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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Rational but Unreasonable

It's been a while since I sat and put my thoughts down but I feel the need to do it about the Syrian refugee crisis, albeit quite late.

The Paris attacks just happened last week, and tragically (embarrassingly), from all the predictable corners, political gain and TV ratings are believed to be had. That's not really what's bothering me the most. Although it is bothering me that self-declared "leaders" are the first to light their hair on fire and start saying vile, stupid things into the teevee machines.

What's bothering me most is the reactions of real people who don't have to posture for the cameras. Otherwise nice people who put crosses and nativity scenes on their Facebook pages and front lawns. People who like to think of themselves as good (usually "Christian" follows that - Good Christian) people. People who read or watched stories about Paris and responded by demanding that America refuse to accept Syrian refugees.

Look, I get it - what happened in Paris is terrifying. What happened in New York on 9-11 was terrifying. What happened in Beirut the same day as Paris is terrifying. From our vantage point, all of that terror is coming from the Middle East, so the people from there bear a pall of terror imparted by distance. Everything looks blurred from far away. The fear is rational - I get it. It's not nothing. The fear is real and it's understandable.

But first things first. We don't react this way to young, white men who go on shooting rampages. We don't react this way to Christians who bomb abortion clinics. We don't react this way to old, white men who line up to stage a "revolution" against federal officials over nonexistent land rights. We only react this way to The Other. Syrians are Other. They're identifiably different. They're "there", they're brown, they wear head scarves and unusual clothes. They speak a different language. They're They. They're not Us.

And that's where it all breaks down. None of the Paris attackers were refugees. There was one passport found on the scene that suggested that one of them might have been, but there is some evidence that it was a copy used by several people around the world, but at any rate - it would be one of 7 - 9 (or more). The rest were legal residents of European countries - mostly France and Belgium. All of the 9-11 attackers were legal residents of America. All of the school shootings, clinic bombings, church fires, and theater massacres were American citizens.

And yet, our own people - many of us descendants of refugees of one kind or another - are so petrified by the possibility that one of THEM might mean Us harm, that they're demanding that America refuse to take in refugees who've literally risked life and limb to escape what we ourselves are at war to stop. We're bombing and fighting and constantly at war to impose freedom and democracy and American values around the world, but when the rubber hits the road, we quake. The Statue of Liberty (coincidentally French) literally carved in steel the American values of refuge and hope. Of safe harbor. But at the first test, we run weeping to our grandmas' skirts and hide our faces, too frightened to even consider living up to those values.

But here's the real bottom line. While we quiver and chew our nails over the possibility that one of Them might want to do harm if they're allowed onto OUR land, we're making a value choice. If They are turned away, They have nowhere to go but back to Syria where they serve as essentially marketing tools for recruitment. Daesh* sells itself to hopeless, angry, disenfranchised young people (mostly men) as a place to come for money, women, power, and control. But none of that works without someone to exert power and control over. That's why Daesh is so murderously opposed to letting people leave - they need someone for their angry young men to abuse to feel powerful.

If we turn Them away, They go back to Syria. They are then guaranteed to be kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered, starved, mutilated, and all other manner of horrors that drove them to try to escape in the first place. So in our fear that something bad might happen in OUR somewhere, we make the choice to impose worse-than-bad things on millions of innocent people. Not only for their individual lives, but for the reinforcement of Daesh as a place where angry young men can do all of those things to other people with impunity, knowing that the world won't interfere.

And that's our value judgment. We choose to impose certain death and worse on innocent men, women, and children to cloak ourselves in the illusion of safety by keeping Them out of Our place.

As has already been illustrated, our greatest threats are our own people - not Them. How many thousands of American soldiers and civilians have died or been mutilated in wars to spread the American way? And now that we have to live those values and decide who we are as a people, what do we decide? That we are cowards willing to relegate innocent people to unimaginable horrors out of largely-unfounded fears, or that we are the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave - willing to stand up in defense of innocent victims and interject ourselves between desperate, helpless people and violent thugs?

I understand the fear - it's not irrational. But under the circumstances, it is unreasonable. And more importantly, that fear is not the final determinant. It is rational and so it should be part of the conversation, but has to be PART of the conversation - not the means to avoid having it. Fear is not the answer - it is simply a factor.

And They are people. They are Us. We have the means to save innocent lives or to destroy them. Do we have the will? Do we have the strength? Do we decide that our good, Christian people are willing to save innocents, even if it means taking a minuscule risk that one of the refugees might have bad intentions?

For my vote - if we want to continue wrapping ourselves in moral superiority, military might, national exceptionalism**, and collective ego-strokes about being the greatest nation on earth and so forth, then now is the time to put your money where your mouth is. These people need help. We help. If there is a threat, we meet it, deal with it, and protect the rest of the refugees from it right alongside our own people. We do not send innocent people to be tortured, raped, murdered, and abused for fun just because we're scared of the boogeyman.

Fear is rational. But it is not reasonable to let it be the only thing that makes decisions for us as a people.

*Daesh has become preferable to ISIS because it de-emphasizes both the group's legitimacy as a 'state' and its Islamic rhetoric.

**Although I continue to roll my eyes at the use of this phrase to imply that America is just somehow better. American Exceptionalism was a concept semi-coined by Alexis de Tocqueville and referred to the fact that America was founded deliberately, based on an idea. This contrasted with the historical reality that most countries were formed by land grabs, political alliances, or leadership changes of some sort. America was the first modern country that was designed conceptually - not merely taken. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why I'm Glad Officer Wilson Didn't Get Indicted

Ferguson, MO has been the focus of intense media coverage over the past several months following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer under - shall we say - questionable circumstances. The power structures of the city basically did everything wrong that could be done wrong, and then invented some new things to screw up and turned the city into a simmering pot of rage, resentment, frustration, and lots and lots of cameras.

But what happened was desperately needed in an age when the Supreme Court hosts 5 rich, white men from privileged backgrounds and gated-community-lives who can say - with straight faces - that racism is no longer a problem in this country. What happened very quickly was national focus on the insane militarization of our domestic police forces, the ongoing racial tensions and political disenfranchisement of minorities, and the appalling dehumanization of American citizens by the very institutions we peddle around the world as the benchmarks of civilization and stability.

We saw a suburban police force roll out tanks and weapons of war against protesters who were mostly peacefully demonstrating against generations of feeling preyed upon or abandoned by the police who are supposed to protect them. In spite of the media's moth-to-flame attraction to the small number of violent protesters and straight up looters, most of the protests were peaceful, organized, cogent, and most of all - valid! The citizens of Ferguson had valid cause to protest, and had an important message for communities all over the country.

But yesterday the decision by the grand jury came out and they did not indict officer Darren Wilson on criminal charges in the death of Michael Brown. Cameras and police departments everywhere braced for riots and protests and other dramatic reactions. While the truth for the families of those directly involved is that it was an individual decision about personal justice and accountability, I'm glad that Darren Wilson was not indicted.  If he had been, then the sounds of protest and real issues would have been drowned out by a focus on singular justice (or retribution, depending on your perspective).

The criminal justice system is laser-focused on the particulars - the individual defendant, victim, situation, fact patterns. A trial would have brought forth unflattering facts about the victim, leading to further resentment and feelings that a dead teen is being villainized without being able to defend himself. The family would have been held in that moment in time for months - reliving and reliving and reliving the moments leading up to the death of their child. And in the end, the statutes governing police action may not have yielded a conviction anyway. All of which would have kept Ferguson (and everyone else paying attention) focused on THAT situation and THAT outcome. And if the outcome was not what the public wanted, the reactions could have been exponentially worse and infinitely less impactful.

But the silver lining of this tragic death has been the mobilization of the community and the willingness to demand that the rest of the country see them and hear them and experience life in an American suburb where police respond to people with preparations for open war in America's streets. Everyone looked to Ferguson and saw institutional racism, political disenfranchisement, and basically the total breakdown of relations between citizens of an American town and the police and power structures who are supposed to protect them.

And that is what we need to continue talking about. About the role of domestic police as separate from the military, about why suburban police departments are armed to the teeth with the implements of war and willing to use them on our own people. About why - in 2014 - black communities are still governed by white institutions and why they don't seem to understand how to interact with each other. About why voting rates and political involvement in such communities remain so abysmally low that the power structures remain stagnant. About whether police will behave differently if they are on camera (all evidence points resoundingly to YES!) and why money was spent on military hardware instead of body cameras. About why entire communities feel that the police are the enemy and how the rest of us don't understand that they're actually right in many cases. And about how police deal with these problems in their own ranks. Most police officers are dedicated, caring, brave, and successful in their roles, but when it goes wrong, it goes viciously wrong.

None of this would have been heard if Darren Wilson faced a trial. Now that the incident in isolation is over, the conversation can move on from assigning a level of blame to a single bad actor and on to the more substantive, institutional conversations that we desperately need to have. And hopefully this allows Michael Brown's family to continue bringing attention to the issues more than to the tragedy of the individual shooting. Michael Brown was someone's son, but he is now more than that. He is a symbol of what has gone wrong and what has failed to go right. He shouldn't be a martyr - it does no good to pretend he was a spotless cherub in a harsh world. He was a flawed person, a young person who didn't make good decisions all the time - like most of us. To a greater or lesser degree, most of us can find an incident in our lives when we were just glad no one saw that. That's life. We all do bad things, make bad decisions, make mistakes and we move on and hopefully learn from them. I personally think our social drive to find perfect, spotless, lily-white politicians to elect 'representatives' is an absurdity of counter-productive impulse, but that's another blog. Michael Brown may have done something wrong, but in America, you shouldn't fear being shot dead for that. More importantly, when people respond to things, the police should not be rolling out Tianamen Square style over-responses. The police should be able to relate to the population and bring peace. In Ferguson, the police made everything worse and that is what we need to be talking about.

And I truly hope that we do. We will all benefit from taking a step away from using local police forces as mini-armies. That's not their role and we have no grounds to peddle the American Way in other countries when we can't even distinguish between police and military on our own streets.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Peanut Butter Jelly Time! And Tea

Anyone who’s been around kids has witnessed this scene:

Mom: I’ll make you a PB&J
Kid: I want to do it myself!
Mom: OK fine - do it yourself. 

Mom proceeds to get the peanut butter down from the shelf (cuz it’s too high) and the jelly out of the fridge (cuz it’s in a glass jar) and the butter knife out of the drawer (so Kid doesn’t get hurt). Then the bread - which Mom opens and presents to Kid to select the pieces, then wraps it up and puts it away (cuz the twist tie is too hard to wind). Mom puts down a paper towel and gets a stool out so Kid can reach the counter. Kid can’t open the jars, so mom opens them and presents them back to Kid. Kid makes a sandwich with about ⅓ as much content as is now all over the counter and marches off in triumph.
Kid: “See! I did it all by myself!”

Now imagine that kid as a 55 year old in a tri-corner hat and a “Don’t Tread on Me!” flag. 

This is the internal zeitgeist of the Tea Party and what has become pretty much the mainstream Republican party. Rolling fields of people who’ve been helped along in dozens of dozen of way behind the scenes (and sometimes overtly) by the very institutions they now demonize. The government that build the roads and sewers, the dams and seawalls, the treelines and trade routes that make this country what it is. The government that said “hang on, a river shouldn’t catch on fire!” and “hey, maybe breathing shouldn’t be fatal” is the same government that raises the army that keeps us safe and at least tries to make sure medicine isn’t just death in a bottle.

Nearly every one of those folks remembers the railroads and supports the oil and gas industry - both extremely heavily subsidized by the government during their developmental period. Nearly every one benefited from weekends, minimum wage, occupational safety regulations, and sick time - all brought to you by the government pressed by the labor movement that is now under strident attack by the GOP. Nearly every one has been to a hospital, doctor, or pharmacy for medical care provided by professionals who hold government-issued licenses attesting to minimal competency and efficacy. Nearly every one can drink from a tap, flush a toilet, and drive a car because the government stepped in to make sure they were at least mostly safe. 

And nearly every one will deny their reliance on the government for anything. Cuz they can do it all by themselves!