Friday, November 06, 2015

Jury Duty

I recently completed a term as a grand juror four our county court system. This first opportunity I had to serve on a jury proved fascinating and enlightening. In spite of all the middle- and high-school classes intended to teach us the uniqueness of the American legal system, only serving on a jury brought home the reality that the jury--both the grand and trial versions--is the thing that keeps the United States from becoming a police state.

Without a group of peers--united only in the reasonableness of the common person--to assess the quality of evidence behind a charge, nothing keeps police and attorneys from trumping up charges against anyone they please and thereby ruining lives.

An essential part of this system which pivots on the jury is the character and quality of our police force. Ubiquitous human evil notwithstanding, I think our law enforcement does a good job of conforming to both the letter and spirit of the law. They of course put themselves in harm's way on a regular basis, and must be ready to adapt to a dizzying array of difficult and obscure circumstances, ascertaining how to uphold the law and guard safety within a complex world. I thank God that, although as far from perfect as any human system is bound to be, our police forces generally serve the rule of law and not the whims of personal gain or political party.

What surprised me most was the difficulty we reasonable peers had in keeping ourselves tied to the narrow task of a grand jury. Our mission was to determine whether the evidence presented serves as reasonable cause to believe that an accused person committed a crime. We were not to determine the guilt of the accused, "beyond the shadow of a doubt." We were not to play defense attorney (whose role was conspicuously absent from the proceedings), and decide what other evidence might be pursued to establish guilt or innocence. We had to limit ourselves to the evidence given and what it suggested to us reasonable people.

A few times among the twenty or twenty-five cases we heard, the defendant would choose to address us. I  was surprised by how the testimony of the defendant polarized us. Some of us would hear the defendant and come to the conclusion that s/he was guilty. Some of us would hear that testimony and from it begin to second-guess the possible interpretations of the district attorney's evidence. We would begin to seek a "shadow of doubt" on the defendant's behalf. Neither of these pursuits fell under our job description. Only in the rare case that the credibility of witnesses came into play did a defendant's testimony change our course; but how easily we were drawn into the tempting work of a trial jury rather than a grand jury. How swiftly, it seems, we savor the opportunity to play the judge of persons rather than evidence! How often we wanted to say the final word in the case!

Drawing ourselves back, time and again, to our designated course we managed, I think, to do our job in good conscience. I would gladly serve again. In my case juggling jury duty and work was not impossible, though my time with my family certainly suffered deficiency during those four weeks. (Perhaps after my children are out of the house, or after I have retired from my primary employment, I could volunteer to serve as a juror more regularly.)

I believe with even firmer conviction now, however, that serving on jury duty constitutes one of our core obligations as citizens. If I were a defendant, rightly or wrongly accused, would I want juries that rubber stamp the opinions of district attorneys--especially those who bare their teeth quickly so as not to appear "soft on crime"? Would I want jurors examining my case whose first priority was getting it over with and getting back to their mundane routine?

I would rather make this valuable system the best that it can be, which means precisely being one thoughtful person, in a group of twenty-two, for ninety hours every six years. It's not much to pay for a better justice system.

And we twenty-two strangers, thrown together in the secret society of the jury room, bonded in small but important ways. We were generous with our coffee-making skills, took an interest in each other's stories, and one of our number even baked apple crumb bars to celebrate our last day of work together. I speculate that the combination of difficulty and value in our work served to bring us together. Most people I hear talk about getting a jury summons roll their eyes and sigh. I hope that now twenty-two fewer of us will think that way about our duty.

~ emrys

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Imperial Dreams

Few international news arenas garner as much attention in American media as conflict in the Middle East, and especially conflict in the Middle East connected with Israel. So from page one I felt that Ephraim Karsh's 2007 book, Islamic Imperialism: A History, would bring some helpful context to much of the media chatter around me.

The subtitle "A History" has a fascinating multivalence about it. "A history" says that this book is not a policy manifesto. With thorough notation revealing great depth of research, Karsh's text gives the reader an expansive look at the topic from the days of Muhammad up to the first decade of this century. The knowledge brought to bear about Middle Eastern history, literature, and politics reflects what I would expect from the founding director of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London (among many other distinguished titles). Nonetheless Karsh remains focused on one slice of history; this is not a history of Islam, or Islamic cultures, but rather a history of Islamic imperialism. The focus is on the historical pattern of Islamic leaders seeking to unite Muslims, or Arabs, or the known world, under a single political entity.

"A history," emphasis on the indefinite article, suggests that it would be possible to write another history of the same topic. And many other authors undoubtedly would.

This history was, I took note early on, written by an author born of parents who moved to Israel under the British Mandate of the early 20th century, attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and attained the rank of major in the Israeli Defense Forces. This personal context might explain why this book, undergirded on every page by such clear and extensive research, evinces a tone of disdain for all things Islamic or Arab. Even the positive cultural attributes of past Middle Eastern societies are treated with an upturned nose. The space between the lines of this text declare that there is nothing good--perhaps nothing redeemable at all--about Islam or Arabs.

Karsh's hammer drops in the Epilogue, ringing in the conclusion built up throughout the book that imperialism is an unworthy fantasy: "if the political elites of the Middle East and elsewhere were ever to reconcile themselves to the reality that there is no Arab or Islamic nation, but only modern Muslim states with destinies and domestic responsibilities of their own, the imperialist dream would die" (p240). The idea that Islam or "pan-Arabism" could unify a people worldwide, says Karsh, is a complete illusion. The only real geopolitical entity is the modern nation-state.

The book raises enough examples of Muslim and Arab leaders behaving poorly so as to secure the prejudices of anyone with a shred of bias against those descriptors. This attitude may be the factor which will keep the book in circulation, especially now that ISIS/ISIL fits Karsh's mold so nicely. But Karsh's assertion that worldwide Islamic unity must surrender to the lines on a map (which same lines are the sole proof of Israel's legitimacy, let us not forget), comes part-and-parcel with another assertion about Islam as a faith. Muslims must "reconcile themselves to the reality of state nationalism . . . and make Islam a matter of private faith rather than a tool of political ambition" (p241).

Many of us would, I think, agree that an imperialism (of any faith) which seeks to destroy others--like Karsh's historical examples and ISIS/ISIL today--should be dismissed. However, I wonder if privatization of faith and the limitation of social ambition to national boundaries provide a desirable--or workable--solution. I can sympathize with this book's desire to offset the atrocities of past empires, but I don't know that "imperialism," as a desire to influence those currently outside our sphere of influence, is the proper dragon to slay.

To brass tacks: As a Christian I believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all creation and history, the head of an empire both spiritual and temporal. I believe that this is good news, on many levels, to those who hear it. I also believe that in Jesus Christ humanity has been given an ethic of self-sacrificing love which, no matter the present faith of a person or group, is the best ethic to follow.

If I, as a voter and potential leader in my own nation, privatize my faith and allow the nation-state to which I belong to establish its own ethic and priorities, then are we better off? Is it not precisely because I believe my nation-state is capable of reflecting the commands and ethics of my Emperor--who calls us to move outward to others--that I can function and serve in this nation-state?

Though I apply to myself the challenge Karsh makes to "Middle Eastern political elites," one of the fascinating minor chords in this book is its absolution of Western, European nation-states in the dilemmas of the Middle East. He insists, against the common interpretation of Middle East conflict as resulting from Western (imperial?) meddling, that all the conflict and tension have arisen from the choices and desires of Middle Eastern leaders themselves. Karsh even goes to so far as to say that the Western powers, even as they take actions against which Middle Eastern leadership protests, are acting as pawns of the Islamic imperialist machinations of the region. It is as if to say that upon entering the seventeenth-century political enlightenment of nationalism, all societies west of Istanbul (not Constantinople!) washed themselves of any responsibility for problems in the Middle East.

As much as I appreciate having my nation (and not insignificantly the State of Israel in the process) absolved, I am suspicious of such a clear line. I have the impression from my own study of history that international affairs are a tangled web of darkness and light. And perhaps, as Karsh's labors imply (but do not say), the value of a political philosophy is best tested not by asking "Nation-state or Empire?" but by asking, "Does it produce good for those within and without?"

Thanks to Frank Amalfitano for allowing me the blessing of this book from his library. It has been an enriching read!

~ emrys