,” but our culture at the moments seems particularly geared in this direction.  Maybe this, and not “equality,” truly governs our actions today.

Whatever we think about these difficult questions, we must choose, and take responsibility for that choice.

Thanks once again,

Mr. Mathwin


The Mosaics at Chora

Everyone wants creativity, but everyone knows that it just not just “happen.”  Creative acts need a physical context (i.e. time, skill, etc.), but they also need a spiritual context.  That is, for human beings to see things in new ways they need the inner spiritual freedom that allows them to see in the first place.

Idolatry comes in many forms, but within Christian communities it will almost always take an indirect path and have an indirect manifestation.  We can idolize the past, or idolize institutions, for example. The Byzantine empire (ca. 330-1453 A.D.) gave much to the idea of civilization.  We can find evidence of its vitality in its unique artistic and architectural contributions.  They had a significant impact on the development of Russia outside their borders.  But, as a “grafted” branch onto the Roman tree, they persisted in an irrational attachment to Rome’s imperial idea long after things in Italy showed that the emperor had no clothes.  One could call it idolization of the past perceived glories of Rome, but they did not merely copy Rome’s culture.  They blended with their eastern surroundings and invented something new.  I think instead they stand accused of attachment to the institution of the emperor, or at least the idea of empire itself.

In another post we looked at how this idea led them into a foolish war against their Bulgarian neighbors, a conflict which took their eyes off more pressing concern of the rise of Islam.  They never fully recovered from this mistake.

The truth of the failure of the imperial idea became obvious to the eastern church by the 14th century.  The Islamic handwriting was on the wall to any person who had eyes.  The Byzantine Empire’s time was at hand.  Unfortunately, the eastern church’s realization of their failed investment in the institution of the emperor was too little, too late.  But as they freed themselves spiritually from their attachment to the emperor, they simultaneously created some of the most magnificent art ever done in the eastern iconographic style in the monastery at Chora, right near the beating heart of Byzantium, just outside Constantinople.


To my western eyes this may not seem that impressive.  But if we travel to Mt. Athos in Greece and observe contemporary works to those at Chora we see a difference in the examples below. . .


At Chora we see power in the images and a subtle touch only possible with a freed mind.  At Athos I don’t see quite see the same inner depth.

The reason for these differences might be the persistence of the idolization of an institution.  In Greece during the 14th century they still put their heart into the imperial treasure.   Perhaps their physical distance from the emperor made their hearts all the fonder, more fond than they should have been.  Though the monks in Constantinople were about to be engulfed, they may have had more inner freedom than those in Greece.

For the record, I am no art critic, and so would welcome any thoughts from more discerning eyes than my own.

Visual Democracy

Last year a colleague told me about Ivan Illich.  “Ivan Illych?”  I asked.  “No, the other one,” he replied.

I had never heard of him before.  His Wikipedia page mentions that he was a Catholic priest, but most Ivan Illichknown for his social criticism.  One look at his bibliography shows a wide range of interests.  His book In the Vineyard of the Text lives up to all of my friend’s hype.  I can’t call what follows here a “Book Review,” because the book is too dense, and the material too far out of my league, for me to fully grasp.  But I am excited by it and hope to make progress as time goes by.

In this book Illich looks at what he calls the origins of the age of the book.  He does not locate this with the printing press or the Englightenment, but with Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion written in the early 12th century (something else I had never heard of before).  Of course books existed before this particular work.  But Illich makes the observation that up until this point, books were made to be heard and not seen (i.e. The Illiad), or so visually stimulating that the text took a backseat.  The words were entirely secondary.

With Hugh of St. Victor Illich believes a significant transition took place, whereby Hugh writes to be read rather than heard.  Form follows function, so St. Victor writes in a way that allows for reflection.  Plays rely on visualization, but books ask you to exercise methodical reason.  Arguments build, and you have the opportunity to refer back.  WIth that opportunity comes expectation, and so on.   St. Victor, for the first time (according to Illich) writes with a thought towards creating the discipline of reading, which leads to the development of certain modes of thought, and for the next 800 years or so, we have the age of the book, an age which lent itself towards the formation of deliberative wisdom.

Illich, writing in 1993, notes that the age of the book has long since passed us by in favor of visual mediums.  While he does not address this transition, he notes that it will of course have dramatic consequences for society, and I wondered what consequences it might have for democracy.

Does democracy needs books to thrive, or perhaps even survive?

Democracy predates the age of the book.  We don’t need to think only of ancient Athens–we can think of innumerable local village assemblies from before Christ through the more official village and township elections of the Middle Ages.  But I’m not sure these small scale democracies should really count as examples that pertain to us today.   These  local democracies did not need a “mass-produced” way of making decisions.  Their communities were usually small enough for everyone to know each other.

Republican Rome had many democratic elements, but remained an oligarchy, for better or worse.  They had a variety of structures in place to prevent the people’s ability to make quick decisions, and the patrician Senate dominated policy until the army, another kind of oligarchy, did so starting ca. 100 B.C.

So, although it’s almost boring to say so, we are drawn back to Athens.

Athenian democracy had many more wide-open features than modern American democracy.  They made the majority of their decisions in the Assembly, which met 10x a year.  Anyone could attend and vote in Assembly meetings, provided you arrived early enough, and there may have been as many as 5000 seats.  Anyone in theory could speak, provided that you could hold the floor and didn’t get booed off stage.  Voting often took place on the same day that laws or policies were proposed.  It seems much more exciting than C-Span.

But the critics of Athenian democracy from Thucydides to Plato had a point when they argued that they often lacked the capacity for deliberative wisdom (I think both eminent men overstated their case, but they did have a case).  If we believe Thucydides, Xenophon, and others we see that they had moments where passions got the best of them and led them to disaster.  So while they were not a visual culture per se, they did seem to demonstrate the faults of visual cultures.  That is, they are easier to manipulate.  Now I do not agree that Athenian democracy had no brains behind it.  Many speeches passed down to us by Thucydides had wit and reason behind them.  It was not a smoke and mirrors show.  But at crucial moments they seemed to lack the ability to reason carefully.  This is a human fault, of course, not just one of democracies.  But the lack of “deliberation” built into their government and society made it so they were more vulnerable to the swings of emotion and powerful rhetoric.

If Illich is right that we are long past the age of the book than we may be back in the situation of ancient Athens.  I thought of this when I heard someone discuss our possible intervention in Syria.  He opposed it but admitted that if video existed of the chemical attacks and it went viral on the internet we would have no choice but to intervene.  The images would force our hand.  I think that would almost certainly be true.  Aside from whether or not we should intervene in Syria, would it be a good thing if images dictated our policy?  Will democracy experience a seismic shift in the You Tube age, or did this shift happen 20 years ago?

As a parting aside, I feel I must read Illich’s Deschooling Society  at some point.  His quote from that book, “School is the advertising agency that makes you believe you need the society as it is,” in itself offers much food for thought.