Our Family by Victor Pemberton

My girlfriend Michele’s mother passed away yesterday morning. This post is being written in her memory.

May Alley was born in Liverpool, England in the 1930s. As a young girl she lived through the horrors of World War II, as the Nazis inflicted their terrifying Blitz upon Great Britain. Following the War the UK experienced a severe economic depression, and May came to the United States in the 1960s to look for work.  Living in New York City she married and eventually gave birth to Michele.

Michele and I have been a couple for almost eight years now. I was fortunate enough to meet May on a number of occasions during this time. She was a very sweet woman.

I was often reminded of May when I read the historical novels of London-born author Victor Pemberton.  I initially knew of Pemberton from his work as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who in the late 1960s.  In fact, Pemberton has had a very diverse career in television, radio, and documentary films.

In 1978 Pemberton wrote the ninety minute radio drama The Trains Don’t Stop Here Anymore, which starred Nerys Hughes and was broadcast by BBC Radio.  It was inspired by the lives of Pemberton’s parents.  The play was followed up in 1987 by two additional installments, Don’t Talk To Me About Kids and Down by the Sea.  In 1990 Pemberton was asked to adapt this trilogy into a novel. That book, Our Family, became the first of 15 historical novels, which Pemberton refers to as his “London saga.”

Our Family by Victor Pemberton

Our Family opens in London during the First World War.  Letty Edgington meets Ollie Hobbs, a soldier recuperating from wounds sustained on the French battlefield.  Letty and Oliver fall in love and, despite their very different socioeconomic backgrounds and the objections of their families, marry.  The novel follows their lives over the succeeding decades, through both good times and bad.

Pemberton invests his characters with real humanity.  They are very much living, feeling individuals.  No one among them is all good or all bad; Pemberton succeeds in finding redemptive qualities in even those people who at first glance would seem completely unlikable.  He delves deep into the minds and souls of Letty, Ollie, their families and friends, revealing what motivates their actions, giving us a real understanding of who they are.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of Our Family was the chapters set during World War II.  I am Jewish, and so when I was growing up I learned about the Holocaust.  Additionally, in college I minored in History.  From my classes on European history, as well as outside reading, I gained some knowledge of the events of the War.

But, truthfully, I never truly understood the terrible experiences on the Home Front in Britain until I read Our Family.  Pemberton’s depiction of the Hobbs family’s struggles to survive through five long years of almost-daily air raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe and subsequent rocket attacks on London, seeing their beloved city turned to rubble, watching innocent civilians die in the terrible bombings, is incredibly powerful.  Pemberton communicates all of this in a way that the matter-of-fact text and still photographs of a history book can never achieve.  I was left with a profound admiration for the British civilians who endured half a decade of the horrors of war.

I also came away from Our Family with a realization of what Michele’s mother went through as a young child as Liverpool was bombed, and an understanding of how decades later May could still be traumatized by those events.

Pemberton chronicles the story of Letty, Ollie, and their children through to the late Twentieth Century. When I reached the end of the novel, it was a sort of bittersweet experience. Throughout the course of the book, I had gotten to know the characters so well, and I was reluctant to part with them.  I almost felt like I knew these people personally.

In 2011, after reading Our Family, I e-mailed Pemberton with some of my thoughts concerning the novel, particularly the chapters set during the War. He was kind enough to respond to my missive:

“As I’m sure you have gathered, I myself lived through the horrors of the London blitz, and it is a period in my life that I shall never forget. In many ways, writing those fifteen saga novels, most of them set during that war, has been an attempt by me to exorcise those terrible times from my mind, but the memories still linger, especially the dark moments of sudden death in one’s own family, and the appalling destruction wreaked on the civilian population.

“Yes, Our Family is basically the story of my own family through the ages, Letty and Oliver were my own parents, and Mick is me. Ninety-eight percent of the story is true, and I look back at it with a mixture of affection, bewilderment, amusement, and sadness, the same, I imagine, as with so many other families.”

Pemberton’s novel is a stirring narrative that left me deeply moved. I highly recommend it.

Our Street by Victor Pemberton

The second book in Pemberton’s London saga, entitled Our Street, is also a very heartfelt work. The novel chronicles the friendship between Elsa, an elderly German Jewish refugee, and Frankie, a teenage boy (a fictionalized version of Pemberton himself), in 1940s London.

Although it is not quite as easy to find a copy of Our Street here in the States, it is worth tracking down, as well.  A number of web sites have used copies for sale.

By accident I purchased two different copies of Our Street through used online booksellers. I gave one of them to May, who was a voracious reader. Michele subsequently informed me that her mother had enjoyed the novel, and that it reminded her of her own childhood. I hope that I was able to bring her some small measure of happiness with that gift.

It has been a few years since I read both Our Family and Our Street. I hope to have the opportunity to read them again in the near future. Pemberton’s rich writing is well worth experiencing a second time.

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Star Wars reviews: Republic #61

The new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens comes out in December.  Although I haven’t written much about it on this blog, I’ve been a big Star Wars fan since I was a kid.  At first I was thinking of re-watching and reviewing the previous six movies on this blog as a sort of lead-in to The Force Awakens.  But I realized that so many others have written about them already.  Besides, I just couldn’t decide what order to review them in!

Then it occurred to me to look at some of the tie-ins that have been published over the past 38 years, the comic books and novels.  Most of those have never been examined in-depth.

I know that many people were disappointed in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy.  While I readily acknowledge that those films were flawed, I still enjoyed them.  And they opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the so-called “expanded universe.”  Dark Horse, which had the rights to publish Star Wars comic books from 1991 to 2014, released many excellent stories set during the prequel era.

My favorite writer to work on the Dark Horse comics was John Ostrander.  He has always been incredibly adept at crafting stories that combine action, drama and political intrigue.  This made him particularly well suited to examining the events of the prequel era.

Star Wars: Republic #61 is written by Ostrander, with artwork by Brandon Badeaux & Armando Durruthy and a cover by Brian Ching.  It was published in January 2004.

Star Wars Republic 61 cover signed

Sixteen months after the Battle of Geonosis the Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy.  Senator Bail Organa is en-route from his home planet of Alderaan to the capital on Coruscant when his ship is attacked by space pirates.  Fortunately the Jedi arrive to drive off the raiders.

Landing on Coruscant, Organa is greeted by Senator Mon Mothma.  She is unsettled by the Senate’s willingness to leave oversight of the war to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.  Organa acknowledges he is perplexed the Senate hasn’t discussed the Republic’s recent catastrophic defeat on Jabim.

That evening Organa is secretly visited by Finis Valorum, the previous Chancellor who resigned in disgrace after a vote of no confidence.  Valorum is aghast at the Senate granting Palpatine more and more power.  Organa rationalizes that this is “temporary,” to which Valorum fires back…

“The Senate barters away the fundamental rights upon which the Republic was built! You trust that the tyrant you are creating will give them back to you when the crisis is over? Palpatine will give back nothing! No one who seeks power the way that he does ever surrenders it willingly!”

Valorum informs Organa that Palpatine is using the assault on the Senator’s ship to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa is alarmed by this news.  As their meeting ends the two are unknowingly observed by a cleaning droid equipped with a camera.

The next day Organa has an audience with Palpatine.  The Senator questions the lack of debate on Jabim.  Palpatine waves this away, arguing that if the facts of the Republic’s defeat were on the record it would serve to alarm those whose loyalty is wavering.  Organa then informs the Chancellor that he resents the space pirate attack being used as an excuse to reintroduce the Security and Enforcement Act, and that he will be opposing it.  An unperturbed Palpatine simply replies:

“You must, of course, do as you think best. Might I give you a small warning? It would not be wise for you to see Finis Valorum again. Dirt rubs off so easily, and can tarnish those who would otherwise seem clean.”

Of course Organa detects the implied threats beneath Palpatine’s seemingly polite words, and he begins to ponder if Valorum is correct.  Soon after he and Mon Mothma meet with Valorum, who is preparing to depart Coruscant.  Organa says he is starting to share Valorum’s  suspicions concerning Palpatine.  Valorum boards his ship, which takes off… and then, to Organa and Mon Mothma’s horror, the vessel explodes above the spaceport.

The following day in the Senate, the destruction of the ship by an act of “terrorism” is offered as a further argument for the necessity of the Security and Enforcement Act.  Organa addresses his colleagues, voicing his opposition.  He passionately argues of the dangers that occur when too much power is held by a single individual:

“This chamber is a place of reason, invested with certain powers and authorities! When power is invested in many, it cannot be seized by one! That was the plan and the purpose when the Republic was formed!

“The powers that this Act seeks to invest in the Supreme Chancellor belong to the Senate! They are our responsibilities and given to us in trust…

“We fight for the Republic. But what is the Republic, if not the principles on which it is based? To cast aside those principles would make even a clear-cut victory in this war pointless.”

Despite Organa’s efforts, the Act is passed into law by the Senate.  Although he has lost this battle, Organa tells Mon Mothma he now recognizes the importance of fighting for the integrity of the Republic.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 9

When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were released in 2002 and 2005, Lucas was asked if he was commenting upon George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the passage of the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.  Lucas denied this, stating that both the original trilogy and the back story he utilized in the prequels were originally conceived in the early-to-mid 1970s.  If there was any influence, it was actually Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War.

Lucas went on to state that the prequels were an observation of the cyclical nature of human history.  Specifically he was commenting upon how democracies often give way to dictatorships as citizens willingly give up their rights & freedoms for the promise of security.

This is something that I’ve observed on this blog before, the seductive lure of the so-called “benevolent dictator” who will supposedly guide a nation through turbulent times with a firm hand, relieving the population of the burden of the messy, complicated business of democracy.

I went to see Attack of the Clones in the theater with my father. He didn’t regard the rise of the Separatists and the Battle of Geonosis being secretly orchestrated by Palpatine to enable himself to obtain “emergency powers” from the Senate as a reference to the War on Terror.   Instead my father was reminded of how in 1964 Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in response to a supposed act of aggression by North Vietnam.  This gave the President the power to utilize military force in Southeast Asia to combat “Communist aggression” without a formal declaration of war from Congress.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 12

In 2008 I met Karen Traviss, author of several novels set during the Clone Wars, at a book signing.  As with Lucas, she commented that her books were not inspired by the War on Terror per se, but on reoccurring motifs throughout history.  Traviss stated that just as people seeing the prequels in the early 21st Century might be reminded of Bush, so too would those born in the mid 20th Century recall Johnson and Nixon, and a Roman centurion watching the movies would see parallels to the rise of Julius Caesar.

Nevertheless, when I met John Ostrander at a comic convention in early 2005, he confirmed for me that Republic #61 was certainly his commentary on the War on Terror.

There were several scenes filmed by Lucas for Revenge of the Sith where Padme Amidala, Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, realizing that Palpatine does not intend to relinquish his extra powers once the war concludes, begin organizing the movement that would become the Rebel Alliance.  Unfortunately these ended up on the cutting room floor, although they were included in the extras on the DVD.  As these were omitted from the actual movie, I’m glad that at least in the comic books Ostrander was able to depict some of the events that placed Organa and Mon Mothma on the path to opposing Palpatine.

Ostrander is correct that “temporary” or “emergency” powers granted to heads of state are often anything but transitory and are seldom relinquished.  One only needs look at the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.  I don’t know if Republicans honestly believed that the authorizations that they granted the Presidency in the aftermath of September 11th would simply vanish into thin air once Bush left office.  But they certainly appeared to be completely shocked when Obama utilized those same broad powers to authorize drone strikes and conduct warrantless surveillance on millions of American citizens.

Star Wars Republic 61 pg 21

This is one of the reasons why I am a huge science fiction fan.  Yes, sci-fi is fun with its robots and rockets and ray guns.  But the genre also allows writers to offer commentary on political and social issues via allegory and symbolism.  Often it is much easier to critically analyze these controversial topics by transposing them into the future or onto another planet, to address divisive questions in a setting less likely to arouse bitter partisanship.

Ostrander certainly did this in his work on the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse, crafting stories that were both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Comic book reviews: The Late Child and Other Animals

Sometimes when you read a book your initial reaction is uncertainty, and you ask yourself “How do I feel about this?”  Such was the case with The Late Child and Other Animals published by Fantagraphics.  I finished it almost three weeks ago, and it took me this long to think it over and finally feel that I could sit down and write about it.

The Late Child and Other Animals is written & colored by Marguerite Van Cook and drawn by James Romberger.  It is an autobiographical work.  The first two segments look at the life of Van Cook’s mother Hetty Martin in England during & after World War II, with the remainder of the book offering a view of Van Cook’s childhood & teenage years.

The Late Child and Other Animals cover

Hetty was a woman who had a difficult life, who had to find the strength to overcome numerous obstacles.  During World War II her husband, like millions of other young men from Great Britain, was drafted into the armed forces.  While her husband served abroad, back at home Hetty, her parents and her siblings were among the numerous civilians forced to endure the nightmare of the Blitz.  Van Cook & Romberger powerfully bring across how the horrors of the war existed alongside the mundane, how the British people strove to endure and go about their daily routines, never knowing when death might fall from above.

The end of the conflict brought little peace to Hetty herself.  Tragically her husband was killed while still stationed abroad, not in battle, but in an accident, when his truck drove off a bridge.  Now widowed, Hetty struggled to retain custody of a young child who she has recently adopted.

A few years later Hetty gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite.  The child was conceived out of wedlock, the result of an affair with a married man.  Hetty was forced to appear before a board of inquiry to plead her case, to convince the government that she should be allowed to keep her daughter.  Van Cook & Romberger render this sequence as a surreal nightmare, the middle-aged puritanical men of the Court morphing into a flock of ravenous crows.  The writing, art and coloring all work to evoke the psychological & emotional duress that Hetty endured throughout the hearing, a thinly-veiled inquisition.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 46

From the perspective of 2015, it must be difficult to conceive of what Van Cook’s mother had to go through in order to convince the government not to take her child away.  In certain respects the pendulum has swung in completely the opposite direction.  Now it often is nearly impossible to remove a child from the most abominable examples of parents.

Having said that, the underlying forces and attitudes behind the ordeal Hetty faced definitely remain.  The moralizing, misogynistic judgments that she endured in that official hearing still exist in society, manifesting themselves in numerous other arenas.

The narrative The Late Child and Other Animals then shifts its focus to Marguerite, who grows up in & around Hetty’s hometown of Portsmouth.  Various facets of post-war British society are viewed through her young eyes.  Van Cook’s narration & dialogue is very expressive.  The art by Romberger, in conjunction with Van Cook’s coloring, evokes a variety of moods & atmospheres.  They very successfully bring to life this past era.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 80

The jump to the final segment of The Late Child and Other Animals is unfortunately jarring.  Marguerite is now a teenager in France in the late 1960s.  She is living with her friend Catherine’s family in Paris, and she accompanies them to the northern coast of France for a lengthy summer holiday.  It is never explained how Marguerite came to be in France, how she knows Catherine, or what happened to Hetty.

While on holiday, Marguerite is given a pet rabbit to care for.  At the end of the summer, though, after having bonded with the rabbit, it is taken from her by Catherine’s mother Yvonne, who has it slaughtered right before Marguerite’s eyes.  I was left pondering the motivations of this seeming act of petty cruelty.  It was one of the aspects of the book that I’ve been continually thinking over since I finished it.

Marguerite had previously depicted Yvonne as a somewhat formal, rigid individual lacking in emotional warmth.  Was the French woman merely being hurtful by having the rabbit killed?  Or was she, in her brusque manner, attempting to teach the English teenager a lesson, to show her that life is not fair, that it will often be very harsh, as well as to demonstrate the transient nature of existence?  After this incident, the young Marguerite is contemplative…

“It seems that things must change. The adult world is barbarous. I began to reconstruct my romantic exclusive view of the world, though now I was a little less pure than when the season began.”

The incident prompts Marguerite to begin experiencing some of the disenchantment that many of us go through in our teenage years as we become more aware of the unpleasant realities of the world, the ones that challenge our youthful optimism & idealism.

The Late Child and Other Animals pg 168

Another aspect of this occurred to me.  Shortly before the rabbit was slaughtered, Marguerite had joined Catherine, her parents and her extended family in an enormous end-of summer feast, a culinary extravaganza containing numerous exquisite dishes and recipes.  All of this, when you think of it, came some somewhere; the ingredients did not just materialize out of thin air.

As the summer draws to a close, Marguerite has returned to Paris with Catherine and her family.  One autumn evening, Yvonne serves a stew that Marguerite finds “delectable.”  Asking what it is, she is informed that it is rabbit.  She then asks if it is HER rabbit, and the answer is yes.  Marguerite accepts this.  As Van Cook writes of her younger self, “And so it was I ate my pet and remembered all the fun times of the summer.”

Yes, this could be regarded as a rather blasé attitude.  But I recalled something that filmmaker John Waters wrote in his 1981 book Shock Value.  Reacting to viewers’ outrage that he actually killed a chicken during the filming of Pink Flamingos, Waters queried…

“Don’t most of the people who are horrified at this scene eat chicken? How do they think it gets to their plates? The chickens don’t have heart attacks, for Godsake!”

As with other elements of the narrative, I think that Marguerite’s actions and reactions here are somewhat open to interpretation, offering the reader food for thought (no pun intended).  There is a great deal of depth to the material that Van Cook & Romberger present in The Late Child and Other Animals.  This is one of those works that undoubtedly benefits from re-readings.  I look forward to finding out what impressions it leaves me with when I examine it again in the future.

Attack of the Rocket Cats

One of the women I work with usually gives me her newspaper in the afternoon, once she’s done reading it at lunch. Friday afternoon, she handed me the day’s edition of the New York Post.  Now, the Post is really not my thing, since I find it to be a sensationalistic right-wing rag. I much prefer the Daily News which, as a sensationalistic left-wing rag, is at least somewhat more palatable.  But, anyway, I took the Post so I’d have something to read while waiting for the subway going home. And, browsing through the pages of the paper, I came across this item:

Rocket Cats article

Okaaaay!!!  Yes, according to University of Pennsylvania researcher Mitch Fraas, it seems that the early 16th Century artillery master Franz Helm actually proposed the creation of feline-deployed WMDs.  He even had full-color illustrations prepared to demonstrate these meowing marauders in action.

Doing a little bit of a Google search, I found a similar article in the UK newspaper The Guardian, which stated…

“Circulated widely and illustrated by multiple artists, Helm’s manual is filled with strange and terrible imagery, from bombs packed with shrapnel to missile-like explosive devices studded with spikes.”

Ah, the brilliantly twisted ingenuity of the human mind!

That said, I am not quite sure how exactly Helm arrived at the notion of placing an explosive pack onto the back of a cat and then sending it off to blow up an enemy installation.  There seem to be certain practical issues that he did not consider, such as equipping the gunpowder pack with a long enough fuse to make certain the tabby time bomb did not detonate while still in your vicinity, or a method of ensuring that your kitty commando actually headed off to the intended target.  And, of  course, as any cat owner will tell you, most felines do not like to be picked up. It is difficult enough to wrangle a domestic cat so that you can brush its fur or give it a bath (I speak from experience here).  So the possibility of successfully snatching up a stray cat and strapping a ticking bomb to it without getting your eyes clawed out seems terribly unlikely.

Rocket Cats color illustration

Obviously Helm’s contemporaries felt the same way regarding the drawbacks inherent in successfully creating a weaponized felis catus and tabled the discussion.  After all, there is a glaring dearth of recorded instances of rocket cat attacks in the annals of European history.  Good thing, too; I doubt the SPCA would have approved.

That said, there are two things that we can learn from this.  One, the phrase “military intelligence” has always been an oxymoron. Two, even as far back as five centuries ago, long before the creation of Facebook, people still liked sharing silly cat pictures.

Richard III: Monarch or Monster?

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The recent discovery and identification of the skeleton of the English King Richard III (1452 – 1485) has certainly ignited a firestorm of interest in the deceased ruler.  Prior to this event, I expect that the majority of people who were aware of Richard III knew of him by the villainous reputation so ably propagated by William Shakespeare in the play penned in 1592, more than a hundred years after the monarch’s death in battle at Bosworth Field.

One of the more interesting aspects of this peak in interest in Richard III is the re-examination by certain historians of his character & policies.  The question has been raised as to whether or not he was truly as malevolent as the figure depicted both in Shakespeare’s play and the writings of 16th Century historians.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with a reappraisal of the past, as long as it is done with a certain amount of caution.  It does no good to completely throw out the long accepted views of historic events on nothing more than a whim.  Revisionism is understandably an ugly word, because too often it is utilized in service of presenting an extremely biased, skewed interpretation of events.  But, if approached properly, a revisionist examination can offer up alternate perspectives that challenge our thinking in a healthy manner.

Richard III

Richard III

I am no historian (although I did minor in History in college) so I am certainly not the one to be presenting any sort of overview of Richard III’s life.  Many, many books have been written on the subject, and a number of summaries of his history are also available online.  Suffice it to say, his two year reign was an unsettled one.  There was a certain amount of controversy surrounding Richard’s ascent to the throne of England.  The disappearances of his two young nephews, whom certain people saw as the legitimate heirs to the throne, led to much speculation that he ordered their murders.

However, there are a number of positive accomplishments during Richard’s brief time on the throne.  Among these, he put into practice the issuing of bail, meaning individuals charged with a crime would not have to be imprisoned for years at a time waiting for their trials.  He began what was later to be known as the Court of Requests, wherein the poor who could not afford lawyers could bring their grievances.  Richard also reduced taxes, something that I think many a politician wishes they could claim.

Yes, I expect Richard was involved in activities that should be regarded as immoral, if not criminal.  But consider this: he was a monarch in an era when abuse of power was common, and morality was much less well defined.  A look at Richard’s immediate successors to the English throne demonstrates that he was hardly unique:

Henry VII, who unseated Richard, retroactively declared himself to be King the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field.  This allowed him to declare that any who fought on Richard’s side were guilty of treason, enabling him to seize their lands & properties.  His son Henry VIII is notorious for having two of his six wives beheaded. His 1534 Act of Supremacy made it a treasonable offense to question the King’s authority over the Church of England, and various people were executed for defying it, among them Sir Thomas More.  Henry’s eldest daughter Mary attempted to return England to Catholicism, and was vigorous in the persecution of Protestants, which gave rise to her nickname “Bloody Mary.”

In other words, this was a brutal era in history, and Richard’s actions should at least be partially judged against that backdrop, and against the actions of those who followed him.

It is also worth noting that Shakespeare, when he penned his play, certainly had an eye on remaining favorable with the court of Queen Elizabeth.  Shakespeare knew that, as she was the granddaughter of Henry VII, Elizabeth would want to see the Tudor dynasty presented in the most positive light possible.  Which meant basing his Machiavellian characterization of Richard on the popular line of thought (some would say propaganda) advanced by historians writing during the rule of Henry VII onward.

In the end, I imagine that Richard III was not some sort of black-hearted fiend.  I expect that, like so many of us, he was a complicated figure, one whose actions resulted in both good and bad, positive and negative developments for the country he ruled.

Liberty versus Security

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide, you shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance, now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind, I’m afraid it’s too late
We’re concerned you’re a threat
You’re not integral to the project

Pet Shop Boys, “Integral”

In the last decade, as the “War on Terror” has been raged, first by the Bush and then the Obama administrations, the question of the balance between liberty and security has been a fierce one.  This is not a new debate, though.  The questions and controversies surrounding increased governmental powers and limitations on civil rights date back to the early years of our nation.

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed into law as a reaction to the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus.  Although Lincoln is regarded as one of the greatest of the U.S. Presidents, this is an action that a century and a half later is still hotly debated among historians.  And during World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast within internment camps.

So the continuing reactionary policies of certain politicians in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, although disheartening, are anything but unprecedented.  On December 31, 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.  One provision of the law is that it affirmed the ability of the federal government to indefinitely imprison without trial any individuals, including American citizens.  Many have regarded this as just the latest trampling of the Bill of Rights by an increasingly unchecked government.  Myself, I was very disappointed that Obama signed this into law.  Disappointed, but not surprised.  It is an election year, after all, and he obviously did not want to appear weak on national security.  Whatever else he is, Obama is a shrewd individual who wants to gain a second term as President.  He is certainly not the first politician to forsake his stated principles in order to court votes.

More recently, here in New York City, it has been revealed that the NY Police Department has been conducting extensive surveillance of Muslim-American businesses and students, even going so far as to follow them out-of-state.  There are concerns that the NYPD is not acting on any legitimate leads or suspicions, but rather engaging in racial profiling.  The Associated Press’s revelation of these actions has resulted in criticism not just from the Muslim community, but from officials in New Jersey and Washington DC.  The FBI seems to be regarding the NYPD’s lone wolf tactics as having both damaged several of their own investigations, as well as harming relations between the government and the Muslim community.  Unsurprisingly, despite all of the criticism, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have imperiously refused to back down, retorting that their actions were both legal and necessary to save lives from possible terrorist threats.

It appears that it is within our nature to all-to-quickly give in to fear, to be ready to forsake our liberty for a comforting feeling of security.  We should do well to remember the words often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, namely that those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.

Please keep in mind that I am not claiming that legitimate threats to our security do not exist.  They do, and we need to safeguard against them.  But in the process, it is crucial that we do not destroy the very freedoms we are fighting to safeguard.  There must ever be a balance between liberty and security.  Too much of one extreme or the other can lead to devastating consequences.