Monday, February 4, 2019

La Iglesia San Miguel Arcangelo and a Prayer of Saint Martin

When we were recently in Cozumel, we visited Iglesia San Miguel Arcangelo, the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, on Benito Juarez. It has a beautiful and famous statue of the Archangel there which is the subject of various stories and an interesting history aside from the legends. As it happens, Michael the Archangel is my name-saint (my middle name, not my first), so I took some time exploring the church and the statue.

There were people there quietly praying, so I did not want to disturb them taking photographs inside. I did, however, sit in an alcove dedicated to San Martín de Porres (variously "St. Martin of the Fields" or "St. Martin of Tours" in English) and copy down a prayer displayed there by hand. St. Martin was a Roman knight who cut his own cloak in two to clothe a freezing beggar outside the gates of Amiens. He had a dream that night of Christ wrapped in his torn cloak, leading to Martin's baptism. He was a soldier who showed courage throughout his life but who also sacrificed to bring peace (party responsible for the Armistice being signed on his feast day, 11 November, which is now Veteran's Day). He became a patron of veterans, of volunteers, and of auxiliaries; his torn cloak is borrowed in the logo of our local Sheriff's Auxiliary as an emblem of personal sacrifice in the service of others.

In any case, having copied down the prayer, I promptly misplaced the paper. It reappeared yesterday in a vest pocket. It appears to be different from the typical Catholic devotionals for San Martín:

Oracion del San Martin de Porres
¡Oh! San Martin, atiéndeme.
En mis penas y tribulaciones, consuélame.
En mis dolencias y enfermedades, socorreme.
Dame la salud si me conviene y librame de calquiar mal del alma y cuerpo.
[English Translation:]
Prayer of Saint Martin de Tours
Oh! Saint Martin, attend me.
In my sufferings and tribulations, console me.
In my pains and my infirmities, assist me.
Give to me health if it is suited to me, and free me from the faint impressions of the soul and body.

I try to translate "calquiar mal" as "faint impressions" here, given that "calquiar" (an unusual verb) means to copy a drawing by tracing on top of it. I may have also made a copy error here, myself, but there are no alternative verbs which seem a likely candidate for a simple handwriting mistake (comments welcome). There may also be idiom or imagery I am simply missing. It may refer to us being made in the image and likeness of God, but a faulty and imperfect likeness which leads to frailty and sin.

Given my Catholic upbringing (I became a Lutheran some years ago), the devotion to the saints which is still very much alive in the Hispanic churches interests me. I do not necessarily agree with a veneration of the saints to the extent it elevates them to a semi-divine status, but I do believe that trying to live by the example of the saints and using them as meditations for the understanding of our own troubles has a practical value in trying to live a good life. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (WWII Lutheran theologian and martyr, executed by the Nazis), this may be something the Protestant churches have wrongly discarded.

Thinking of the saints as potential mediators between us and God (as in this prayer) may be a useful tool when we feel so low that we cannot approach the divine directly. We know that they were mortal, that they failed, that they fell down and got back up. But in many ways, that is also the meaning of Christ's ministry to us: Jesus is fully God and fully human. He knows what it is to experience the trials of the flesh, to suffer, and even to pray for relief. In Him, we can always find a bridge back to where we belong. But in any case, the reverence for the saints, their constant remembrance in the Hispanic Catholic devotions, impresses me. It gives me hope that an imperfect man, with a healthy dollup of God's grace and assistance, might remain imperfect, but nevertheless do "OK" in the end.

Πεποιθως αυτο τουτο οτι ο εναρξαμενος εν υμιν εργον αγαθον επιτελεσει αχρις ημερας Ιησοθ Χριστου; [Phillippians 1:6 ABP]
Being confident of this very thing, that he which began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ; [Phillipians 1:6 ASV]

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Actually, Terrorists Are Terrible at High-Tech

When I went to pick up the key for a library meeting room recently, it had a stack of sale books. I tend to monitor mainstream writing on terrorism, so, for a few peanuts, I picked up a book by Berry Davies BEM called "Terrorism- Inside a World Phenomenon". So far, I have gotten to page 3 and have a list of things that are misleading, misinformed, or just plain nonsense. Unfortunately, some of the claims are fairly common. Here is one:

Terrorists now use aircraft as smart bombs to destroy buildings and human suicide bombers to kill and mutilate the innocent. Moreover, terrorists have acquired an intimate knowledge of sophisticated modern weaponry, making the threat of a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack on a major population center inevitable.

There is no source for the 'intimate knowledge' statement. I can, in fact, find such claims in official government sources... going back to the 1950s. There have been people who have been quivering in fear of some two-bit terrorist with 'intimate knowledge' unleashing Armageddon from a rucksack for not-quite seventy years (usually connected to funding requests). Obviously, it hasn't happened, and although we do have a few rare examples of plots by sub-state actors involving Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical (NBC), such as the Tokyo Sarin gas attack, the few attempts are notable mostly for stunning failure. The Tokyo plot involved five attacks on three lines of a major subway, causing a total of twelve fatalities. There will likely be as many routine murders in Chicago between the time I write this and the time that you read it.

Now read the two quoted sentences together. The reason that the perpetrators of 9/11 used aircraft (piloted aircraft are, by definition not 'smart bombs') was because they lacked 'intimate knowledge' of 'sophisticated modern weaponry', let alone easy access to such weapons. They did not even have access to heavy aircraft without hijacking them or sufficient flight skills to fly them without sending people to the US for training (which caught the attention of an observant Minnesota FBI agent who was, nevertheless, ignored).

This is the same reason we know terrorists often turn to suicide bombing in the first place. Ahlamm Tamimi, the planner of the Sbarro Massacre in Jerusalem (2001) makes it clear that she used a suicide bomber because her previous attack failed due to a faulty timer and detonator. This is quite common. Even beyond timers and detonators, terrorists routinely screw up the explosives themselves. A common but highly-unstable terrorist explosive, TATP, has the distinction of killing at least as many bomb-makers as it does people they target.

This long string of failures is why they often plan from the start to fall back on firearms, knives, arson, trucks, etc., when the technical approach does not work. In the Paris Attacks, even though the explosives were made by ISIS' expert bomb-maker (Saleh Abdeslam, now dead), at least one vest did not explode. In the Orlando "Shooting", the explosives set by the attackers failed. In Nicé, the attacker didn't bother and just used a truck. Time and time again, terrorists demonstrate that they are not capable of using even fairly basic military technology.

This, of course, does not mean that terrorists are not a threat and that we should not try to stop them.

Certainly, someone willing to die in the attempt can do significant damage even with crude technology. Maybe some day a terrorist with more advanced technology will break the losing streak and will use NBC to some effect. The fear-mongers will crow at that point that they were right, but what it really would prove is that they have been wrong every day for well-over half-a-century. Terrorists are a threat, but not the kind of threat they are made out to be. By constantly trying to make them into something they are not, we are doing their job for them. After all, they are the terrorists: it is their job to make us afraid. So why do we keep churning out publications which do their PR-work?