We stand by: a Thanksgiving meditation

There has never been anything, nor will there ever be anything, which so frightens those in power as a great demographic shift among the powerless.

Because the powerless, when they see themselves in the powerful, can delude themselves into thinking they share in the power. After all, they have the same interests, the same concerns, the same ideology. But when the powerless look up and see something that looks so unfamiliar, they begin to feel restless. They clamor for change. They know that these strangers, who purport to speak for them, in no way have their best interests at heart. Ultimately, they threaten the powerful — not overtly (necessarily), but covertly. Not with conflict and protest, with guns and violence, but with that most subversive act of all. With their vote.
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On Syria, from someone who knows more than many and less than some

Since Syria doesn’t seem to be magically disappearing as a global disaster, I suppose I should say something about it. Because we all know I have an opinion that I wouldn’t want to keep to myself, and not just because this is so much like the plot of this season of Newsroom.

Let me preface this by saying the use of chemical weapons is reprehensible. If you disagree, you should find some humanity or just go off to a cave and die. But somehow, the use of such weapons isn’t a thing that seems to bother us as a country. And I think that’s shameful.

I’m certainly not much of an interventionist: if we could morally and ethically and humanely sit on the sidelines of all conflicts that don’t directly concern us, well, I think that’d be swell. But we don’t; we pick and choose and we pick and choose bizarrely and, frankly, unethically. And by the fact that we do choose to intervene at all, I don’t think it morally allowable to stop intervening when the ethical case is so clear cut.

Not that we have a stellar track record for ethically-minded intervention: we, like a rational actor, take action when it suits our political needs, which is at least intellectually consistent if not admirable, as in Iraq in 2003. But when it makes no difference to us, as in Sudan or central Africa or Burma, we are conveniently and conspicuously absent. As much as we might like to think of ourselves as moral protectors of the free world, we are far more politically-driven than anything.

What makes Syria particularly prickly is that it matters to us somewhat as a regional issue, but not as much as Iraq, and it is mass murder, much closer to Sudan or the Kurdish genocide, neither of which received so much as stern words (maybe some stern words) from Team America World Police. So do we react to Syria like we did Iraq, as a matter of regional import, or like we did Sudan, as a human tragedy that is, unfortunately, outside the scope of our concern?

Then how do we rectify our prospective courses of action in Syria with our strikes in Libya and Yemen? These are both instances where we have specific targets, Qaddafi and al-Qaeda respectively, and we take action, relatively quietly, on a small scale. So why can’t Syria fall into this category?

Then, of course, there’s our inconsistency in weapons issues: we launch a pre-emptive strike against Iraq when they MIGHT but probably DON’T have “weapons of mass destruction,” instead launching the country into what we might kindly refer to as disorganized chaos, yet we do nothing but yell really loudly at and emptily threaten Iran when they DO have nuclear weapons capabilities. This logical inconsistency is proof enough that Iraq never had these things: Iran does, and we know better than to provoke them. Had Saddam Hussein actually possessed such capabilities, we probably would never have dared provoke him, either. He was, after all, a genocidal maniac.

Just like another good friend of ours: Bashar al-Assad. So what do we do when this G.M. (genocidal maniac) has and USES weapons like this? Do we just sit on the sidelines and wait for him to attack a country we actually “care” about? Because don’t get me wrong, we don’t really give much of a flying **** for Syria. Not like how we do give two ****s for some of its neighbors (not that we get anything out of that relationship either).

A recap on weapons:
1. Iraq might but probably doesn’t have scary weapons. We launch a nearly-decade-long war.
2. Iran does have nuclear capabilities, but we’re not sure about weapons. We talk loudly.
3. Syria definitely has nerve agents and it’s highly likely that they’re being used against the rebels and civilians. What we do is TBD.

Are we so afraid to take action in Syria, despite the clear moral case (it would, certainly, be a just war by Thomas Aquinas’s criteria), because it’s a civil war? And is it that civil war is, by its nature, an intractable conflict? Do we not meddle in domestic affairs of other states? That last question is tongue in cheek: pre-Revolutionary Iran and Lebanon, for starters, might beg to differ. Of course, last time we put troops in the midst of Middle Eastern civil war, Americans died. Did we, shock, learn our lesson??

Syria is a confounding anomaly: it matters regionally, it’s a clear-cut ethical case, they have scary weapons, it’s a civil war, and its ruler is, by all accounts, a terrible human being. So is it Iraq 2003, is it Iran, is it Sudan, is it Lebanon or is it Libya? In three out of five cases, we act. And the jury is still out.

What I’m suggesting isn’t necessarily intervention: only logical and ethical and behavioral consistency. If we’re going to be Team America World Police, we need to be Team America World Police. Perhaps we ought to be a more ethical version of TAWP. And if we want to stop trying to be TAWP, is this really the right moment?

In defense of understanding (#OBL)

I received an email from a friend saying he was waiting for Obama to make a speech. It was 10 pm on a Sunday, East Coast, and he was in Central time – not a usual speaking hour.

Minutes later I got a New York Times New Alert saying Bin Laden had been killed. We hunted for a local NPR station – or any radio that wasn’t playing country or metal (we were in the woods of New Hampshire, driving back from a day of climbing) – while we speculated on what could have happened.

Eventually we found some radio hosts talking about it. Obama had been scheduled to speak at 10:00, then 10:30, then 11:00…and in the intervening time, our hosts were waxing poetic about what this means for America! Freedom! Democracy! Righteous Goodness! The demise of all things evil in the world! Their emotional, if misguided, rants were interspersed with “reports from the White House,” which for the most part consisted of #reasonsObamawaslate (he was fine-tuning his speech) and coverage of the masses gathered outside the White House, waving flags and chanting “USA! USA! USA!” (It’s too bad we don’t have a particularly good soccer team, otherwise we should have found them some vuvuzelas and relocated them to the next site of the World Cup.)

Finally Obama began: a small team of soldiers (Navy SEALs) raided a mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Sunday morning Pakistan time. (I’m sure we all heard the speculation regarding Obama’s hearty good mood at the Correspondents’ Dinner the previous evening.) Osama Bin Laden was killed, no civilians were hurt, no Americans were lost, and the United States had custody of the body. Bing bang boom, cut and dried, the way I like my assassinations.

I later heard they had spent about a year tracking him and planning this assassination. For Obama, it seemed to be a tactical political move, cementing (or at least improving) his incumbent election bid. And Obama behaved, in my opinion, completely appropriately. Somber announcement of the death of an enemy, disposing of his body in a militarily acceptable way, and refusing to bow to the “deathers’” pressure to see the body first hand. The administration has been respectful and has not overblown the affair.

No sweeping pronouncements about the end of the War on Terror, no sweeping pronouncements about the end of the war in Afghanistan, no sweeping pronouncements about the end of hatred of America.

Mainstream journalists and civilians, on the other hand, have been more than prolific in their rampant, mostly-idiotic speculations about what this means. Does this mean terrorism is dead? Is the War on Terror over? Will Al Qaeda disband? Will other terrorist groups, influenced by Al Qaeda, disband? Will Muslims like America? Is Islam dead? Will extremism cease to exist?

Let me pause. If you think these are questions with legitimate answers (or, if you think they are legitimate questions, really, based in understanding and knowledge of the world outside your white picket fence), please stop reading now, and go to this website.

The only legitimate question I did hear asked, and this was on Al Jazeera and among lefty, non-mainstream print and electronic journalists, was: “Will anything change at all?” And I believe the answer to that is, other than Obama’s poll ratings, absolutely nothing at all. Terrorism still exists, hatred still exists, and in a less ideological train of thought, the Taliban still exist in Afghanistan. Whew, wouldn’t want to exit two wars in a presidential term.

And the rhetorical War on Terror, Islam, the Arab & Persian worlds, the Orient as a whole, is not over. Bin Laden did not singlehandedly orchestrate the September 11 attacks. He did not singlehandedly hijack three planes. He did not invent terrorism, and he did not invent hatred of the United States. These latter two phenomena are a product of a global system that breeds inequality, a power balance that heavily favors the US and has no internal method to rectify the imbalance or treat its symptoms. Terrorism and hatred are a symptom of a problem but, though problematic, not the problem itself. In a way, terrorism exists because of a shared perception of global inequality, and a terribly misguided notion about how to rectify it.

Rami Khouri of Lebanon’s Daily Star said it best, and most simply, when being interviewed on Al Jazeera: “the problem is inequality in the region.” Inequality fueled by American dominance, fueled by Western favoritism (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel), fueled by the nature of the natural resources trade in a global capitalist system, fueled by historical imperialism and colonialism in the region (British, French), and fueled by war-mongering and an imposed self-righteous superiority. To think the problem is anything more or anything less – say, “hatred of America” – is neglectful of the circumstances that have cultivated this hatred, and it is ignorant and dismissive of the effects an imbalance of power, even a perceived imbalance, can have on the collective mindset.

The War on Terror and its offspring (Afghanistan, Iraq, even Libya in a way) are part of a larger political war of attrition against millions of people who are subject to a global system of injustice and inequality and have always gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop. It is a hot and a cold war against a region whose seemingly-eternal subjugation under American political, military, and economic dominance and interventionism – not to mention a history of Western and European colonialism and imperialism – is a root cause of regional social injustice and inequality, where terrorism is symptomatic, not causal.

We see #OBL’s and Al Qaeda’s (and many others’) rhetoric and violence as baseless, unfounded, and irrational loathing for “our way of life,” because we innately believe in our manifest destiny, our right to do what we want to the exclusion of everyone else, the criminality of the other. We see this mindset as the cause, not as the symptom of global inequality. The War on Terror is a PR War with a militant wing, and it isn’t over.

I always come back to that quote in Casablanca when Victor Laszlo describes the Resistance as an amorphous union of shared belief (my words). The Nazis can kill him, but they cannot kill the Resistance.

“And what if you track down these men and kill them, what if you killed all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise up to take our places.”

Now, of course, Osama Bin Laden is no Victor Laszlo. But the concept is the same; one man might be a leader (Laszlo) or a financier (Bin Laden) or some combination of the two (Bin Laden), but no movement of belief can be destroyed by destroying one man.

We began learning this in 2001 when we went into Afghanistan; Al Qaeda is a disconnected network of cells, not a personality cult built around Bin Laden (well, it might be that too, but it is primarily a network of independent cells). We are learning there will always be another man, another group, another ideology, that is ready and willing to take its place.

If we believe killing Bin Laden will destroy terrorism and hatred, we do not understand the world, nor do we understand the nature and causes of hatred. Outwardly and collectively celebrating Bin Laden’s death is only a sign of our own hatred, our own intolerance, and perpetuates his legacy. The correct answer to hatred is not, nor has ever been, nor will ever be, more hatred.

(I find it heartbreakingly ironic; we are taught from birth to love, to accept, to embrace difference, yet over the course of our lives we are injected with hatred, and we are retrained to reject and to destroy.)

Quickie: #obl

The amount of media discourse involving the words “Muslim,” “Islam,” “jihad,” “Arab-Israeli,” “sharia law,” “caliphate,” and the number of questions suggesting Bin Laden has a mass (as in measurable and significant, politically) following in the Middle East and North Africa, show that we are in the exact same place in our ignorance of the Middle East as we were ten years ago.

Whether or not this infuriates and empowers or disheartens and emasculates Al Qaeda cells around the world will not change constant American military presence in the region. In other words, nothing will change.

(Now I have to work. More later, hopefully.)

What makes our suffering more worthy?

When I was younger, the Haggadah we used at Passover had a farcical play in the back, jocularly re-enacting the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We used to perform it every year around the Seder table as our version of telling the story of Passover. There is one line from the play that has stuck with me through all these years, a line my sister and I quote to each other throughout the year, and one that seems particularly relevant as I look back at what I’ve just written:

“Woe to us, we are in trouble.”

Tonight marks the beginning of 192 hours of abstention from bread, leavening (except eggs), inflation (except beans), and alcohol (except wine, rum, tequila…oh hell, get me a beer). Why? So we can remember when we were slaves in Egypt. So we can pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world. So we can make our lives marginally uncomfortable for a while, to remember our history and to prevent us from experiencing it again.

Though noble enough in origin – as my father says, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” – this holiday feels in a way self-righteous. Most haggadot (the Passover dinner-service guidebook) will, at least now, mention the hardships facing minority groups in other areas of the world. I’ve seen mention of Southeast Asia and the USSR, and in the 90s we were into the African dictators and Eastern Europe. Feminist haggadot often mention inequality for women in different parts of the world, and I think we have one in our house discussing sex slaves. These days particularly leftist haggadot will even mention Palestine.

But the buck stops here. We acknowledge the suffering of others; we hope and we pray that these people will experience freedom, justice, and liberty, just as we were freed from Egypt and wandered around the desert (independently!, mind you) for forty years. Hooray for us, now go find your own Moses.

We are so focused on preventing our own history from repeating itself, though, that we cannot see when we are inflicting terrible collective damage on other people. We – and all minorities – are and must be survivalist. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if we don’t protect our clan, surely we will meet our demise. Thus we may only in good faith marry among ourselves, live in homogeneous communities, pray only for the health and welfare of our own kind, and while we wish well upon others, there is always the unspoken addendum to “may you be free”: “but not as free as we.”

Perhaps it is time for us to stop worrying about ourselves to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps it is time for us to give money to a charitable yet non-Jewish organization (like a Catholic or even secular hospital, for instance). Perhaps we ought to recognize that behaving with the clear and direct intention of simply preventing our own history from repeating itself will inevitably mean we, or others, will inflict the same hardships on other minorities, and we have set ourselves up only to be complicit spectators or active perpetrators of similar crimes.

Why do we, as people who have suffered, not hear the same cries for help, not recognize new histories moving down the same paths as ours once did, not step in and speak out? Half-drunk around the dinner table two nights a year is not enough.

With its spiritual and ideological focus on freedom, Passover is a time not to talk about our hopes for others, these fluid fragments of ideas, but to act on them. To actually believe in what we say, without addenda, and to put our idle words – all people will be free – into action.

I believe in “next year in Jerusalem,” but I also believe in next year in Damascus, in Ramallah, in Amman, in Jeddah, in Cairo, in Manama, in Gaza City, in Tunis, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Paris, in Havana, in Augusta and Madison, in Tokyo, in Naypyidaw, Burma, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and throughout the world. We deserve freedom no more and no less than anyone else, and if we are going to spend 8 days a year saying it, we’d best start spending 365 days a year believing it.

Journey to the Center of Iraq

Or I should say, journey that never got us through the border. On Thursday Abe and I rented a car and trekked across the desert wilderness of Eastern Jordan with hopes of being allowing into Iraq, just to see it and say we’d been there. Four hours after we left Amman we got the Karameh border crossing, only the chat with the border guards for a few minutes until we were informed that we couldn’t go in without either Iraqi citizenship or a valid visa. Oh well, we tried. And now we can legitimately say we have seen all of Jordan; east to west, north to south.

Despite our failure to achieve our goal, it was a heck of an adventure. We ran out of gas in Ruwayshed, which is this tiny town 100 km from the border in one direction and 100 km from the next town in the other. And when I say closest town, I don’t mean you might see something resembling civilization in between the two. I mean there is nothing except igneous rock, sand, and mirages, for farther than the eye can see. Not only were we almost on Empty, but there was no gas in town. At all. They had run out and it wasn’t supposed to come till the next day. Not really wanting to stay in the middle of nowhere (literally, in every sense of the world) we negotiated to siphon gas from some guys tank, paid them 5 JD, and went on our merry way. Not entirely merry though, as we got stopped at something like 3 checkpoints on the way back. But return to Amman we did, eventually, with one more adventure tucked under our belts.

Pictures are on Picasa