social media, true crime

Two guys walk into a bar…

I may catch some shit for writing today’s post, but this story is a good example as to why I think that sometimes the court of public opinion gets things very wrong. If you’re a regular reader, you may already know that I am not a fan of mob justice, particularly for people who armchair quarterback from home and have nothing to do with a specific case. I think that can have a devastating effect on justice and fairness, something that everyone should be entitled to, especially in the United States. Anyway, here goes… putting on my flame retardant suit now.

On Saturday, September 26, 2020, 65 year old Donald Lewinski and 80 year old Rocco Sapienza were both visiting Pamp’s Red Zone Bar and Grill in West Seneca, New York. Both men were said to be regulars at the establishment, although it’s not clear if they knew each other before their deadly meeting a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. Lewinski is now being charged with the negligent homicide of Mr. Sapienza. Why? Because Mr. Sapienza, who was said to be very friendly, but not one who was afraid to confront people he thought needed calling out, chastised Mr. Lewinski for not wearing a face mask. The headline about this incident in The New York Times is “80-Year-Old Is Killed After Asking Bar Patron to Wear Mask”. Naturally, people are responding to that headline with much vitriol toward Mr. Lewinski. Some are labeling him a cold blooded murderer and calling for him to spend much longer in prison than the four years he could face if he is convicted.

The headline implies that Mr. Sapienza simply asked Mr. Lewinksi to wear a mask, and he responded by viciously shoving him, intending to hurt, or even kill him. I was skeptical that this incident went down the way the headline implied. And, in fairness to the The New York Times, the actual article, which I am sure a lot of people didn’t bother to read, is a lot more impartial than the headline is. There are also other articles from reputable, but more local, sources available that present a very different perspective than what was reported in The New York Times. Having read several articles about this altercation, I have concluded that this is what really happened.

These two guys visited their favorite watering hole. Both are older men, probably a bit set in their ways and not interested in hearing other people’s opinions on how they should be behaving in public.

Mr. Lewinski’s son was playing music outside of the bar. The band was set up in the parking lot, and they happened to be playing in the parking spot that Mr. Sapienza usually used. This tidbit of information was not in the Times’ article, but it was in an article by Local 12, a news station in the West Seneca area. So… Mr. Sapienza was already annoyed that his parking spot was usurped by Lewinski’s son’s band. It’s unclear whether or not the band knew that was Sapienza’s parking spot, or if he was somehow officially entitled to park there.

The New York Times article also fails to mention that Mr. Lewinski did have a neck gaiter and though he did frequently forget to pull it up, perhaps because he was drinking or “caught up in the thrill”, according to his lawyer, Barry Covert, “when asked to put his mask on, [he] did so readily.”

Apparently, Lewinski kept coming in and out of the bar to fetch rounds of drinks. When he came into the bar, he repeatedly forgot to pull the gaiter up over his nose and mouth. Also according to Lewinski’s lawyer, “[Sapienza] was disgruntled that he could hear the music inside, and he was unhappy that my client and other people were bringing tables and chairs from inside the bar outside to the patrons who were enjoying the band out in the parking lot.”

Mr. Sapienza, who had reportedly served as a Marine and had a “boisterous” personality that would “fill up a room”, eventually decided that enough was enough. Sapienza was also said to be “protective” of the staff at Pamp’s Red Zone Bar and Grill and was well-liked at the establishment. I have a feeling that Sapienza might have thought of the bar as “his place” and it probably irritated him that Lewinski and his son’s band were upsetting the order of things.

According to video footage, Lewinski was speaking to the bar owner for a moment and Sapienza, donning a face mask, decided to take it upon himself to confront Mr. Lewinski about his failure to be diligent about wearing a mask. There was no audio to the video, but John J. Flynn, the Erie County district attorney, says that “out of the blue”, Mr. Lewinski two hand shoved Mr. Sapienza, who fell backwards. His left arm knocked over a bar stool as his head hit the floor. Sapienza immediately lost consciousness and suffered a seizure. He was taken to a hospital, where he underwent brain surgery and died several days later.

Lewinski, who supposedly had made “lewd” comments to the staff, immediately paid his bill and left right after Sapienza hit the floor. I can’t say I blame him for that, but maybe that was also the wrong thing to do.

In my opinion, this incident sounds like a terrible accident. It’s certainly not murder, although many outraged comments indicate that it is. I don’t believe that Donald Lewinski showed up at that bar intending to kill someone. He probably just wanted to have a good time, listen to his son play music and enjoy some adult beverages.

If Lewinski had tackled Mr. Sapienza and repeatedly beat him about the head and shoulders in a clear effort to kill him, that would be murder. There has to be deliberate intent to kill for a killing to be called murder. It sounds to me like Lewinski pushed the man to get him out of his face, and that was it. He clearly didn’t intend to kill him. Mr. Sapienza’s accident was simply the unfortunate result of their confrontation, which Sapienza initiated. I don’t think Lewinski needs to be put away for the rest of his life for that. Some people would even call what he did self-defense, although I’m not sure the situation called for self-defense. But again– they were in a bar and there were likely distorted perceptions at play caused by boozing.

Could Lewinski have been better about wearing a face mask? Sure. But consider that less than a year ago, no one was wearing masks in bars or socially distancing. Some people are having a harder time adjusting to this new requirement than others are. And while I’m not absolutely certain that the parties involved in this incident were drinking alcohol, I’m going to assume that they were. They were there for “hours”, and there’s no telling how much they drank before the altercation occurred. In fact, I would also wonder if alcohol could have had an effect on Mr. Sapienza’s body that exacerbated the effects of the blunt trauma to his head.

What really irritates me about this story is that many people who are commenting on it automatically attack Donald Lewinski’s character and call him a “murderer”. It’s akin to the people who call anyone not wearing a face mask a “murderer”. It’s ridiculous hyperbole and it doesn’t serve justice.

For the record, I agree that Lewinski was absolutely wrong to shove Mr. Sapienza, although I also think that Sapienza was wrong to confront Lewinski. It was not his place to enforce the mask requirement; it was the management’s duty.

Moreover, the fact that Mr. Sapienza was 80 years old is irrelevant. I don’t know how recent the photos of Sapienza are, but he doesn’t appear to be that old. In some pictures I’ve seen, he’s wearing a dapper looking suit and a big smile– yes, he looks like a very friendly, healthy, fun loving man. I would not have guessed Sapienza was 80, and I’m sure his age never occurred to Mr. Lewinski, either. It sounds to me like he acted impulsively– he’d been drinking and was already irritated with Sapienza, as the two had exchanged “terse words” prior to the shoving incident. It’s not unusual for people to react physically when someone invades their personal space, especially when there’s booze involved.

A screen grab from a news video about this incident. He looks pretty hale and hearty to me, but I don’t know how old this picture is. To read the comments on some of the news articles about this, Mr. Sapienza was a frail , little old man. I don’t think that’s necessarily so. He does look like a great guy, though. It’s sad that he died the way he did.

Obviously, both of these men were healthy enough to sit in a bar for hours, despite their “advanced ages”. But in the age of COVID-19, it’s probably not the best idea for anyone to be hanging out in a bar, especially men over the age of 50 who might have underlying health conditions. Alcohol is a social lubricant. It causes people to behave in ways they might not have otherwise and can distort a person’s perceptions of reality. Or, it causes them to magnify behaviors, which may or may not be good. If you’re an asshole naturally, and you drink booze, you’re probably going to be an even bigger asshole when you’re drunk. Believe me, I have seen and experienced it many times. I don’t know what kind of man Donald Lewinski is, but if he was drinking, it’s possible that his frame of mind might have been in the realm of asshole on September 26th. Or, maybe he just doesn’t know his own strength.

If you’re a senior citizen and you’re concerned enough about COVID-19 that you feel compelled to confront strangers about wearing face masks, it’s probably a wiser decision to stay home. I am sure that hanging out in his favorite watering hole was a comfort for Mr. Sapienza. Maybe it helped him feel more normal in these very weird pandemic days we’re experiencing. And maybe he felt emboldened to confront another man for not wearing a face mask, because that bar felt like “his place”. But, when it comes down to it, not everyone is going to see it that way. People are on edge and pissed off– tensions are high for a lot of reasons. It’s probably not the best idea to confront people who are breaking the rules, especially in a bar. Let someone in charge do it, for your own safety. Especially if you are “at an elevated risk” for COVID-19, as Mr. Sapienza would be simply due to his age and sex. But then, maybe Mr. Sapienza was also under the influence of booze and his natural instincts were similarly magnified.

I totally get that people are fed up with those who break the rules. I also get that people resent having to wear face masks. I hate them myself, but I do wear them when they are required. And because I hate the masks, I do my best to avoid having to wear them by staying away from other people. Instead of going to bars, I stay home and drink. It’s cheaper that way, and I get to pick the music. Bars are not safe places for those hoping to avoid COVID-19. I certainly don’t condone Lewinski’s decision to push Mr. Sapienza, inadvertently causing his death, but I also don’t condone Mr. Sapienza’s decision to put himself in harm’s way by being confrontational.

It’s too bad that the press is spinning this situation to be something it’s not. People are predictably reacting without reading much more than the headline or thinking critically. So many folks are commenting that Lewinski should go to prison for the rest of his life… calling him a hardened murderer because he shoved some guy for confronting him after they had already exchanged “terse words”. I wonder if they would feel the same way if they or someone they loved were involved in a similar situation. My guess is that most of them wouldn’t. But then, it’s always “a different story” when the story is about someone else.

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celebrities, musings

Why do we love to see people rot?

I was just sitting here thinking about what I wanted to write about today. I was looking through old posts I’ve done and toyed with the idea of visiting an old chestnut or two, themes that never wear out or get old. I could write about a pressing personal issue this morning… but I’ve learned my lesson about sharing too much of myself prematurely.

Then I remembered a snarky article I happened to read the other day about Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Gianulli. I had wanted to write about it when I first read it, but then something else came up that was more pressing and it slipped my mind. But now I need a topic, so here’s another article about Lori and Mossimo. It’s one of so many circulating right now… but it may be a little different than those other articles.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Lori and Mossimo are going to be incarcerated soon. Lori will spend two months at a medium security lockup in Victorville, California. Mossimo will likely do five months at a minimum security joint in Santa Barbara. Although the facilities where they will be incarcerated are described as kind of cushy, they’re still lockups. The experience will certainly suck, even if Lori Loughlin’s prison offers courses in calligraphy and pilates. No, she’s not going to be doing hard time, but her crime doesn’t really warrant doing hard time, does it?

For some reason, a lot of people in the United States have the idea that locking people up for as long as possible is the best thing to do when they’ve misbehaved. I’ve read a lot of comments by people who are dismayed when someone gets let of out of jail early. So many people love to parrot that old line, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” They are just fine with people being incarcerated endlessly. They don’t seem to care much about what happens to them after they’ve been locked up for awhile.

The article I read that prompted today’s post was heavy on sarcasm. I’ll grant that it was kind of a funny post. Even more than the original article, I was affected by a comment someone left pointing out the hypocrisy of readers who were jeering at Lori’s cushy jailhouse digs. The person pointed out that regular readers of that publication tended to be left leaning folks who were in favor of prison reform. And yet, there they were, laughing at the idea that someone might have access to classes and activities that promote physical, spiritual, and mental well-being.

Good points here.

And another comment:

I do wonder what people actually want in this situation. Do they want her to be tortured and put into squalid conditions? I’ve noticed there’s this weird sort of thing in this country where we want to lower the bar rather than raise it. So if a bunch of people are treated like shit, and some are treated better, the solution is then not to treat everyone better, but instead treat everyone equally bad. It’s like if you find out your co-worker makes more than you, and instead of wanting to make the same amount as him, you’d rather see his paycheck go down to match yours. Then everybody loses!

I get it, though. Some people pointed out that if Lori weren’t so rich and famous, she wouldn’t be going to a place that is so “cushy”. But… does that mean that everyone in that jail is rich and famous? Surely, there are people incarcerated there who aren’t worth millions and don’t have a pretty face. Moreover, there have been famous people from wealthy families who have gone to “real” prisons . Cameron Douglas, son of movie star Michael Douglas, did “hard time”. So has Redmond O’Neal, son of movie star Farrah Fawcett.

So people are pissed off that Lori Loughlin, who is not a violent criminal and is highly unlikely to ever repeat her crime, is going to do two months in a prison where she can practice yoga and learn new skills. I wonder if any of these folks, having been caught breaking the law (which pretty much everyone does at least once in a lifetime), would want to be sent to a shit hole where they are regularly threatened, beaten up, and fed slop. Would they want that for a friend or a loved one? If there’s a chance that a person will emerge from a corrections facility, isn’t it better that the person comes out with coping skills, good mental and physical health, and a positive self-image? Is it really better to simply focus only on punishment, rather than teaching a person the error of their ways and why they shouldn’t have done what they did? Shouldn’t we also have some regard for them as human beings?

It seems to me that instead of being pissed off that Lori and Mossimo are getting off lightly, we should be pissed off that people with fewer resources end up in worse conditions than they should. We should be angry that people get wrongly accused of crimes and wind up locked up in hellholes for years. We should be pissed off that a man who does 22 years in a California prison and comes out a better person– having actually risked his life to fight wild fires while still incarcerated– gets rounded up by ICE and sent to another lockup, destined to be deported to a country he hasn’t seen since he was two years old and doesn’t recognize him as a citizen.

Granted, no one really needs to know how to write in calligraphy. No one needs to do yoga or pilates. But these are activities that are basically healthy and wholesome and may be a better outlet for incarcerated people than hanging out with other criminals and learning how to make shivs. Moreover, not all criminals are created equally. Non-violent people should not be locked down in cells and forced to dig ditches with murderers and rapists. People who can be rehabilitated should be rehabilitated and given a chance.

Lori Loughlin doesn’t need all of the activities her prison will offer. But she is not representative of all of the people in that facility. Other people who are locked up there might not have those opportunities on the outside. Maybe a course in calligraphy is all someone needs to find a new path. I don’t think incarceration always has to be about punishment and being in hell. It should mostly be about correcting bad behavior and learning better skills. Yes, there are people out there who can’t be rehabilitated. Yes, there are dangerous people who are mad at the world and would never benefit from learning how to crochet or make origami. But I think there are fewer of them than regular folks who have made mistakes.

I don’t cheer for locking people up. I think prisons should be reserved for people who are violent or otherwise extremely dangerous. Prisons cost society a lot– taxpayer dollars as well as the lives ruined by prison records that make it impossible for some people to ever recover. And, as we discovered last week in the story about the women who had hysterectomies against their wills, there are for profit corporations that are committing real crimes against detainees.

Prisoners are people, and they have basic human rights. Lori Loughlin is rich, beautiful, wealthy, and lucky beyond most people’s wildest dreams, but that doesn’t mean she needs to be rotting in a jail cell. No one should be “rotting” away in jail. That’s not an acceptable standard for human beings.

So, I hope Lori and Mossimo do their time, learn something from it, and come back whole to their families. I strongly suspect they won’t reoffend, and especially if they do learn a new skill like “cartoon drawing”, the experience will make them better people. I suspect that most of the people bitching about the “light sentence” would not want to trade places with them, nor would they be sad if they were sentenced to a similarly “cushy” lockup. It’s still prison, people, and it is going to suck. It will be humiliating, degrading, shameful, and unpleasant. But I feel very sure that they’ve learned their lessons, and that is all that really matters.

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healthcare, history, politics, tragedies

No… this era is not like the Holocaust… yet, anyway.

Someone in the Duggar Family News group posted about Dawn Wooten’s complaints about Irwin County Detention Center, the ICE facility in Georgia where precautions against COVID-19 are being ignored and women are supposedly being forced into having hysterectomies. I wrote about that situation myself yesterday.

Many people in the Duggar group were in disbelief about Wooten’s claims. Quite a few dismissed them outright as “bullshit”. They couldn’t conceive of something so horrible happening in the United States, particularly in this day and age. Apparently, they had never heard of the shameful eugenics programs that were quietly administered in the United States for decades, as recently as in the late 20th century. As I mentioned yesterday, my home state of Virginia had such a program until as late as 1979. In fact, as of 1924, Virginia even had a law on the books that served as a model for other states’ eugenics programs.

The Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 was upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional. From 1924 until 1979, 7325 people were forcibly sterilized for being “mentally deficient” or “mentally ill”. Approximately 22 percent of the people who were sterilized were Black. Many people were sterilized for having chronic illnesses such as epilepsy, for being impoverished, or for being “feeble-minded”, “an idiot”, “an imbecile” or “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent”. Although involuntary sterilization does occur today, it is now supposed to be done strictly for non-eugenic purposes on people who are “unable to give informed consent, in need of contraception, unable to use any other form of contraception, and permanently unable to raise a child”.

In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly passed a joint resolution apologizing for the misuse of “a respectable, ‘scientific’ veneer to cover activities of those who held blatantly racist views.” But it wasn’t until 2015 that Virginia agreed to financially compensate people who were sterilized under the Act. Given that the sterilization program ended in 1979, a lot of the people who might have been compensated are long gone. Although other states had similar programs allowing for sterilization of certain people without their consent, Virginia’s program ran longer than other states’ programs did.

Even though Virginia and other states did have laws on the books that allowed for sterilizing certain people, it’s clearly not something that people talk about much today. I don’t remember where I first heard about eugenics, but I don’t think it was in school. I probably learned about it in college, when I took courses in Women’s Literature and African American Literature.

Or it might have been through my own study of the Holocaust, which started when we lived in Germany the first time. I started reading a lot of books by Holocaust survivors, marveling at that time in history and how horrible it was… and how many of the places affected I had already been to visit. Since moving back to Germany in 2014, I’ve been to even more of them. It’s also likely that I ran across a magazine or news article about the history of eugenics.

All I know is that we didn’t talk about this in a classroom I was ever in, even though I did learn about concepts such as the “one drop rule“, which held that anyone with a drop of Black blood would be considered Black. Naturally, it would be very difficult to quantify such a thing. Practically speaking, it meant that anyone with known African ancestry was considered Black, in spite of how he or she appeared.

In any case, as I was reading the comments in the Duggar Family News group, it became pretty obvious to me that a lot of Americans simply never learned about this shameful chapter of the past. So when they saw the news articles about a doctor in Georgia forcibly sterilizing female detainees in an ICE facility in Georgia, they immediately assumed it was bullshit. The idea of that sounded outrageous to them, even though it went on in the United States for many years and, at that time, it was deemed completely legal.

Ever since Trump became president, there have been a lot of comments about how much he is like Adolf Hitler. Even here in Germany, where people have an acute sensitivity to all things Nazi related, people have said Trump reminds them of Hitler. I figure if anyone should know about that, it would be Germans. To their credit, most Germans are extremely remorseful and ashamed of their past. They are determined to learn from history and not repeat it.

Reading and hearing about doctors in Georgia who are removing the reproductive parts of detainees sounds very much like something that could (and did) go on during the Holocaust. However… as horrifying as that news was yesterday and as frighteningly “Nazi-ish” as forced hysterectomies are, I can’t quite say that we’ve quite reached the horrors of the Holocaust. I know some people believe we have, but I can’t bring myself to do that yet. Personally, I think that to definitively compare today’s situation to what happened in Europe in the 1940s is disrespectful to those who were directly affected by the Holocaust. I think the Holocaust was much worse than Trump’s America is, at least at this point in time. We’re not yet talking about actual genocide, like Hitler and his cronies were carrying out in the 1940s. I have not heard about mass murders of millions of people yet, only that people are being rounded up and put in detention centers– which is certainly horrible enough, but does not equate to murder.

However… if things don’t change soon, I fear that we could absolutely find ourselves repeating history, and I can see why many people think Trump’s era is similar to the Holocaust era. If people continue to get away with doing horrible things like sterilizing women in ICE detention facilities, there could be a slippery slope into normalizing increasingly horrific practices such as rounding up people, putting them on packed trains, shipping them to prison camps, and sending them straight to the gas chambers or working them until they die of disease or exhaustion without a second thought or a moment of remorse. But I don’t think we’re there yet, or at least I fervently HOPE we aren’t. So that’s why I say that what was reported yesterday, if it’s true, brings us closer to Nazi territory.

As inhumane and terrible as what is going on is right now, in my opinion, it doesn’t quite compare to the horrors of what happened to Jews, homosexuals, communists, rabble rousers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any of the other groups Hitler hated. And thanks to the advances in technology, it’s a lot harder for people to be completely blinded to what’s going on around them. In the 1940s, there was no constant stream of news like we have today. There was no way to communicate quickly and efficiently like we can today. It was a lot easier to build secret camps and prisons and talk decent people in turning a blind eye than it is today.

But then… an awful lot of people I love and have historically respected are supportive of Trump and his despicable policies and inhumane attitudes toward people who aren’t like him (which thankfully, is just about everyone). The people who support him simply haven’t realized that he doesn’t care about them. They think he’s just a normal person with a big mouth, and he’s not.

I would like to hope that if there is, in fact, an OB-GYN in Georgia who is performing unnecessary hysterectomies on migrant women who come to him for medical help, he’s acting alone. I would hope he hasn’t been officially recruited to do these surgeries as a way to stop certain “undesirables” from breeding. I would hope that it’s his own twisted idea, and that he’s not only stopped from practicing medicine, but is prosecuted and locked up. Sadly, I don’t think I’d be surprised if I heard of other doctors doing similarly barbaric things to helpless and desperate migrants who need medical care. Some of them probably think they’re doing good for the country by stopping “illegals”. They have crossed the line that makes them forget that these are human beings they’re dealing with, not pests that need to be exterminated or “fixed”. They have forgotten that they took a sacred oath to do no harm.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, here is a link to the complaint that was submitted to the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security. I truly hope this claim is thoroughly investigated and people are brought to justice. Edited to add: This article from NBC news identifies the doctor in question. Below is an excerpt:

The doctor, who three lawyers identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, practicing in Douglas, Georgia, has continued to see women from the Irwin County Detention Center for the past several years despite complaints from his patients.

Amin was the subject of a Justice Department investigation in 2015 for making false claims to Medicaid and Medicare. As a result, he and other doctors involved paid $525,000 in a civil settlement, according to the Justice Department.

Other women who have been to see Dr. Amin say he is “rough”, and a couple of them left his office with bruising.

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healthcare, politicians, politics

If this story is true, we’re getting even closer to Nazi territory.

This morning, I read a very disturbing article about Irwin County Detention Center, a privately run ICE facility in the U.S. state of Georgia. The center, run by LaSalle Corrections and located in Ocilla, is about 200 miles of Atlanta. It’s in the news because of whistleblower Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who worked in the detention facility and observed some horrifying conditions.

Wooten alleges that staff members at the ICE facility are not taking proper precautions against preventing the spread of COVID-19. She claims that cases are being underreported; detainees are not getting proper medical care, nor are they being tested; and, most shocking to me, women are having unwarranted hysterectomies without proper consent. Wooten claims that some women have seen a gynecologist for somewhat minor conditions like heavy menstrual periods, and the physician has been “treating” them by removing their uteri or ovaries.

In a letter she sent to the Inspector General Office at the Department of Homeland Security, Wooten claims that she was asked to triage a man with COVID-19, even though she did not even have a face mask for protection. She also says that warden David Paulk told a staff member not to let anyone know that the man with COVID-19 had tested positive because he “didn’t want people to panic” (where have we heard THAT before)? Wooten reports that nurses were claiming to have seen patients who complained of COVID-19 symptoms when they hadn’t, and that she had actually seen nurses shredding a box of detainee complaints without even looking at them. Two $14,000 rapid testing COVID-19 machines were purchased by ICE for the facility, but Wooten says she only saw them used once. No one was trained to use them.

When Wooten complained to the powers that be at the facility, she lost her full-time position and was demoted to an “on call” job, for which she was only offered a few hours of work per week. Wooten, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and is at an elevated risk for COVID-19 was deliberately exposed to patients who had the virus. Management at Irwin neglected to tell her that detainees she had contact with were symptomatic and, in three cases, had tested positive for COVID-19.

Wooten’s claims were corroborated by other medical staff at Irwin who did not want to be identified because they fear reprisals. It was also verified by people who are currently or had recently been detained at the center. As of Sunday, 42 people at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19, but no precautions were being taken to try to stop the spread of the disease.

Because the first article I saw about this was from Yahoo!, I started checking to see if more reputable sources were sharing this story. Sure enough, I found articles in the Washington Post and the Guardian, as well as the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The emphasis in the other papers seemed to be less focused on the mass hysterectomies.

It’s horrible enough that people are locked up in a prison with no way to protect themselves against a deadly virus that spreads through the air. But what got me to read about what’s happening at the center was a news article from Yahoo! that a friend shared. The headline for that piece was about the forced hysterectomies, rather than COVID-19. That, to me, just screams human rights violation– akin to the horrors of the Holocaust and awful eugenics policies that were carried out in another, somewhat recent, era in the United States. Have we learned NOTHING from our past?

The “doctor” who allegedly did these hysterectomies, along with removing the wrong ovary from one of his patients, rendering her sterile, has not yet been named. I would be interested in hearing his explanation as to why he’s doing these operations, especially since the women are apparently not being informed of the purpose of doing them or the risks. While it would be easy for me to conclude that he’s doing these procedures to prevent the women from having “anchor babies” (and he probably is), I would love to hear that there’s a reasonable explanation. The doctor who is performing the hysterectomies is being referred to as a “uterus collector”. To me, this practice conjures up an image not unlike veterinarians who desex animals and release them to the streets so they are rendered unable to breed. Maybe that makes sense when the subject is feral cats. It does not make sense when human beings are involved. Again… it reminds me of the dreadful eugenics programs that ran in my home state of Virginia as recently as the 1970s.

I doubt I will ever hear a reasonable explanation for the gynecologist’s practice of doing the mass hysterectomies. I’ll bet he’d say he’s somehow doing those women a “favor”– or, at least he’s doing the United States a favor by not allowing them to have babies that would be U.S. citizens. It seems to me that ever since Donald Trump took office, people who hate others based on their skin color or country of origin are incredibly emboldened to carry out barbaric acts motivated by their ignorance and hatred. These racists don’t see immigrants or migrants as fellow human beings. Instead, it’s more like they see them as akin to vermin who need to be exterminated, or at least no longer able to “breed”, a positively disgusting and horrifying mindset.

My heart goes out to the women who have permanently been rendered sterile because they had the grave misfortune of landing in the detention center in Georgia. Even if they are locked up for justifiable cause– not just because they were born in the wrong place and rounded up by ICE– there is no excuse for the cruelty that has been alleged by Dawn Wooten. I am also very sorry for everyone else who is incarcerated in that facility, completely helpless to protect themselves against what could be for many of them, a deadly virus and a potential death sentence. They must be terrified.

I think a lot of us are terrified right now. Yesterday, Forbes.com ran a story about Donald Trump saying that he will “negotiate a third term, because he’s entitled to it.” Clearly, Trump has not read the Constitution, but many of his supporters harp about that sacred paper whenever they justify voting for him. Their fervor seems to be mostly about their right to bear arms, which is, indeed, the Second Amendment. The rest of the Constitution apparently matters much less to them, as well as the humane and freedom loving image that Americans have always tried to disseminate, at least for as long as I’ve been living.

Four years ago, I might have laughed off Trump’s comments about a potential third term, which I hope will be rendered moot when he’s soundly defeated in November. But now that I’ve seen how much he admires dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, I find it terrifying that Trump is in office NOW, and that people are still championing him. Many of the people championing him are folks that I love and respect, but I feel very certain that they are going to be on the wrong side of history. They don’t seem to understand that Trump is not just a political joke. He’s done some real damage that will take many years to undo… and that’s if COVID-19 or the many natural disasters we’re facing don’t wipe out civilization. I worry that when the inevitable end of his tenancy in the White House comes, there will be actual bloodshed.

Anyway… I remember the days when I truly believed that the United States was the “best” country in the world. I don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I find myself feeling more and more empathy for refugees who feel forced to flee their homelands. I know my situation is not nearly as dire as theirs is, at least right now, but I do feel like I have an inkling. I really don’t think that fearing another four years of Trump is an overreaction. To me, it looks like he’s destroying the country and maybe even parts of the world. I can only hope that one of those Big Macs he’s always shoveling in his big maw causes him to have a massive stroke… preferably on live TV. But aside from that, I fear that there are worse people than Trump waiting in the wings, ready to pick up where he will inevitably leave off… whether by defeat, death, being being forcibly dragged out of the White House by a coup.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of With God in Russia, by Walter Ciszek and Daniel Flaherty

I thought about this book review recently and decided it was time it was added to the new blog. I am reposting it as/is, the way I wrote it on June 23, 2018.

Sometimes Facebook can be a great place to find books, even from memes posted by long, lost co-workers from twenty years ago.  That’s how I happened to read Father Walter Ciszek’s harrowing story of being held prisoner the Soviet Union for twenty years.  My friend, Courtney, is a devout Catholic and she shared a meme featuring one of Ciszek’s quotes.  Not being Catholic myself, I had never heard of the man.  I do find books about the Soviet Union and the prison experience fascinating, though, so I decided to download Father Ciszek’s book, With God in Russia: The Inspiring Classic Account of a Catholic Priest’s Twenty-three Years in Soviet Prisons and Labor Camps

With God in Russia was originally published in 1964, but it has been republished several times.  I read the version that was released in June 2017.  The price was right at just $1.99.  The book is Father Ciszek’s story written by ghostwriter Daniel Flaherty.  It includes an afterword by James Martin. Father Ciszek, who died in 1984, has been considered for possible beatification or canonization since 1990.  His current title is Servant of God.  

Who was Walter Ciszek?

Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in November 1904.  His parents were Polish immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1890s.  When he was a young man, Ciszek belonged to a gang.  He later surprised his family when he decided to become a priest.  At age 24, Ciszek entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York.  

In 1929, Ciszek volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become part of the Soviet Union in 1917.  At that time in Russia, there was a real need for Ciszek’s services.  Religious rights for most citizens were curtailed and those who were religious suffered from persecution.  There weren’t many priests around to offer religious services to believers.    

In 1934, Ciszek went to Rome to study the Russian language, history, and liturgy, as well as theology.  He was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite and took the name Vladimir.  Just as an aside, not being Catholic myself, I don’t understand the practice of taking different names for religious reasons. I was a little confused as I was reading the book and Ciszek was referred to as Vladimir.

In 1938, Ciszek went to eastern Poland to do his missionary work.  The following year, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission.  At that point, Ciszek decided to go east, into the Soviet Union, under the assumed name Władymyr Łypynski.  He and two others journeyed 1500 miles to the logging town of Chusovoy, where he worked as a logger and provided religious services on the side.  

In 1941, Ciszek was arrested and accused of spying for the Vatican.  He was sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he spent five years, most of which were in solitary confinement.  During his time at Lubyanka Prison, Ciszek was drugged and tortured.  After enduring severe torture, he signed a confession.  Convicted of espionage, Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the GULAG.  He spent four more years at Lubyanka, then was sent to Siberia, where he worked in mines.  Throughout his many years imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Ciszek maintained his deep faith in God and provided religious services to other prisoners.

In 1955, Ciszek was released from prison and was finally able to write to his family, who had assumed he was dead.  He lived in the city of Norilsk with restrictions.  He wrote of how local authorities tried to get him to take a permanent Russian passport, which he refused to do.  Three years after his initial release, the KGB forced Ciszek to move to Krasnoyarsk, where he secretly established missionary parishes.  When the KGB learned of what he was doing, they required Ciszek to move again, this time to Abakan, a town about 100 miles south.  There, he worked as an auto mechanic for four more years.  

In 1963, he received his first letter from his sisters.  A few months later, the Soviet Union exchanged Ciszek for two Soviet agents who had been held by the United States.  He did not know he was going to be exchanged until he was handed over to a State Department representative, who told him that he was still an American citizen.  He left Russia in October 1963.

From 1965 onwards, Father Ciszek continued his missionary work in the United States, working and lecturing at Fordham University and providing counseling and spiritual guidance until he died in December 1984.  He published two more books, one of which was released posthumously, and has left an impressive legacy to Catholics.

My thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not Catholic and I don’t know that much about Catholicism.  I didn’t read this book because of who Ciszek was in a religious sense.  I read it because I am interested in the Soviet Union and what life was like for people who were imprisoned there.  I spent two years in the former Soviet Union just after it fell apart.

Although Armenia isn’t Russia and it wasn’t part of the Soviet Union when I was there, the Soviet Union had only just fallen.  Some aspects of Ciszek’s descriptions of life there rang very familiar to me.  I’m sure Armenia still maintains some remnants of that time even now, although I can see from pictures and Facebook posts from Armenian friends that the country has changed since I knew it.

Ciszek’s story is very engaging.  Flaherty did a good job making it read as if it came directly from Father Ciszek himself.  He describes the monotony of daily prison life, particularly when he was in Lubyanka and basically sat in solitary confinement for years.  He writes of the struggles of staying nourished while he was at hard labor.  I was particularly fascinated by his descriptions of meal times, when prisoners would bring out a large pot of soup and dish it out to all the prisoners.  The ones who were served first got the thinnest and least satisfying helpings and would demand that the soup be stirred before it was served to them.

In Ciszek’s voice, Flaherty wrote of special duties that would score prisoners extra rations.  For instance, the prisoner that would dump the bucket used for toileting would get another bowl of soup.  The prisoners would be so hungry that some were eager to take on that duty.  Naturally, because it was a prison, a lot of the people Ciszek did time with were actual criminals.  He wrote a lot about the “thieves” who would try to trick other prisoners out of their rations in Machiavellian ways.  

I was impressed by Ciszek’s devotion to God, even when it seemed like he couldn’t get a fair shake.  Make no mistake about it, Ciszek’s time in prison wasn’t fun.  I remember how Ciszek was given extra rations one day, not told that it was to last him for two days he’d spend riding on a train to another prison.  There he sat with his Russian handlers, who had plenty to eat and didn’t share with him.  When a piece of buttered bread fell to the floor on the train, he tried to get it with his foot without attracting the attention of one of his guards.  The guard eventually did catch him in the act, but Ciszek pleaded with him to let him eat the dirty piece of buttered bread.  The guard was indifferent, so he got the bread.  There is something about the desperation of that story that sticks with me.  Ciszek appealed to the guard’s humanity to ease his suffering just a tiny bit and it worked.

Although I am not a very religious person, I am fascinated by people who are committed to their faith, particularly when their commitment is genuine and not motivated by greed or a desire for power (although those people are also interesting for other reasons).  Father Ciszek was able to maintain faith, hope, and courage in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  He did not become a bitter shell of a man who hated God or blamed God for the twenty plus years he spent incarcerated in Russia.  Instead, he turned that situation into an incredible life story, full of adventure and hope.  He sets an example of a man who did not give up or give in to self-pity or doubt.  A lot of religious people, particularly the leaders, could learn from Father Ciszek’s example.

In any case, I highly recommend With God in Russia, particularly to Catholics who aren’t already familiar with his story.  I found it a very interesting and inspiring book.  I suppose the very fact that I read it proves that not all Facebook memes are useless.

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