Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Playing chicken

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." I never understood why this quote from Rev. Jeremiah Wright was so controversial. With somewhere around 120,000 civilian deaths in Iraq; 16,000 in Afghanistan; hundreds more in drone strikes over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and a total of over 10 million foreign deaths as a direct result of U.S. military and economic interventions since those nuclear blasts in Japan, it’s totally understandable that there could be people out there who want to kill us.

Certainly, many of these interventions may have been justifiable, and could well have prevented further loss of life; but when it’s your son, your daughter, your father, your husband, your brother, your sister, your wife or your mother that you bury, it’s mighty hard not to sense some desire for revenge. And 10 million deaths add up to a lot of repressed vengeance; sooner or later, some of it is bound to be released—or, as the Rev. Wright put it—some of our chickens are going to come home to roost.

It doesn’t make it right. But neither does our rationale make the death of other innocents right.

So how do we make it right? We can play a childish game of tit-for-tat all we like, but this is never going to stop until someone is big enough to admit they’ve done some wrong. If we’re big enough to take on the role of global police, then it could be that we’re big enough to take on the role of global peacemaker. If we don’t do it, who will?

But how? And how can we expect others to follow our lead? And won’t this make us look weak?

While answers to questions like these may be hard to find, one thing is certain: it won’t be easy. Others won’t follow our lead: the seeds of vengeance have already been planted and will continue to spread—for a while. Some may well see us as weak, while others will respect us for our resilience.

But how?

Here are just a few suggestions that could send the message we’re making an effort:

1.       Take the lead from 12-step programs. Acknowledge that we have an addiction to military muscle (we’re responsible for 39% of the world’s military spending—as much as the next 11 biggest spenders combined—which looks like an addiction from where I sit). Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Note the word ‘fearless’. Even if others don’t recognize the courage it takes to do this, we can. We don’t need to be apologists; we just need to be fearless. Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all. Ten million deaths, many more injuries, and everyone else affected by them, adds up to a lot of people, but we could at least identify groups of people. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (including ourselves, of course). This is where the hardest, richest and most rewarding work really begins. It worked with the Marshall Plan and the Japanese post-war economic miracle, so it can work again. Continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, promptly admit it. Notice how counter these steps are to current diplomatic methods, or even to our instincts? Notice how much success A.A. and its sister programs have had? There could just be something to this.

2.       Close Guantánamo. This would be a huge statement. If reading Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s description of his experience in the hunger strike at Guantánamo doesn’t stir some sympathy in you, it’s probably time you asked yourself when you lost your humanity, and how that is serving you. In short, the torture hasn’t stopped. Even without the force-feeding and the beatings; 11 years of confinement without trial, with limited outside contact, and with no clear end in sight is torture enough. Try putting yourself in such a position. Even on death row, you know what’s coming and why you’re there. Two days after his inauguration—on January 22nd, 2009—President Obama signed an executive order to close Gitmo. More than four years later, it still holds over 160 prisoners, many of whom have been cleared for transfer. Certainly, there have been many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to doing this, but we need to find ways to overcome them. This one action alone would show that we’re making an effort to change the way we’re seen in the world.

3.       Stop profiling. The Muslim world could be forgiven for believing we are closet racists. While the abovementioned prisoners languish in suffocating conditions in Cuba as untried ‘enemy combatants’, we rarely, if ever, treat other terrorists the same way. Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Joe Stack, Eric Rudolph and Wade Michael Page all belong to an extensive list of domestic terrorists who were each responsible for at least as much destruction as the Tsarnaev brothers, and all were either tried in civilian courts or died before that option was possible. Yet the moment Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—a U.S. citizen—was identified as a foreign-born Muslim, many pundits and politicians were calling for him to be tried as—you guessed it—an enemy combatant. Meanwhile, former informant Craig Monteilh tells us the FBI’s anti-terrorism strategy “is all about entrapment”. While we maintain such double standards, we make ourselves look both fearful and xenophobic to the very types of people we target (read: Muslims). And while we target them, they will target us—and we happen to be a very big, stationary target—which makes us pretty easy to hit.

4.       Get out of other countries’ business. At least where we can. Drone strikes and similar operations—both overt and covert—do us few favors overseas. We can never hope to kill every last remaining potential terrorist, and our attempts to do so will only encourage more. If we know where these people are, we know how to keep an eye on them. Let’s trust our ability to do that, while investing more in diplomacy and nation building, and less in weapons of mass destruction. Give the insurgency inciters as little to feed on as possible.

5.       Wear it. While law enforcement does an excellent job at preventing the bulk of terrorist attacks on American soil, every now and then another Tsarnaev will slip through the net. It’s inevitable. When it does happen, we need to stand tall and respond without malice or fear, as has largely happened in the wake of the Boston bombing. The more we are able to do this, the easier it will be for the world to see that terrorism is one strategy that will never work on us.

6.       Talk. These incidents—no matter how misguided—happen for a reason. What is that reason? Stopping for a moment to ask is always a good idea. We may not like what we hear, but we can still listen and take in what is relevant. As Jane Goodall has said, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right.” At no point can we agree that people attacking us is right. At every point we should ask why.

I recall a bumper sticker that said we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. We can reverse that trend. The ideas here are not new, nor are they comprehensive. But we need to start somewhere, anywhere—for the sake of our peace of mind, for our country, for our children, and for the families and friends of all the people this country has touched for better or for worse—and in this increasingly global environment, that’s nearly everyone (and mostly for the better!).

Because, until we do take the lead on peacemaking, we’ll just be playing chicken.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bangladesh & Mrs Jones

With over 300 people dead in a collapsed sweatshop in Bangladesh, plus a string of earlier incidents—including 111 in a fire in November—is it time we started asking what part we play in these accidents?

How could we play a part? We’re on the other side of the world.

What are you wearing? Do you know where it came from? Did you pay what it was worth? Or are you like me, a little strapped for cash and therefore looking out for a good deal? Even if you’re not short of moolah, you still know a good price when you see one. It’s human nature: bargains are hard to pass up.

It’s also a foundation of capitalism: the best price often wins.

But what about the hundreds of people who just died giving us great prices? Even before they died, they worked in terrible conditions for pay just above the squalor line. If this was your neighbor, would you allow it to happen? If it was a relative, what would you do to stop it? They’re so far removed from us, yet as this world becomes more globalized, we are all becoming neighbors. And whether you believe in Adam and Eve or Lucy, we are all somehow related. So where is the line? Three doors down and second cousin? Different nationality and different color? Somewhere in between? We all have a line, and that is the point at which our humanity is replaced by our self-interest.

Can this line be blurred? Can we wipe it out completely? Is there a way to see our place in the world differently? Every time a disaster of this magnitude comes to our attention, it gives us pause. We go to a place—if only for a moment—where we feel sympathy for a distant fellow human being. And then we get in our car and drive to Walmart and shop ourselves back into unconsciousness. It is so hard to connect their suffering to our behavior. We didn’t build the sweatshop. We didn’t negotiate the contract. We didn’t know what their working conditions were like. We didn’t do it. But boy, did we get a deal on that sweater.

There are many sides to every transaction. We see some of them (great price, how do they make a profit?) and are blinded to most of them. How do we open our eyes? How do we see the true cost of our actions? All we have to compare with are the people around us—the Joneses—and keeping up with them becomes a central focus of our reality. Immediacy trumps dissociation every time, and the only time Bangladeshi sweatshops emerge into immediacy is when disaster strikes and a pang of empathy erupts. Then, very quickly, Made in Bangladesh once again means only that it’s cheap.

So what do we do? Do we accept personal responsibility for this tragedy? Do we blame the importers? The retailers? The factory owners? The factory’s builder? The officials that watched it go up without a permit? Do we put it down to globalization? To capitalism? Every one of these is a factor in all this suffering: hundreds dead, hundreds wounded, hundreds of families experiencing loss with little compensation. And every one of us is in a position to deflect responsibility to one of the other parties.

Is that who we are? Is that what being human is all about? Can we simply be reduced to seven billion egocentric organisms? Or is there a way to see us as one organism with seven billion parts? If we are the latter, then we just received a stab wound from the sudden loss of 300 significant elements. How many more self-inflicted wounds do we need to subject ourselves to before we recognize that we’re suffering from a self-harming disorder?

According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, global wealth is sitting at over USD 50,000 per adult. Surely that’s enough? There is enough to go around. But while I have the mentality that I need much more than I really do, and while I value my success more than someone else’s existence, there will never be enough for many. We are seeing this play out here in the US, as income inequality approaches the extremes of the ‘20s; those who are best at getting more for themselves are doing so at the expense of those who don’t have the same skills. And while this kind of thinking pervades economic rationale this will continue to happen—at least until the system implodes under its own weight as it did in 1929.

Our whole economic system depends on factories like that one in Bangladesh. It needs cheap labor and cheap means of production. It’s been happening since the Dickensian age. The industrial revolution required a minor revolution in thinking: the serfs who served nobility were now required to serve industry. Globalization just helps keep the serfs out of sight, out of mind, in collapsing factories in countries like Bangladesh, while we—the nobility—preoccupy ourselves with the Joneses and all the things we don’t yet have.

Until we’re ready for a real revolution in thinking, we’ll have blood on our hands every time we seek a bargain. But don’t worry, there’s always someone else to blame.