Daily Archives: April 14, 2018

The Terrible American Good Friday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Good Friday is somber day, and I think that there was none more somber than Good Friday 1865. Shortly after 10 P.M. at Ford’s theater a handsome and well known actor walked into the booth occupied by President Lincoln at Washington’s Ford’s Theater. The President was there with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and another couple after a very full day of business to watch the play Our American Cousin a farcical look at the visit of an American visiting his English relatives when going to settle the family estate.

Lincoln was looking forward to the play. Though the war continued the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th for all intents and purposes had placed the final nail in the Confederacy’s malevolent coffin, and it was if a burden have been removed from Lincoln’s shoulders. His task now what the reintegration of the rebellious states back into the Union, a task that he believed needed to be accomplished without malice while still seeking justice. He made this clear in his Second Inaugural Address just over a month before:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Just three days before Lincoln had given his last public speech at the White House. It was a practical speech dealing with the nuts and bolts reuniting the country including announcing his support for Negro Suffrage. He said:

“By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.”

In the speech Lincoln discussed the issues related to the new government of Louisiana and its dealings with African Americans, which did not go far enough for Lincoln, who was intent on extending the franchise to vote for all blacks, even if it took time to make it so. John Wilkes Booth was in attendance that day and as he listened he became ever angrier and he vowed to a fellow conspirator Lewis Powell, “That is the last speech he will make” and Booth was going to ensure this himself.

Lincoln had been troubled for some time by terrible insomnia and dreams, both bizarre and ghoulish. A few days before he had told Mary and others sharing dinner with them of a troubling dream which he described in detail, Mary and those at the table so accustomed to Lincoln’s customary wit and humor were stunned as Lincoln spoke. He closed the description with these words:

“Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I entered the East Room, which I entered. There I was met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and a throng of people, some gazing mournfully at the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully: ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President’ was the answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ “Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd…” 

Mary and the others were so upset, particularly with the large number of death threats Lincoln had received throughout the war. However, Lincoln told them all not to worry as “it was only a dream.”

On that Good Friday Lincoln was determined not to mourn, instead of attending Good Friday services or contemplating the war, or reconstruction, he simply wanted to laugh and chose to attend the play, wanting General Grant and his wife to attend. However Grant needed to travel to New Jersey and declined the offer.

Despite this Lincoln was in a cheerful mood, looking forward to the future and discussing all the things that he wanted to see and do after his term in office. Mary was startled by his cheerfulness and Lincoln told her “I have never felt better in my life.” Lincoln and his party arrived late to the cheers of the cast and took their seats in the box about 8:30 to the strains of Hail to the Chief. As the play resumed Lincoln’s bodyguard slipped away to get a drink and about twelve minutes after ten Booth slipped into the box where Lincoln sat watching the play. As the crowd roared its delight at a particularly funny scene a shot rang out and Lincoln’s arm jerked up and he slumped over. Booth then jumped to the stage from the box, injuring his leg and shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” or thus always to tyrants. It was the beginning of a series of attempted assassinations designed to decapitate the Federal government, Secretary of State Seward was badly wounded by Lewis Payne, a third assassin backed out at the last minute and failed to attack Vice President Johnson.

Though physicians sought to save the President the wound was mortal, the bullet having ender the back of his head, and dug deep into his brain, lodging behind his left eye. At 7:22 A.M. Abraham Lincoln was dead. It was a disaster for the nation as the new President, Andrew Johnson was a political enemy of Lincoln and not in line with Lincoln’s understanding of reconstruction and reconciliation. A poor Southerner from Tennessee, Johnson hated the Southern plantation aristocracy and would act as a punisher, while radical reconstructionist members of the cabinet and Congress would act in such a way that reconstruction would never achieve all that Lincoln believed that it could.

While radical Confederates rejoiced in Lincoln’s death others were more circumspect. Jefferson Davis who was fleeing and hoping to continue the war realized that the South would not fare as well under Johnson as Lincoln. In fact Johnson’s lack of understanding of the nuances of northern politics as well as his loathing of blacks, his “beliefs, prejudices, personality traits were a recipe for disaster at a time when an unprecedented national crisis put a premium on the capacity to think in new and creative ways.”

The Army of the Potomac learned of Lincoln’s assassination on Easter Sunday. Joshua Chamberlain told a woman whose mansion was at the center of his division’s camp when she asked what disturbed him “It is bad news for the South.” When the woman asked if it was Lee or Davis Chamberlain told her that it was Lincoln and said “The South has lost its best friend, Madam.” 

Chamberlain ordered chaplain to conduct a field memorial for the fallen President. The division chaplain a Catholic Priest, Father Egan spoke and roused the men, and Egan ended his service “Better so, Better to die glorious, than live infamous. Better to be buried beneath a nation’s tears, than to walk the earth guilty of the nation’s blood.”

During the war Lincoln had endeared himself to his soldiers and they responded with great emotion. One burst into tears and sobbed “He was our best friend. God bless him,” another wrote home “What a hold Old Abe had on the hearts of the soldiers of the army could only be told by the way they showed their mourning for him.” Admiral David Dixon Porter wrote “The United States has lost the greatest man she ever produced.” 

The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth was a disaster for the country. Sadly, there are some today, in particular the White Supremacist group The League of the South are choosing to celebrate the assassination of the man that they so hate, and honor the assassin as a hero. However, I have to agree with Admiral Porter, there has never been a President before or after who was anything like this man, and I dedicate myself to the quest for equality of all people and for a reconciliation. I will continue to work for that “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln so believed in.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Are the Lamps Going Out Again? Trump Strikes Syria

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I knew that it was coming. I knew that despite the resistance of James Mattis and the Joint Chiefs that President Trump would hit Syria this week, especially as multiple domestic crises engulf his presidency.

I’m not going to say a lot tonight because we don’t know the full measure of the military strikes nor do we yet know the response of the Russians, Syrians, Iranians, or their Hezbollah allies will be.

That being said the U.S. policy towards Syrian has been confused and contradictory for years and that goes back to the Obama administration’s “Red Line” which turned out to be little more than empty words. However the Obama administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS by backing the Kurds and Arabs in Syria and Iraq was successful enough for President Trump to claim credit for it and then announcing that he wanted a quick withdraw from Syria, despite threats to the people that we had spent lives and treasure to protect, and no ISIS still exists and has the capability of recovering; something that it did in 2012 after the U.S. left Iraq.

I did read the President’s statement about the strikes against Syria. While he left out some details the President was telling to truth about Russia and Syria.

That being said we have to be concerned when a habitual liar involved in the midst of scandal tells the truth about something that previously he showed deep ambivalence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “It is worse for a liar to tell the truth than for a lover of truth to lie…. There is a truth which is of Satan. Its essence is that under the semblance of truth it denies everything that is real. It lives upon hatred of the real world which is created and loved by God.” Now we wait to see what happens next; the response of the Russians, Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, not to mention the Turks, Israelis, Saudis, Iraqis, Kurds, ISIS and others with a stake in the game.

He also failed to get consent of Congress, instead relying on the same, tired, Authorization for the Use of Force that Congress granted President Bush after September 11th 2001. While I despise Assad and his barbaric regime and wouldn’t mind him getting the full Gaddafi treatment from the people that he has persecuted for decades, and I totally oppose the Russian assistance to his criminal regime, I believe that this attack was illegal under international law and a violation of the Constitution and and American law. Congress should have been consulted and given consent in a new authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.  Instead he ordered the strikes on his own and sadly even though what he said was correct his decision will now be regarded more in light of the swirling scandals surrounding him than the righteousness of the cause, especially when he has fought to ensure that the same people he is defending are denied entry into the United States as refugees.

As the world went to war in August 1914 “Sir Edward Grey, standing with a friend at the window as the street lamps below were being lit, made the remark that has since epitomized the hour: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Nothing is Unsinkable: A Lesson for the Trump Administration

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1912 the Bishop of Winchester said these words in a sermon marking the end of the R.M.S. Titanic: “Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption,” as well it should. Sadly, it seems that that Trump administration is doing its best to strip away vital safety, health, and environmental regulations that protect people from even worse disasters than that which befell the great ship 106 years ago today.

Sadly President Donald Trump nor the sycophants in his administration or the GOP Congress will never understand the real and symbolic importance. The historian Walter Lord who was one of the most important historians that wrote about the ill-fated ship understood. He wrote in his book The Night Lives On: The Untold Stories and Secrets behind the Sinking of the “Unsinkable” Ship – Titanic:

“How close to “unsinkable” really was the Titanic? Did she embody the latest engineering techniques? Was she as staunch as man could make her? Did she at least represent what we have now come to call “the state of the art”? The answer is “No.” Far from being a triumph of safe construction, or the best that could be done with the technology available, the Titanic was the product of a trend the other way, a trend that for 50 years had seen one safety feature after another sacrificed for competitive reasons.”

The story of the Titanic has been told many times, and it should be a cautionary tale for those who in the name of profit and glory seek to dismantle safety and environmental standards. I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the story, A Night to Remember back in 7th Grade. It made a tremendous impact on me, and every so often I will go back and read it again.

Captain Edward Smith

The Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith, her was blinded by his faith in shipbuilding technology and had said about the Adriatic which he commanded previously, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.” A Senator Said during the hearings about the sinking of her captain, “Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.”

The story of what happened to the great ship is as hard to believe now as it was then, but then incredible tragedies be they the loss of ships, aircraft, buildings or bridges, and even spacecraft always invoke such feelings. When I was told about the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 1986 I remarked to the young soldier who brought me the news “don’t be silly Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” Walter Lord, who was probably the most prolific historian and author of the Titanic disaster used to talk of the “if onlys” that haunted him about the sinking of Titanic: If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come…” 

Bruce Ismay

The word “if” probably the biggest two letter word that plagues human history, looms large in the tragedy of Titanic. The great ship, which was the largest ship and one of the fastest ocean liners of her time was the victim of her owner and operators hubris as much as she was that of the iceberg which sank her. The ship was heralded by Bruce Ismay, the Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line as unsinkable, a claim that was echoed in the press.

Her builders had no such illusions and protested the claims. Thomas Andrews the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards where she was built commented “The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.” 

Titanic was designed with the latest shipbuilding innovations, watertight compartments, a double bottom and equipped with wireless. She was billed as “unsinkable” by her owners but those innovations as advanced as they were for her day were insufficient to save her when her Captain and owners chose to charge through a known ice field at full speed.  Her watertight compartments did not extent far enough up the hull to prevent water from going over them.  Likewise it was never imagined that so many watertight compartments could be compromised.

Thomas Andrews

As far as lifeboats, the great ship carried far too few. Thomas Andrews, her builder wanted 64 had his arm twisted to bring the number to 32 and Titanic sailed with only 16 plus 4 collapsible boats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which required just 16 boats. The fact that Titanic displaced over 40,000 tons and carried two to four times the number of passengers and crew, J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star Line a man who was untrained as a sailor or maritime engineer and who was focused on his company’s bottom line, told Andrews:

“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.” 

Ismay’s focus was on his bottom line and Captain Smith for all of his experience at sea was negligent for not allowing intensive sea trials before the ship’s first and last voyage. Likewise for not seeming to understand the difference between how a 20,000 ton 500 foot long ship and a 40,000+ ton and nearly 900 foot long ship respond to course and speed corrections and how much more time it takes to stop such a massive ship at full speed.

But that was not all. There was no good system for the ship’s wireless operators to get critical information to bridge officers and even the messages about a large ice field ahead of Titanic were ignored, or dismissed and the ship sped on into that last dark night when she hit the iceberg.

Once she struck the berg Titanic was doomed. Her much publicized watertight compartments were not high enough to keep the massive flood of icy seawater from overwhelming damage control efforts. Other design flaws quickened her demise.

But there was  hope. Other ships were nearby but through a combination of lax regulations, bad luck, and miscommunications none would arrive before Titanic slipped into the depths of the North Atlantic.

There were so many “if only” moments. If only Captain Smith and his officers had slowed down as a precaution. If only the lookouts had binoculars to see further, if only Bruce Ismay had not been so obsessed with breaking speed records. If only the Californian had come. Californian was the nearest vessel to Titanic and in easy wireless range. However her wireless was unmanned, she did not have enough operators to man it 24 hours a day.  Her lookouts saw Titanic but despite flares being fired from Titanic she never assumed Titanic to be in extremis. The next nearest ship, Carpathia heard the call and made a valiant attempt to reach Titanic but was too late.

If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay.  Thomas Andrews who scoffed at the ship being unsinkable would go down with the ship; but Ismay ensured his own survival by stealing away in a less than half-full lifeboat, in some accounts disguised as a woman. Ismay is symbolic of men who allow their own hubris, vanity and power to destroy the lives of many.  He is so much like those that helped bring about the various economic crises that have wracked the United States and Western Europe and so many other tragedies. He is much like Donald Trump.

After the disaster the tragedy was investigated by the United States Senate, as well as the British Board of Trade. However, the inquiry of the latter was condemned by the White Star Line’s Archivist, Paul Louden-Brown. He noted: “I think the enquiry is a complete whitewash. You have the [British] Board of Trade in effect enquiring into a disaster that’s largely of its own making.”

Ismay and Titanic are symbols of men guided only by their quest for riches and glory who revel in their power and scorn wise counsel or regulation, government or otherwise. They often believe that rules don’t apply to them. It is a cautionary tale for us today as corporations, lobbyists, and politicians seek to dismantle sensible and reasonable safety and environmental regulations for the sake of their unmitigated profit. Today we are seeing the Trump administration doing all that it can to strip away important safety, workplace, and environmental regulations in order to maximize profits. He even fought installing fire suppressing extinguisher systems in Trump Tower, something that led to the death of one of his tenants last week.

But the warning goes far beyond that, it applies to any of us who adopt the mindset, “this cannot happen to us.” After all, there are times when we all end up as victims of our own hubris, such is the human condition.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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