Tuesday, December 18, 2012

After Sandy Hook

I have never been a gun enthusiast.  I have difficulty thinking of the circumstances that would prompt me to have a gun in my home.  Even when I was in the Marine Corps I thought of firearms as expensive, pain-in-the-ass-to-maintain tools.  But I understand my friends who are gun enthusiasts.  I get it.  Anyone who’s ever nestled his cheek against a high powered rifle or felt the satisfying metallic clack-clack of pulling back a slide gets it.  You don’t have to be a carpenter to appreciate a good power drill.  But let’s stop pretending that this – a concrete appreciation for firearms – is what many on the right are talking about when they talk about gun rights in the United States.

When describing gun rights many on the right use phrases that conjure up images of hardy pioneers, staring through musket-sites at wolves threatening the homestead.  Phrases like “rugged individualism” or “self-determination.”  These phrases don’t describe gun rights; they describe an idea of what it means to be American. An idea that has nothing to do with whether or not it should be legal for a civilian to own armor piercing bullets or a military grade semi-automatic rifle.  I read my conservative friends’ comments on Facebook – abhorring gun control laws in any shape or form – and realize that they’re not talking about guns; they’re talking about culture.  A culture that equates one’s opinion of Jesus, abortion and guns with one’s patriotism.  A culture that feels assailed by liberal wolves closing in from the coasts.

Americans are far too familiar with the type of tragedy that took place a few days ago in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.  We are also all too familiar with the way our national conversation goes in the aftermath of such events.  We quickly move from shock & revulsion to resignation & acceptance.  But right now, with the elections over, we have a moment to make meaningful legislation that might save lives in the future.  People with a concrete appreciation of (and by extension, respect for) firearms should understand the necessity of being inconvenienced to buy them – federally mandated mental health and legal screening (for both purchasers and their co-habitants) would be a good start.  

Let’s seize this moment.   

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mogadishu 2012 - Progress

Mogadishu - View from the UNCC - February 2012

Mogadishu - View from the UNCC - August 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thought Crime

A year ago today a Norwegian man named Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Sweden.  The attack was well planned, involving the bombing of several government buildings, followed by a machine gun massacre on Utoya Island, where members of the Swedish Labor party’s youth league were meeting. 

Breivik published his 1,500 page manifesto on the internet prior to the massacre.  He stands accused of many things, but not a lack of canny.  Breivik knew that the atrocity would give him a platform.  Out of (admittedly morbid) curiosity I read a few snippets of the manifesto.  What compels a human being to do such a thing?  As it turns out, Breivik is a crazed Islamaphobe who sees himself as a crusader against the dark skinned hordes banging at Europe’s gates.  The Swedish Labor party’s youth league was the perfect target: not only is it avowedly anti-racist, many of its members are ethnic minorities. 

A couple days ago in Colorado we had our own massacre.  Americans are more used to this type of thing.  Our secondary school math and science scores may be slipping, but we still lead the world in automatic-weapon fueled tragedies.  Again I find myself wrestling with that familiar morbid curiosity.  What was on James Holt’s mind?  What compels a human being to do such a thing?

Sweden doesn’t have the death penalty.  As someone ideologically opposed to capital punishment, cases like Breivik’s and Holt’s grate against my convictions.  Breivik’s youngest victim was Sharidyn Svebakk Bohn – a 14 years old kid who chose to spend a few days of his summer with a liberal, anti-racist youth league.  Breivik attacked tolerance.  He attacked reason.  This type of crime cries out for biblical type revenge.  Seeing Breivik swing at the end of a rope would make me smile.
Breivik’s views make me want revenge all the more.  Article 29 of the Swedish Penal Code includes a penalty-enhancement provision for crimes motivated by bias against the victim's race, color, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or "other similar circumstance" of the victim.  I would imagine government prosecutors in Sweden are tempted to hit Breivik with every applicable law on the books, including (maybe especially) Article 29.  He won’t be killed, but let’s do everything we can to make sure this bastard never walks the streets again.  Should Swedish prosecutors include Article 29 in their list of charges? 

Hate Crime legislation is a strange thing when you stop to think about it.  It’s the notion that a crime is worse if committed against someone because of their membership in a particular (usually ethnic, racial or sexual) group.  It’s the idea that beating up someone is more awful if the thought, “I fucking hate fags/niggers/towelheads” crosses your mind before you throw a punch.  Are Breivik’s right-wing, white nationalistic views a crime?  No.  Repugnant – yes.  A crime – no. 

Colorado does have the death penalty.  The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1977, but the law is still on the books.   People closer to the right on the political spectrum are much more comfortable with retributive type justice than those on the left are.  I formed my opinion about capital punishment at the age of 12 when I read a quote attributed to the prosecutor in the famed Scottsboro case: “Guilty or not, let’s get rid of these niggers.”  I must have stared at that sentence for a full minute.  It was the first time in my life I truly understood why I should always remain suspicious of my government.  It took me many years to realize that not only is this view compatible with patriotism, it is the bedrock of it.
In my gut it would be satisfying to know that Holmes and Breivik are spending the rest of their natural lives in jam-packed, dank, rape pens.  Maybe hate crime legislation would help guarantee that.  Maybe not.  Either way, in these cases the end does not justify the means: these murderers should spend the rest of their lives in jail because of what they did, not what they were thinking about.  The notion of governments prosecuting people because of their thoughts (no matter how repugnant) should give us all pause. 

After police finish de-booby trapping Holmes’s apartment we’ll hear more about what was on his mind.  He might turn out to be a left-wing psychopath.  Or maybe he’ll be a right-wing psychopath.  Maybe neither.  Chances are his views will make us want revenge all the more.  Whatever we find out about this sick individual in the next couple days, we mustn’t forget that what he stands accountable for is what he did.  Not what he was thinking about. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The View from the Bubble

Nairobi's Kibera District

I was first introduced to Soweto by Eddie Grant: 

While every mother in the black Soweto fears the killing of another son.   

I was kid in the 1980’s, so for me Gimme Hope, Johanna was just a fun tune with a catchy chorus.  It was jarring when, as a teenager, I realized that the song is about apartheid and that Soweto is a Southern African slum.  Kind of like the feeling I have when re-watching a movie I liked as a kid only to realize I had no idea what was going on the first time around. 

Johannesburg’s Soweto holds the dubious distinction of being Africa’s largest slum.  It is generally agreed that Nairobi’s Kibera district is number two.  As an expatriate, you can live in Nairobi for years without visiting the place.  Kibera wasn’t always a slum.  The land was originally awarded to Nubian soldiers of the King’s African Rifles for their loyal service to the British crown in the early twentieth century. Today almost all of Kenya’s tribes are represented there, making it a hotbed for conflict.  Kibera saw brutal violence in the aftermath of President Kibaki’s reelection in 2007.

I visited Kibera to pay my respects to a local UN colleague who had lost a family member.  I was the only foreigner making the trip.  Kibera is in a valley.  As you enter, you look down on row after row of corrugated metal roofs.  It was a bright, sunny day.  I watched goats pick at piles of garbage and excrement and thought of the advice a Somali friend once gave me, “never order goat at restaurant in a city.”  I imagined how the rainy season must transform the space between the rows of houses into rivers of floating plastic bottles and shit.  The streets were crowded.  The masses split reluctantly to allow my vehicle to pass.  I was a light skinned black American driving around Africa’s second largest slum in a diplomatic plated, white land cruiser.  I stood out a bit.      

Nairobi is a city of extremes.  Is Kibera more representative of the city than, say, the Runda area (which contains the UN headquarters and several embassies)?  It’s hard to tell from the expatriate bubble – the shopping malls and cafes have a way of shrouding the city’s stunning poverty.  Nairobi doesn’t lie between these extremes – it is these extremes. 


“I love Kenya, but I can’t stand Kenyans.”  A French woman (I’m going to call her Maryse) told me at a dinner party recently.

For all this woman knew one or both of my parents could be Kenyan.  Yet, Maryse spoke without a hint of embarrassment.  Maryse had lived in Africa for over 15 years and felt that her time on the continent granted her impunity in describing its native residents.   

“That’s funny – I feel the same way about France.” 

I didn’t say that.  I wish I had, but it wouldn’t have been true.  I like the French.  And I just don’t have access to the type of outrage I would have felt at her comment ten or even five years ago.   

Maryse was trying to come off as an old Africa hand, but only succeeded in describing her particular view from the bubble.  Kenyans were the ladies who eyed Maryse while cleaning her lavish residence.  Kenyans were the street kids who prompted Maryse to lock the doors on her SUV.  She disliked these Kenyans.  I disliked her.  But I didn’t hold the fact that she lives in the bubble against her.  The fact that Maryse was a bitch – yes, I held that against her.  Living in the bubble – nah.  How could I?  I live in the same place.  My view’s just a bit different.  Not better – just different.  And for that, I thank Ukraine.    

All told I spent more than five years living (or based) in Kyiv.  The first two years I was in the military.  The Marine Embassy Guard bubble is extraordinarily opaque – my Kyiv encompassed the embassy, the Marine House and the night life.  When I returned as a graduate student my Kyiv expanded to teachers & classmates at the Linguistic Institute, catching marshootkas (shuttle buses) and chatting with neighbors in our building.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t enamored with everything about my new view of Ukraine.  But the experience reminds me that I will never have a non-expatriate view of Kenya.  While a lot of expats in Nairobi don’t even realize they’re in it, I am well aware of the fact that I live in the bubble. 


My colleague’s home in Kibera was clean and cozy.  He had his children line up in the foyer to greet us as we entered.  He was proud of his tall, good-looking, articulate sons.  His silent daughter smiled beneath her hijab.  A friend of hers, at the house helping out, was dressed like one of the girls at the nightclub ‘Florida 2000.’*  Nairobi is nothing if not a city of extremes. 

The interaction was uncomfortable.  How could it not be?  My presence conferred a certain amount of respect on my colleague in his community and he reveled in it.  When introducing me to his neighbors my colleague added weighty adjectives to my title and job function (principal, vital, premier, key).  His daughter served me a plate heavy with samosas and cookies.  Everyone watched me eat.  How many of the dinner-party “old Africa hands” visited places like this?  Or had they spent their fifteen years on the continent attending and hosting dinner parties at palatial residences? 
The post-election violence in 2007 & 2008 surprised a lot of Kenya’s long time foreign residents.  But I’ve never heard a native-born Kenyan describe him or herself as “surprised” by the violence.  Disgusted, frustrated, even terrified – but not surprised.  Far be it from me to criticize anyone for inhabiting the expatriate bubble – I’m a resident myself.  I just wonder if all of the expats here know their address.       

The view’s different out there. 

* “Florida 2000” isn’t just notorious among UN Security personnel.  In The Zanzibar Chest, journalist Aiden Hadley commented, “I swear to God, you could smell the AIDS in there.” 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Slaves, Obey Your Masters

On March 5th American Atheists Inc. started running this billboard in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The announcement on the organization’s Facebook page read in part,
The target audience of our billboard is closeted atheists who support the year of the bible.  The fastest way for a Christian to become an Atheist is to read the bible.  We want them to recognize that they see the application of the verse and how awful the bible is and come out of the closet.  We especially want the in-the-pew atheist to begin to question why they are continuing the charade of going to church and giving their money in coercion of the bible.
I scrolled down the comments on the post.  There were arguments about whether the book of Colossians was written in the Bronze or Iron Age, about the “context” of the verse, about misinterpretation from the original Greek.  Nothing unexpected. 
More interesting were the complaints about the jarring image, about the need to tread carefully on the subject of slavery, about the risk of alienating the black American community.  More interesting still was the fact that it seemed to be mostly white Atheist making these arguments. 
My initial reaction was a guttural one.  I was offended.  There’s something paternalistic and condescending about white atheists trying to protect blacks from this advertisement.  Would these people pull punches with white Christians like this?  The quiet insinuation that blacks are incapable of grasping the nuance of this type of advertisement is insulting. 
But the fact remains, the image of a black slave in a cruel, steel collar is jarring.  And that’s a good thing.              
In the United States February is “Black History Month.”  It is time when Junior-High Social Studies classes are awash with the question, “who are you going to do your report on, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas or that dude with the peanuts?”  If you wanted to be controversial you could bang out something on Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X. 
I didn’t like “Black History Month.”  The bright, sharp line between Black-American and American-American history bugged me.  Black American history is American history – we were, after all, here from the start.  Talking about Dr. Charles Drew’s work during Black History Month gave the impression he pioneered the storage of blood plasma for black people alone.  Black History Month seemed to cheapen our role in American history. 
I also was embarrassed by the artificiality of it.  I spent most of my teenage years in North Dakota, so I was often one of the few black kids in my classes.  Black History month discussions in Minot, North Dakota drew undue and plastic attention to every black kid present.  I wasn’t much of a scholar.  I cherished my anonymity in class and here was a Social Studies discussion that I just could not avoid. 
My 8th grade Social Studies teacher, a youngish white guy, enthusiastic in the way that recently certified teachers are, posed this question to our class one fateful day in February,  
What would you rather be – a slave or an indentured servant?   
That’s a stupid question I thought.  Who in their right mind would rather be a slave?  There were six or seven black kids in the class.  All of us chose indentured servant.  More than half of the white kids chose slave.  I listened in dumbfounded silence as they described the advantages of being provided for and the difficulty in finding employment at the end of indenture. 
Were they nuts?  Didn’t they know about the horrors of slavery?  About middle passage?  Forcefully separated families?  Being sold “down south?”  The whippings?  The rape? 
The answer is no, they didn’t.  Why would they?  What did I know about the Irish potato famine?  About the Trail of Tears?  About the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II?  I had been hearing family legends of slavery since my time ducking under the kitchen table in my short pants.  From a very early age when I thought of slavery I saw images like the ones depicted in the American Atheist billboard.  The image of a slave in shackles is jarring, but (for blacks anyway) it shouldn’t be surprising.  As black Americans we shouldn’t be ashamed of these types of images.  Slavery happened and it should be remembered in all of its horror. 
The blood of West African blacks, white French slave owners and Native American tribesmen runs in my veins.  It’s a good mix – an American mix.  Some of my ancestors were slaves.  Some of my ancestors owned slaves.  Frankly, I’m more ashamed of the latter. 
The idea that billboards like this will alienate Black Americans indicates a lack of understanding of how atheism is viewed within the community.  Wrath Wright, in “The Invisibility of the Black Atheist,” put it best, 
It can be argued that in most African American communities it is more acceptable to be a criminal who believes in God and goes to church on Sunday while selling drugs to kids all week than to be an atheist who has a good job, a good education, who contributes to society and supports his family.
Atheists are universally and publically detested in the black American community.  If nothing else billboards of this nature spark debate on the issue of atheism among blacks.  That’s a worthwhile start. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Stench

Believe him or not - take a moment before judging.  

The first time you stand post in civilian clothes you feel pretty cool. The curly radio wire running from your ear down your suit coat looks tough.  The weapon on your hip feels reassuring.  You talk into your cuff – even if you have nothing worthwhile to say.  You are Secret Agent Man.  This lasts about five minutes. 

Then your collar starts to itch.  So does the radio wire running down your back.  And the weapon dragging down your belt just feels heavy. 

How much longer is this interview going to last anyway?    

When the embassy had a “walk-in” one of the Marines was called in, required to put on a shirt and tie, holster his weapon on his belt, button up his sports coat and stand outside the room while an “other government agency” (OGA) officer interviewed the person.  A “walk-in” is someone who enters a U.S. Embassy and asks to speak to a government official.  I would guess that some 98.5% of these people are insane.  The rest are folks that want to spy for the U.S. government or have some kind of threat information.  Some diplomatic facilities have rooms specially designed for this purpose.  This one did not.  The interviews took place outside a stairwell.  Government officials have to meet with these people; no one wants to be the bureaucrat that misses the dot that would complete the next 9-11 puzzle.  But, the prospect of meeting with random, (mostly) insane people off the street is unappealing.  That’s where the Marine Embassy Guards come in.  The cooler OGA officers thank you for coming in before taking their usually not so dangerous looking interviewees onto the stairwell.  Others give you a withering look and you think, “Why didn’t I go straight to college again?” 

On this particular day, the OGA officer was a nice enough guy.  The interview had been going on for about 20 minutes or so.  I was daydreaming when I heard someone fall.  Not the sharp clatter of a clipboard, but the muffled thud of human body weight hitting the stairs.  I unbuttoned my sports coat, drew my weapon and flipped off the safety.  I brought my left hand to the weapon’s handle and tensed.  I shoved the door open with my shoulder and brought the weapon to bear on a very frightened interviewee. 

I have never been a great shot.  I always had problems with breathing control.  You’re supposed to squeeze (not pull – yeah, there’s a difference) the trigger in the natural pause between inhalation and exhalation.  But not hold your breath.  I had marksmanship instructors who would say, “relax your mind – enter the zone.”  I have never been able to consistently enter this Zen-like state of sniperness.  Aiming is also counterintuitive; you should focus on the tiny black site at the end of the muzzle to aim.  Whatever you’re actually aiming at should be fuzzy.  The site is the thing that’s supposed to be clear.  I’d never taken aim at a human being with a loaded weapon before and there he was, not fuzzy, but clear as daylight.  

“Don’t shoot!”

I glanced down.  The OGA officer had tripped on the stairs.  The OGA officer smiled and we all made the sound of laughter.  I lowered my weapon. In my six years in the Marine Corps it was the only time I drew my weapon with the intention of shooting another human being.  When it didn’t happen, I holstered my weapon and my first feeling was not one of relief.  I was disappointed.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this afterwards.  I wondered what type of person this made me.  I was anxious to kill someone.  More specifically, I was anxious to kill someone who had never done a thing to me.  At the school of infantry and embassy guard school I sat in classes on the Geneva Conventions.  Instructors would illustrate points by citing flagrant examples of human rights abuses.  I’d sit there thinking, “Never.  Not me.  Never.”  At that moment in the stairwell, I stopped being so sure.  I’d caught a whiff of something repugnant in my soul.  It was a difficult stench to shake.


One of the things boot camp is designed to do is to make would-be Marines comfortable with violence.  Most people aren’t.  When I went through boot camp the 2nd or 3rd training day was something called, “Combat Hitting Skills.”  This involved being issued a beat-up pair of boxing gloves, placed in a small ring and instructed to whale on a fellow recruit for 30 seconds.  Your opponent is only allowed to defend.  Then it’s his turn.  Finally, you’re given a thirty seconds free for all.  The drill instructors removed kids with boxing or martial arts backgrounds beforehand.  You were guaranteed an opponent just as clueless as you.  We had only been training for two or three days.  Most of us didn’t know how to fight yet (not really).  What was the point? 

A lot of kids have never been in a fight before.  It was important for them to understand that they wouldn’t fall apart when they got hit; important for them to understand what it means to inflict “hurt” on command.   Most people aren’t comfortable with violence.  We expect, no, we demand that 17-year-old Marines not only be comfortable with it, but have the ability to dish it out on command in a controlled manner. 

It’s been a tough month for the United States Marine Corps.  First the video showing U.S. Marines apparently urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan, then the unsatisfying verdict of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich who stood accused of horrible atrocities in Haditha, Iraq back in 2005.  I am not offering excuses here.  But, I do suggest that we take a long hard look at ourselves before passing judgment.     

I read somewhere recently that in most western societies today physical courage and toughness, “hold the same value as skill in parallel parking: a useful quirk.”  At the time I laughed.  Then I thought these are the type of people who are passing judgment on the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq; people whose milieu is completely devoid of physical courage, toughness, violence. 

This morning I woke up to the American (mostly liberal) press cheerleading the incredible efforts of the U.S. Navy SEALS who killed 9 kidnappers and freed two humanitarian aid workers in Somalia.  And those heroic SEALS deserve the praise.  But, the rest of us shouldn’t forget that that brave act was carried out by men comfortable with violence.