Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Its positive points were discussed in a prior post. Now we look at the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

Erroneous Premise

The basic premise for the Commission was stated by Secretary Pompeo In his remarks at its launching, when he alleged, without proof, that “international institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” and that they and nation-states “remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” Therefore, the Secretary asserted that “the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and that the Commission was charged with straightening all of this out.

This premise, however, is erroneous. The body of human rights law today is very extensive as developed by U.S. and other national and international courts and institutions. For example, an edition of a major U.S. book on the subject, primarily for law students, has 1,259 well-documented pages plus a 737 page collection of selected human rights instruments and bibliography.[2] Like any large body of law developed by different courts and institutions over time, there will be an ongoing effort to eliminate or minimize inconsistencies. But an informed knowledge of this body of law and institutions would show that these international institutions have not “drifted from their original mission.” Nor are nation states confused about their responsibilities in this area.

Secretary Pompeo’s pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean were castigated by Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[3]

Pompeo also has claimed that the continued violations of human rights shows that there is confusion about the law. That is also false. Yes, there continue to be violations, showing the inherent weaknesses of human beings and institutions, but not confusion about the law. If this were a valid argument, then would ridiculously claim that the laws against murder and other forms of homicide were confusing because such horrible acts still occur.

Erroneous Reference to Natural Law

The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers generally to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and states that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the purported basis for the Commission’s Charter saying it will provide the Secretary with “fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).

Secretary Pompeo made this same argument in his July 7 article in the Wall Street Journal, where he said, “When politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights created by governments.”

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, criticized this reference to the concept of natural law and natural rights, circa 1776, by reminding us that ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

Moreover, Secretary Pompeo and others at the State Department apparently forgot to read the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. government subsequently was established by the U.S. Constitution “to secure these rights [mentioned in the Declaration of Indepence]” and its later enactment of human rights statutes and regulations are based upon “the consent of the governed.” These are not “ad hoc” laws (a legal category not known to this attorney-blogger) as Secretary Pompeo dismissively calls them.

Similar language occurs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble).[4] In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights. This point was emphasized by the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon in her book about the Universal Declaration: “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have inccreasingly acquired legal force, mainly through incorporation into national legal systems.”

Indeed, the New York Times contemporaneously reported with the adoption of the UDHR in December 1948, “The United Nations now will begin drafting a convention that will be a treaty embodying in specific detail and in legally binding form the principles proclaimed in the declaration.” One such treaty was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force on March 23, 1976, which was “three months after the date of the deposit with the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the 35th instrument of ratification or instrument of accession.” (Art. 49(1)) The U.S., however, did not ratify this treaty until April 2, 1992, when the U.S. Senate granted its “advice and consent” to same with certain “understandings” and reservations, and this treaty did not enter into force for the U.S. until September 8, 1992.[5]

The U.N. system has created many other multilateral human rights treaties and other international institutions to interpret those rights, resolve conflicts among them and disputes about compliance with them.[6]

Possible Invalid Objectives

Actions and words of the current U.S. Administration have led some critics of this Commission to speculate that the Commission is a ruse to conceal the Administration’s true objectives: eliminate legal rights to abortions and other reproductive procedures and to LGBBTQI individuals. If that is the case, then the Commission is a fraud.

The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (Dem., NY) says, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. . . . [and now] the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.”

The American Jewish World Service through its Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

As University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner observed, the Commission’s “plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influences of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th century natural law . . . . [and] an indirect endorsement of contemporary [Roman] Catholic conservative intellectuals.”

Another professor, Clifford Rob of Duquesne University, believes the Commission is “ likely to champion the ‘natural family’ and ‘traditional values,’ to claim that individual self-defense is another natural and unalienable right and to express hostility to economic and cultural rights.

Rebecca Hamilton, an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court and a former employee of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,warned that the “’natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community.” She points out that the concept for this Commission was proposed by Professor Robert George, a “staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and co-founder of the anti-gay rights group, National Organization for Marriage.”[7]

Other Legitimate Sources of Human Rights Were Ignored

The Trump Administration’s statements about the Commission seem to be saying that only the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Independence are the only ones that count and that studying them will yield only one set of answers on the many issues of human rights. That is clearly erroneous, in this blogger’s opinion.

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to talking about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” says that they are “among” the category of “certain unalienable rights.” Thus, there are other rights in that category. In addition, there undoubtedly are times when there are conflicts among “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and the other such rights that will need to be resolved.

Most importantly, the U.S. Declaration says “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments need to enact statutes and rules to protect and secure these rights, and the need for “consent of the governed” inevitably leads to arguments and disputes about the content of such statutes and rules and to the need, from time to time, to amend those statutes and rules and adopt new ones, as circumstances change as they certainly have in the 243 years since the adoption of the U.S. Declaration.

Indeed, the U.S. federal and state governments have enacted many statutes and rules to protect and secure human rights. And they should not be ignored or dismissed as “ad hoc” measures as Secretary Pompeo did in his article in the Wall Street Journal.

The Universal Declaration is subject to the same qualifications. It identifies more rights than the four specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration, but there undoubtedly will be conflicts among those rights that will need resolution.

Moreover, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration says that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law [outside that document itself]” and that “Member States have pledged to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This U.N. document also proclaims “that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights.

The Commission’s Membership May Not Comply with Federal Law

 Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (Pub. L. 92-463), “the function [of such] advisory committees [or commissions] shall be advisory only, and that all matters under their consideration should be determined in accordance with law, by the official, agency, or office involved.”[8]

Moreover, under this federal statute, the committee or commission members must be “drawn from nearly every occupational and industry group and geographical section of the United States and its territories”  and must be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” (Emphasis added.)

Although as noted in a prior post, the resumes of this Commission’s members are impressive, some critics have questioned the balance of their views on the central issues facing the Commission..

Another federal law that may have been violated in the establishment of this Commission is the failure to seek and obtain the counsel of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which is charged with championing “American values, including the rule of law and individual rights, that promote strong, stable, prosperous, and sovereign states. We advance American security in the struggle against authoritarianism and terrorism when we stand for the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

Conclusion

Therefore, contemporary advocates of international human rights need vigilantly to observe the work of the Commission, applaud its work when appropriate and critique that work on other occasions.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com, which contain citations to many of the references in this post: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019);; The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019); The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation (July 19, 2019).

[2] See Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process (4th ed. 2009); Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Rumsey, Hoffman & Fitzpatrick, Selected International Human Rights Instruments and Bibliography for Research on International Human Rights Law (4th ed. 2009). Professor Weissbrodt also has published an online “Supplementary Materials” for the casebook.

[3] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

[4] See The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[5] U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 5, 2013).

[6] See the posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES), including those that identify the treaties ratified by the U.S.; those signed, but not so ratified; and those not signed and ratified by the U.S.

[7] Hamilton, EXCLUSIVE: Draft Charter of Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Hides Anti-Human Rights Agenda, Just Security June 5, 2019). Just Security publishes “crisp explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad policy, national/international security, and legal audience; and (2) deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue.”

[8] Federal Advisory Committee Act, secs. 2(b)(6), 5(b)(2);  Gen. Services Admin., The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

 

 

 

Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

The July 8 launch of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights continues to draw comments, pro and con.[1]

On July 17, 2019, Secretary Pompeo was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt, primarily about the Second U.S. Ministerial on International Religious Freedom.[2] In addition, the Secretary made the following comments related to the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights:

  • “No previous administration has prepared to defend this most basic freedom – you talked about that, Hugh – absent having the capacity to believe what you want, and to act in accordance with your own conscience. All of the other things that we talk about as freedoms or rights are subservient to . . . [the freedom of religion and belief]. So very important that we advocate on behalf on this. Some 80 percent of the people in the world today live in religiously restricted environments.”
  • “[N]ations become stronger when they permit their citizens to exercise their core beliefs about who they really are. . . .[This is good for other countries] in terms of their capacity to build out their country, to grow the economy in their nation, to keep their country secure and safe. This central premise of religious freedom makes countries stronger. It doesn’t create risk. . . . [It’s in the best interest of every country] to increase the religious freedom in their country.”
  • “President Trump and the administration take this central core idea of religious liberty as a very important priority for the State Department, and indeed all of our government.”
  • “[T]he mission that I have given Professor Glendon and her colleagues [on the Unalienable rights Commission] . . . is to go back to the fundamental grounding of human rights that the founders have set forth for us, to evaluate the various components of those human rights. Which ones are central? Which of this set of rights are core to America’s success, and indeed, more broadly, the success in the world?”
  • “[W]hen everything is a right, these most fundamental, foundational rights are neglected . . . and will misdirect American policy. We won’t be focused on those things that are most central to American security around the world.”
  • The Commission has been asked “to go back and reground. . . . [The] State Department hasn’t done this in decades and decades, and I’m optimistic that they’ll come to a conclusion that will be important for the United States as we move forward, thinking about how to frame how the United States speaks about human rights and fundamental rights all around the world.”
  • “[T]he fear in many of these countries is if they grant these set of rights, that they will lose political control. But in fact, the opposite is true. Leadership that takes these rights seriously becomes stronger, their people become more capable of helping in the governance of their nation. You get good economic benefits too, but you get enormous social good that comes from the guarantee of this set of rights.”
  • “We’re very focused on our mission. The fact that some on the left have become sort of crazed by the fact that we’re . . . trying to create this religious freedom around the world, or define the central rights for every American, I find confusing, befuddling, and perhaps suggestive that they know they have the wrong end of the stick, and we are going to ground America in our constitutional understandings in ways that some . . .wish wouldn’t happen.”

After this interview, Hewitt published a laudatory account of this Commission.[3]“Pompeo is echoing Jefferson and Madison when he said there is ‘a central premise’ that ‘religious freedom makes countries stronger’ — that it produces security and safety as well as economic growth. Religious liberty is a building block of political stability; religious pluralism the cement of sturdy, long-lived states. . . . [T]he understanding is ascendant rising that only genuine tolerance of competing religious belief systems — wide-open but noncoercive invitations to preach and proselytize any faith claim — is the building block of political stability.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Chair, Tony Perkins, unsurprisingly applauded “the creation of this Commission as another way of ensuring that the protection of these fundamental rights – the most foundational of which is freedom of religion or belief – is a core element of strategic policy discussions.”  The Vice Chair, Gayle Manchin, agreed: “To the degree that this new Commission within the State Department can help further communicate from Washington to the Department’s farthest outposts the importance and urgency of religious freedom concerns as a fundamental human right, we believe this will lead to higher impact negotiations on behalf of the more than 70% of the world’s population that is currently suffering persecution or abuse.”[4]

Also supportive was Gary Bauer, a prominent Christian conservative activist, who said, “This administration has reached new levels of commitment on the fundamental right of freedom of religion that’s unprecedented historically, and I hope it will continue for decades ahead.”[5]

Skepticism about the Commission, however, continues to be voiced.

Rebecca Hamilton of Just Security warned that “the ‘natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition both to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community. . . . Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, expressed concern about the administration’s distinction between ‘unalienable rights’ and ‘ad-hoc rights,’ as well as its ‘seemingly permissive stance on a variety of human-rights abuses’ around the world. The head of Human Rights Watch was even more dismissive: “We don’t need a commission to figure out that the Trump administration will have little credibility promoting human rights so long as the president continues to embrace autocrats.” According to Amnesty International, “This approach only encourages other countries to adopt a disregard for basic human rights standards and risks weakening international, as well as regional frameworks, placing the rights of millions of people around the world in jeopardy.”[6]

Rob Bereschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and now the Senior Vice President, Policy for Human Rights First, a U.S. nonprofit, stated, “Given the way in which the Commission was conceived, without the input or awareness of the State Department’s human rights experts or members of Congress, many in the human rights community are skeptical of its motives. Secretary Pompeo has asserted that the body is meant to focus on ‘principles’ rather than ‘policy,’ but that’s a blurry distinction at best. The principles under which the United States advances human rights are well-established, and much of the criticism from human rights advocates concerning this administration centers on its violations of those rules. Each time the president attacks America’s free press as an ‘enemy of the people,’ or the administration obscures its role in separating children from their parents, or selectively highlights Iran’s poor human rights record while downplaying that of Saudi Arabia, U.S. credibility is undermined.”[7]

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, castigated Secretary Pompeo for his pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[8]

Therefore, said Cohen, “there is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”

“Modern human rights are grounded on the dignity inherent in every human being. They are not God-given rights, or Trump-given rights, and they apply to people of all faiths and to those who have none. They include freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion, and the “right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” as the Universal Declaration puts it. They involve combating discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.”

Pompeo has talked about the need to go back to concepts of natural law and natural rights at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But, Cohen continued, ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

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[1] This Commission has been discussed in the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); More Comments About the Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019); The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo With Hugh Hewitt of the Hugh Hewitt Show (July 17, 2019).

[3] Hewitt, The forces against religious freedom are ascendant. The Trump administration mounts a defense, Wash. Post (July  20, 2019).

 [4] U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Relig. Freedom, USCIRF Statement on State Department’s Creation of “Commission on Unalienable Rights” (July 8, 2019).

[5]  Toosi, Trump’s religious freedom conference creates awkward alliance, Politico (July 14, 2019).

[6] Drezner, Can any good come out of the Commission on Unalienable Rights? Wash. Post (July 10, 2019).

[7] Human Rts. First, State Commission on Unalienable Rights Must Focus on Reversing Harm Done by Administration (July 8, 2019).

[8] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

 

President Trump’s Unsound Action Regarding the U.S. Prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba    

On January 30, just before leaving the White House for his State of the Union Address at the Capitol, President Donald Trump signed an executive order regarding the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Guantanamo Bay Executive Order[1]

The Executive Order entitled “Presidential Executive Order on Protecting American Through Lawful Detention of Terrorists” started with these Findings:

  • “Consistent with long-standing law of war principles and applicable law, the United States may detain certain persons captured in connection with an armed conflict for the duration of the conflict” and that since 9/11 the U.S. “remains engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” (Section 1(a), (b).)
  • “The detention operations at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay are legal, safe, humane, and conducted consistent with United States and international law.” (Section 1(c ).) “Those operations are continuing given that a number of the remaining individuals at the detention facility are being prosecuted in military commissions, while others must be detained to protect against continuing, significant threats to the security of the United States, as determined by periodic reviews.” (Section 1(d).)

The Order than addressed the Status of Detention Facilities at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. After revoking President Obama’s January 22, 2009, executive order ordering the closure of those facilities (Section 2(a)),  it stated, “Detention operations at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay shall continue to be conducted consistent with all applicable United States and international law, including the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005” and the U.S. “may transport additional detainees to U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay when lawful and necessary to protect the Nation.” (Section 2 (b), (c))

The Order also directed certain government officials to “recommend policies to the President regarding the disposition of individuals captured in connection with an armed conflict, including policies governing transfer of individuals to U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay.” (Section 2 (d).)

There, however, were modest concessions to the plight of the detainees and other interests. It states, the detainees “shall [be] subject to the [previously established] procedures for periodic review . . . to determine whether continued law of war detention is necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States” (Section 2(e)); the order shall not “prevent the Secretary of Defense from transferring any individual away from the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay when appropriate, including to effectuate an order affecting the disposition of that individual issued by a court or competent tribunal of the United States having lawful jurisdiction” (Section 3(a); the order shall not “affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful permanent residents of the United States, or any persons who are captured or arrested in the United States” (Section 3(b); and the order shall not “prevent the Attorney General from, as appropriate, investigating, detaining, and prosecuting a terrorist subject to the criminal laws and jurisdiction of the United States” (Section 3 (c ).

The State of the Union Address[2]

The President announced that he had “just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay. I am also asking the Congress to ensure that, in the fight against ISIS and al-Qa’ida, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists — wherever we chase them down.”

He also said, “My Administration has also imposed tough sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.”

Reactions

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, said the prison at Guantanamo Bay “is widely viewed around the world as a facility incompatible with the American principles of fair trial, human rights and the rule of law.” Moreover, this decision “will be seen by many as a signal of an American return to the excesses of the war on terror — the use of torture, extraordinary renditions and C.I.A ‘black sites.’”[3]

Admiral Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, said Cohen, once testified to Congress that the “detention center at Guantánamo has become a damaging symbol to the world and that it must be closed. It is a rallying cry for terrorist recruitment and harmful to our national security, so closing it is important for our national security.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) stated, “Trump’s planned executive order is not the last word on the fate of Guantánamo, any more than his attempted Muslim bans and arbitrary transgender military ban—struck down by the courts—were the last word on those matters. CCR has filed a new legal challenge to the illegality and racism driving Trump’s Guantánamo policy and demanding detainees’ release. It is the courts, not the authoritarian-in-chief, that will ultimately determine the fate of the men detained at Guantánamo.”[4]

The just mentioned CCR action on behalf of 11 Guantánamo detainees was filed on January 11, 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It alleges that Trump’s proclamation against releasing anyone from Guantánamo, regardless of their circumstances is arbitrary and unlawful and amounts to “perpetual detention for detention’s sake.”  This move was supported by Muslim, Faith-Based and Civil Rights Community Organizations.[5] On January 18, the court ordered the federal government to provide information about its Guantánamo policy.[6]

The New York Times in an editorial supported this challenge to the continued detention of individuals at the U.S. prison in Cuba. The editorial stated, “the men make a straightforward case for their release. The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo must have a “meaningful opportunity” to challenge the legal and factual grounds for their detention, which means that the federal courts have the power to review those claims and grant any appropriate relief. If the Constitution stands for anything, the plaintiffs argue . . ., it must stand for the proposition that the government cannot detain someone for 16 years without charge.”[7]

Conclusion

The U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay has long been a major source of legitimate complaints against the U.S. and should be closed as soon as possible, not potentially expanded as this Executive Order would permit. In addition, this prison provides Cuba with its strongest argument that the U.S. has breached its 1905 lease of the site of the prison from Cuba.[8]

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[1] White House, Presidential Executive Order on Protecting American Through Lawful Detention of Terrorists (Jan. 30, 2018).

[2]   White House, President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union Address (Jan. 30, 2018).

[3] Cohen, Trump’s Volk and Vaterland, N.Y. Times (Jan. 31, 2018).

 

[4] Center for Const’l Rts, Guantánamo Attorneys blast Trump “Keep Gitmo Open” Order (Jan. 30, 2018).

[5]  Brief of Amici Curiae Muslim, Faith-Based, and Civil Rights Community Organizations in Support of Petitioners’’ Motion for Order Granting Writ of Habeas Corpus, Awad al Bihani v. Trump, Case No, 1:09-cv-00745-RCL (D.D.C. Jan. 22,  2018).

[6] Center Const’l Rts, Court Orders Government to Clarify Guantánamo Policy, Attorneys React (Jan. 18, 2018); Order, Awad al Bihani v. Trump, Case No, 1:09-cv-00745-RCL (D.D.C.J an. 18, 2018).

[7] Editorial, Donald Trump vs. Guantánamo’s Forever Prisoners, N.Y. Times (Jan. 16, 2018).

[8]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Resolution of Issues Regarding Cuba Lease of Guantánamo Bay (April 4, 2015); Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims  (April 6, 2016); Does Cuba Have the Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantánamo Bay? (April 26, 2015)

 

Contemplations of Life and Death  

My contemplations of mortality and those of Roger Cohen have been subjects of previous posts.[1] Additional contemplations are prompted by an article by two philosophy professors, John Kaag and Clancy Martin.[2]

Their starting point is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” in which an anonymous traveler discovers a bust and pedestal, half-buried in windswept sands, with the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

This poem, they say, delivers a perennial message: “All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline.” Our existential fragility “is overlooked in most of our waking hours” and “must be faced even by the greatest among us.”

We, however, “tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.” We “pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.”

“As surely as time passes, [however,] we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.” But “we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone.”

If we succeed in liberating ourselves from the delusion of immortality, “we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.”

All of this makes sense to me, but this article does not provide guidance on how one should decide what to do “day after week after precious year.” For me, this triggers the Christian notion of vocation and the words of Frederick Buechner, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said “the word ‘vocation’ . . . means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]

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[1] Previous posts: Intimations of Mortality (Mar. 8, 2012); Mortality (Apr. 8, 2014); Death Certificates’ Documentation of Mortality (Apr. 11, 2014); Why I Do Not Hope To Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); Further Reflections on Ezekiel Emmanuel’s Desire to Die at 75 (Sept. 30, 2014); Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom (Dec. 3, 2016).

[2] Kaag & Martin, Looking Death in the Face, N.Y. Times (Dec. 26, 2016),

[3] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings? (Dec. 7, 2016).

Where Is the Sense of Vocation in Roger Cohen’s Writings?

A prior post provided a positive review of Roger Cohen’s comments about life and death in his New York Times columns. While reaffirming that assessment, his selected comments in that review do not directly express a sense of vocation. Perhaps there are other columns that do just that. If so, I would appreciate someone pointing them out.

Vocation is at least a Christian concept that may not be familiar to Cohen, who is Jewish. Here then are my thoughts on vocation from prior posts.[1]

Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church in a recent sermon presented the challenge of vocation or calling this way: “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Vocation also has been discussed by, an author and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He said the word ‘vocation’ “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, vocation implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group. Moreover, some people discover a vocation when they respond affirmatively to someone else’s invitation or request to do something. Others embark on a vocation that they choose by themselves. I have experience with both of these.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors.

My latest vocation is researching and writing posts for this blog to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, to share my knowledge of international human rights law and other subjects and to attempt to articulate an intelligent exposition and exploration of important issues of Christian faith. It is my way of doing evangelism.

I imagine that Roger Cohen must have a similar sense of vocation about his writing columns for the New York Times regarding international and domestic political topics and living and dying even if he does not articulate this personal endeavor as a vocation. His new column, The Rage of 2016, is certainly a passionate and despondent reflection on what is happening in our world these days. It ends with the following:

  • “The liberal elites’ arrogance and ignorance has been astounding. It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance cannot be met by more of the same. I fear for my children’s world, more than I ever imagined possible.”

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[1] My General Thoughts About Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.”  Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.

“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts

“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”

“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”

“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”

In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”

“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”

“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”

“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”

“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”

“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”

“The dead whisper to us, they console us, they admonish us. Love more, love better. Do not . . . go gentle into that good night.

Other Columns

Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.

In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”

The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”

Another May 2015 column, “The Presence of the Past, ” contained these observations about how we experience the past:

  • “As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
  • “Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
  • “Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
  • “Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”

His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:

  • “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
  • “I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”

This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:

  • “’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
  • “’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
  • “In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”

The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:

  • “It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
  • “What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
  • “There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”

Cohen’s Biography[1]

Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.

That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels.  In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.

Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).

Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.

One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.

Conclusion

Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.

Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.

As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.

Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.

These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.

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[1] Roger Cohen’s biography may be found in the New York TImes, Wikipedia and Jewage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mortality

Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):

  • “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.”

The New Testament text was from Chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 15: 15-20, 35-38, 42-44, 50-55 (New Revised Standard Version:

  • “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
  • But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
  • So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
  • What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

 The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”

Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”

[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]

“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”

“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”

“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”

“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”

“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”

“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”

“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”

Reflections

Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.

The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.

In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.

Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.

My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.

I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.

In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.

Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.

As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.

As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.

I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.

This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.

This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Times column entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”

Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”

Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”

I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children.  The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”

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[1] Prior posts have discussed this year’s other Lenten themes of mindfulness, humility, mercy and repentance.