It’s not my fault. It’s yours.

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2We all like to be able to better understand and explain the world around us, especially when times are difficult, threatening or in some other fashion profoundly unsettling.  Recent deadly shooting incidents between police officers and young Black men and the subsequent public protests raise troubling questions in our minds whether we are Black, White, police or civilian. We look around us for the reasons that will help us to understand events, protect ourselves, punish culprits and “prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”  In this process, we often move quickly to assign or attribute blame.

Infrequently do we start this problem solving process by attributing the cause of the situation to a factor internal to ourselves.  For example, the police do not start out trying to understand an incident like the shooting of Michael Brownmike brown by declaring that a primary reason for the incident was a negative attitude toward Black male youth in general on the part of police in general (or the particular officer/s involved). The police do not attribute their action to, what social psychologists call “the internal disposition” or moral character of the involved officer/s.  Rather, the tendency is to point to some aspect of the external situation for an explanation.  In this circumstance, the police are most likely to point to the situation in which the officer/s find/found themselves.

Not only will the police tend to explain the incident by focusing on situational considerations to characterize their actions but also they will tend to focus on the internal disposition or character of the person who was shot, in this case Michael Brown et al. to bolster their argument.

Police are not unique in explaining contentious events in this way.  We all have a tendency to do this.  This very human tendency is so ubiquitous that social psychology even has a name for it: the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias.  Simply put, the error is to blame personal flaws in others when accounting for their behavior while explaining our own behavior in terms of situational factors rather than any personal internal flaw.

Consequently, just as police will focus on justifying situational factors in explaining their behavior, those affected by that behavior will likely attribute the lion’s share of the blame to the internal disposition of the officer/s rather than any situational factor.  Individual racism, cowardice, fear and fury will be the sort of language used most frequently.

Community or societal failure to realize our natural tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error (FAE) can lead to a vicious cycle of FAE upon FAE until groups of similar people no longer consider varying life situations at all and simply attribute all behavior to the internal dispositions of the members of a particular group.  All Black men become shiftless and criminal.  All policemen/women become rigid, violent bullies.  All poor people become lazy social leeches. All rich people become greedy and uncaring. All intellectuals irrelevant and all who care impractical.  Et cetera, et cetera in an ever descending vortex of social disintegration and devolution.

Not a pretty picture of the human condition or early 21st Century America.  But, this is where we might be and that we got here by reflexively blaming “the other guy.”  Perhaps, there is a note of hope in this latter, simple realization.  If we got here by blaming the “other,” perhaps the hope lies in the realization that there really are no “others” per se only others-like-ourselves.

Moving Beyond the Past–Cuban American Relations a Vestige of the Cold War.

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Some people remain unable to take another step forward and to leave the past behind.  They remain stuck trying to resolve the issues of the past in the terms of the past and to no one’s present best interest.  They cling to the vestiges of the past and are thus destined to remain frozen in time.

At the end of World War II in a speech delivered in Fulton Missouri, Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed the world that ““From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”



The Cold War between East and West was on and would become marked by the nuclear arms race, aggressive espionage, witch hunting at home, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crises and in the Western Hemisphere the severing of relationships between the United States and its neighbor ninety miles to the South, the domino effect and the Korean, Vietnam and other conflicts.

We often date the end of the the cold war with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.  We mark November 9, 1989 as the death of one old and outmoded world order and the birth of a new more hopeful era in East-West relations. Although there was a sea change in geopolitics in 1989, vestiges or remnants continued to fester.

The relationship between the United States and the island nation of Cuba is one of those vestiges.  The US Embargo and isolation of Cuba began with Castro’s rise to power and came to a head the during the Cuban missile crisis of 1961–fifty-three years ago.

The main protagonists: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy

The main protagonists: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 but there was no real movement to end the cold war stalemate with Cuba until yesterday, December 17, 2014 with the historic agreement worked out by President Obama and Raul Castro.

Yesterday we began a journey out of the mid-twentieth century to a potentially new relationship with one of our closest neighbors.  In doing so we have removed Cuba from the list of cold war vestiges which still trouble the world.

Vestiges can serve a useful purpose in society because they can call to mind steps we have taken on our way to the present and perhaps help us to avoid pitfalls in the challenge of the future.  Clinging to vestiges of the past can however be a grave danger because the world in which we live is constantly and rapidly changing.  We may marvel at the past and the journey we have trod but we can not live in that past.

The English word “vestige” is derived from the Latin word for “footstep,” vestigium.  Vestigium are the foot prints we leave on the pathway of time.  We can look back at them but it is really impossible, no matter how hard we try or how much we desire it, to actually stand in them–they are of the past and we are of the future.

No matter how personally painful in may be for some, fifty-three years of standing in a footprint is way too long a time to waste before stepping off into the future.  Even those who grieve Cuba’s past and the loss of their own loved one’s can find no relief or salvation in the status quo.

Tomas de Torquemada & Dick Cheney

Listening to Dick Cheney defend the torture on Sunday, December 14, 2014 edition of Meet the Press put me in mind of a passage I recall reading in the Catholic Encyclopedia some years ago.  What struck me was not that Cheney resembled Torquemada, although he does in a way.

A slight resemblance, I suppose.

A slight resemblance, I suppose.

What stuck me was former Vice-president Cheney’s tone and demeanor.  He might just as well have been reading from the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on The Grand Inquisitor albeit with a little more apologetic gusto.  The article from the Encyclopedia follows.  Read it through.  In speaking of a Dominican Friar whose name is almost synonymous with torture, the Encyclopedia is dispassionate, clinical and absolutely devoid of empathy.

Cheney directly declares that torture works.  Even the Catholic Encyclopedia does not come right out and say torture works, but it comes close with its references to protecting the “purity of the faith.”

From the Catholic Encyclopedia

Tomås de Torquemada

“First Grand Inquisitor of Spain, born at Valladolid in 1420; died at Avila, 16 September, 1498. He was a nephew of the celebrated theologian and cardinal, Juan de Torquemada. In his early youth he entered the Dominican monastery at Valladolid, and later was appointed prior of the Monastery of Santa Cruz at Segovia, an office which he held for twenty-two years. The Infanta Isabella chose him as her confessor while at Segovia, and when she succeeded to the throne of Castile in 1474 he became one of her most trusted and influential councillors, but refused all high ecclesiastical preferments, choosing to remain a simple friar.At that time the purity of the Catholic Faith in Spain was in great danger from the numerous Marranos and Moriscos, who, for material considerations, became sham converts from Judaism and Mohammedanism to Christianity. The Marranos committed serious outrages against Christianity and endeavoured to judaize the whole of Spain. The Inquisition, which the Catholic sovereigns had been empowered to establish by Sixtus IV in 1478, had, despite unjustifiable cruelties, failed of its purpose, chiefly for want of centralisation. In 1483 the pope appointed Torquemada, who had been an assistant inquisitor since 11 February 1482, Grand Inquisitor of Castile, and on 17 October extended his jurisdiction over Aragon.

As papal representative and the highest official of the inquisitorial court, Torquemada directed the entire business of the Inquisition in Spain, was empowered to delegate his inquisitorial faculties to other Inquisitors of his own choosing, who remained accountable to him, and settled the appeals made to the Holy See. He immediately established tribunals at Valladolid, Seville, Jaén, Avila, Cordova, and Villa-real, and, in 1484, at Saragossa for the Kingdom of Aragon. He also instituted a High Council, consisting of five members, whose chief duty was to assist him in the hearing of appeals (see INQUISITION — The Inquisition in Spain). He convened a general assembly of Spanish inquisitors at Seville, 29 November, 1484, and presented an outline of twenty-eight articles for their guidance. To these he added several new statutes in 1485, 1488, and 1498 (Reuss, “Sammlungen der Instructionen des spanischen Inquisitionsgerichts”, Hanover, 1788). The Marranos found a powerful means of evading the tribunals in the Jews of Spain, whose riches had made them very influential and over whom the Inquisition had no jurisdiction. On this account Torquemada urged the sovereigns to compel all the Jews either to become Christians or to leave Spain. To frustrate his designs the Jews agreed to pay the Spanish government 30,000 ducats if left unmolested. There is a tradition that when Ferdinand was about to yield to the enticing offer, Torquemada appeared before him, bearing a crucifix aloft, and exclaiming: “Judas Iscariot sold Christ for 30 pieces of silver; Your Highness is about to sell him for 30,000 ducats. Here He is; take Him and sell Him.” Leaving the crucifix on the table he left the room. Chiefly through his instrumentality the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Much has been written of the inhuman cruelty of Torquemada. Llorente computes

The Inquisitors at Work

The Inquisitors at Work

that during Torquemada’s office (1483-98) 8800 suffered death by fire and 9,654 were punished in other ways (Histoire de l’Inquisition, IV, 252). These figures are highly exaggerated, as has been conclusively proved by Hefele (Cardinal Ximenes, ch. xviii), Gams (Kirchengeschichte von Spanien, III, II, 68-76), and many others. Even the Jewish historian Graetz contents himself with stating that “under the first Inquisitor Torquemada, in the course of fourteen years (1485-1498) at least 2000 Jews were burnt as impenitent sinners” (“History of the Jews”, Philadelphia, 1897, IV, 356). Most historians hold with the Protestant Peschel (Das Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, Stuttgart, 1877, pp. 119 sq.) that the number of persons burnt from 1481 to 1504, when Isabella died, was about 2000. Whether Torquemada’s ways of ferreting out and punishing heretics were justifiable is a matter that has to be decided not only by comparison with the penal standard of the fifteenth century, but also, and chiefly, by an inquiry into their necessity for the preservation of Christian Spain. The contemporary Spanish chronicler, Sebastian de Olmedo (Chronicon magistrorum generalium Ordinis Prædicatorum, fol. 80-81) calls Torquemada “the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the saviour of his country, the honour of his order”.

Sources:  MOLÈNES, Torquemada et l'Inquisition (Paris, 1877); BARTHÉLEMY, Erreurs historiques (Paris, 1875), 170-204 FITA, La Inquisición de Torquemada in Boletin Acad. Hist., XXIII (Madrid, 1893), 369-434; TOURON. Histoire des hommes illustres de l'ordre de Saint Dominique, III (Paris, 1746). 543-68; TARRIDA DEL MARMOL, Les Inquisiteurs d'Espagne (Paris, 1807); RODRIGO, Historia verdadera de la Inquisición, II, III (Madrid, 1877); LEA, History of the Inquisition in Spain (London and New York, 1906-08).

Isn’t it interesting how we humans can manage to treat each other so inhumanely from one century to another and rationalize what we do with such aplomb and matter-of-factness. Cheney thinks torture is just fine and makes no apology for it.  They say that history is written by the victors.  Perhaps that is the problem, since the victors seem to have a perennial tendency to reclassify horror into courageous necessity. After all, as the Catholic Encyclopedia implies, Torquemada saved his country.