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Stateside With Rosalea: Hullo Sailor

A supreme court? Steady on, Old Girls! Faint though it is, there is still a glimmer of hope that a stay-at-home Kiwi will win an Academy Award for best director/best picture without Aotearoa having to become the 52nd state of the United States. Australia, of course, will be the 51st. Its fate was sealed as that hijacked aircraft - engines screaming - whizzed past John Howard's ear in Washington last September en route to the Pentagon.

The word its engines were screaming was "Indonesia". All this week, the CBS network news special report has been about that nation, culminating in Friday night's story about Abubakr Bashir, shown as an inciter of hatred towards the US by saying that the US is at war with Islam. It was a scary report, not because of the chanting, armed young men but because of the attitude of the reporter, who implied that Indonesia's little flutter with democracy and free speech was only happening because the US was allowing it to happen.

For a truly stunning example of how invisible the rest of the world is to the United States television viewer, I needed look no further than the pointy-headed and fastidiously outward-looking PBS network. In its documentary series on genocide this week the narrator said that the slaughter in East Timor was brought to an end by "the United States, Britain and some other countries." Well, as April 25 rolls round, here's to the citizens of "some other countries" who lost and still lose their lives in countless wars to impose the American and British world view, even where it isn't wanted.

I guess it was to stop the Japanese world view being imposed around the Pacific that the US had such a strong presence there during World War II. Over the past few weeks I've read quite a few anecdotal reports by US Marines about that time, and I'm currently reading a diary called "Love, War, and the 96th Engineers (Colored)", edited by the niece of one of that army battalion's officers, Captain Samuelson. The battalion was sent to build roads and airstrips in New Guinea via Brisbane, where the African-American troops weren't allowed to go ashore out of deference to Australia's "Whites Only" policy.

However, it turned out that the equipment on the troop ship had to be completely unloaded and then reloaded, which would take three days. During the loading the troops would have been in the way on the troop carrier so they were sent on day-long hikes in the countryside. Captain Samuelson got to go into Brisbane and here's what he wrote about his first encounter with the Aussies: "The men were a sturdy lot, not handsome, but truly masculine. The women were thin and unattractive. They looked like good, honest people who would not want to harm anyone. They seemed to be very happy. Pure democracy existed everywhere."

Captain Samuelson got to go into town because he was not an African-American - only five such men were officers in the regular army when the US entered the Second World War, and three of them were chaplains. Hymie Samuelson was a southern Jew - a reality, his niece muses in her preface, that "made him aware of group oppression and also gave him the perspective of the perpetual outsider." You sense from his writing that he recognises goodness, honesty, and a desire to cause no harm because he shares those same characteristics.

Which, oddly, brings me back to the concept of having a supreme court. Israel has one. It doesn't have a written constitution but the chief justice, Aharon Barak, has consistently given opinions asserting that the 11 Basic Laws passed by the Knesset since 1948 "have turned into constitutional rights" and that if a statute doesn't meet those standards of law it bears a constitutional flaw and the supreme court can declare its invalidity.

"Let There Be Law" is the cover story of the premiere edition of 'Legal Affairs', a Yale Law School publication that is trying to rescue law from both its populist and elitist images. Barak is its subject and, like Samuelson, he comes across as a good, honest person who would wish no harm on anyone. For example, the Basic Laws added in 1992, which Barak so forcefully upholds, promise that "the life, body, or dignity of any person shall not be violated" and that "the liberty of a person shall not be deprived or restricted through imprisonment, detention, extradition, or any other means."

In September 1999 he unequivocally declared for a unanimous court that the methods used by the Israeli security service when interrogating Palestinians detained without charges violated the rights to human dignity and freedom contained in the Basic Laws. Effectively that ruling challenged the Israeli government's general grant of power to the secret service and something called the "necessity" defence, which allows a security agent to evade liability for an otherwise criminal act on the ground that he violated ordinary rules to prevent a disaster. To reassert its power over the supreme court by lifting the court's ban on Shin Bet's interrogation methods the Knesset would have to pass a law legalising torture.

Can the citizens of Israel take the present government to the supreme court for violating the Basic Laws with its checkpoints and invasions, as they did over its tacit approval of Shin Bet's methods? The supreme court is, after all, the "court of first resort to which any citizen can turn to challenge a government action" so it would seem the answer is Yes. But in times of a "war" against terrorism, does that still hold true? Can citizens here in the US take the Bush administration to the supreme court because it allowed Israel to use US aid (money and weapons) in an offensive instead of a defensive manner, contrary to what is permissible under the limits Congress sets when giving that aid?

"War" is such a little word but is used to patch over such a multitude of sins you would think it was as wide as the sky. In November 1941, still in camp in Louisiana, Hymie goes to see the movie 'Sergeant York' and writes in his diary: "It was chock full of that kind of propaganda which America needs right now: that we should go kill the Germans to preserve our heritage, our freedom, that in killing them we would be defending ourselves, not committing any sin. I do believe it might be necessary to fight for these things which we Americans love so dearly, but it is a shame that diplomats let the world get into this sad shape." Sixty-one years later it is a shame that diplomacy is in such bad shape.

But it's a sunny, breezy spring day and, if you'll pardon the pun, I think I'll hie me to the newest war memorial in the Bay Area. It's the Lone Sailor Memorial, which stands at Vista Point, where the Golden Gate Bridge is anchored to the Marin headland. A life-size bronze sailor stands with his hands in his jacket pockets and his kitbag at his side, looking across the Golden Gate to Fort Point where one and half million men and women shipped out during World War II. The statue is a replica of a piece done for the US Navy Memorial in Washington DC, and was paid for by private donations.

BTW - 'Eco-Challenge New Zealand' airs at 8pm on the USA Network cable channel from 21-24 April.

Lea Barker
Sunday 21 April, 2002

'Legal Affairs':
SF Chronicle story/photos of the Lone Sailor Memorial:

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