All posts by johnwagner

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of: 1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru 2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir


I can’t believe there are no protests against the currently running Geico Insurance TV “torture” ad, which treats torture as normal, as acceptable business as usual. We don’t see torture because the theme of the ad is that all workers, even torturers, will play instead of “work” when the boss isn’t around. But the ad clearly treats torture as something acceptable. As such, it is an outrage.

The Ad Itself

In a medieval torture chamber, we see the boss of a group of tough-looking supposed torturers. The torturers have a prisoner tied to a large table. The boss asks what progress they are making with the prisoner and the torturers reply that the prisoner will soon tell them everything. They display vicious-looking weapons. But once the boss and his flunkies leave, the torturers turn the table over and we see the table is actually a ping-pong table, with the prisoner tied in the middle as a net. The theme of the ad is that goofing off at work, even work as torturing, is “what you do” and somehow you should decide to switch to Geico if you want to save money.

Ha! Ha! Ha! Torturers who goof off. How funny!

What’s Going On In The Ad?

Forget whether Geico is a good insurance company or whether you’ll really save the amount Geico claims you’ll save. I have no idea and no opinion.

What’s happening in our society when a major company decides it will be good for business to have a commercial portraying torture as normal, as a usual and customary part of society, as something to be accepted? Sure, we don’t really see torture in the ad. I can imagine the ad managers pitching the ad to Geico said something like, “See, when we say, ‘it’s what you do,’ why this even applies to people we usually don’t have a high opinion of. Who could be worse than torturers. So, this is satire, get it? The ad says even the worst people will goof off when their boss isn’t around because ‘it’s what you do’ and we want people to think getting Geico insurance ‘is what you do.’”

But the hidden message is, had the scene with the boss had the ad gone on a few seconds more with the boss present, the torturers would indeed have started torturing their prisoner. After all, that was their job. And doing your job is “what you do” when the boss is present.

Suppose we change the scene to Dachau or Auschwitz. The boss comes by and the workers say, “Yes, we’re definitely making progress with the prisoners.” Then the boss leaves and the workers take Jews off an incoming train to be spectators while they play soccer. No mistreatment of anybody. The workers are goofing off. Still so funny? How long could this go on before the workers decided they’d better get some work done and get going with their job of funneling the Jews into the “shower” rooms? Sure, we wouldn’t actually see any Jews being killed but wouldn’t that be the implied premise of the ad.

Not only does the Geico ad treat torture as a normal and acceptable part of society but it comes at a time in our country when we are engaged in a major and consequential debate about what actions our country, a democratic republic with a constitution that explicitly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” may engage in against “suspected terrorists.” I write this shortly after the first, raucous, Republican debate of 2016, in which more than one candidate made it clear they believed the country could do anything the military wanted to against suspected terrorists. We are supposed to be a country of “rule of law,” but no candidate raised our Constitution (or anything else) as a protection against torture.

In my opinion, the ad is clearly not neutral on this issue—it expresses no moral disapproval whatsoever. The ad comes down squarely on the side of the argument that human rights are irrelevant—“we should do whatever the military decides is necessary to suspected terrorists.” And who is a “suspected terrorist?” It’s always vague and it’s usually people we don’t like.

Why No Protests?

Is this what our society has come to? Making fun of prisoners being tortured? Suppose we brought Abu Ghraib into the scenario. “Hey, let’s goof off from putting the prisoners in humiliating sexual positions and threatening them with dogs for a little while once the boss leaves.” Still funny?

I searched on Google and could find no protests of this ad. I can’t believe it. Well, I protest. Shame on you Geico!









I recently opened the latest issue of Opera News and was shocked to read that Margaret Juntwait had died. What? She was in the prime of her life (58). How could that have happened? (Alas, it happened because of ovarian cancer, which we must find a way to cure.)

I felt like I literally “heard” Margaret grow up on the radio—doing the Saturday morning (at least for those of us in California it began in the morning) Live From the Met broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City since 2004. At first, I was not enthralled. When she took over from Peter Allen, it seemed to me she was just reading a script. I found it a little uncomfortable to listen to. But then an amazing transformation began. After the first season or so, little by little, week by week, she seemed to develop her own voice. I’m sure she still had a script, or at least an outline, but more and more it sounded like she was sitting there, in a wonderful seat at the Met, talking with (not, “to”) us, her listener friends, not pontificating but helping us notice interesting aspects of that week’s opera. Just sharing her thoughts, no big deal.

It got to the point where her voice and her comments seemed completely fluid, knowledgeable, and spontaneous. Luckily, as time went on, I had cars that came with SIRIUS radio and I was able to hear her Met broadcasts on some weekday evenings, while driving home from work, in addition to the regular Saturday performances. That was always an extra treat. Over time, she seemed to be a friend sharing her knowledgeable thoughts in an amiable, relaxed manner.

At the same time as Margaret was “growing up” (to me at least) on the radio, I had become a fan of Richard Wagner’s four-part “Ring Cycle” and had begun traveling in the US and Europe for opera in general and especially to see various Ring performances. In early 2013, I was in Frankfurt, where it was bitter cold, attending that city’s opera company’s innovative Ring production. During one of the intermissions, I found myself in the food area next to a vivacious and interesting woman. We began chatting about the production. We each first made it clear we were married so there was no hidden agenda—it was just a wonderful conversation about Wagner in general, the Frankfurt production, and a bit about our lives. We conversed about a range of issues and finally we talked about what we each did. From her knowledge of opera, I expected her to say she had some affiliation with an opera or arts association but I was blown away when she told me her name. Here she was, “the” Margaret Juntwait, whom I felt I gotten to know via the radio, talking with me. I almost fell over. And not only was I talking with her but she seemed to be enjoying our talk and learning about my work (healthcare law) as well as hearing my unlettered opinions! I expected that, at any moment, someone from the Met would come and take her to meet someone more interesting but it never happened.

Although vivacious and beautiful, she was not arrogant or patronizing. She was so friendly and so approachable. She told me she was here with her husband and her Met team and, when I asked, she told me a bit about her work-a-day world preparing her shows. She was nothing like the divas I’ve heard about or the “operaistas” I’ve met in various Wagner Societies who let you know they’re doing you a favor by even saying “hello.” To the contrary, Margaret seemed a friendly, knowledgeable, expert interested in talking about anything: yes, opera of course, but also life in general. I became tongue-tied as soon as she said her name but she quickly had me talking again, asking about my work and my family. Of course she was a professional interviewer by now, but at no time did I feel that she was “doing her interview thing” to get through a long intermission with this guy she happened to get stuck next to.

I told her how I thought she’d developed more and more confidence each year and how I so looked forward to each show. And I couldn’t believe that she actually seemed interested in whatever I was babbling about. Maybe she was just being nice. But I remember how she seemed so genuine, friendly, and down-to-earth.

After that, sometimes when I heard her on the radio, I thought: I should send her an email about how I liked this or that show, and why. (Not that I had her email address.) But I never did, thinking, oh, sure, she was nice to me during an intermission but she wouldn’t be interested in hearing from the likes of me about her show. Or, I thought, she’d think I wanted something. Maybe so but who knows? I’m glad I had those few moments with her. I’m glad I told her how much I’d come to appreciate her shows. But I’m sorry I never sent her an email now and again when I felt something she said had truly moved me. I didn’t want to be a bother but maybe she would have liked to know how her work affected at least this fan.

It’s cliché but it’s true: death don’t have no mercy. Soon the Met will be starting a new season. Margaret Juntwait should be there, helping all of us appreciate it better. But she won’t. I’ll treasure the few minutes I had with her.



Why Give Up Everything?

In the middle of my career as a lawyer–a career i enjoyed very much–I decided to “give up everything” to do human rights work in violence-ridden Peru, a country being ripped to shreds by two terrorist groups and by “counter-terrorism” violence from the security and police forces. Whatever led me to do this?

Recently I came across copies of my newsletter of that time to friends and family: ¿Quien Sabe? (Who Knows?)–John Wagner’s Newsletter From Peru, the first issue of which addressed that question. I remember writing that newsletter, pre-internet, on a beat up manual typewriter and sending it to a friend in Sacramento who kindly made copies and mailed them for me. The following summarizes my thoughts at the time.

I knew i couldn’t act as an official “lawyer” in Peru but I hoped to act as an informal advocate and to assist persons and families who’d suffered human rights violations. To use a religious cliché, just as St. Paul had an epiphany in which he was knocked off his horse, I took a study tour of Peru that caused me to question every aspect of my life. I came into direct contact with the poverty of the Third World and I also came into contact with people doing very meaningful things to help those people.

I felt the most important thing was not on any “results” I might obtain but that I wanted to strip myself of the trap of possessions, running for success, materialism, workaholism, and then rewarding myself for those things by, yes, more possessions–the endless cycle of self-ism as Buddhists might say.

I interviewed with several well-known human rights agencies but, in a surprise to my nicely-developed ego, they weren’t interested in successful lawyers in mid-career seeking to change their lives. They were suspicious of people they hadn’t trained and most human rights jobs went to prior interns at those agencies.

I had been a Catholic, although not active, and sought out Catholic organizations having overseas placements. It took a while but I finally  found a progressive Catholic order that promised me a human rights job in Peru. I was worried that I might not be Catholic enough for the order but to my surprise, it was focused not pushing any given doctrine but focused on accompanying poor and oppressed persons in the third world. I wrote in my newsletter:

I view a religion as a community in which members not only have the right but the responsibility to express their views and engage in dialogue with each other. But I realize that: (a) there are still many problems within the Church, including hierarchy, sexism, paternalism, etc., and (b) no religion has a corner on “the” truth, all religions are not merely dealing with “inner” beliefs but are political and institutional forces replete with bureaucracies, turf-battles, organizational dynamics, etc.

Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. I also wrote:

The biggest question, of course, is why go overseas when there are so many problems right here in the US? If I want to work with the poor, why not work for a Legal Services program here where I already know the language and can utilize my skills? There’s no easy answer as that is what i would have sought had this program not worked out. There are many terrific people doing wonderful work in such programs. But to some extent what I want is the “stripping away” effect and the transformational effect of coming to grips with a new language and culture. In some ways it’s actually easier to seek a transformation by changing cultures at the same time. Corny as it sounds, I guess it boils down to my feeling on the Peru study tour that, “Why are you not here?”

Looking back on it, i really nailed the issues. In some ways, I got exactly what I was seeking in my placement in Peru and in other ways, my efforts completely failed.

John Wagner’s memoir is, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), coming out in the fall, 2015.

“Missionary” versus “Missioner”

Advance readers of my memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, have asked a question about word usage: the difference between “missionary” and “missioner.”

There’s a great world of difference, although dictionaries tend to equate the two words as synonyms of each other. In one sense, the words are synonyms: they refer to members of religious communities in the US who go to work overseas. But that’s where the similarity ends.

To modern “missioners,” the word “missionary” is old-fashioned, referring to members of a religious group seeking to proselytize, to convert others, typically in underdeveloped countries,  to the “missionary’s” faith. Old-school “missionaries” spoke of “converting the heathens” and of “bringing” the unchurched to God. There are still many religions attempting to do this.

More contemporary views of mission, on the other hand, use the word “missioner” in deliberate contrast to the word, “missionary.” Holders of these views believe the people they work with and for are already with God, as they believe all people are, and don’t need to be “brought” anywhere. Rather than seeing their role as converting the unchurched, they see their role as “accompanying” those in need, typically, the poor, the marginated and the victims of oppression and repression. Rather than seeing themselves on a “higher” spiritual level than those they are working with, they see themselves as equal and as using their skills and talents to help the victims of injustice.

The use of the word, “missionary” connotes imposition–forcing or “persuading” people to change beliefs and religions in the quest for a better life after death. The use of the word, “missioner” connotes servant leadership–working with victimized persons to help them develop skills and abilities to live better lives in this life, on this earth.

So far, the nuanced differences between these similar words haven’t made it to the dictionaries or even Wikipedia. But ask any “missioner,” and you’ll get a lengthy and detailed discussion!


John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights In Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House) will be coming out fall, 2015.


My Liturgy On “Words”

In our mission training program, we were called upon to prepare liturgies, which could be as wide-open as we wanted. Some candidates were very conservative, the most  conservative being when the woman surgeon going to Africa asked us all to pray the rosary.  What? That was just too rote, too bland, too unthinking for my taste. My favorite liturgy that I prepared was writing, and then reading this poem.

Word, word, words, words, babbling words
Noble words, heavy words, hearty words,
Think about it words
Think about it, words
Comfort words, happy words, sad words,
If there’s anything I can do words
I’m sorry for your loss words
Silent words, oh he or she is SO nice words, sliding the knife in words

Yes, it’s terrible
I’m so happy for you
I hear you
I’ll be here for you
My door is always open
Oh, don’t worry, that won’t last long
This wont hurt a bit
I didn’t mean to hurt you

God loves you, yes he does
Well, God and I were talking just the other day
Over dinner and he told me so
Well he must love you, that’s his job description
Of course, he love’s me just a little bit more
I heard it through the grapevine
I heard it in a whisper
I heard it in the air

Words to fight the killing
Words to stay together
Words to hey everybody let’s love one another
Words to fight the illness, the dirty water, the dirty air
Words to plead for the babies
Words to plead for the hookers
Words to plead for the johns
Words to pray

Gotta be rock n roll words
If you wanna dance with me
What, say me?
What, hey me?
What, right now?
What, in public?
What, before God?
And Everybody?

Words Words Words Words
What What What What
Now, not now, yes not now
Yes, of course but
Words to think about how it would look
Words to think about how they would think
Words to Yes means
No thank you, not now not really not quite

You understand.

OK, I know it wasn’t great poetry! While I “meant” many things, including just playing with the word, “word,” for its babble effect, my overall theme was how wonderful noble words are but they are just that, noble words. They mean nothing unless motivated action is behind the words and with the words. Otherwise, noble words are just empty calories. Even worse, they give false hope.


Adapted from John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House, 2015)

Meeting Bella

Our GATE (Global Awareness Through Education) study tour of Peru was staying in a convent in Lima at the same a group of teachers was having a retreat there. One evening in the dinner line at the cafeteria, I saw a stunning teacher in a green dress. She was chatting with some other teachers, who were hanging on her every word. She was tall, had a drop-dead-gorgeous figure, was brown-haired and brown-eyed, with strong cheekbones. The sweep of her shoulders stemmed effortlessly from her neck. Her face radiated calmness, happiness, and vitality. She was simply the most beautiful and graceful creature I have ever seen. She reminded me of Sophia Loren, both in appearance and attitude. I knew that, as a teacher in Peru, she could not have much money, but she appeared royal, elegant, and proud. She also radiated a steamy sensuality.

Awakening the next morning, I couldn’t think of anything else but this beautiful, captivating woman. I looked for her on the grounds before and after breakfast but didn’t see her. Then our GATE group was off for a busy day of activities in hot and humid Lima. When we got back, in late afternoon, we were free until dinner. I couldn’t wait to look for this beautiful teacher again. I was sticky and sweaty from the heat and humidity and needed to clean up first. The cold shower water hit my skin as I washed myself quickly, attempting to get out the door fast to look for her. The garden was the centerpiece of the convent grounds and I stood, drinking a Coke, in more or less the crossroads of the garden paths. Now if she does any walking around at all, I thought, I’ll be sure to see her.

The heat caused the cold bottle of Coke in my hand to sweat, dripping beads of water on the ground. I kept waiting. The Coke got warmer. It would be time to join my group for dinner shortly and I had almost given up. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her, coming toward the garden with a friend. The dark hair, the smooth cinnamon skin, the enchanting smile I had seen again in my dreams the previous night—there was something about this woman that made my heart beat faster and my palms sweat even faster than my Coke bottle.

“Hola,” Hello. “¿Qué tal?” How’s it going? I had now picked up a few words of Spanish. “Would you like a Coke?” I asked in English, sticking out my half-empty bottle. “Wait right here,” I said and gesticulated. “I’ll get a Coke for each of you,” I said, pointing at the Coke bottle and at each of them. “OK?” I figured everyone knew, “OK.”
“OK,” they said, laughing.
“Don’t go away,” I said and emphasized with spur of the moment sign language. “I’ll get my phrasebook,” I said, which of course they couldn’t understand as I didn’t have my phrasebook.

Then I ran to the cafeteria to get two more Cokes, hurried to my room to get my Spanish phrasebook, and raced back, hoping they would still be there. They were. I gave them each a Coke, retrieved mine, and introduced myself. They offered their names in return, Bella and Eva. As we worked our way through the phrasebook, I learned they were teachers. They pointed at me, asking me in Spanish what I did. Without checking in the book, I just blurted out the only foreign word for lawyer I knew, the German, “advokat.”
“What,” Bella jokingly asked in Spanish, “are you an astronaut?”
I found it. “Abogado,” lawyer, I said. I tried, “Perry Mason,” but that meant nothing to them. I guess those old reruns hadn’t made it to Lima. We had a halting conversation in phrasebook Spanish. Luckily, Stephanie, our guide, happened by and I enlisted her help as translator to explain what I did for a living and what our group of gringos was doing in their troubled country.

I believe there are “click” experiences in life where you meet someone and, for no reason you can explain, you just “click.” That’s what happened to me with Bella.


Adapted from John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House 2015).

The Campesinos Who Wanted To Keep Their Bicycles

“Give us your bicycles!”

In the Peru of the late 1980s-early 1990s, the vicious revolutionary organization Sendero Luminoso was terrorizing the Peruvian countryside. In the middle of a hot morning, near the small rural village of Sillota, four members of Sendero (known as Senderistas), dressed in dirty work clothes but each carrying a rifle or shotgun, suddenly appeared before four campesino farmers and their wives, who were working their fields. The campesinos froze. The leader of the Senderistas said, “We know who you are. We know you have bicycles. We’re official representatives of Sendero Luminoso.” (Yeah, right. Like there could be “official” representatives of a terrorist organization. But there could and they were.) “If you don’t give us your bicycles, we’ll kill you.”

In rural Peru, poor people don’t have cars and even a bicycle is extremely valuable. The campesino farmers offered what turned out to be a fatal bargain. “How about if you get on the backs of our bicycles and we’ll take you where you want to go.” It’s easy now, in hindsight, for us to see trouble ahead and yell out, as if to the actors in a scary movie who rush back into the house where the murderer lurks: “No! Don’t do it! Give them your bicycles!” But their bicycles were the only way they could get around, get to town to buy the supplies they needed and to sell small cartons of their potatoes and other crops. Without their bicycles, they’d have to walk hours for each little journey they needed to make. Their offer also showed real courage. Senderistas often killed anyone who stood in their way, without a second thought.

But the Senderistas actually accepted the campesinos’ offer and the group of eight made it into the little market town of Chillutira a few hours later. (The wives went to Sillota, gathered community leaders, and tried to figure out what to do.) In Chillutira, all hell broke loose. The Senderistas started robbing houses, townspeople began to fight back, and soon the townspeople had killed two Senderistas, with two escaping. The townspeople held the four Sillota campesinos prisoner until they could notify the Army and an Army patrol could come the next morning.

The wives got to Chillutira that night and sat up all night near their husbands. The Sillota officials got to Chillutira the next morning to vouch for the campesinos but it was too late. The Army had taken them away, along with the bodies of the two dead Senderistas.  “Please, let us go with our husbands,” the Sillota wives had begged.

“No,” the Army lieutenant said. “There’s no problem. Go to the Ayaviri base. You can visit your husbands there.” But that afternoon the Army truck arrived in the larger town of Ayaviri with all four campesinos dead, having been shot at close range. The Army claimed the truck had been attacked by terrorists but there were no bullet holes, they had made no radio report, and the only people injured were the campesinos.

Courageously, and with the help of human rights workers, the local prosecutor charged the Army officials involved with homicide but the Army had the case transferred to the military judicial system that, in Peru, had never convicted any Army official of any crime relating to human rights. Same thing here. The Army quickly exonerated the officers.

This was my introduction to human rights work in Peru—translating the Spanish  documents, studying the case details. Holding their original identification cards, it really hit me. These had been young guys, late 20’s-early 30’s. They were flesh and blood. They had families, wives, and children to support. They had farms to tend. Their lives mattered! I felt it was important to stand up for them in any way I could, to honor them, to do whatever I could to not to let their lives just be snuffed out and forgotten.


John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), will be published in the fall, 2015.