Pragmatics, Protesters, and Prophets

July 25, 2013

Two different events I attended on Capitol Hill yesterday both invoked Cuba as a symbol of democratic problems in the the Western Hemisphere. The difference is that one event noted problems with the Cuban government and the other noted problems with our government. The first event was a briefing on "Rule of Law in Latin America" hosted by the office of Representative Sam Farr, a Democrat from California. It included presentations from David Holiday of the Open Society Foundations, Jennifer Windsor of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and Rob Boone of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (and was moderated by Clare Ribando Selke of the Congressional Research Service). Highlighted in the presentations were ways of measuring democratic freedoms, with a focus on those in the legal/justice aspect of society (which seemed in many countries to be less free than other areas). Cuba does the worst in most categories, but the speakers only mentioned that in passing to instead focus on how freedoms in some other Latin American nations appeared to be slipping away (and a little about what could be done to turn the tide). I found the briefing quite interesting and informative, and appreciated seeing that type of congressional event. Once it wrapped up, I went to a different type of event that urged the closing of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, which is in Cuba. This serious problem with the rule of law may be situated in Cuba but cannot be blamed on that nation or others in Latin America. This undemocratic symbol of injustice is a U.S. creation. There were multiple anti-Guantanamo events yesterday as groups spoke out just before Senator Dick Durban, a Democrat from Illinois, led a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday on closing Guantanamo. Some people gathered signs outside the Hart Senate Building, while other carried signs in or wore orange ribbons in the hearing (the photo is one I took of one protest outside the Hart Senate Building). Others did something more religious.

After the congressional briefing on Latin America, I attended an event led by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an organization that has offered some important moral proclamations. They urged people to fast to show their opposition to Guantanamo. At noon yesterday they held an event, "Breaking of the Fast to Close Guantanamo," to add their voices to the day's focus on Guantanamo (the second photo is one I took of NRCAT leader Richard Killmer breaking the bread to mark the end of the fast). The NRCAT event was one part press conference and one part religious service, which made it an interesting experience. With journalists making up most of the audience, the event's purpose clearly was to get media attention. That is merely an observation and not a criticism; after all, advocacy groups can find media coverage to be an ideal way to spread their message. This event clearly worked since several outlets covered it, often mentioning it along with Durbin's hearing. With several religious leaders gathering to publicly break of a fast - along with a Jewish rabbi blowing a shofar - the event's designers did an excellent job of providing a nice media frame and image. Hopefully the coverage will help draw more attention to the moral problems of Guantanamo as international laws are ignored and people are tortured. There is something powerful in the image of religious leaders in the U.S. fasting to support Guantanamo prisoners who have tried to go on hunger strike for their rights but have been forcibly fed (through a painful process). There is also strong symbolism in the idea of breaking bread in a worship service (which in the Christian tradition of communion represents the body of Christ) to protest the breaking of bodies made in the image of God.

In addition to watching the mediated aspect of the event, I was also intrigued by the event as something that is both a worship service and a political event. The NRCAT event differed from the protesters on the street or a normal press conference since it was also a worship service with prayers, the passing of the bread around almost like communion, and the blowing of the Jewish shofar (the third photo is one I took of Rabbi Charles Feinberg and his shofar). This event was not political or religious, but both. The idea of something truly sacred also carrying political implications rests at perhaps the messiest part of the intersection between religion and politics, but perhaps that is precisely why we need to spend more time thinking about such moments.

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