Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. This post originally appeared on his blog The Faith Divide at the Washington Post.
As I listened to President Obama explain the chain of events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Eric Greitens. Eric’s doctorate at Oxford was on the effects of war on children. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he was training to be a Navy Seal.
“But you know how terrible war is, you have been with the orphaned children,” I sputtered. “How can you participate in it?”
“It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” he told me.
Eric deployed four times over the last ten years, earning a bronze star and a purple heart. One of his missions was to command a Navy Seal cell that targeted al Qaeda. It was likely some of Eric’s buddies - guys he trained with, maybe guys he trained - that got bin Laden.
Eric titled his book,The Heart and the Fist, for a reason. He knows as well as anyone that you may well need the fist to crush evil but you need the heart to radiate good. The fist is fine for defeating enemies, but the heart is what builds societies.
That’s what I liked about Obama’s speech yesterday. He was very clearly our commander in chief - recounting how he told C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to make the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden his top priority, getting frequent briefings on the relevant intelligence and giving the final order that authorized the fatal mission. His demeanor was focused and serious. ‘I did what had to be done,’ he seemed to be saying.
Vanquishing evil is necessary but insufficient.
Obama seemed most human to me, most American, most presidential, when he spoke of life, not death. He recalled America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a nation shocked and grieving, a country focused more on community than revenge:
“On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”
That line brought to mind two key moments. The first involves George Bush. A lot of Americans think of the fist when they think of the post-9/11 George Bush. But I think at least as defining as his roar at Ground Zero and his boasting of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters was his visit to an Islamic Center six days after 9/11. There, he spoke movingly not only of Islam being a peaceful faith but about how Muslim women with headscarves ought to feel safe in this country:
“I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.”
He went on to make it clear whose side he was on, which America he hoped to build.
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”
The second moment took place nearly a year later, on September 25, 2002 - Bruce Springsteen at the United Center. During the climax of “The Rising,” as Springsteen was singing - Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life), Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life) - I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman in a Muslim headscarf, eyes closed, hands raised.
Woody Guthrie had a message scrawled on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
Sometimes you need the aid of guns in that mission. But when we think of who we want to be, not just what we need to destroy, American guns are second to American guitars.
Amy Alexander is the author of the forthcoming book Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention. The 2008 Alfred Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, she has been a staff writer at the San Francisco Examiner, Fresno Bee, and Miami Herald, and has been a contributing writer at the Nation, Boston Globe, and Washington Post. She was media columnist at Africana (later, AOL's BlackVoices) and has written for the Village Voice, Chicago Tribune, Black Issues Book Review, MSNBC.com, Salon, and The Root, among other publications. Alexander has also been a regular commentator on National Public Radio and was associate producer of NPR's Tell Me More, with Michel Martin. She is co-author, with Alvin F. Pouissant, of Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans.
The deaths of Hondros, a veteran photojournalist for an international news agency, and Hetherington, a photojournalist and filmmaker, also brought to me memories of domestic unrest that I covered nineteen years ago. At that time – Los Angeles, April 29, 1992 – no journalists were killed in the line of duty. But there were many close calls. In hindsight, I now see clearly a through-line from that two decade-old conflagration that runs directly to our contemporary political reality. And it highlights the inherent tension that exists in the concept of democracy.
American journalists have long been the shock troops in the centuries-old battle between democracy and monarchy. But how to square the contextual realities of 18th Century America, when our democracy was first forged, with the realities of today? Can American journalists still expect that their role as Watchdogs of Democracy is secure? What happens when citizens no longer need journalistic shock troops to capture, project and validate citizens’ struggle for democracy? Apart from any early ideological reluctance that sometimes led political or corporate leaders to try to stop journalists from recording civil unrest – see the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968 – what happens to journalism’s role as the watchdogs of democracy when citizens stop trusting the Fourth Estate? And what will conflict journalism look like now that citizens have acquired the tools to record their own stories of protest against affronts to democracy?
The core definition of democracy, as Aristotle saw it, is this: "In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme."
In Los Angeles, on April 29, 1992, “poor people” took to the streets to protest what they viewed as the unfair acquittal of four white police officers who had been captured on videotape beating a black male motorist a year earlier. So it was that on April 29, 1992, I was dispatched by the Fresno Bee to the streets of LA within hours after the four white LA city police officers were acquitted.
Call it a riot, an uprising or civil unrest. What I experienced over the next four days was chaotic, frightening-- but also exhilarating, at least for someone who takes seriously the role of recording the various manifestations of democracy in action. Messy, loud, and dangerous though they sometimes may be, the efforts of “poor people” to defend and preserve their role in a democratic society have to be recorded. But, as we saw from the tragic deaths of Hondros and Hetherington in Libya recently, recording those efforts in their most volatile expression can exact a major toll on those who undertake the task.
In LA of 1992, for example, I personally saw journalists harassed and beaten by protestors. On the first night of the upheaval, at a corner not far from Florence and Normandie avenues in the South Central district of LA, I watched hundreds of residents (Latino, African-American, white and other ethnicities) take to the streets breaking windows at corner markets, furniture stores, eateries and other businesses.
As I lived it, the members of the press who came up for direct confrontation were broadcast journalists. I wrote about one such incident that I witnessed in an online journal of African American news and opinion, Africana.com. (Read Amy Alexander's posts from Africana.com (pdfs): Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3) I began by describing how I and two other journalists-- a photographer, Russell Yip, and a senior reporter, Marji Lambert-- had jumped into a company car within an hour of the verdict and raced three hours south of the San Joaquin Valley into South Central Los Angeles. After we arrived at a section of South Central that was already ablaze, we parked, and walked into the neighborhood not far from Florence and Normandie avenues; along a commercial strip, thousands of residents gathered, chanting, yelling, smashing windows and taunting police officers who stood near their cruisers along the side-streets:
As I took in the scene, a white television cameraman came lurching up the street. Looking over his shoulder, he moved quickly, a heavy video camera swinging from his hand at his side rather than from atop his shoulder as it should have been. Two young black men followed closely behind him, yelling as they closed in. One reached out and pushed the cameraman.
The cameraman stumbled, his face red and stunned. He kept walking, though, and the tense procession moved down the block, out of sight. I met the eyes of the Fresno Bee photographer. We exchanged an "oh, s—t” look and kept silent.
Uniformed police officers, their black and white cruisers idling nearby, stood at the end of the block. I veered over to speak with them, walking deliberately near the engines in the street. I stopped to speak with a white officer (I didn't see any black cops). I wanted to know the police department's direction – would they arrest looters or fire starters? How many arrests had they made thus far? Did he know of any officer-involved shootings? Leaning against the grill of his car, the officer smiled at my questions. He couldn't comment, he said, because he wasn't a department spokesman.
I looked over his dark blue uniform, its steel handcuffs, gun and wood baton clanking slightly when he adjusted his weight. A white helmet obscured all but a crescent of his face, and his eyes were light. He seemed interested in the activity, but was firmly planted well away from it. The radio at his waist began squawking. Turning his back to me, he reached for the handset that dangled from a cord strung over his shoulder. I walked away.
The lack of interaction between law enforcement officials and the protestors during the earliest hours of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 was evident – and quite unsettling. Ironic, to say the least. The actions of police officers who had beaten the black male motorist, Rodney King, had lit the match that ultimately led to the rioting; the cops were the focus of the anger that residents now poured onto the streets of LA. I understood that anger, yet I also knew that the protesting could spiral out of control if the officers on scene did not step in, during that first night. But they did not: somewhere along their chain of command, a decision had been made that the officers would not engage in battle with the “protestors.” And as the night wore on, and protesting steadily morphed into flat-out looting and destruction of private property throughout downtown LA and surrounding neighborhoods, we journalists worried about our own safety as we reported amidst the fracas.
Ultimately, we three Bee journalists spent a week in Los Angeles, delivering as many as four stories daily to McClatchy Newspapers and to subscribers of the McClatchy News Service. The Associated Press gave us and other out of town teams work space at its offices at Second Street and Figueroa Boulevard in downtown LA. And because we had arrived so soon after the riots began, we had secured hotel rooms not far out of the city, at the northern edge of Hollywood, for ourselves and for other McClatchy reporters and photographers who eventually joined us.
These conditions were far from the combat-like experiences that Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington and other journalists experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other “hotspots” in 2011.
Here is another important distinction between the challenges contemporary journalists covering conflicts now face, and what I experienced in LA twenty years ago: I also felt, acutely, that as a black woman, I enjoyed an advantage over many of my reporter colleagues in Los Angeles during the unrest.
More than once, I was approached by black or Latino residents who were on the streets, and asked which news organization I worked for. I managed to talk these residents down but I felt instinctively that they might had reacted differently were I white. When I watched the March 2011 footage of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper being jostled and knocked around as he tried to report on the unrest that took place in Cairo, Egypt, I couldn’t help but wonder if his pale skin and white/gray hair was somehow impeding his ability to gather news under those circumstances.
Yet while two decades and many thousands of miles separate my experiences covering the LA riots from the current events in North Africa and the Mid-East, the mechanics of news-gathering in such conditions, and the goal of those who enter such circumstances willingly, remain the same: Tell the story of what is happening on the ground. Avoid judging those who seek to guard or exercise democracy with action that you may find frightening or, yes, dangerous. I cannot answer the question of whether engaging in this work is “worth dying for,” I only know that in 1992, I felt utterly compelled to be in Los Angeles, recording the events of that week.
On the wall in my study is an index card with a quote on it from Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. "We are communal histories, communal books," it says. I carry those sentiments into the classroom with me five times a week at the university where I teach, as I try to communicate to my students why stories matter, why books matter, and why, by God, we should all read. Sometimes I am so busy proselytizing the virtues of literature that I forget to look inside and ask myself "Why does my own writing matter?" I write because I love writing and because I think it changes lives—sometimes in ways that we can't possibly anticipate. I suppose our books are, in this sense, like our children. We send them into the world, and they do things that we never intended them to do, things that are sometimes confounding, often improbable and even heart stopping. They make their way in the world totally independent of us. Maybe that is ultimately what a book launch is all about.
Having said this, I've also had moments of real doubt over the past four years about whether writing has the power to change anything. I have spent the past eight years of my life writing about Sri Lanka, a country that has been at war with itself for thirty plus years. I lived there with my son in 2001-2002 and then returned after the 2004 tsunami. In the fall of 2005, a cease-fire hung in the balance, and it became possible finally to get up to the Tamil north. I felt that I really needed the Tamil perspective on this war for the book I was writing. In Jaffna I stayed in a makeshift guest house where I was the lone guest on a street where every house had either been destroyed or abandoned. I spent my days talking to students, to people who were part of demining operations, to people whose children had been forcibly recruited by the Tamil Tigers, and to people who had suffered war loss compounded by tsunami loss. And at night I came back to the guest house and wrote about them. I struggled with what I was doing up there as a writer. The people in Jaffna didn't need me sitting at my computer; they needed aid and they needed for this war to be over, the very things I could not give them. Was I using these people, I wondered, as nothing more than material for my book?
Something about that fact struck a chord with readers and, almost instantly, the phrase was being quoted, tweeted, retweeted, blogged, and forwarded all over the web. From well known writers and journalists to enthusiastic readers, it seemed everyone was moved to share this surprising information about our aging society.
In this video, Fred Pearce tries to answer the question of why this particular phrase made such an impact on people, and what an aging society will mean for our future.
Beginning today, Pearce will be taking part in a forum discussion about population issues, hosted by Mother Jones. To take part in the conversation, click here and leave a question for Fred Pearce or one of the other experts (including another Beacon Press author, Courtney E. Martin) weighing in on the issue.
This past week, Beacon authors have been very active out in the world, putting a human face on immigration and talking topics spanning a wide gamut of social justice issues, including: global population, feminism, consumer choices, education, and so much more. Visit our homepage to see the many books on immigrant rights that Beacon has published. And, if you're in or around Boston, learn more about the May Day March, which will begin on Boston Common at noon on Saturday.
WNBC New York talks to Stacy and Steve Trebing about their successful struggle to save their daughter with a "savoir sibling." The family's moving story is chronicled by author Beth Whitehouse in her new book The Match.
Author Bob Moses champions a constitutional amendment to guarantee quality education, the topic of his forthcoming book Quality Education as a Constitutional Right, in The Nationarticle about the 50th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Today marks the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Hear Dana Sachs talk about the nearly 3,000 "supposedly orphaned" children swept into "Operation Babylift" on NHPR's "Word of Mouth."
Today is election day in Sri Lanka, and today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government. This post is part of a series, appearing at the Huffington Post marking the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami.
January 4, 2010
It's kite season on the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. On the tip of the peninsula, people are flying their homemade kites along the sea's edge with a little help from the northeast monsoon winds. It's a good season up here for other things as well. Peace has come to the north of this war torn country. It's a very different place than it was three years ago when I was here. Sri Lankans from all over the island are now free to travel to the north. For foreigners it is still problematic. Small guest houses that had gone to ruin are being rebuilt. Just outside of town the land is being cultivated for the first time in many many years. People are busy turning the soil, and planting everything from onions to cabbage and chilies on land that was occupied by the military during war time. Each week more land is being released back to the population at large, something that is absolutely crucial given the number of people up here who need to be resettled.
Downtown Jaffna is booming with the kind of energy that tells you that this is an area intent on rebuilding. Three years ago when I was up here working on my book Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka, the center of Jaffna looked like a poster city for civil war, twenty-six years of it to be exact. Mostly the stores sold tools and twine, the markets were bare, textile shops sat waiting for the odd customer. The only shops that seemed to be doing well were the ones selling bicycle seats since petrol was both expensive and generally unavailable.
Somalia is one of them—no bonus points for that guess. Who else stands against the 193 nations who've ratified the treaty? None other than the United States of America. This may change under the Obama administration; U.N. ambassador Susan Rice recently proclaimed the situation a disgrace and indicated that U.S. ratification of the treaty was under active discussion.
But not if the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has their way. Calling the UNCRC "anti-family" and "anti-American," they have urged their 80,000 members—as well as those who've joined ParentalRights.org, a "grassroots" organization founded by HSLDA—to voice their opposition. To further their cause, they have been a driving force in promoting a Parental Rights Amendment, which now has more than 110 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.
Why does the most powerful and prominent homeschool advocacy organization in the world see the UNCRC as such a threat? Ultimately, it's an argument about who should have a say in the raising and educating of children.
As former Liberian President Charles Taylor defends himself against charges of war crimes in Sierra Leone, you should read Philip C. Winslow's post about that's country's brutal civil war here. Winslow wrote the piece after three commanders in that war were found guilty on multiple counts of war crimes.
Author Farnoosh Moshiri was born in a literary family in Tehran, Iran. She holds a B.A. in dramatic literature from the College of Dramatic Arts in Tehran, an M.A. in drama from the University of Iowa and an M.F.A in creative writing from the University of Houston. Her novel The Bathhouse is the story of a young woman arrested and detained during the fundamentalist revolution in Iran.
"It's happening and I'm not there," I embrace my belly, as if having unbearable cramps of a miscarriage. I hold back tears and move back and forth like a mother on her child's grave. On the TV screen Iranian youth chant, demanding justice. The election has been a fraud and they want re-counting of the votes. They want their elected president, not the little dictator, the puppet of the old despot, the "Absolutist Ayatollah." They march peacefully, some with tapes over their mouths, meaning they are quiet, all wearing green shirts, waistbands, or bandanas, holding flags and banners, arms up, showing V signs. They are millions—men and women, boys and girls, children, babies, sitting on the shoulders of fathers, green ribbons decorating the crown of their fluffy hair. It's a massive demonstration, a reminder of 1979, when I was one of them and we fought for a republic—not an Islamic one. This was before the West aimed the spotlight on Khomeini and he was shipped from Paris with his entourage and the people's revolution was hijacked.
I watch all this, remember my youth, sway like a pendulum, and swallow my tears. But suddenly men in black shirts attack the green sea of the peaceful rally and blood covers the streets of Tehran. Cell phones capture the clubbing and stabbing. Someone's camera records the shooting of a girl. I watch with disbelief. Blood gushes out of the girl's chest, a young man presses his hand over the wound to stop it, an old man screams, "They killed her! They killed my daughter!"
After this scene, I experience a turmoil unlike any emotional crisis in my life. Anger, sorrow, and the worst—guilt and self-hatred overcome me. I sob for a moment, then I shout at my husband, "Haven't I been telling you? Haven't I been writing for years that this is a fascist regime? Haven't I? So why has no one believed me? No one ever believed me! I was right! They are fascists. Look! They're killing our children!"
He rubs my shoulder to calm me down and gently reminds me that no one has ever rejected my books; no one has ever defended this regime.
But this does not help. I'm out of my mind. I contradict myself: "I haven't done anything! Nothing!" I weep. "I escaped and they are getting killed--"
With each new image, each YouTube film clip of beatings and stabbings of innocent people, I go through another wave of rage and sorrow, guilt and self-bashing. I mumble incoherently between tears—either insisting that I'd been right writing against this regime, or lamenting that I haven't done enough.
Have I been suffering from PTSD and have never been diagnosed? Am I remembering the Revolution, my forced exile, the execution of my comrades after I crossed the border, my father's arrest and beating and his subsequent blindness and stroke? Am I remembering the harsh life of the refugee camp in war-infested Afghanistan? Am I remembering everything at once and experiencing a breakdown?
And why such back breaking guilt, such self-condemnation?
"I want to be there!" I demand childishly. "I want to be shot, get beaten up, clubbed, killed! Why am I here?"