What a Coincidence

By its very nature, this city must double as a hometown and a tourist town. Over the years, it has attracted many types of visitors. Occasionally, this has included some of what might be called visitors of the close-encounter kind. Although the ideal times to see the sites of this city are Spring and Autumn, these particular tourists seem to favor visiting during the sweltering heat of the month that just passed.

I had been on this planet just six months when others reportedly came here in a manner quite unlike you and I. They, apparently, arrived in vehicles of much greater speed and maneuverability than the F-94 jets sent to identify them. This was after they suddenly appeared on the radar screens at Washington National Airport and at Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases as unidentified flying objects. It was after the pilot of a nearby commercial flight reported watching six bright lights streaking across the sky, “like falling stars without tails.” A headline on the front page of The Washington Post read: “ ‘Saucer’ Outran Jet, Pilot Says; Air Force Puts Lid on Inquiry.”

This was July 26, 1952. Given Washington’s weather, our “visitors” may have been nothing more than that – weather. That is the official Air Force explanation. Those blips on the radar screens, those speedy lights in the sky, they were the results of temperature inversions.

A temperature inversion is when a layer of cold air is trapped under a layer of warm air – commonly occurring in extremely hot weather – causing radar beams to bounce down and make objects on the ground appear to be thousands of feet in the air. This same strange “weather” had happened just the week before, with experienced pilots chasing what they described as lights that were speeding, hovering, changing directions, vanishing at the approach of fighter-jets, and reappearing when the jets left. All of this happened while experienced air traffic controllers watched it play out on their radar scopes. We are to pay no attention to their reports, only to what their superiors say.

That line of reasoning is a persistent one. How else to view its resurrection fifty years later – to the day? Yes, on July 26, 2002 area radar detected an unidentified aircraft with which controllers were unable to establish contact. As reported by Steve Vogel in The Washington Post the next day “…NORAD was notified. When the F-16s carrying air-to-air missiles were launched from Andrews, the unidentified aircraft’s track faded from the radar.” This was reported by a military official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official line of the DC Air National Guard says the launch of the F-16s was “routine”. An area resident who told Vogel he went out to see why military jets were flying low over his home in the middle of the night was convinced what he saw was not routine. “It was this object, this light-blue object traveling at a phenomenal rate of speed,” he said. “This Air Force jet was behind it, chasing it, but the object was just leaving him in the dust.” I recounted all of this in a conversation with a friend a few evenings ago. Much to my surprise, I learned his wife thought it was not routine when she observed the object from their kitchen window.

John Kelly, writing in the Post in July, 2012 about the 1952 incident, sides with those who say it was just the weather, concluding “that asking whether there were any alien spacecraft over Washington in 1952 is like asking whether there were any witches in Salem, Mass., in 1692.” I admit his logic escapes me. Maybe it’s because of my tinfoil hat.


In the last weeks of summer in 2001, I found myself hunting for something in my files, “files” being a euphemism for frayed, yellowing papers stuffed here-and-there. Some idea had come to mind, and I remembered something I had scribbled on the subject at some point before, so I went looking for it. To this day, I cannot remember what I originally had been trying to find because – as often happened – I stumbled across other things which diverted my attention.

What I discovered that summer day were two essays I had written some years before, one of which I had submitted to this city’s commission on the arts and humanities for a contest it was sponsoring. Typed on impossibly thin Coraserble Bond paper, it railed against the geopolitics of the time. I had had high hopes for Iran following the overthrow of its shah, and had grown disgusted that the country’s revolution had replaced the fascism of its right-wing secular government with the fascism of a theocracy. Judging by what I had written, I had been even more disgusted by how the leaders of this country and Europe seemed to have responded. The other essay was written as a humorous piece about a non-humorous subject. It was an open letter to all the world’s disgruntled groups engaging in what some such groups do at times. It was titled “Don’t Bomb Washington”. In it, I explained that the people of this city never do anything to give anyone any reason to bomb us. I pointed out we don’t have a vote in Congress, where most anger-inducing policies are made.

The memory of running across those two pieces remains with me because of what happened three days after finding them. That third day was September 11th, and this city barely missed being bombed. Now, recent events remind me of something I thought then, a thought some might find inappropriate given that day’s carnage, but it is what came to mind nonetheless: “There are not enough jihadists in the world to ever make me forget that the profile of a terrorist in this country is a white male.”

That truth was borne out two weeks ago today in Charleston, South Carolina by one such individual who has said he believes in the separation of the so-called “races”. In his mind, this includes the elimination of the race from which he hopes to separate. One white organization I would support – were it to exist – would be the National Organization to Make Sure White Men Don’t Get Mad About the Wrong Things (N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T.).

White male anger is not necessarily a bad thing. This nation was founded by aristocratic English colonists angry enough to believe they could secede from the English kingdom. When angry American soldiers in Philadelphia demanded to be paid for having fought all the king’s men, the frightened founders – realizing no state could guarantee their protection elsewhere – established this federal district called Columbia as a safe-haven for themselves. The birth of the nation and its capital are just two entries on the list of not-so-bad things resulting from white American male anger.

Then, there is that other list, the one of terrible things. Let’s consider an item near the top. With their angry forbears having successfully seceded from England a mere 77 years prior, Southern aristocrats in some of those former English colonies became mad enough to secede from this country. That might have gone well for them had they not also been angry enough to fire on our Fort Sumter. That was a mistake leading to 630,000 deaths and more than a million casualties, but it was their mistake. The question we find ourselves asking 154 years after we were fired on is “Why does the United States of America continue to pay for the mistakes of the Confederate States of America?”

That’s a question we never would have to ask if we had an N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T. We don’t, so the question must be answered. One answer is a word now commonly associated with 20th century English statecraft and diplomacy: appeasement. If you know your history, you already know it is a word fraught with negative connotations ever since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain mistakenly thought he could appease the anger of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by agreeing to let him annex parts of Czechoslovakia. You also know how Hitler proved him wrong.

Our own appeasers predate Chamberlain by more than 70 years. In a spirit of brotherly love, for the sake of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, our appeasers thought they could “soothe the savage breasts” of the Civil War’s losers by welcoming them back into the nation. It was a noble notion, and may have gotten worthwhile results were it not for the fact that the anger of our former antagonists never dissipated. Instead, it metastasized.

Lately, we have been witnessing the beginning of the end of at least one form of appeasement – the official reverence afforded the Confederate battle flag. It is not enough that the freedom granted by our Constitution allows people to display their ancestral disdain for the nation on bumper stickers and billboards. They have expected their state to display it as well, and the idea that the state might disagree makes them angry. Frightened by the prospect of that anger turning into the loss of elections, legislators have capitulated and anti-American flags have been flying on government grounds. As for the rest of us, we have not been angry enough to do much more than protest. Now, because of the confluence of tragedy and guilt, this one type of coddling will cease. Of course, angry new-age rebels do more than wave flags. Seven years ago, one burned down a black church because he was mad a black man had won the White House. Fourteen days ago, one killed nine people in church because he was mad black people exist.

The home of Mr. and Mrs. Wilmer McLean in the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House is where this nation’s appeasement of the South began. It was there that the victorious General Grant graciously gave the vanquished General Lee a break instead of what many believed Lee deserved. The appeasement continued during the decades that followed. In 1877, it was the terminating of Reconstruction and removal of federal troops. It was the Supreme Court’s Plessy decision in 1896, which made racial discrimination legal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two years ago, the Court weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the midst of voter suppression. Two days ago, we learned the Court has agreed to hear yet another challenge to affirmative action during its next session. Despite all of this and more, it never has been enough. A war we pretend ended a century-and-a-half ago continues to be fought in angry hearts and minds.

In high school, I had the fun of playing the title character in a production of “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” from William Thurber’s revue, A Thurber Carnival. In that skit, a drunken Grant surrenders to Lee, providing more irony for audiences than Thurber might have imagined or intended. Playing Grant is one thing, but in real life I am only 16.5% white, so I am not the best candidate to take a swing at starting something like an N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T. More of the 100% folk need to grab a bat and step up to that plate.

Chances Are

One summer evening, after gathering at my apartment in Anacostia, DC, a group of my friends and I piled into someone’s car and headed off to see the group War perform at the DC Armory. Concerts at the Armory were sit-on-the-floor affairs – literally, there was no seating. The show had just begun when my friends and I, and those sitting near us, heard the low but growing rumble of what sounded like approaching thunder. We turned our gazes from the stage toward the sound, and saw what looked like a tsunami. A rising wave of panicked, stampeding human bodies was headed right for us, people who already had spied the wave approaching them and had instinctively leapt to their feet and turned to run away. If the question of “Why?” ever entered anyone’s mind, it was a fleeting thought. We knew only that we must move. We jumped up and turned to run just in time to be swept up and carried along like flotsam. I had taken pillows from my sofa, pillows I never saw again. A friend lost his glasses. Other concertgoers lost shoes and other items. We were the lucky ones. Some had been nearly trampled or crushed, and had to be carried out in ambulances which had been driven right onto the Armory floor.

Once the crowd began to pour through the doors in a rushing torrent, things slowly began to calm. We soon learned a fight had broken out in a far corner of the venue, and those nearby who tried to move out of the way apparently started a chain reaction of retreat. Once the ambulances left, the show resumed, and people settled down on the floor once again as if nothing unusual had occurred. The chances of the same thing happening again did not seem to enter people’s thoughts.

I remember that evening as having presented me with what I thought was a moment of clarity. I used to wonder how people who had experienced an earthquake could so casually resume their lives in the same location. It came to mind again as I sat back down to listen to the music. “Oh”, I thought, “people just take their chances, even in situations like this”.

The recent deadly flooding in Texas and Oklahoma brings to mind this very point. One elderly man being rescued commented to reporters that all of it was nothing more than a bad, hundred-year flood he had heard about all his life. “Well”, I thought, “if he knew all along that a bad one was due, I guess he just always has taken his chances.”

Life goes on, as it must, but sometimes it makes no sense to keep doing the same things in the same ways. The destruction from flooding in Houston, the nation’s fourth most-populous city, must be considered alongside this fact: there are real estate websites that tell people in Houston and its surrounding areas exactly how FEMA has assessed the flood risk there – assessments that cover centuries. Home buyers are informed that the 100-year flood plain carries a 1% chance of being flooded in any given year, and a 26% chance of flooding during a 30-year period. The 500-year flood plain has a 0.2% chance of being flooded in any given year, and a 6% chance of flooding during a 30-year period. Potential residents also are told that localized street flooding can happen anywhere in a heavy rain, not only in the 100 and 500-year flood plains.

Before the age of websites, of course, people have posted warnings for posterity’s sake, warnings that often are unknown or unheeded. Think Leviticus, for instance. Whatever your opinion of the dietary restrictions found in that book, looking at them through modern eyes may make you appreciate their efficacy. As pointed out by the Biblical Archaeology Society “Like other ancient peoples, the early Jews avoided certain foods and other practices through simple observation of the dangers. Many of their statutes form a basic health-and-hygiene guide for any people living in a warm, arid climate without the luxury of refrigeration and availability of advanced medical treatment. They observed that in a hot climate, mixing milk and meat can have a bad effect on health. The prohibition against eating shellfish makes sense if you consider they are potentially deadly for a consumer if water reaches a certain temperature. Spoiled finned fish is readily detectable by smell and taste, but not so with shellfish. Pork rots easily. Spoiled pork is more dangerous than other meats like goat and – because of a pig’s diet and lack of ability to sweat – can contain up to 30 times more toxins than beef or venison, thus a potential health hazard as well as a possibility of transferring parasites.”

What has been happening in Texas recently brings much more to mind about heedlessness and risk taking than memories of that War concert or thoughts about Leviticus. I am reminded of the tsunami that struck Japan following the 2011 earthquake. For me, the most stunning revelation to follow those events were the reports about ancient warnings. Unlike what we read about the Ten Commandments, the Biblical dietary restrictions were not written in stone. The Japanese warnings were. As Martin Fackler wrote in The New York Times in April of that year “Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation. But modern Japan, confident that advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas, came to forget or ignore these ancient warnings, dooming it to repeat bitter experiences when the recent tsunami struck. The flat stones, some as tall as 10 feet, are a common sight along Japan’s northeastern shore, which bore the brunt of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left almost 29,000 people dead or missing.”

The forbears who erected the stone outside the small village of Aneyoshi were specific in their caution, writing “Do not build your homes below this point!” Paying attention paid off. Fackler writes “Residents say this injunction from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami…that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone.”

We may be risk-averse as a species, but not so much as individuals. So, as we will inevitably continue to take chances and place ourselves on shaky ground at times, perhaps its best to remember the words of Aneyoshi villager Isamu Aneishi who said “We are proud of following our ancestors, but our tsunami stone can’t save us from everything.”


“…when will they ever learn?”
from Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger

The one thing that never should be forgotten about men is they used to be boys. With any understanding of the latter creatures, one might begin to fathom how the former come to be. One feature of boyhood is stupidity, which is distinct from ignorance or naiveté. Stupidity requires knowledge; it is an essential component of being stupid – the ability to knowingly do foolish things. The latest police-inspired conflagration is a case study in the condition.

The “latest,” as of this moment, is the death in another American city of yet another young black man at the hands of police. This time it was the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, who died almost exactly like another young black man in that city ten years ago: arrest, police wagon ride, broken neck, days in the hospital, dead. Gray saw the police, and ran. The problem was the response, giving chase. As attorney Billy Murphy, Jr., – scion of a prominent black family in the state – has repeatedly pointed out to reporters, running is not a crime. I guess that should be obvious, but I never had given it any thought before a decade ago as I sat in a courtroom and heard that very same thing from a judge.

I was observing the trial of a juvenile defendant. The twelve-year-old boy had been one of four boys on a playground a block from his home when one of his companions – stupidly on a dare – snatched the purse of a woman who was on the playground with her daughters. Terrified, the other boys ran from the scene with the culprit. The boys were chased by the police; the snatcher and one other, my grandson, were caught. Both were charged with robbery. The judge in the case, upon learning that the victim was our next door neighbor, was doubtful my grandson would be an accomplice, but acquitted him on the simple fact that running is not a crime.

Some police seem not to care about this, as evidenced by the recent shooting in the back of Walter Scott, the unarmed man running from a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina. Some officers hate to be run from, and this hatred can blind them to what is right, bringing out the stupid boy in grown men. I know this because of my years as a juvenile probation officer. When my colleagues and I received cases in which one of the crimes with which a youth was charged was Assault on a Police Officer, it usually was a red flag for us. We had come to learn that boys who ran from the police to avoid arrest were often beaten. It seemed officers provided themselves cover for any injuries or complaints by reporting the youths had assaulted them. What I never learned is whether or not the prosecutors who consistently added the bogus charge were in collusion with or duped by the police.

We know there are many problems between some communities and some of their police, problems endured generation after generation. They are only magnified when they reemerge vividly month after month and week after week. An unjustifiable foot chase is one thing. An unjustifiable death caused by police action or inaction is one thing too much, especially when unresolved or resolved unsatisfactorily.

We know, too, that geography has no bearing – neither the Northeast nor the Midwest, the far West nor the deep South is immune. Baltimore is just thirty-five miles from here, but it happens here in Washington and right across the river in Virginia. In August, 2013, John Geer (who was white) was shot and killed by a Fairfax County police officer as he stood with his hands up in the doorway of his house in Springfield. Nearly a year-and-a-half later, the officer’s name had not been released, and he remained on paid desk duty. We now know his name, but that’s about all. Just this past February, 37-year-old Alexandria mother Natasha McKenna was killed at the Fairfax County Jail. The 130-pound woman, already in a cell, was placed in full restraints (handcuffs behind her back, leg shackles and a mask) by six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, and then given four 50,000-volt shocks from a stun gun. McKenna’s only crime was being schizophrenic. The investigation into her death continues.

Here in DC, every year for three years running – 1996, ’97 and ’98 – a black police officer was shot mistakenly by a white police officer; witnesses to the death of Officer Thomas F. Hamlette, Jr., the son of a retired officer, said he was killed while lying on the ground. In 2007, fourteen-year-old, unarmed DeOnte Rawlings was killed by police under circumstances still not adequately explained. In March, a homeless man carrying a tree branch was killed in a subway tunnel by a Metro Transit officer. To date, none of these deaths has resulted in any police being charged.

In cities like Baltimore and Washington, with large numbers of black officers and black officials, it is believed by some that death at the hands of the police shows racial prejudice in policing is a myth. It does not, and there is no absolution or solace to be found in the fact that some black police kill black people with impunity. If anything, this fact gives potency to a long forgotten phrase from a frequently forgotten group: the Black Panther Party, which used to say “A pig is a pig is a pig,” making no distinctions regarding color.

Is the path taken by the Panthers one that needs to trod again? The reasons for the Party’s formation were not plucked out of thin air. Consider the words of former Panther Frank Jones when questioned by a member of the House Committee on Internal Security in 1970:

Mr. ROMINES. Does the Black Panther Party encourage members of the black community to possess weapons?
Mr. JONES. Yes.
Mr. JONES. For self-defense. The Black Panther Party, when I joined, was titled the “Black Panther Party for Self- Defense.” That title was chosen because of the activities of police officers in the city of Oakland, primarily. They often showed disrespect for the homes and persons of people in the black community. The Black Panther Party was instituted with the intention of instilling in the black people in that area their right to defend their homes and the necessity of doing so.
Mr. ROMINES. Does the Black Panther Party differentiate at all between black and white policemen?
Mr. JONES. Not on that basis, no. I think they differentiate between good and bad policemen.
Mr. ROMINES. The vast majority of the cartoons that I have seen depict white policemen.
Mr. JONES. I don’t think so; I think the vast majority would depict a pig dressed in a policeman’s uniform.
Mr. ROMINES. And no intent on the part of the Panther Party to say this is a white policeman?
Mr. JONES. No.

When Jones testified, it had been only three years since Panther leader Huey Newton had survived being shot by Oakland police, and only a few months since the police murders in Chicago of Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. “Murders” is not hyperbole, given what has been proven since then. FBI Special Agent Gregg York made it clear at the time when he said “ We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”

There was a time when I thought the word “pig” an appropriate sobriquet for the police. My attitude softened somewhat after watching The Tonight Show one night in the early 1970’s. Johnny Carson’s guests were a group of children talking about their parents’ jobs. I remember a little black girl saying her father, a police officer, was not a pig. I’ve tried to keep what she said in mind, but it’s been on a case-by-case basis. That is difficult to do these days when hearing Baltimore police union leader Gene Ryan call peaceful protesters a lynch mob and insist officers did nothing wrong with Freddie Gray. He also impugns the motives of Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney because she dares to bring charges, even though her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, mother and uncles were all police. It sounds as if he is learning nothing from what has happened, as if he’s a petulant and stupid boy.

When bad police officers are called pigs, it is pigs that are getting a bad rep. Besides, it wasn’t pigs the old folks used to tell kids not to run from, it was dogs. Running, they said, only encouraged them to chase you.

Numbered, Weighed and Divided

(A poem follows this piece)

Ours is a species given to naming and numbering people, places and things. “Things” include epochs, eras and ages, though we don’t all agree on how to count. Presently, for example, we are in year three of the newest 5,125-year cycle according to the Mayans. Muslims count this year as the 1,436th since Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina, and Christians count it as the 2,015th since the birth of Christ. For the Chinese, we are in year 4,713, and the Jewish calendar counts it as year 5,775, starting with the Creation. It is the 239th year since we Americans declared our independence from England, but here are two additional numbers, fashioned especially for us, for ages in which we concurrently live but may not realize or choose to acknowledge: 70 and 62.

This coming August will mark the 70th year since we became the only people in the world to ever kill fellow human beings by using nuclear weapons. August also will mark the 62nd year since we overthrew the freely, fairly and democratically elected secular government of Iran, creating the circumstances leading to that nation’s descent into the fascism of theocracy and supposed quest for an atomic bomb. Having foisted these two tragedies upon the world, we now find ourselves scrambling to contain the fallout.

There have been innumerable “evils” that have come into the world as the result of the mythical opening of Pandora’s Box, but the most salient point to be taken from that ancient story is that the box did not open itself. We do these things to ourselves and – if left unresolved – to those who come after us. Ask those who lived through World War II if using the uranium bomb called Little Boy and the plutonium one named Fat Man were evil acts, and you will seldom get “Yes” as an answer. That generation of Americans saw ending the war in that way as a moral imperative. They believed it would have been immoral to subject war-weary soldiers to the horrors of trying to capture the Japanese homeland; better Japan suffer a new and different sort of horror instead. That was the simple calculation. Never mind that the Germans, the very people who made us fear a nuclear weapon was being prepared against us, had been defeated. There was no suspicion of the Japanese being able to carry out such an attack, but exhaustion made expediency seem right.

Now, these many years later, a nation comprised of citizens who either were not born or were children in August of 1945 and 1953 is engaged in what many see as a futile attempt to delay Iran’s entry into that rarefied class of nuclear-armed nations. President Obama, born in August of 1961 and now placed in the untenable position of having to slow Iran’s roll, is pilloried for not doing so to the satisfaction of the right-wing factions of Israel and this country. It would be political suicide for him to point out the breathtaking hypocrisy of telling the Iranians they can’t do what we do. Iran may acquiesce (or appear to) initially, but anyone who believes it will do so for long had better search such names as Darius, Cyrus, or Xerxes. With the exception of China, all the other nations telling Iran “No” are upstarts.

We have played Dr. Frankenstein so often that we have created many monsters we now have to placate or destroy. Add to this the fact we knew some of our acts of creation were not well-intended, but performed them anyway. We can’t blame all of it on our forbears, as we appear set on making some of the same mistakes and leaving the consequences for our descendants. It seems we are in need of that one thing that never escaped from Pandora’s Box, the thing left in the bottom – Hope.

The Vintner

There’s a tale of a man from Palestine
who had a certain way of making wine.
It is said he needed nothing other
than the expressed wishes of his mother,
to which he simply added water.

This was at a wedding he attended
at the home of one whom he’d befriended,
giving his host a chance to proudly say
“The best wine was saved ’til the end of day
in honor of the bride, my daughter.”

And all agreed it was indeed the best,
its qualities much finer than the rest,
not knowing how such wine had come to be,
for there had been no one else there to see
but the servants, who saw everything:

The mother and son in playful dispute,
she saying “You can no longer refute
my point that it would please the wedding guests
if you would deign to do as I request.
They have no more wine, now do something!”

He turned to the servants and they to him.
He asked for water in jars to their brims.
They poured as he had instructed them to,
and saw what wishes and water will do,
and believed nothing was beyond reach.

This all may be just a drunkard’s story,
told to bring himself a moment’s glory,
but many other legends have been told
about this Palestinian of old,
every one a wondrous tale each.

c. 2015

Look Up

Walking along Columbia Road in the Columbia Heights section of Washington one summer afternoon long ago, a voice entreated me to “…look up.” In fact, it said “Brother, look up!”

I did, and saw a young woman beaming down at me from the window of a third-floor flat. I never for a moment thought the exhortation was meant as an invitation, and it was just as well I didn’t. “You should always look up when you walk,” she said. “Hold your head high.”

I smiled back, said okay, and continued on my way. I knew what she was trying to do, and was grateful, so I resisted the urge to explain I was not that guy, the guy she thought needed encouragement. Whatever had been on my mind that day at the moment she noticed me, not looking up was a momentary lapse.

I started to make all of that the subject of a blog post months ago, but other matters occupied my attention. When trying to decide what to write this month, I thought again about that day, but wasn’t sure I’d make it the subject. To help clear my mind, I took a constitutional through the ‘hood shortly after sunset. Serendipity provided my answer. As I walked along a block of P. Street, a woman approaching from the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the sidewalk just before we were about to pass each other and – out of the blue – wordlessly looked up into the night sky. That was enough of a sign for me.

At the risk of seeming a Luddite, my sometime desire to tell people to look up is completely divorced from any concern about pride or confidence. It is about the ubiquity of electronic hand-held devices and how they seem to make some people lose all sense of their surroundings. To be truthful, my desire at times is not to tell people to look up, but to scream it – particularly when they are headed straight for me. Yes, some have mastered the skill of human radar or sonar or whatever and can whisk right by without missing a step. Others, the more oblivious, require the more observant to move out of their way. As for me, I’m inching ever closer to facilitating pedestrian collisions.

Anyone with a computer has, by now, become acquainted with some variation of the internet meme of families or groups of friends photographed sitting around a table in some restaurant, each member of each group intently looking at his or her own cell-phone screen instead of at one another. On the subway, with its herky-jerky stops and starts, I have marveled at how people would rather check their phones with both hands instead of using one to hold on and avoid finding themselves on the floor. A friend recounts observing a woman, double-parked illegally, sitting in her car looking at her phone. A city ticket writer pulled up behind her and, apparently feeling magnanimous, beeped his horn as a warning – twice. It was to no avail. The woman did not seem to hear him and never bothered to look in her rear or side-view mirrors. She noticed, finally, when he stood at her car writing a ticket.

Many of us are becoming guilty of screen addiction, whether it is the one on our phones, our computers and tablets, or our televisions.You can decide for yourself how sad and disturbing or how inconsequential you find this, but I assure you there will be consequences. How can there not be? There is not one human-made thing in this world that did not have its genesis in a human mind. From our imaginations come much of our reality. Those imaginations are nurtured by, among other things, noticing the world around us: the cardinal sitting high up in an elm, the gargoyle guarding the entrance of an apartment building, the striking beauty walking right towards you, the sunbeams streaming through a break in the clouds that hover low over the city on an autumn afternoon. Just as important, if not more so, is the time spent with our own thoughts. Our minds and our lives, our art and our science, our culture and our capacity to create are diminished in direct proportion to the loss of that which sustains us spiritually.

We all can afford to slow down and look around. After all, though we don’t feel it and, therefore, don’t notice it, we are never not moving. The Earth is spinning on its axis at more than a thousand miles per hour, while orbiting the Sun at close to 70,000. The whole solar system is moving towards the star Lambda Herculis in the constellation Hercules at about 43,000 mph, while – at the same time – moving upwards at 90 degrees to the Milky Way’s galactic plane at nearly 16,000 mph, and orbiting the center of the galaxy at 446,000 mph plus. As for our galaxy, it’s moving through the universe at 1,339,200 miles per hour.

We are not pilots, only passengers (and, perhaps, crew). The least we can do is spend some time enjoying the ride. Just look up.

And the walls come tumblin’ down

A one-way thing cannot be “both” ways. If something is absolutely wrong, then it’s wrong – isn’t it? Can it be wrong only sometimes or only for some people? Such a proposition is for the realm of relativity, not for the absolute, and we here in the West seem to have determined – absolutely – that the terrorism of present-day jihadism is wrong. Yet, in our bi-polar fashion, we hold conflicting beliefs and send mixed-signals on the subject. We tend to think timing is everything.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the founding and current caliph of Islamic State, the new caliphate established in parts of Syria and Iraq. He’s finding much of the rest of the world today is not in the mood to recognize the authority of a religious zealot, at least not one who seems as disturbed and disturbing as he. Our response to him has been to try to bomb him to Hell. We tell him, his followers and their sympathizers that the goals and tactics of his group, and of those like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, are wrong. At the same time, we have spirituals (Joshua Fit De Battle Ob Jericho) glorifying that very behavior. We celebrate in song the birth of a nation that began with the slaughter of men, women, children and livestock in every town encountered by the killers – all on orders from God. Al-Baghdadi, who probably never has heard a Negro spiritual in his life, surely knows as well as you and I that Joshua is exalted in the Koran as well as the Bible.

We have a problem with what young Abu is doing to Shiites, Christians and Yazidis, but no such problem when reading, hearing or singing about what old Josh did to the Canaanites. Why? Some of us believe time changes things, that we can’t judge people of the past with the mores of the present, that it is a mistake for us to look at them through a modern-day lens. I’ve seen that thinking applied in various situations, most often in discussions about slavery and Jim Crow. I’m not one who has ever bought that line of reasoning. To excuse people’s behavior using that “logic” would be to discount or dismiss the lives of everyone who knew slavery and racial discrimination were wrong and worked against it at the time it was happening. Are we to believe there were none among the ancient Israelites who thought it was wrong to acquire coveted land through the extermination of its inhabitants? (In fact, in the book Judges, we find there were some. God, however, promises punishment for not killing everyone as instructed).

So, back to the question of “Why?” If it’s not about timing, why are we cool with what the former Hebrew slaves did in Canaan after their sojourn in Egypt, but not with what the militants today are doing in Syria and Iraq after their sojourns in places like Liverpool, Paris and Pittsburgh? After all, Muslims, just like Jews and Christians, worship and are spoken to by the God of Abraham.

Aside from anti-Muslim bias, perhaps the answer lies in what we think we know about those Canaanites. Here in Western Christendom, steeped in Judeo-Christian culture as we are, we are taught the Canaanites deserved to be annihilated because of their unrelenting wickedness. They were said to be a people who burned their children on the altars of their gods, and practiced sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of vice. The writer of Leviticus tells us that “the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” William Foxwell Albright, the man considered in his lifetime to be the dean of biblical archeology, wrote “The Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature-worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its nomadic simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics.” The writer of Deuteronomy disagrees with the good Professor Albright’s estimation. It wasn’t about how good the Israelites were, but how bad the Canaanites were. “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, …”

Okay. Stop. Just stop. Now, consider this question: How will we appear to posterity, thousands of years from now, if the only surviving history of us was written by the likes of the Taliban? If we think we will come out looking any better than how the citizens of Sodom, Gomorrah or Jericho appear to us, we are seriously fooling ourselves. If we think the Old-Testament writers who told us of the fates of those three cities don’t share a mindset with the man now intent on taking Damascus and Baghdad, we are seriously mistaken.

I suspect part of the grudge the Israelites had against the Canaanites is something we would find familiar today. I’d be really surprised if part of the problem didn’t have something to do with certain features of Canaanite culture that had nothing to do with burning their children. I’m guessing it had more to do with the rights of women – in that they had rights. Women could own land, enter into contracts and initiate divorce. Horror of all horrors, women also could and did serve as Priestesses. The Canaanites also were not averse to science and learning, having been proficient in mathematics and navigation, and having developed the first alphabetic writing system. Their skill in shipbuilding and commerce made them a society able to afford the splendor of wealth. You get the picture.

The same type of folk who didn’t like any of that then do not like it now. Some may find it unconscionable to compare the zealots of today with those of the past. Some may simply find it uncomfortable. It may raise questions one may prefer not to have to answer. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, no doubt, sees himself and his kind much the same way Professor Albright saw the ancient Israelites with their, “simplicity”, “purity” and “severe code of ethics.” I have nothing against any of that – when voluntarily applied to oneself. Forcing it upon others is a different matter. When that happens, it’s time to fight – something the West and its Muslim allies in the Near and Middle East have been doing for some time.

There is more than one reason the fight remains yet to be won. Social, economic and cultural impediments to advancement, coupled with spiritual malaise, continue to be a powerful recruiter of those easily seduced by violence. We also should consider the possibility that our ability to fight and win is compromised by our thinking. Confronting savagery on the one hand while revering it on other hampers us, causing us to fight as if holding one hand behind our backs. Hypocrisy is not an antidote for zealotry.