I didn't take any pictures of this part of the trip -- going to the East Coast or coming back. It just isn't very remarkable, though some would say it is beautiful in its own way. Flat, endless fields of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, what-have-you, with the train tracks paralleling the Platte River. Something like that. Strangely, if you Google "Eastern Nebraska Farmers," the first thing that comes up on the list is "Environmental Epidemiology of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in Eastern Nebraska." What's that all about?
Anyway, I traveled coach, as I always do, and on my second night, from Denver to eastern Nebraska, I had two seats to myself, which meant I could stretch out a little. I awoke the next morning around 7 or so and made my way to the dining car for breakfast. In the dining car, the crew members take your name or give you a number (from Chigaco west, the crew members treat you like family and tend to take your names -- and sometimes they even remember your names). And they seat you with others, southern family style.
On this particular leg of the journey, I was seated across from a large, middle-aged man with a bushy beard and long, kinky, graying blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. The word "peace" was printed across his t-shirt. (A Dead Head, I thought to myself.) Next to him was a very ordinary, middle-aged woman. Next to me was a middle-aged man with short, curly brown hair.
You know how first encounters are. Before you get talking, you look at these strangers with a combination of suspicion and disdain. And then you start talking and you all realize how great you all are!
That is exactly what happened with me, "Charlene," her husband "James," and "Don." Ok, so I thought James was a Dead Head, right? Turns out he and wife, Charlene, were both Lutheran ministers from rural, western Kansas. Don was a sculptor.
As we got talking, Don made it clear that he believed that the conspiracy to attack landmarks with planes on September 11, 2001 went beyond Al Qaeda. He suggested that we all watch the documentary Zeitgeist.
I have never seen this documentary, but I think I know what its theme is: some kind of connection between the Bush family, Dick Cheney, Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda to ensure that another Pearl Harbor happened to the country, putting Americans in a state of shock and fear, so that Cheney and others could pursue a decades-long desire to consolidate power in the executive branch and launch a "Pax Americana" on the world, one in which a few multi-national corporations would own most of the world's resources and control most political power.
But I confess I'm not totally convinced. If 9-11 was the result of a broad conspiracy, then why the need for two legal memorandums, one issued by the United States Department of Justice and the other by the Pentagon, to pave the way to the supposedly legal practice of torture on members of Al Qaeda and/or of the Iraqi insurgency? I don't get it. If Al Qaeda is the ally of Dick Cheney, then why torture its alleged members? Maybe someone out there can illuminate me a little more.
James, who was quite verbose, described him and his quieter wife, Charlene, as Christian socialists serving Christian fundamentalist congregations whose members read the Left Behind series. I get messages about those books in my spam box, but never knew what they were until James and Charlene explained them to me. James told us they are about Armageddon, the Apocalypse, and rapture.
Ok, everything I know about Christianity I learned from Jesus Christ, Superstar -- yeah, the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. And rapture? Rapture means two things to me: 1) laughing really hard because of some unexpectedly ironic punch line; and, 2) orgasm. Need I say more?
James's own opinion? The Left Behind series has totally misrepresented the Bible and the Book of Revelations. Nowhere in the Bible is the word "rapture" mentioned, he said.
I asked James rhetorically, "Do Christian fundamentalists see any difference between their own belief in 'rapture' and the beliefs of some Muslim fundamentalists that 72 virgins will await them in Heaven when they die a martyr's death?"
We moved on to a discussion of the 2000 election. I said that Al Gore should have stood up on the night of the election and said, "I won," and he should never have backed down. I said that five members of the United States Supreme Court wanted George W. Bush to be president -- and they made him president. Charlene added that she couldn't believe that my representative, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is blocking impeachment efforts. You know that's what they (the Republicans) would be doing if it were the reverse situation and they had the majority in both chambers of Congress, Charlene said.
Someone speculated about Obama's pick for VP. Hillary Clinton? Naw ... probably a tough guy, I suggested, mentioning Jim Webb, the Virginia Senator who is a Vietnam War veteran, though he opposes the Iraq War. Don mentioned Bill Richardson, but we didn't think he had any vote-getting value other than coming from a swing state. None of us predicted Joe Biden.
We talked about the "high" price of gas. I came right out and said, "I'm for that." Don concurred, adding that Americans should be paying at least what they pay in the rest of the world -- $6, $7 per gallon or more. James and his wife seemed to agree -- but I'm not sure. James mentioned a parishioner who has big car which she bought out of fear, though James tried to reconnect her to her faith ...
Not being a faith-based thinker, he lost me there.
We all agreed that September 11, 2001 was a lost moment. We have never explored why the attacks happened, letting George W. Bush lower the level of discourse to "They hate our freedom." Certainly, the 9-11 participants were brainwashed. Al Qaeda recruited and served -- and recruits and serves -- giving passion and meaning to life in otherwise repressive cultures. What hope for self-realization do you have, after all, if you are some kind of non-conformist born in Saudi Arabia? But here's the other thing: we are an occupying force, and we have had military outposts there protecting our access to oil for decades. And if some nation, say Australia, were occupying our own land, wouldn't we be similarly resentful?
Charlene then brought up the concept of war crimes. I showed the three of them my copy of The Dark Side, by Jane Mayer. James mentioned that Jane Mayer had recently been on The Daily Show, with John Stewart.
Thinking of the passive complicity of most Americans in the crimes of the Bush administration, I added that our nation needed to go through the self-examination and cathartic processes, similar to what Germany and South Africa went through after their periods of darkness. James mentioned "truth and reconciliation." I mentioned something that a friend of mine has been researching in San Francisco -- the possibility that American towns and cities could bring war crimes charges against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and others. The people of Brattleboro, Vermont, in fact, have passed a resolution directing their town attorney to investigate bringing war crimes charges against these guys. And people in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family has a summer compound, are investigating bringing war crimes charges against Bush and others.
The U.S. Constitution
We discussed the Constitution and how it needs to be refined, at the very least. James started with the Second Amendment, mentioning that we already have the "well-regulated militia" part in place in the form of our local and state police forces and our national guard. I added that the Constitution says virtually nothing about the vice president -- which is how Dick Cheney has been able to get away with defying Congress when Congress attempts to get him to testify or turn over documents or something. I went on and mentioned treaties -- the Constitution, through the Supremacy Clause, requires the Senate to ratify treaties negotiated by the executive branch and designates ratified treaties the law of land, making each one of us, as citizens, bound to abide by treaties our nation has adopted. But nowhere does the Constitution say that the Senate must sign off on the abrogation of treaties. That needs to be fixed. (The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had an abrogration clause that George W. Bush used when he ditched that treaty in June 2002.)
The First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law
We sat there long after all the other diners had left -- and finally one of the crew members swept by us and in a friendly manner indicated that we really should get going so that they could get ready for lunch. Before we departed, we thought we should give a title to our discussion. I can't remember if we came up with anything as a group, but on my own, I came up with this: the First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law.