Genetics and Politics
The very first words from the very first caller during my very first talk show on KOA Radio were, “You are such a jerk.”
It was a rude awakening. But it also was an instructive education. You see, I had watched other talk radio hosts to see how they approached each show and what I learned was, first say hello, then say what you think about the hot-topic-of-the-day, then open the phones and let listeners chime in on what they think about what you think.
This was almost 25 years ago and I don’t even remember what my very first topic was—probably some liberal rant— but what I do remember is, I figured that once I’d done my carefully crafted, unassailably logical, inarguably intelligent 15-minute monologue on it, no one on earth could possibly find fault with my reasoning and all would proclaim in unison that I was God’s gift to civilization… or to talk radio, at least. Until the first guy I put on the air called me a jerk.
And that got me to wondering, why do so many of us, who otherwise probably share a lot of the same values, see the world so differently? I wonder about it to this day when I argue issues with personal friends, whose backgrounds, and educations, and family lives, and IQs, and places in the middle class, are all pretty much like mine. Whether it’s the sanity of stockpiling guns in our homes, the soundness of universal health care, or the security of a nuclear deal with Iran, somehow we see the issue with very different points of view.
I used to think it was as simple as nature versus nurture, with nurture playing a paramount role. But today I think, not so much. My own parents, who my siblings and I loved and respected, by and large politically were on the right side of the center-line, yet each of their kids ended up on the left side. Yet I know plenty of families where the kids turned out as their parents’ political clones. And yet others where some of the offspring ended up conservative and some not.
Which leaves nature. That doesn’t mean our politics are hereditary; experience proves they’re not. But are they genetic? Could there be a gene that somehow shapes our view of the world?
A growing body of university researchers thinks so. Either a gene, or a psychological characteristic, or a personality trait.
For example, at the University of Nebraska, they studied the responses of conservatives and liberals to different kinds of images— one example given is of a very large spider on somebody’s face— and found that conservatives spent more time anxiously studying the images and felt more threatened than liberals.
Meanwhile, at University College London, researchers studied the part of the brain that lights up when we’re anxious or scared, and found that it is larger in conservatives than it is in liberals. This would help explain conservative fears when it comes to issues like guns, health care, and Iran.
I don’t mean to make conservatives out to be more contrary or panicky than liberals; clearly there is more grey matter in these equations than absolutes, and clearly there are innumerable exceptions to the rule (like climate change, where it’s the left that fears the sky is falling). So maybe a better word for conservatives than “anxious,” or “scared,” is “prudent.” Maybe some people are born with more inherent prudence than others. Which by contrast makes liberals less prudent and bigger risk-takers. Which, some would argue, might not be a good thing when it comes to guns, health care, or Iran.
The upshot of all this is, maybe we are blessed at birth with our political proclivities. Maybe the disturbing divide in America between liberals and conservatives cannot easily be overcome. Maybe I am both God’s gift to civilization, and a jerk. Maybe it depends on who you ask.
This isn’t the dream of South Africa
I gave away a pretty nice pair of jeans the other day.
I gave them to a man in South Africa, a real good guy who was a lot of help while I was there. He is quite smart, he works very hard, and he always has a smile on his face. But he lives in a place where people grow up without quite enough food in their tummies and thus my waist is a good three inches thicker than his. Yet he wanted the jeans anyway, because he’s black.
What that means is, he is achingly poor. He lives in a tin shanty town on the edge of Cape Town, one of more than a million black citizens squeezed into the same sad settlement. You’ll see similar shanties on the outskirts of virtually every town you pass, large or small. In my friend’s, they only recently got their own electricity. Some have a cold-water tap inside their shacks, but most people still haul heavy buckets from communal water wells. Last time I was there, a few years ago while shooting a documentary, almost everyone had to use public cinderblock outhouses; the ratio was 129 people per privy. It’s not a whole lot better today.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to be. This isn’t the dream of South Africa.
Until only two decades ago, apartheid callously codified racial superiority for the nation’s white minority, subsistence and subservience for everyone else. As the novel called Tandia so succinctly says, apartheid was the rule of law, but it made a mockery of justice. When I covered South Africa on and off in the 1970s and 80s, everyone expected that black majority rule eventually would come, followed by a richer life for people long oppressed. But only through a bloody civil war.
Thanks mainly to the inclusive instincts of Nelson Mandela, that didn’t happen. Mandela argued (against the impulses of most of his comrades) that the equality they had long envisioned meant equality for all citizens, not just black citizens; that it could be violently counterproductive to punish their oppressors; and that through no fault of their own, the nation’s blacks didn’t have the training or schooling needed to actually run the country’s institutions, which meant educated and experienced whites must be kept on. Which is why, although war had seemed inevitable, apartheid came to a surprisingly peaceful end, stimulating a dream in the minds of the majority not just of a nation where all men were free but where, relative to how poorly blacks had long lived, now they would prosper.
Despite black majority rule, it’s still just a dream. For the documentary, I asked Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu why, in everything from housing to politics to education to economics, why is there still such a gap between rich and poor? He self-consciously laughed and said, “You know, original sin has in fact also infected us.” In other words, incompetence and corruption are colorblind.
Racial injustice is no longer legal in South Africa, but that’s just the letter of the law. In spirit, I learned last week, life still seems to be framed for most people— of every race— in terms of black and white.
My friend kept saying, with patience I’d never be able to muster, that it’s only been 20 years. But there’s no denying, the dream has faded. Some in the majority have grabbed the brass ring, For the most part though, it’s still South Africa’s blacks who are opening the white man’s doors and mopping his floors.
My friend now dreams of a better life for his daughter. And she might yet get it. But as he told me, his mother had dreamed of a better life for him. Yet he still wants blue jeans from a visiting American. Even though he’s too skinny to fill them.
On Cairo Today
(CAIRO) I’m only here in Egypt for a few hours, changing planes in Cairo’s airport to fly farther south across this African continent. But my mind is flooded with memories, not just of what I experienced over the years in dozen of trips to this exotic if chaotic and troubled region, but of what I saw and felt the very first time I landed in this ancient empire, and not even in the city of Cairo itself, but right here in its airport. It played no small role in shaping my view of how the world works.
It was 1977, just as Egypt and Israel, after three decades in a state of war, were about to shake hands, which would lead to an historic if troubled peace (which was then opposed for many years by almost every other Muslim nation on earth).
ABC News sent me over from the U.S. to help cover it. So after transiting somewhere in Europe, I landed here in Cairo. In those days, you walked from the plane down portable stairs to the tarmac; the “gates” were outside and with the airport’s proximity to the desert, you were sweating from the sun and sandblasted from the Sahara before you even got halfway to Passport Control.
But I didn’t pass right through; as a journalist, I had to get a special visa and ended up in a holding area near the gate for about four hours. And that’s when I began to notice the men— all men, apparently all Egyptians— dressed in dusty desert robes, carrying in one hand all their possessions, wrapped in a sort of towel-like package; picture an American hobo during the Depression. It was the time of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are supposed to make before they die. For these guys, it was their turn. Most of them looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together but a lot of them had their package of possessions in one hand….and a boom box in the other.
And that’s where my view of how the world works began to take shape. Because the boom boxes weren’t playing music; they were carrying booming and, to my ear, angry-sounding voices in Arabic. Mind you, I didn’t really know that they were angry; Arabic is not, let’s just say, the gentlest smoothest sounding of languages. Kind of like German, where the soft word we use for the colorful creature that emerges from a cocoon is “butterfly,” while the French use the musical word “pappillion,” but in German it’s the harshly, guttural, almost metallic sounding “schmetterling.”
But I digress. The voices blasting from these boom boxes, rattling along at a mile a minute, sounded angry, or harsh at the very least, but you know what? To me it didn’t really matter what they were saying or how they were saying it. What mattered was, everyone could hear it; whatever the message was, it was going (as we now say) viral. And how big was that? It meant that people who never before even knew how anyone in the next village lived suddenly could find out how people in the rest of the world lived.
The transistor radio wasn’t brand new, of course; I had one as a kid and in Sunday School in the late 1950s, once the Giants moved from New York to my home town of San Francisco, I carved the interior pages out of a textbook so I could conceal my radio between the book’s covers and run an earphone wire up the long sleeves of my shirt and hide the other end in my ear and listen to baseball games (although God help me if I cracked the book open when the teacher was pacing around the classroom).
But the luxury of the transistor and the availability (for people who didn’t even have electricity) of affordable batteries took another generation to make it to the Middle East, so the whole idea of opening a window to the world for people who had never before been ten miles from home and had no idea what anyone’s lives looked like beyond that perimeter was pretty darned new. (Parenthetically, I once did a story about a woman from a small Jewish tribe in one of three isolated Jewish villages in the middle of Ethiopia, and her people had no idea that the other two villages even existed; they thought they were the last people practicing their religion on earth.)
So this novel new accessible form of communication was life-changing for the people who used it. Because, as I kept learning more and more as I made trip after trip to the Middle East, what they saw through that window was how much we had and how little they had. Whether wealth or community or liberty, we in the West were the haves; they were the have-nots.
Now, of course, the world has changed. Most of the animosity and aggression we are fighting today have their roots in a variety of causes, from religion to politics to power to territory to nationalism to greed. But when you think about it, it still often comes down to the haves and the have-nots. Someone has land that someone else wants. Or resources that someone else wants. Or riches, or weapons, or power, or a subservient population, or a history of dominance…. or, of course, an ideology or a culture or a set of religious beliefs that someone wants to bury.
Mass communication has evolved in ways no one could possibly predict only two generations ago when I was having my epiphany in Cairo. I have seen television satellite dishes in desert outposts in the MIddle East, in jungle settlements in shanty towns in black Africa, in roadside villages high in the South American Andes, in backward towns in Russia, in rural communes in Vietnam.
And it can be hard to assert that this is a bad thing. You can extrapolate all kinds of arguably good things from it; think about the Arab Spring, albeit sadly short-lived. But for better or worse, change has come, and will keep coming in this world, more with the speed of a kilobyte than a caravan. Which probably means, revolutions won’t necessarily live or die any more on the strength of their leaders. Because of modern communications, which these days means social media as much as or even more than anything else, revolutions will quickly become the property of the people. Or as they say, “The Street.” Which, I repeat, might be for better and might be for worse.
I think what I saw that first day of my first trip here to the airport in Cairo was the seed of something we still don’t fully understand. But that’s not the scariest part of it. The scariest part is, it was the seed of something that is now completely out of our control. Those boom boxes might have been easy to see, but they have been replaced by something we can no longer see coming.
“The Muslim world won’t let it happen,” a friend told me the other day, referring to the stated goal of ISIS to dominate all Muslims. His reasoning was, most Muslims don’t want to live under the cruel control of a Caliphate.
I couldn’t agree more. From many years covering the Middle East, I feel certain that most Muslims don’t want to live in the Dark Ages. The trouble is, up against the merciless militias of ISIS, that doesn’t necessarily make much difference. As history sometimes shows, even if the preponderance of a population loathes its leadership, nothing changes, at least not for generations.
Exhibit A: The Soviet Union. I never worked there without meeting citizens who wanted out from under the repression. And from the drab, deprived, fretful lives they lived, I could only guess that they were the majority. But in a police state like that, what could they do? They had neither open elections nor the liberty to call for their own liberation. If flagrant dissidents got too brazen, they might find themselves slogging through the gulag with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Exhibit B: South Africa. During the era of apartheid, I didn’t even need to ask anyone in the black majority there how they felt about minority white rule. All I had to do was look at the unconcealed contrast between lives lived in luxury in all-white suburbs and lives lived without electricity or running water in all-black townships. If blacks got too rebellious, they might find themselves working a limestone quarry with Nelson Mandela.
Iraqi Shiites under Saddam Hussein, Chinese civilians under Mao Tse-Tung, probably the bulk of North Koreans under Kim Jung-un, maybe even most ordinary German citizens under Adolf Hitler, they all might fall into the class of the silent majority. They have no army, no political power, no voice.
Which brings us back to the question, who’s going to rise up against ISIS? The John McCains of the world assert that if the United States puts more muscle into this war, we can kill the cancer. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I’m not a dreamer either. Look at the facts on the ground. We fire a hundred-thousand-dollar missile, they lose a ten-thousand-dollar truck. We kill ten zealots, they recruit twenty.
Sure, we have allies: the United Arab Emirates have resumed their off-again-on-again air campaign against ISIS in Syria; Egypt took out some ISIS assets in Libya; now Jordan’s talking tough; the Iraqi military plans to recapture from ISIS the key supply-line city of Mosul. But how’s that going? Tens of thousands of weapons the United States says it already has sent to the Iraqis (with more on the way) are missing, and their parliamentary defense committee chairman is quoted saying that without those weapons, “any operation would be fruitless.” Some of our Arab allies look at us and complain that we’re not pulling out all the stops. But are they? Would they ever? And if they did, would they win? Qatar’s emir said last week that Arab leaders must commit “to the values… in the Arab Spring.” Dream on.
Or maybe it’s more like a nightmare, because ISIS isn’t even a single entity any more, operating only in Syria and Iraq. In a case of “déjà vu all over again,” remember how in Afghanistan, we chased out al-Qaeda only to see lookalikes turn up in a dozen different countries? Well today, intelligence identifies ISIS-like units, whether official affiliates or aspiring wannabes, in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, as deep into Africa as Nigeria, and yes, Afghanistan. ISIS has even tweeted, “We will conquer Rome,” (meaning, the West).
If we have learned nothing else since Vietnam, we have learned that even though we are mightier and hopefully more moral than our enemies, we don’t always win. There are too many variables in war. And too many enemies we just don’t understand.
On Public Use of Cameras
We were in an open-air light rail station in Miami, a TV crew and me. A guy who lived nearby and led us there took several small cameras into the station to make a point about his rights. He made it with a bang. As soon as he lifted one of his cameras to take pictures of a security guard, the guard and her partner went after him.
They told him to stop taking their picture. He didn’t. They told him to leave. He wouldn’t. They told him to surrender his cameras. He refused. They took a swipe at the cameras, knocking one to the ground, then another swipe at him. He fought back.
Was this guy a pain in the neck? Yes. Was he rude, intrusive, provocative, even offensive? Absolutely. But here’s the key question: Was he breaking the law? The answer is no. This matters because a bill being drafted in the Colorado legislature would “clarify” when and where you can and can’t use a camera. It shouldn’t require clarification but maybe it does, because cameras nowadays are a ubiquitous and sometimes unavoidable part of our daily lives. And it’s hard for some people to believe that you and I have the right to all but stick a camera in their face.
But we do. You see, unless we’re talking about a handful of explicable exceptions, like interfering with a crime scene, or prejudicing a trial, or a breach of our national security (but trust me, there was none at this light rail station), this guy in Miami had every right to take the guard’s picture. She could have turned away, she could have put up her hand to block the view, but what she couldn’t do, not legally, was order the guy to stop.
Why not? Because the light rail station is a public place. Just like any park, any sidewalk, the airport, even city hall. These are public places where, as courts have put it, you and I have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” And this applies to the police as much as anyone else.
Think of the implications if it were otherwise. If a policeman could claim that cameras are intrusive as he performs his job and thus prohibit their use, so could a politician, so could any public official. Then, anyone who regrets having his appalling behavior captured by a camera could try in court to prohibit its public release.
Now let’s carry it a step further. Think about people who meet in sidewalk restaurants or on park benches to discuss pending divorces, or contracts, or anything else that seems sensitive. They probably would argue that they have the right to a private conversation. But they don’t, not there. If they want to ensure their privacy, they should remove themselves from the public place.
Does this apply indiscriminately? No. A grocery store, a restaurant, a department store, these are different. Absent blatant bias, private property owners have the right to set the rules about who can take pictures on their property and when. And rest assured, no one has the right to take pictures of you while inside your home. But even there, there’s a caveat: if you’re standing in your window in your underwear, beware the camera held by a citizen out on the street because you are fair game.
Of course the proposed legislation isn’t just meant to clarify the use of cameras for those being recorded; until all of us with those cameras understand how far we can go, and, where we have to stop, it’s clarification for us, too.
But the burden must be on the police, the politicians, and others to justify keeping something out of the public view. For the rest of us, short of never going out, the best way to preserve our privacy is just to tell someone with a camera to quit being so nosy and leave us alone.
It might surprise you, but after a week’s worth of sympathetic stories in the media last week, all related to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, there’s still more to say. The anniversary has passed, the world has moved on… but still, because the import of Auschwitz and all it symbolizes shouldn’t be revived only on a ten-year anniversary, there’s more to say.
There are two little words, in fact, that speak volumes about why we should keep talking about Auschwitz, and Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Two words, immortalized by the aging author and archivist of the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel, in his own firsthand Auschwitz account called “Night.” The two weighty words are, “Never forget.”
I wasn’t even born when the dark dust of Europe’s Jews rained from the sky, yet I’ll never forget the cold chill I’ve felt walking through Auschwitz, which I’ve done three times as a reporter, once with Wiesel himself. Not just because I knew what had happened there— more than a million hapless humans gassed until they were gone; thousands subjected to sadistic and unscientific tests by the merciless Dr. Mengele; tens of thousands starving and suffering as slaves for the Nazi war machine.
No, the chill that ran through me on each visit was borne from my effort to even slightly imagine what it actually felt like to be there which, for all of us who weren’t, is impossible. But I tried anyway. I tried to imagine being imprisoned there. And waging a struggle not to die. Arguably, death was the less frightening fate; the supreme struggle was to survive. A struggle not to starve. Not to collapse. Not to freeze. Not to surrender.
And simple though it sounds, not to lose your shoes.
Shoes, I’ve been told, were an inmate’s salvation. The margin between death and life was so thin, it was defined in the precarious existence of every inmate by his shoes. If he could keep his shoes, he might tolerate the bitter, bleak, dark, dismal climate of the camp. If his shoes were worn through, or lost, or stolen, it was a death sentence as sure as the ultimate abuse bestowed on those who went straight from their train to their execution.
Never forget. The words are easy to utter, more difficult to uphold. Just look around the world since World War II and see how forgetful mankind has been. In conflicts I’ve covered from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan, from the Sahara to Northern Ireland, man kept forgetting the meaning of humanity. In a way, the incitements aren’t even important: power, greed, territory, nationalism, and maybe more than ever before, racism and religion. For whatever reason, man forgot.
A piece of me pretends that today, with global dependencies between nations and instantaneous links between peoples, we would no longer let these things motivate us to subjugate and brutalize our fellow man. But then the other piece kicks in. I think of Ukraine, where indiscriminate shells rain down and innocent citizens’ lives are shattered. Or Syria, where whole neighborhoods have crumbled, turning whole populations into wretched refugees. Or Nigeria, where fanatics have forgotten that life has any value at all. Or even Paris, where both Muslims and Jews reportedly now live in fear for their safety, and their families’.
In last week’s anniversary observance at Auschwitz, one survivor said, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future.” But somehow it could be, if “never forget” continues to be forgotten.
That’s why there’s more to say. And why we should keep saying it.
Yemen’s In Trouble
Yemen’s in trouble. So we’re in trouble too.
If rebels were able to wrest control of one of the most backyard nations on earth from its U.S.-friendly government, then the sky’s the limit in that part of the world for anarchy and animosity against the West.
But it’s only Yemen, right? Why worry about a country which has few paved roads in, let alone outside, its two main cities? A place so remote, its desert borders are missing from many maps because nobody really knows where they are. A nation so backward that citizens who can afford it travel over those undefined borders to Saudi Arabia to shop!
Maybe most revealing, men in Yemen aren’t even clear-headed for much of the day because at midday, they chew on a narcotic-like stimulant, a local leaf called “khat.” You can always tell when it’s lunchtime because almost every man has fluid as green as the forest primeval, dripping from his lips. Could it just be coincidence that “khat” rhymes with “pot?”
Once, when covering a story there, not long after a trip to Afghanistan, I wrote that Yemen was the only society I’d ever seen that makes Afghanistan look modern. Which brings us back to asking, why the big deal? The answer is complex but the headline might be, shoppers aren’t the only Yemenis who have their sights set on our political partner— however odious the partnership— Saudi Arabia.
American intelligence says that terrorists from the Yemeni group widely considered the most dangerously anti-Western of all the al-Qaeda spinoffs, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have snuck into Saudi Arabia to position themselves to attack the kingdom. And although our alliance with the Saudis is based only on mutual interests, which realistically means mutual enemies, an attack on Saudi Arabia is as good as an attack on us, because with so much oil so easy to get at, Saudi leaders influence the global price of oil and thus the economy— and therefore the stability— of the planet. Unless they are thrown off their feet and someone far more hostile stands in their shoes.
And now, al-Qaeda might not be the only force with its eyes on that prize. The Iranian-backed sect in Yemen, the Houthi Militia (all Shiites), has moved to the front. Which means al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (mainly Sunnis) no longer has the whole place to itself. Adding to the mayhem, ISIS reportedly is elbowing its own way into the chaos. Is it plausible that the self-proclaimed “caliph” of ISIS— by his lights, the leader of all Muslims— has designs on the holiest domain in his faith?
All told, this can’t be good. Between religious, tribal, and territorial objectives, each of these groups probably will fight fiercely with one another for a piece of the spoils. Viewed in a vacuum, nothing would make America happier. But warfare among terror groups in a place like Yemen has its downside, not only because it’s likely to ravage the nation, but because in a case like this (unlike Syria, where the beleaguered government has muscle that the Yemeni government never had), someone’s likely to win. Then that victor would stand taller, and stronger, and probably meaner than ever.
Which makes the upheaval in Yemen an even more potent potential threat not just toward the sands of Saudi Arabia, but toward the American homeland. Because the Yemeni intelligence that helped us fight terrorism on the Arabian Peninsula now might end up in the hands of the terrorists themselves, which forces us to suspend that fight. Which means three factions hostile to our interests have fairly free reign. Sure, they don’t like each other, but when anti-government demonstrators in Yemen last week chanted “Death to America,” they voiced a common passion. That makes them a collective threat. Another impermeable terrorist refuge might just have been born.
Which is why we’re in trouble.
On the Massacre in Paris
When the chief of the United Nations said of the sickening Paris massacre last week, “It should never be seen as a war of religion, for religion, or on religion,” it sounded like a predictable platitude. Kind of like the Pope on Christmas calling for peace in the Middle East. I mean, of course that’s what they’d say!
The fact is, any of us who believe we accurately understand what motivates Muslim madmen to murder innocents ought to cover our keyboards, mute our microphones, and zip our lips. As I wrote in a column on these same pages only last month, “There are so many behaviors in the Middle East today that we just can’t explain, no matter who we are.”
But this time, the U.N.’s Ban Ki-Moon might have gotten it right. Because from my experience, many of the acts allegedly executed in the name of religion— indeed, some of the wars fought between members of different faiths or different sects of the same faith— do not in fact have much if anything to do with religion at all. Radicalism, yes. But that’s not religion.
Probably the best example is what we’ve witnessed for more than a decade now in Iraq. When the U.S. invaded, we lifted the lid off a long-repressed rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. While we fought a war against terrorism, they fought a war against one another. But were their nasty battles really based on the ancient debate about which of Mohammed’s descendants were entitled to lead Islamic society, which has had the two sects at each other’s throats for more than 1,300 years?
I’m afraid not. They were based on the haves and the have-nots. Under Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni, almost all positions of power (which also made them positions of wealth) were in the hands of his Sunni brethren; call it his tribe. Shiites could hardly even get a private’s position in the Iraqi army, let alone the stripes of an officer. In almost every way, Shiites in Iraq were second-class citizens. So when Hussein was upended, so was his tribe… and then the Shiites did to the Sunnis what the Sunnis had done to them. It was about ranking, not religion.
Likewise, the revolution in Iran. I spent the better part of two years covering that chaos, and when asking people why they wanted to oust the Shah, the word “religion” never came up. A brutal secret police force, corruption with the profits from oil, and distaste for the Western culture the Shah was introducing to his people, these were the root causes of their revolt.
And when it comes to hatred cloaked in the cloth of religion, we can look well beyond the Middle East. In the 1970s and ‘80s, I covered “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants ambushed one another and blew up each other’s pubs. 3,000 people died.
But just a couple of years ago, when I was back in Belfast and wrote a column referring to “religious warfare” there decades ago, a local friend who I asked to fact-check something said to me, “It was never ‘religious warfare.’ Most of the terrorists on both sides never darkened the door of a church.”
His point was, it was a clash between Catholics and Protestants, but only because the majority there, the Protestants, had long oppressed the minority, the Catholics, who couldn’t get a well-paying job anyplace important, from the shipyards to the police force. Sure, religion was in the background there, as it has been in Iran and Iraq and Syria and Israel and so many other troubled nations, but religious inequality breeds resentment, which breeds terrorism. Which can have nothing to do with religion.
I don’t know what mad notions led the murderers in France to their rampage. We may never know. But if we automatically pin it primarily on religion rather than radicalism, we might miss signs of more madness in the future.
Optimism and Pessimism going into the New Year
At heart, especially at the start of a brand new year, I am an optimist. Life is good. But when I saw the headline of a commentary in The Post the Sunday before Christmas asking, “Is peace on Earth even possible?”, my answer was a pessimistic “No.”
That’s why, whether addressing a contemporary challenge like defeating ISIS or the age-old challenge of finding a path to peace for Israelis and Palestinians, I wouldn’t bet a dime on our success. Not that we shouldn’t try; if we don’t have our hand in the game, some other power will replace us and the world it shapes will likely be even worse. But I have precious little hope. Which you might call pessimism personified.
However, after I said all that to an audience at DU last month during a talk about American options in the Middle East, I heard optimism personified. One man stood and asked, What about globalization as a solution to these struggles? His point was, people who’ve long lived pathetic lives in the Middle East, thanks to their own glimpses of globalization, now can see what the world offers people like us and seize similar opportunities for themselves.
Then another man stood and asked, Why did I address everything from brutal combat to religious creed in my pessimistic analysis but never mentioned the power of economics? His point was, if we took the money we spend to wage war and put it instead into economic development, we would elevate people to the point where they would see little benefit in continuing to fight.
From experience, I’m convinced there are pragmatic reasons why economics and globalization aren’t going to bring the monsters of ISIS to heel— nor adversaries in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rivals in Syria’s civil war, Iranians bent on building nuclear weapons, or Sunnis and Shiites battling for influence in Iraq. But thank goodness, especially now when we want so much to hope for something better, there are people out there who do.
Remember Luke Somers, the hostage of Islamic terrorists, who died during an attempt to rescue him last month in Yemen? A friend of his told the Associated Press that Somers “would have wanted issues of extremism and terrorism to be addressed by stepping up the dialogue instead of resorting to conflict between nations.”
The pessimist in me says, nations can do dialogue until the well runs dry; it’s not going to make violent clashes vanish. I came to this cynical view years ago while covering the United Nations, where dialogue is just about the only thing they do. The U.N.’s member nations couldn’t even agree most days on whether to change the toilet paper in their public restrooms from one-ply to two, let alone on how to make the world a peaceful place.
But the optimist in me takes comfort in one land where I covered deadly warfare for many years and never believed that hostility and hate could be overcome… but I was wrong. For 30 years (and that’s just in modern times), Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were at each others’ throats; each side felt browbeaten by the other. As a reporter, I’ve seen nothing that pits people against one another more feverishly than religion.
Yet both sides tired of their bloody battles, and looked for a way out, and through a power-sharing arrangement that has lasted now for a decade-and-a-half, they found it. Sure, there are still bitter feelings in some parts— only two years ago I saw fresh murals on the walls of Belfast buildings, glorifying armed militants— but overall, amity has overcome acrimony.
Is there anything to learn from Northern Ireland that could apply to the world at large? Maybe not. But it does show that no matter how pessimistic some of us are about Peace on Earth, there is always hope. How sad… how hopeless… if that were to disappear.
On Russia under Putin
Sure, Russia’s in trouble. But predicting President Putin’s playbook is a fool’s errand. Between Western sanctions over Ukraine, the plunging price of oil on which his economy heavily depends, and the pervasive and proliferating perversion of the nation’s economy, the value of Russia’s ruble and thus the value of every Russian’s bank account has dropped. But Americans who predict that this will moderate Putin’s behavior, on Ukraine or anything else, might be the fools.
The first thing to remember is, Russia isn’t the U.S.A. What that means is, the kinds of public protest that lead to policy changes in our nation don’t— make that, can’t— go far enough to force a revolution in Russia. By tightening up on the freedoms that Russian citizens briefly possessed after the fall of the Soviet Union— like disqualifying political parties he didn’t like and putting dissenting media out of business— Putin has crafted a political system that pretty much ensures his power for as long as he wants to wield it.
The second thing is, by all accounts, Putin’s popularity is still at sky-high levels that American politicians can only dream about. That’s because of something Russians have told me every time I’ve been there: he has given them pride again, pride that they lost almost a quarter-century ago when their status as a superpower vanished. By reminding his citizens that in the good old days, the world trembled when their leaders spoke (or in the case of Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 at the United Nations, pounded the table with a shoe), he never stops sending the message that Russia deserves a place again on the world stage. This strategy is called nationalism, and Putin plays the card constantly. It helps to explain why his foreign policy is basically built on flipping the bird to the United States.
The third thing to remember is that in Russia, when the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going; they just sit back and take it. This is a society where suffering is almost a part of their DNA. As George Friedman, author of The Next 100 Years puts it, “They can endure things that would break other nations.”
My favorite metaphor for that is snow. In many parts of the United States, including the City of Denver, homeowners are required (once the snow stops falling) to clear the sidewalks in front of their homes. And even if it weren’t the law, many would do it anyway; that’s just who we are. In Russia? A few years ago I spent some December days at the Yuri Gagarin Spaceflight Center outside of Moscow. This place is the heart of that nation’s proudest high-tech achievements: the first satellite in space, then the first human being in space. And it’s still on a roll; since the demise of the American space shuttle, every one of our astronauts heading for the International Space Station spends several months there training to launch in the Russian Soyuz capsule.
So what happens there when it snows? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Which means, when you’re driving on the network of narrow roads coursing through the complex, your wheels slide into ruts half-a-foot deep. When you’re walking, the steps leading into every building are treacherous with clumps of ice. Unlike us, they don’t try to mitigate the inconvenience and discomfort of their weather; they simply adapt to it. It’s as if something as simple as snow actually defines the culture of the country.
Who knows? Maybe with the ruble tumbling into the toilet and people’s buying power plummeting with it, Putin will finally pay the price. Surely, Russia’s citizens have grown to like a higher level of prosperity and economic choice and won’t like what’s happening today. But half the population has lived with less and, like our own “Greatest Generation” that endured the Depression, they could do it again. And Putin might just let them.
What do these positive proclamations have in common?
“We are stopping Ebola in its tracks.” (Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Tom Frieden)
“Don’t underestimate the Iraqi troops; they are well-trained and ready to protect their nation.” (Paraphrased from a recent Denver presentation by retired four-star General David Petraeus)
“In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores… we’re prepared here at home.” (President Barack Obama)
There is no sign that ISIS is “actively plotting against the homeland.” (General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
“Mission accomplished.” (Former President George W. Bush)
The answer’s easy. What they all have in common is that each one was flat-out wrong. Whether said with naïve confidence, unsupported self-assurance, or deliberate inflation of the facts, each was meant to assure the American public that everything’s going to be alright. But it isn’t. Coming from leaders with the highest levels of medical, military, and political know-how, what they actually ended up assuring us was, we really don’t know who to believe any more.
And they assured us of something else too: just because people are smart enough to rise to the top in their chosen fields, they aren’t necessarily a whole lot smarter than the rest of us. Or sometimes, any smarter at all.
You could chalk it up to a couple of modern phenomena in this 21st-Century media-driven, short attention span, quick-fix world: better to paint a pretty picture first, then see if you can back it up. And better to give an answer even if it’s wrong, rather than no answer at all.
That might be fine in a different era— when there’s time to repaint the picture, or rephrase the answer— but these days, what we need to know is not that everything’s going to be alright (when it’s not), but rather, what’s wrong in our world and are we really able to fend it off? Since life is not a fairy tale, sometimes the answer is no.
But if we feel like this phenomenon of leaders painting misleadingly positive pictures is something new, rest assured that it’s not.
Records— and actual recordings— have been released from the days of Lyndon Johnson in the White House. And they are shocking. While publicly building our troop strength in Vietnam to more than half-a-million (many of whom came home in coffins), LBJ privately told insiders, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for.” While publicly predicting an ultimate American victory over the peasant armies battling against us, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara privately and despondently told the President in a phone call that we keep throwing everything we’ve got at “these half-starved beggars” but they keep coming back for more.
If I want to feel good about my world, I’ll do the easy crossword puzzle on Mondays. If I want to feel informed about my world, I need to trust the people who feed us the information. These days, that trust runs thin.
When you’re in the Middle East and you are talking about political alliances, which today are at the core of the American campaign to create a coalition to decimate ISIS, there is an adage that you will hear as much as any: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Note that I use the word “alliances,” not “friendships,” because there really aren’t many genuine friendships between neighbors in that part of the world. To wit, back in the day when I roamed the region, the stories I covered included Iran’s eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq, potshots across the border between Egypt and its neighbor Libya, Lebanon’s entrapment in the clutches of its powerful neighbor Syria, and of course Saddam Hussein’s army rolling across the frontier to occupy its neighbor Kuwait. And the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Thanks to a long history of religious, cultural, financial, and petroleum rivalries, the Saudis are more frightened of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands than in Israel’s. But here’s why a scorecard won’t help you: back during the Gulf War, Iraq threatened to invade Saudi Arabia, which is at loggerheads with Iran, which fought that long war with Iraq. Who’s on first?!?
The point is, as the United States gears up yet again for war in the Middle East, no matter how necessary for our national security, we can only hope that the Obama administration understands the bitter relationships between nations, and leaders, who would be our allies. It would have been helpful if someone in the administration had been with me once when I reported on an Arab summit in Morocco where, from my vantage point overlooking a “welcome reception” in the garden of one of the King’s palaces, most of the region’s leaders stayed stone-faced in just one corner or another, never crossing to different corners to greet their Arab brothers.
It would also be helpful if someone in the administration could just take a look at the facade of the magnificent Burj Al Arab on a man-made island in the tiny but tenacious Emirate of Dubai; it might be the single best metaphor for the hostility that is almost palpable between Middle East neighbors. This thousand-foot-high hotel (the Royal Suite, approximately $19,000 per night) can be seen across the Persian Gulf on the shores of Iran, and Iran doesn’t like what it sees: megawatt lights within the facade in the shape of a 50-story high Christian cross, not officially acknowledged by that description but unofficially said to be western-oriented Dubai’s way of flipping the bird at its Islamist neighbor… every night.
So yes, if the adage is true and the enemy of our enemy is our friend, we have a lot of friends today in that unfriendly part of the world. But last week I went to hear a presentation by General David Petraeus, sponsored by the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab (CELL), and this man who has commanded our armies in Iraq and Afghanistan and knows the Middle East as well as anyone in Washington made me think about things in a whole new way, and he did that by turning the adage on its head: remember, he warned, that in that part of the world, the enemy of my enemy is also still my enemy.
That’s what makes our campaign against ISIS so complicated. We certainly aren’t cozy with Iran, yet we’re on the same side in this newest war (and to complicate matters, our friend France, which is part of our coalition, wants to invite Iran to join it too, which we don’t). We surely don’t have an alliance with Hamas, yet when it comes to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, we find ourselves on the same side: we both want him out. Carrying these complexities to the extreme, Assad’s Syria is more threatened by ISIS than we are, but we’re sure not joining hands with a dictator who’s close to some of our adversaries just because we have this one enemy in common.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq, American foreign policy has often failed to understand the nuances of different religions, different cultures, different alliances. If ISIS truly does threaten to be a haven for terrorists the likes of which the world has never seen, then our national security depends on us understanding all those differences, better than we ever have before.
Art in a Nutshe….um….Tortoise Shell
Since I was in Aspen anyway, I thought, Well, might as well go see the tortoises. I’ve been in Colorado’s richest boom town many times but, to be sure, this was the first time that the words “tortoises” and “Aspen” have popped up in the same moment in my mind.
The tortoises I’m talking about, of course, are the three African tortoises on display at the new and newly controversial Aspen Art Museum. Note that I say the tortoises are “on display” rather than “in an art exhibit.” That’s because, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t fit them into any established definition of art.
Let’s start with the title of the display: Moving Ghost Town. That’s because the exhibit consists of these three tortoises moving around their enclosure— of course you have to stand there quite a while to actually see them move but that’s a different issue— with two iPads balanced like sandwich boards atop small wooden platforms on each tortoise’s back. Each iPad apparently displays video images of Colorado’s ghost town heritage.
Note, once again, that I say that each iPad “apparently” displays these pictures. That’s because the enclosure is up on the rooftop level of the museum, and since the tortoises were out in the glaring sun, I couldn’t see a thing on the screens of the iPads. I have an iPad myself, and have long known that in bright sunlight, you can’t see anything on the screen, save perhaps the reflection of the sun. Having raised roughly $70-million to build this new museum, couldn’t someone have popped for an experimental iPad before commissioning the exhibit to see if it would even work?
Then there’s the small paper plaque describing the exhibit itself. Usually in a museum if materials are described, it’ll say something like “Oils,” “Charcoal,” “Acrylics,” “Watercolors,” “Paper Maché,” something to give us some background we might not otherwise recognize. But for MovingGhost Town, the words are, and I kid you not, “Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.” Sorry, but that was something I already could see for myself… even if I couldn’t actually see the video I was supposed to see on the iPads (which according to the alleged artist, was taken by the tortoises themselves, which might explain why I wasn’t all that disappointed to miss it).
Note, one more time, my choice of words: “alleged artist.” That’s because I haven’t yet figured out how Tortoises, iPads, and Grass fit into any definition of art. I was in the area because I’d just moderated a symposium at the Anderson Ranch art center in Snowmass entitled“Making the Change They Want To See.” It was about artists as activists, artists using their art to effect change in society. In my book that’s a good use of any artistic medium, as opposed to producing art strictly for profit, or for a creative outlet, or personal satisfaction, or simply for impact. Someone at the symposium described art as “anything that makes us see the world in a whole new way.” Fair enough. But I’m not sure the Aspen exhibit even does that.
The last piece of controversy about the tortoises is thanks to the radical group PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Frankly, when I see them inveigh about an issue with animals, and I don’t have to tell you that they consider anything that puts iPads on the backs of tortoises totally inhumane— or should theword actually be “intortane?”— I rush to join the other side. Look, my family and I once toured a turtle farm in the Caribbean, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that two of them were mating in a pool as we walked in and when we walked out 90 minutes later, they were still… um… going at it. Although I never did find out which one’s on top, I’m convinced that these guys can take the weight of two iPads.
I’m also convinced, if Aspen could raise $70-million for its new museum, it could dobetter things with the money than Tortoises, iPads, and Grass.
On Israel and Hamas
It can be exasperating to see more than one side to a story, especially a story like the war between Israel and Hamas. But that’s what journalists have to do to do our jobs right: whether on a battlefield or at a ballot box, our job is to report on what each side in a conflict endures and what each side thinks. It doesn’t mean we don’t have ivory-tower opinions about who should win and who should lose. It just means, our opinions aren’t the story; the facts on the ground are.
That’s why I’m tired of pro-Israeli Americans (which sometimes equates to anti-Palestinian, but not always) who have complained about disproportionate coverage of Israel’s conflict with Hamas… disproportionate, in their view, because there has been so much more news about suffering Palestinians than about suffering Israelis.
Sure, that’s true, but here’s why: there are more Palestinians suffering today than Israelis. Although much smaller than Israel in both population and geography, Gaza’s casualty counts from the war— the dead, the injured, the homes smashed, the childhoods shattered— dwarf the numbers in Israel. If you appreciate as I do from years of reporting in that part of the world that many Palestinians whose lives have turned tragically upside down are not sympathizers of the “anti-Zionist” zealots of Hamas, you understand that human misery, no matter where, is mournful. And part of the story.
But I’m equally tired of pro-Palestinian Americans (which sometimes equates to anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic, but not always) who have complained about disproportionate destruction on the Palestinian side of the border. Sure, it’s been disproportionate, but here’s why: Israel is stronger. That’s the nature of war. It’s not Israel’s fault that the rockets Hamas has haphazardly hurled into Israel are far less precise than the missiles Israel targeted on Gaza (although still often imperfect). Putting aside issues of injustice during the settlement of the American West, just because the Indians’ traditional ammunition was the arrow, the white man wasn’t obliged to set aside his bullets and pick up a bow. The white man had rifles, he was stronger, and he won.
Another complaint by pro-Israeli Americans is that the news media doesn’t report on what pushed Israel into this war in the first place. Trouble is, that just isn’t true. It has been and continues to be widely reported. If you don’t know that Hamas dug dozens of tunnels for terrorists to infiltrate Israel (I’ve been in them and reported on them; they were years in the making) and amassed thousands of rockets to fire into Israel and, by the way, that Hamas calls in its charter for a holy war against Israel, you just aren’t paying attention.
But another complaint by pro-Palestinian Americans isn’t true either, the complaint that Israel’s oppressive policies pushed Palestinians toward terrorism. Yes, Palestinians rightfully feel oppressed— I’ve reported on frustrating hours spent at roadblocks myself, simply trying to cross the border (and I’m not even Palestinian). But Israel’s motives must be acknowledged: with a history of attacks against them, they are like the TSA, treating every human being as a possible terrorist, to stop the one who is. The trouble is, like other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda and now ISIS, Hamas is driven by two things that have little to do with Israel: religious intolerance and anti-Western hatred. From my own reporting, they’ve been passed down from generation to generation. And are still being taught.
Pro-Palestinian Americans rightfully complain, though, that a weighty ratio of the Palestinian death toll is non-combatants, women and children. But pro-Israeli Americans rightfully complain that by placing its warriors and weapons amongst them, Hamas callously keeps them in harm’s way.
What it comes down to is, there is anger on both sides. And pain. And fear. And the belief that combatants on the other side disregard the safety of non-combatants on your side and thus are terrorists. That is the story. It is all reported.
This could get me in trouble. Big trouble. Because it’s going to sound like I long for the days of dictators. Dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Marshall Tito, the Shah.
I don’t. But I do wonder, from the standpoint of national security, were we somehow better off when they were still around? In some cases, were even their own citizens better off too? Hard to say, but also hard to dismiss.
So, as Americans for whom freedom is a precious principle but security is a prime priority, it’s a question worth asking. If our geopolitical strategy amounts to choosing the lesser of two evils, and it often does, then arguably, the world was a better place… for us, anyway… when there were dictators who controlled their people because however malicious their means, terrorists couldn’t operate within their borders and thus, couldn’t threaten us. We have plenty of counterterrorism tools at our command, both military and civil, but none works better than containing the threat at its source.
Iraq is the poster boy for this kind of thinking. Believe me, Saddam was a bad guy; I was among a handful of journalists who got to one of the Kurdish villages he gassed, leaving hundreds of grotesque corpses as a warning to others who harbored dreams of rebellion. So if nothing else, morality prevents me fromcalling Saddam’s ruthless reign the good ol’ days.
But here’s the other side of the coin: notwithstanding the flimsy grounds for the U.S. invasion in 2003, was Iraq then a breeding ground for terrorism as it is today? The fact is, we invaded Iraq to drive out terrorists who were not actually there until we went in to drive them out. Think ISIS, which is trying to establish and expand what would amount to an anti-Western terrorists’ haven. That is Iraq, post-Saddam.
To carry the argument further, neither are most Iraqis plainly better off. I made a few trips there when Saddam was in charge, and while Iraqis didn’t live lives we’d envy, they were able to go about their business pretty much without interference as long as they didn’t get on Saddam’s bad side. Today? There is no good side to be on. If you’re Sunni, the government is shutting you out of civil life in Iraq. If you’re Shiite, ISIS is shutting you down. Citizens can’t go to the market, kids can’t go to school, mourners can’t go to a funeral, without the threat of a car bomb that might kill them all.
Hindsight is a wonderful tool. And it’s only with hindsight that I raise these questions. In fact, if another dictator was brutally mistreating his people today, I’d probably be agitating to go in and get him. But not before asking, who’s likely to replace him? Would a new regime be worse for our security than what we have now? Likewise, would it be worse for its own people than what they have now? Then the final question: morally, can I support him because he’s still not as bad as whatever or whoever might replace him?
Life doesn’t always offer a happy ending. What we need to figure out is, which ending is the least unhappy, when it comes to who we fight and who we back.
On US Space
Now it’s getting serious! Because of Ukraine, the last visible vestige of cooperation between the United States and Russia, which has endured through thick and thin, is in play: space.
Until now, we’ve really held the Ukraine upheaval at arm’s length, partly because everything Russia’s President Putin wanted (and grabbed) there is more important to him than it is to us. Sure, he’s a bully and we’ve protested and rightly so, and we’re turning up whatever heat we can. But our own nation’s well-being? No different than when the Crimea crisis crystalized two months ago.
Until this week. That’s when, after we tightened sanctions against Russia and its high-tech industries, a deputy prime minister in Moscow indignantly declared in response, “If they want to make an economic blow to the Russian rocket building industry, then they should consider using a trampoline to deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station.” That might sound funny if it weren’t so serious. Because in the case of space, we need them more than they need us.
At $60-Million per seat, Russia loves what we pay to put our people in their Soyuz capsules for a ride to the space station— it is an important piece of their space program’s budget— but without it, they’ll survive. However, as American astronaut Al Drew told me during an interview a few years ago at the Yuri Gagarin Spaceflight Center outside Moscow while he was part of a joint training exercise, “If things go sour between the U.S. and Russia, I can guess our (manned) space program can be one of the first casualties.” In other words, it will die. Which raises the uncomfortable question, what about our astronauts who are up in space right now?
The only answer we have, as another astronaut, Michael Barratt, told me, is, “We’re at the whim of our countries.” What that means is, our astronauts and their counterpart cosmonauts have always gotten along. They don’t just work and eat and laugh and live with one another; they depend on each other, because they face life and death together. But the crisis in Ukraine might be bigger than those personal bonds in space.
In a rational world, where this extraterrestrial teamwork is a win for both countries, space would never be introduced as a weapon in the clash between us. But sometimes, geopolitics aren’t rational. We signed on to fly with the Russians because once the Shuttle shut down, they were the only game in town. We hoped we could count on them because we had to. Michael Griffin, NASA’s boss at the time, told me in Washington, “Embarking upon a planned period of dependence upon Russia… obviously is at some risk.” He called the arrangement “unseemly.” And yet, he assured me that there had never been so much as a hiccup between Russia’s space agency Roskosmos, and NASA.
Then, I interviewed Russia’s director of manned space flight, and he told me the same, adding: “I believe in the future that the politics will not interfere.” But perhaps prophetically, he went on, “However, space will be very close to politics any time.” When I asked him what he meant by that, he said, “It’s very subject to politics. Because space will be a policy instrument.”
Sitting there in the Moscow headquarters of the Russian space agency, then spending a couple of days watching Americans training with Russians at the Gagarin Center, it was a little hard to believe that not so long before, we had faced off in the Cold War. But it’s not hard any more. What people at NASA always said under their breath about the Russian partnership was, “Their spacecraft is reliable, but are they?” Now we have our answer: if they choose to hold us hostage, it is no.
Mystery Despite Technology
Once Lewis and Clark and their crew of 29 explorers pushed north on the Mississippi out of what was then a thousand-person colony called St. Louis, nobody back in what was considered civilization knew where they were. Or how they were. Or even if they were still alive.
Not for the two-and-a-half years they were gone. You might call that the good old days.
Because in the time of President Thomas Jefferson, who sent them to search for a passage to the Pacific, nobody expected to know. It was 1804. No cell phones, no email, no TV or radio or texting or GPS or, I declare with a trace of envy, Facebook. To put the age into perspective, not only was there no such thing as high-tech electronics, but no one to that point in history had ever even traveled faster than the speed of a galloping horse.
Now, fast forward (a phrase reflecting technology they hadn’t yet invented in the age of Lewis & Clark) to 2014, an age when we expect to be able to know (whether we need to or not) where everyone is, every second, every day. Not just because many people bend over backwards to tell us where they are on Facebook and Twitter and other social media (another phrase of which 19th-Century citizens were blissfully bereft), but because if they don’t tell us, there are other apps we can use to find out. Not to mention the involuntary traces that can be put on us thanks to our smartphones, which pinpoint our whereabouts from their unceasing emission of signals. And I won’t even bring up the NSA.
So isn’t it amazing that we’ve found out from two major news stories in the past month how much we still don’t know?! An army moves into someone else’s territory and takes it for its own… and no one saw it coming. A 200-ton airplane disappears from everyone’s radar… and no one saw it go.
Sure, maybe you can chalk some of it up to human error; in simple terms, maybe someone in each case was asleep at the switch. But I prefer to chalk it up to something more basic: that while we have the means to know more about our world than we ever knew before— and from the standpoint of understanding our global environs, that’s a good thing— there is still some mystery in life, and hopefully there always will be.
What we know for sure is, while computers now can beat even the highest-ranked Grandmasters in a game of chess, there are some things they still don’t do. Like infer the intent of Russian soldiers crossing into Ukraine, or track an airplane on an overnight flight to Beijing… let alone find it once it has disappeared.
I’m not anti-tech, but I am pro-human. And if the characteristics that set us apart from computers mean that from time to time we are still left in the dark, that’s just fine with me. With nothing more than their own good instincts and the sage support of a young Indian woman named Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark not only found the Pacific; they also found their way back.
Bigotry In America
Well, last week we made The New York Times… but not in a good way.
“In New Mexico, a photographer declined to take pictures of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. In Washington State, a florist would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. And in Colorado, a baker refused to make a cake for a party celebrating the wedding of two men.”
This was how The Times led a story about the latest and biggest show of bigotry in America: legislation passed by Arizona’s lawmakers that would allow business owners, if the governor weren’t to veto it, to pick and choose their customers based on religious beliefs. In other words, to use religion to rationalize discrimination. And thanks to that Colorado baker, we’re part of the parade.
Such a law— in Arizona, Colorado, or anywhere else— would give new meaning to signs we sometimes see on the doors of stores— or restaurants, theaters, malls, most any business that caters to the public— that say, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” The hitch is, they don’t. (Although I’ve got to love the owner of a pizzeria in Tucson who posted on Facebook, “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.”)
Sure, if someone walks into a business smelly, or shirtless or shoeless, or shouting and swearing and spitting, whoever’s running the place can boot him out and they’re well within their rights to do so. He’s a nuisance, and there’s little in the law to protect him. Nor should there be.
But if they want to shoo him back to the sidewalk because there’s something else about him that they find offensive— like his race, his religion, his age, the nation of his birth, the color of his skin, the condition of his body— they can’t. Federal law, and much of state law, prevents it.
Sexual orientation, though, isn’t so well protected. That’s why, in the Colorado case, the owner of Lakewood’s Masterpiece Cakeshop was sued. When two men came in to order a wedding cake— their wedding cake— the owner, a Christian with a capital “C,” said no; he believes baking a cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage would amount to endorsing it (the men were married in Massachusetts, where it’s legal), which runs counter to his Christian beliefs and, legally, his First Amendment right to express his opposition to it.
And he’ll prevail, if the idea of legalizing this kind of bigotry spreads, and courts uphold it.
Take things to the next level: should the state also allow a white businessman to refuse service to a black man who walks into his store? Or validate an anti-Semite who refuses a Jew? Not that long ago, not that far away, people did such things because they could. Today, society condemns such intolerance and I think most of us consider that to be positive progress, not to mention, as The Denver Post said in a Wednesday editorial about the economic impact of any law like this, “bad business.” That, in fact, was the governor’s rationale to veto the bill in Arizona.
The question comes down to legal rights: a gay person’s right to be served (based on equality) versus the owner’s right to refuse (based on religion). But the bigger question isn’t about revenues, or legalities; it’s about moralities.
The majority of Arizona’s legislators seem to think social developments like gay marriage are immoral. If they were to ask me for guidance, the solution I’d offer is, “Okay, if you find it immoral, then take my advice and don’t marry someone of your own sex.”
Sure, that’s a bit flippant. But it’s relevant for issues from gay marriage to abortion: if you don’t believe in it, don’t do it. Personally, I voted against legalizing marijuana in Colorado. My side lost. But I still don’t think more marijuana’s a move in the right direction, so while today I could easily go out and buy some weed (and smoke it or bake it or chew it or do whatever else users do with it), I won’t. But neither will I (excuse the pun) chew out those who do.
So here’s where you can draw the line on rights: if it’s legal, it’s okay. Or at least, if it’s not illegal it’s okay. Which means, since homosexual behavior is no longer on the books as a crime, it’s no longer moral to refuse service to gays. For that matter, maybe it never was. Not in Arizona, not in Colorado, not anywhere.
The Future of Syria
Even three years into the brutal war in Syria, nobody can say yet how long it will take for the outcome to be clear. However, even before round two of the so-called Syrian peace talks wraps up in Geneva, one thing is very clear: with even a simple ceasefire disregarded in the besieged city of Homs, don’t expect a truce tomorrow, let alone a treaty for peace. What is equally clear is that whatever ultimately brings this war to an end, it will finish in one of three ways and sad to say, the probabilities are the reverse of what they could, and from the standpoint of our security, should have been. Why? Because President Obama has dithered.
The most likely outcome, partly because of what the U.S. hasn’t done, is that the despotic president Bashar al-Assad will remain in charge… in charge of a nation increasingly in ruins, to be sure, but if those are the spoils of his struggle to survive, then for Assad, it still beats the alternative. Implications for us? He continues to cozy up to, and collaborate with, some of America’s most obstinate adversaries from Iran to Hezbollah, not to mention geo-political rivals like Russia and China.
The second most likely outcome is that Assad goes down in defeat at the hands of rebels with their hearts set on an Islamic state, because those are the forces right now who have taken control of the revolution. No one has to tell you what that would mean to the security of the United State and our allies, adding a nation like Syria to the assortment of roughly a dozen countries that harbor the types of terrorists we went to war in Afghanistan to destroy.
The least likely outcome, now, is a new Syria ruled by secular forces. They are the moderates in this battle; that’s a relative term, “moderate,” but compared to the likes of either Assad or the Islamists, it is apt. In the early stages of the war, moderates ran the offense against the dictator. But while President Obama wavered in his support for Syria’s moderates, al Queda and other terror groups rushed into the fight with both money and arms from their sponsors (like Hamas, for instance) and hijacked the higher-minded motives of the mutiny. Granted, President Obama and the American public feel so burned by our long and arguably counter-productive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that there was no will to give these moderates anything more than financial support. And what good did that do them? Simply look at where they stand today in the pecking order of the fight.
This doesn’t even address our failure to use America’s superior air power to turn Assad’s inferior assets— his aircraft, his missiles, his runways,basically the tools of his terror— into rubble. We still could strike tomorrow if we wanted to, and we could do it from a safe distance, but even though it wouldn’t require “boots on the ground,” we don’t have the will, so we won’t. Of course at this late stage, maybe it’s mostly moot; it wouldn’t bring back the war’s 100,000-plus fatalities, nor necessarily reinstate the millions of refugees now living across the borders in tents, nor restore the sizeable sections of cities that have been leveled.
True, we Americans are chastened by hard and haunting lessons over these past dozen-plus years about the cost of going to war. But in the absence of significant American assistance to turn the tide in Syria, the death and displacement and destruction there, and the growing threat to security here, show the cost of failing to join the fight.
Putin and the Olympics
Do you think Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is having any second thoughts, if only for a moment or two, about hosting next month’s Olympics in Sochi? Look at what it’s brought him so far: a threat of domestic terrorists on Olympic soil, a showcase release of political prisoners he’d probably rather keep locked up, a show of tolerance for gays he’d probably rather bash, a series of insulting snubs by world leaders (including President Obama), and a rash of overruns vaulting to Olympian heights (Total cost? An estimated $50-Billion). Well, Vlad, it comes with the territory.
But for Putin, it also comes with silver lining. The Olympics are his statement to the world: if you thought we had sunk to the depths of a second-class power, think again. We are big. We are back!
I’ve covered news in Russia, both when it was the hammerhead of the Soviet Empire and since it became independent. Which allowed me to see the kind of culture that shaped Russia’s president. One that says, bigger is better. Like, in physical terms, the capital’s broad boulevards, built in the day when so few citizens owned a car, those boulevards were bare and I could have done pushups right out in front of the Kremlin. And Moscow’s massive “Seven Sisters,” an assemblage of mid-20th-Century skyscrapers that long dominated the city’s skyline and projected an intimidating and impenetrable image of Stalinesque strength. Then there’s the Mriya, the world’s biggest military aircraft. I was at the Paris Air Show when it landed in its Western debut, and jaws dropped. The U.S. already had built the C-5 Galaxy, and the Soviets almost carbon-copied it… but 28 feet longer.
So, say what you will about Putin, he is not an enigma. His culture is clear and his motivesobvious: build an Olympic city the likes of which the world has never seen.Bigger is better. Russia is better. We are strong. We are superior. And if the world is going to focus for a few weeks on what we do and how we do it, well, we’ll just put lipstick on the pig.
Not that you can read any of that from Putin’s face. In fact the title of a recently published book about the Russian president is, Man Without A Face. Which says something else about the culture that spawned him. It was a culture in which people didn’t— couldn’t— wear their feelings on their sleeve… let alone their face. Putin is a child of the Soviet Union, and if that doesn’t speak volumes enough, he’s also a former officer of the brutal Soviet security service, the KGB.
If you’re old enough, you might remember when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met Mikhail Gorbachev, who was about to become the leader of the Soviet Union, and said, “We can do business together.” He exuded something the Iron Lady trusted; her sense of the man was visceral.
Putin exudes nothing. No inspiration, no emotion… no face. But that’s precisely why he’s not an enigma. What we see— what we feel viscerally— is what we get. Which brings me back to what he wants.
Back in the day, when the Soviets spoke, the world trembled. And its citizens liked that. They called it respect. What President Putin and his populace want today, even crave, is a place again on the world stage. Respect. Don’t forget, they still have a nuclear arsenal, and alliances with American adversaries. They want to be taken seriously once again. They are nationalists; they believe they deserve it.
The Olympics are a showcase for that nationalism. Which is the foundation of Putin’s popularity. A brief flirtation with freedom, a brutal battle with terrorists, a few billion bucks? It’ll end up worth the price, in Putin’s world, if it means he sits on top of it.
On the Middle East Conflict
President Obama is trying again. Put aside Syria and Iraq, Egypt and Libya and Lebanon and others; there is only one dispute that for the better part of a century has been the true “Middle East Conflict,” and that is the enduring and seemingly eternal quarrel between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Every single president dating back to Richard Nixon has struggled not just to bring them to the table to talk peace, but to give them something durable to take away. Some have come closer than others but ultimately, every effort failed.
In a debate asking, whose fault is that, no one wins. While you might rightly assign more responsibility to one side’s behavior, or politics, or just plain hatred, both the Israelis and the Palestinians (sometimes abetted by their Arab allies) have visited violence on one another. Whether it’s been justifiable or not, that’s a legacy that’s hard to shake. President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, had better understand that legacy, because he is staking his standing and his soul on the peace talks he restarted not even a year ago.
And here’s that legacy, personified: back while shuttling around the Middle East with President Jimmy Carter as he persuaded Israel and Egypt to make peace, I did a piece about the Israeli-Palestinian issue for ABC’s Nightline in which I asked people just one simple question: to Israelis who said they hated Palestinians, I asked, why? And then the same to Palestinians who said they hated Jews.
The answers were almost uniform. Palestinians told me (to paraphrase), “In 1948, when Israel was created, the Jews chased us from our homes.” Israelis said, “In 1948, when our nation was created, Palestinians fled rather than live beside us.” I imagine there is some truth to both versions but the real point is, I was asking this question in 1979. And quite deliberately I only put it to people who weren’t even born when the trouble started. It turns out that they were merely passing down what their fathers told them, which their own fathers had passed on to them. That’s a legacy even harder to shake. Today, add two more generations to the explosive mix.
Personally, after reporting for almost four decades from within the borders of both Israel and its Islamic enemies, I don’t come down fully in favor of one side or the other. Partisans might say, that means I can’t clearly see what either side stands for. I say, only someone like me can clearly see both the merits and the demerits, the realistic goals and the unreachable dreams, of both sides. And to simply state what I see, neither side’s positions are all right, or all wrong. I hope Secretary Kerry sees things the same way.
But now, after advocating for that level of balance, let me also advocate for some perspective. As a guest columnist put it last month in The Times of Israel,“The animus directed toward Israel is profoundly disproportionate to that country’s size and influence in the world. Even if we accept the tired thesis that Israel is an aggressive occupying power that denies all human rights, we have to admit that Israel is not the only such power. And even if we assume that Israel is randomly humiliating and killing people within its borders, we must admit that far worse atrocities on far larger scales are taking place all around the world every day.”
That’s another way of saying, give Israel a break. Have they committed atrocities? Yes. But have the Palestinians too? Absolutely. It also begs a second significant observation: Israel’s Islamic enemies have always blamed their animus on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. As if they truly cared. The fact is, some of them treat their own Palestinian populations just as Israel does. I’ve seen it.
Secretary Kerry has to consult with America’s Arab allies, but only because of geopolitics. All that counts, though, is that Israelis and Palestinians feel secure in any agreement. Neither history, nor legacy, nor today’s resurgence of Islamic radicalism, is encouraging.
Last week, two of the world’s most powerful presidents— not to mention, two of its most resolute rivals— did precisely the same thing: they announced plans to let some convicted criminals out of prison. In both Washington and Moscow, the two leaders committed the very same acts of mercy… yet these acts could not have been more different.
In Washington, President Obama retroactively reduced the sentences of eight people convicted long ago of offenses with crack cocaine. Because sentencing laws for what they did are far less severe today than when they were tried, the President didn’t forgive them but said that in the context of today’s laws, releasing them— each already has been behind bars at least 15 years— “is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.”
In Moscow, on the other hand, “justice and fairness” probably had nothing to do with it. With the Olympics coming up in his country the month after next, which promises colossal global coverage of all things Russian, President Putin pardoned a passel of political prisoners; the biggest name winning a get-out-of-jail pass from Putin after ten tough years in labor camps is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in post-Soviet Russia but also the loudest critic of the president. Even if, for the sake of argument, Putin’s pardons are a merciful act, Masha Lipman, a political analyst I’ve interviewed many times at Moscow’s Carnegie Center for International Peace, says, “Mercy is no substitute for justice.”
There’s the difference, and it ought to make you salute Old Glory. A few years ago, Ms.Lipman told me for a documentary I was shooting about Russian politics in Putin’s world that it works one way and one way only: “Loyalty is what ensures your security.” Heaven knows, especially with today’s contentious climate in Washington, no one in the U.S.A. is obliged to show loyalty to “ensure their security!”
It’s an object lesson in how lucky we are. For all the faults and flaws with our government, we are pretty much free to critique it and criticize it as much, and as stridently, as we like. Everyone elsewhere in the world isn’t so lucky, especially if their governments think they’re on “the other side.” Go back to the end of the war in Vietnam; fearing brutal “re-education” camps or worse, locals who had worked for the U.S. Government or U.S. news organizations fled the country in small boats, with their children in their arms and just the clothes on their backs.
After the revolution in Iran, three different locals who I helped hire in Tehran to assist us while we covered that story also fled for their lives— one of them literally on foot, carrying his frail mother across the border to Pakistan— rather than face the executions that broke out when the Islamic Revolution started drawing more blood.
In Poland, when martial law drew down a steely iron curtain on the free-spirited Solidarity Movement, a local woman who worked for us as a translator in Warsaw suddenly was told by the Communist government that she and her family wouldhave to leave the large apartment they occupied in a nice part of the city and move into smaller, drearier quarters farther from downtown… and her daughter would have to transfer to an inferior school. She, too, fled, and got political asylum in the United States.
Finally, when I covered the Soviet Union, I saw citizens beaten and bundled away for offenses as small as silently placing flowers in a public plaza as a sign of protest on International Human Rights Day. Vladimir Putin is a product of that system.Aside from a brief respite for the Olympics, will it change? As Masha Lipman told me, “Predicting the developments in Russia has always been an extremely ungratifying job.”
Americans don’t have to worry about such things. For that alone, we should be gratified.
On Nelson Mandela
Back in the 1970s and 80s, when I made regular trips to the ABC News bureau in South Africa, it was for only one reason: to be in position to cover the war that seemed inevitable, once black South Africans moved en masse from protest to violence to end white minority rule. There was no question in anyone’s mind that the nation would go down that path. Many expected that the swimming pools of white South Africans would run red with blood.
But the blood never flowed, and that was thanks, even more than you might realize, to Nelson Mandela. Almost singlehandedly, with a spirit of both practicality and forgiveness, Mandela overcame the natural urges of most of his compatriots to punish the whites who had long oppressed them. Like Abraham Lincoln at the end of our own Civil War, he said, We’ve won what we wanted,let’s just move on.
South Africa did move on. Sadly though, not to match the dreams of its first black leaders. A few years ago I returned to shoot a documentary about the successes and failures of black majority rule and the report card wasn’t good: the schools in predominately black areas still stink, the housing still stinks, the healthcare for poorer South Africans still stinks, the economy for anyone below the ranks of the middle class still stinks. To carry the comparison to its linguistic end, we spent time in a shanty town of a quarter-million people which I could describe with a thousand words, but a single fact will do: there was one concrete outhouse— not a very pleasant thing itself— for every 106 people in the township. Not quite what Nelson Mandela hoped for years earlier, when he was set free.
I learned the most about the character and integrity of Mandela from a man named Ahmed Khatrada, who sometimes was Mandela’s cellmate on Robben Island, off Cape Town. All the time they were in prison there— Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of punishment for “high treason,” Khatrada for more than 20— they found ways as prisoners always do to communicate in violation of the rules. And what they talked or wrote about was the South Africa of their dreams, a multi-racial democracy of equal opportunity. Khatrada told me they never got down to the nuts and bolts of who would govern if it ever happened— nobody talkedabout Nelson Mandela as a future president of the country, it was too remote— but on secreted scraps of paper, they literally drafted their versions of a new South African constitution, incorporating those principles.
They managed that because Mandela and all the others initially spent seven days a week at hard labor, whether hot or cold, rainy or dry, digging lime from a quarry on the island. But it was never exported; it was only used to solidify roads on the island itself. And when there was no more need for lime, they had to dig it anyway, shovel it into wheelbarrows, then push them across the sandysurface of the quarry to dump the load at the other end and go back for more. And they managed, through an ingenious deceit, to meet surreptitiously in small groups. One man at a time, they’d go to a guard and say, “I gotta piss.” The guard, hot and bored himself, would direct the prisoner to a cave in the wall of the quarry and tell him, “Don’t take too long.” Well, three or four at a time would play this trick, each with a separate guard, until they could sneak maybe ten minutes together in the cave. And that’s where they’d dream their dreams, and Nelson Mandela would crusade for the principle of equality for all.
Where that later became important was in the transition to black rule, when many of his partners wanted to take revenge. Mandela fought them with two arguments. One was, the white man knows how to run this country and we don’t. The other? That when they’d talked, back in those smelly caves, about all men being treated the same, it wasn’t just all black men, it was all men, black and brown and white. Although most of the nation’s new leaders had been put behind bars or pushed into exile by the apartheid regime, Mandela convinced them to accept reconciliation over revenge. Which really meant— and here’s the strongest proof of the man’s pragmatic side— reconciliation over war.
By the way, Robben Island — which simply means Seal Island in Dutch — is tantalizingly close to Cape Town, almost as close as Alcatraz is to San Francisco. But the political prisoners there might as well have been on the South Pole. For a long time they were allowed no news, no books, no leisure, and 40-minute no-contact family visits every six months. They didn’t know in 1969 that man landed on the moon until three months later. They didn’t know in 1976 that there had been an uprising and massacre in Soweto — something like 600 died, which really was the beginning of the revolution — until new prisoners arrived from the site of the uprising. And maybe the most alarming fact of their imprisonment: Ahmed Khatrada told me that in all those long years there, he never— never— laid eyes on a child.
It is against that background that Mandela and his colleagues nevertheless gave their nation the remarkable gift of peaceful reconciliation. No, Nelson Mandela didn’t create a utopia for his brothers, but he did set an example that hopefully will persist, long after he’s gone and far beyond the borders of South Africa.
The Ugly Truth of Tragedy
If you dig down into the recent wall-to-wall news coverage of the disaster in the Philippines— and you don’t have to dig very deep— you’ll find lots of Americans complaining that they’ve been horrified at the graphic images of victims dead and dying on television, in print, and online. Some ask, do we really need to see all this?
My answer is yes, absolutely. You’re better off if we don’t protect you from reality. In fact I think it would be even better if you could not just see it, but touch it, smell it, have a cry amidst the ruins. I’ve done that many places, and guess what: the blameless victims who are actually suffering in the shambles of the storm are even more horrified than you are… they have no remote control in their hands to just turn it all off. Exposing the American people to the despair of other people’s lives— whether shattered by man-made war or natural disaster— is a constructive trend. It makes us all smarter, for the times when we help decide on the policies of our own nation.
But it’s up to the media to put that reality in front of you. Which it didn’t used to do. I’ll never forget a terrible earthquake I covered for ABC News years ago in the Apennine Mountains of southern Italy. Dozens of towns and villages had collapsed; the death toll was in the thousands. On Day One, a camera crew and I stumbled into a town where a church had crumbled during evening Mass and crushed a hundred people. While recording the horrors all around us, a white helicopter appeared over a hill and came in to land. The first man to emerge was the Pope, the then-brand-new Pope John Paul II.
One his way into the rubble that had been a church, he stopped four men carrying a body covered by a sheet. He lifted the sheet and kissed the temple of this bloody, mangled corpse. Right in front of us.
That night, needless to say, the Pope’s kiss was the heart of my story. It said so much about the Pope, about the earthquake, about the victims, about Italy. But as we were completing our transmission from Naples, a producer in New York, on the other end of the phone, asked me, “Have you got something we can use to cover the shot of the Pope kissing the dead guy?” After all, World News Tonight came on at dinnertime.
It is a struggle that continues to this day. Do we show the audience what life really looks like? Or do we protect them from the ugly reality? From most of the wars and disasters I’ve covered, the sad answer used to be the latter. But in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan and the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina, things finally are changing.
In movies, too. There’s a tormenting scene in the current movie 12 Years a Slave in which the title character is forced to lash a female slave who is tied to a stake, then when he can do no more, the sadistic slave owner takes over. Other films might show three, four, maybe five strikes of the whip, then relieve the audience of its suffering. But not in this film: an unrelenting total (according to a reviewer who counted) of 55 bloody cuts. We don’t need to be relieved; we need to be reminded, so that next time we’re thinking of hurting someone, we might think twice.
Likewise, the opening scenes of the invasion of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan went on… and on… and on… bombarding theater audiences with the bloody agony of the Americans who stormed the beach. Unlike typical fare on the big screen, it lasted long enough to make us squirm in our seats. It was the grisly horror of war… which lasted even longer, of course, for the men in the real battle. Something we need to understand when war is in our nation’s sights.
So when you see this stuff, be uncomfortable. It only hurts for a moment. It might stick with you forever. That’s a good thing.
On Thanksgiving Day
Excuse me for raining on the parade, but really, do we have to do our shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself… or more to the point, do the poor people who work at the growing number of stores that plan to open before the last Thanksgiving burp is heard across the land really have to leave their dinner tables and family flocks and football games and go stand instead behind a cash register so the rest of us can get a jumpstart on our Christmas shopping? REALLY, is any of this necessary?
No it’s not. But thanks to the executives who came up with this whole anti-holiday anti-family idea a few years ago, the legendary Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is no longer the only parade in town. In any town, for that matter. More and more of them are getting in on the pathetic parade of stores opening their doors on Thanksgiving, which makes the lives of their employees subordinate to the lines on their ledgers.
The other day, three more chains not only announced plans to open this Thanksgiving Day itself, but to be open even longer than last time: Target, Walmart, and Toys“R”Us. Add them to a list that includes Best Buy, J.C. Penney, Staples, Sears, Kohl’s, Old Navy, Gap, even Macy’s, as if one parade a day isn’t enough. And Kmart? They’re not even waiting for the turkey to roast; they’ll open their doors at 6 o’clock Thanksgiving morning!
Goodbye Norman Rockwell, hello Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Just for the fun of it, let’s look up the actual meaning of “holiday.” At risk of reinforcing the impression that I’m pretty old-fashioned about all this, I consulted a good ol’ hard-cover dictionary, Merriam Webster’s, and here’s the first definition it offers: “A day on which one is exempt from work.” You got a problem with that? These stores seem to.
Sure, there is still plenty of work that has to be done on holidays, work that is critical to our society— and to our daily survival— jobs that require people to work 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-week: in utilities, healthcare, communication, transportation, public safety… to say nothing of national security where hundreds of thousands of Americans are serving overseas, sometimes in dangerous places, and couldn’t spend the holiday with their loved ones if they tried to. Even hotels and restaurants serve an irreplaceable need on holidays, especially for thankful Americans who could no sooner roast their own turkey as raise one.
But is it really critical that mom can buy a necktie on Thanksgiving evening so the kids have something to give dad for Christmas? Here’s a news flash: whatever ties Macy’s has on display on Thanksgiving— or Penney’s or Target or Kohl’s or any other— will still be there the day after. Here’s another news flash: most dads probably don’t even wear ties any more, so what’s the point?!?
In the interest of journalism that’s fair and balanced, I acknowledge that there are arguments in favor of being open on a holiday: extra pay for the workers, someplace to go for those who don’t otherwise have anyplace to be, and for the customers themselves, as if this justifies it, yet another shopping day. And, oh yes,there’s that bottom line for a retail industry still unsure of its place in our long term plans.
But I’m not playing into their strategy. To the contrary, I’m going to play my own small part to shrink their bottom line: to the extent that I can stay out of these heathen-like stores, I’ll try instead to patronize places like Costco and Nordstrom, the ones that treat their employees with respect, which in this case means, respect for their holidays, their families, their personal lives.
And if you’re one of the millions of Americans who actually want to get out and shop before the holiday has drawn to a close, you’ll get over it. Every store in America will still be there for you… the day after Thanksgiving. The neckties, and the Mutant Turtles, will be there too.
What You Need To Know About War
Syria spreading chemicals? Iran building nukes? No matter; we are weary of war. It costs too much money, too much sanity, too many limbs, too many lives. While different Americans have different goals when we go to war, it takes its toll on all of us: conservatives and liberals, whites and minorities, young and old, the devout and the atheist.
We are weary because in wars we’ve waged in the last half-century, we weren’t always stronger when we finally pulled out, we were weaker. Sometimes, so was the nation inwhich we fought. There are still wars we can win, or at least strengthen our security. But we’re too weary any more to take the chance even if eventually, in places like Syria or Iran, we ought to; it’s the price of our power.
What’s somewhat odd about this is, most of us only deal secondhand with the dreadful deaths and devastating disabilities of soldiers who have fought so hard and seen so much. The blood they spilled was far from home. We weren’t shaken by the explosions. Or deafened by the gunfire. Or sickened by the carnage.
In battlefields like Iraq, the picture’s different. With double-digit death tolls almost daily, many are numb to warfare in their own neighborhoods. Citizens in Afghanistan are accustomed to combat in their own cities. Now, in Syria, people are plummeting down the same sad path. These are the ones who should be weary of war, evenmore than us.
But when death and destruction become the norm, human nature kicks in. I’ll never forget a day during the Iranian revolution when a camera crew and I ran for our lives into an alley after a tank started shooting at us, and when we sprang, gasping, onto the next street, we landed in a thriving open marketplace, only a block from the tank’s deadly cannon-fire. As if these people’s world wasn’t turning upside down. But life goes on.
During the troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland, another crew and I literally dived into an alleyway to escape Molotov cocktails and rubber bullets flying in every direction and almost tripped over little kids playing their version of cowboys and Indians… the cowboys were the Catholics, the Indians the Protestants. As if deadly warfare between two sects of Christianity was only a game. But victims adapt.
Maybe my most vivid encounter with people inured to bloodshed saturating their societies was one day in Beirut: a crew and I wanted a safe viewpoint to videotape the battle for a gorge overlooking the airport; during the civil war there, anti-government militias loved to lob shells at the airport, forcing it to close and compelling travelers to rely on ferries from Cyprus to get in and out of Lebanon.
We liked the back deck of a house overlooking the gorge. But with a battle also raging on our route to the house, we had to zigzag through the line of fire, then we sank to our bellies at the base of the front door, and knocked hard.
A woman answered. With a face full of makeup, her hair in curlers, and wearing high heels. There we were, machine-gun fire off the front of her house and rocket fire off the back, and she’s all done up like she’s heading for a fancy-dress ball. She let us use her deck, and after the crew crawled out back to record the battle, I started talking with this woman, saying something like, “Pretty bad out there today, isn’t it?,” to which she replied almost blandly, “No, we’re used to it. Some days it’s a lot worse.”
She wasn’t weary of war. She was anesthetized. Detached. Deadened.
Sometimes the world’s most powerful nation still ought to fight for a better world. What it costs us doesn’t come close to what it costs the people we’re helping. We could be worse off than just weary.
Who Do You Trust?
Should we trust Iran? God no. For almost 35 years, their leaders have stood for everything we oppose. Everything we’ve stood for, they’ve opposed. Their enemies are our closest allies. Our enemies are their bedmates.
But does that prove that even now, when Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani puts on a happy face and preaches peaceful co-existence, he’s lying? God no, again. If our distrust of everything Iranian persists as an inflexible kneejerk reaction, we will miss the chance for genuine detente… if it really comes.
Make no mistake, we let our guard down at our potential peril. Iran historically has sought to be the leader in its region, and leadership in that part of the world is measured by muscle and force; that’s why Saddam Hussein continued the charade that he had weapons of mass destruction when in truth, he didn’t. So the suspicion that Iran’s objective with its nuclear program is to produce weapons, not just electricity, isn’t so absurd. Not just so they’ll have something to target toward Israel, but also something to point at important American allies in the Arab world like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, all just across the water from Iran. And something for Iran to share with its friends, like Hezbollah and Syria, who’d love to hold a nuclear weapon in their hands.
So maybe Rouhani’s gestures are a ruse, meant merely to lull the United States and the whole Western world into a false sense of security. We sit together at a table and talk, while back in Iran they’re feverishly finishing their first nuclear bomb.
But what if they’re not? What if Rouhani is for real? Let me tell you a story.
Back in 1979, it was clear to those of us reporting from the revolution in Iran that the vast majority of Iranians wanted to get rid of their longtime ruler, the Shah. His importation of western culture, seen as decadent, was unwelcome. His secret police force, called Savak, was brutal. So when Ayatollah Khomeini became the most likely successor, almost everyone, representing a wide spectrum of Iranian society, jumped on his bandwagon. Countless citizens told us they didn’t care much for Khomeini and didn’t want a religious republic, but if the ayatollah was their best bet to upend the Shah’s reviled regime, they were on board.
But then the Islamic fanatics grabbed the brass ring, winning control of both the political and military arms of government. And thus was born The Islamic Republic of Iran. That didn’t erase the wide spectrum of secular aspirations among the population, but it pushed most of them underground.
Until 2005, when a liberal political movement came up for air. They lost, and the nutcase Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. Four years later, the pro-democracy “Green Movement” made a bigger splash. It was crushed too, but a popular desire for a less radical government didn’t go away. Which leads to the election this year of Hassan Rouhani.
Compared to his opponents in the presidential race, Rouhani spoke the language of moderation. That’s a relative term in a place like Iran— especially since the Supreme Leader has to bless you or you don’t get the chance to speak at all. But just as Yasser Arafat eventually seemed moderate in comparison to the leaders of nihilistic Palestinian movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, Rouhani seems moderate in comparison to Ahmadinejad. And there’s a parallel here: although he wasn’t any good at it, Arafat became a negotiating partner with the United States and even with Israel. Is it out of the question that Hassan Rouhani could be the same?
The real point is, there is a precedent for moderation in Iran. It’s not beyond the scope of possibility that President Rouhani personifies it today. Ronald Reagan famously said about dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, “Trust, but verify.” Now, with the opportunity to diminish dangers in a fiery part of our world, “Talk, but verify” seems a good place to start.
So Vladimir Putin seems to have scored one. He grabbed the brass ring on Syria. But does he have Syria’s best interests in mind? Not likely. He’s Russia’s President, and his foreign policy is about one thing and one thing only: thumbing his nose at the United States of America.
That’s why, even though it cost him a prestigious Moscow summit earlier this month with President Obama, Putin gave NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum. And it’s why he put a hold on the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. Because thumbing his nose at us is now the very foundation of Putin’s foreign policy.
And that’s the irony, because it’s not really “foreign” policy at all. It’s quite domestic, aimed no further than the Russian audience. For years now, Putin has shot at almost everything American (Russian-American cooperation at the International Space Station is the one notable exception). And plenty of Russians eat it up!
Why? Because Putin is appealing to their nationalism. It is a strong current in Russia, the people’s pride in their nation’s power and culture and history, whether it’s a history of empire or innovation. A few years ago, I reported a program about politics in Russia, and countless citizens told me how they yearned for the good ol’ days when the Soviet Union spoke and the world trembled. They want that proud and powerful feeling back. Now, whenever Putin throws a punch at us, they feel they’re that much closer.
The fear of some in Russia, though, is that nurturing nationalism in the young citizens of this long-strong, long-suffering, long-proud nation will end up with chillingly similar undercurrents to the nationalism that Hitler stirred up in Germans before World War II. There already are signs of it.
For part of the program we produced, we followed a youth group fiercely faithful to, and cultivated by, the president. It claims up to a hundred thousand members and has an ideology inseparable from Putin’s. They call themselves “Nashi,” which in Russian means “Our side,” “Our team,” or just, “Ours.”
Nashi does the president’s bidding in ways large and small. Like strengthening morality and patriotism in Russian life. But, with unsettling parallels to what I used to see covering the Soviet Union, it’s their brand of morality. And their brand of patriotism. And patriotism doesn’t just mean supporting the rules in Russia; it means enforcing them with paramilitary-like patrols. Sometimes forcefully. Sometimes violently.
Putin has taken Russians on a U-turn from their brief blossoming of democratic rights when the Soviet Union collapsed. Now, they live again with many of the undemocratic boundaries— in speech, in elections, in media— that they knew under the Soviet banner. But many are remarkably docile about it.
I asked one of the last dissidents in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the Duma, how Russians could let Putin get away with that. His answer spoke volumes: “Russians, after the Soviet era ended, had problems: the economy fell down, incomes fell down, corruption grew up, many things were terrible. And the name for that was ‘democracy’.” Since that interview, the dissident lawmaker’s own political party has been disqualified.
The thing is, according to a major pollster I met with in Moscow, the majority of Russians might welcome a return to Soviet times. Because Putin helps them remember the glory days when their country mattered. And the way he does it is by reminding them how bad those days of democracy were. And by taking on the biggest superpower: us.
We shouldn’t be surprised. During the Cold War, the goal of Soviet foreign policy was supremacy over the United States (as ours was supremacy over them). Today, of course, the shell that was the heart of the Soviet Union can’t be supreme; it just doesn’t have the skin any more. So the best they can do is be the spoiler. To stymie the United States in its goals, even if they can’t stop us.
Which helps explain Syria. And Snowden. And everything in the cold relationship today between the United States and Russia.
On the Violence in Eqypt
I saw it as a reporter while covering the revolution in Iran. I saw it when I covered the“troubles” in Northern Ireland. I saw it while covering the war for majority rule in Zimbabwe. I saw it time after time when reporting on the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And now, I see it in Egypt. And after Thursday’s carnage, this might be the worst.
In each of those other conflicts, peace-loving people, who in a different environment would just go to work and raise their kids and enjoy a day off, were radicalized by repression and ruthlessness. Which is bound to be escalating now in Egypt. Millions of religious citizens, despite the warnings of extremists, had bought into the positive potential of the democratic process. Are they likely to support it if it’s put on the table again? Not so much, not when they’ve seen it ferociously dissembled by the generals because real elections didn’t lead the country where they wanted it to go. Which made the Islamists less powerful, but in keeping with the law of unintended consequences, more popular.
I’m not just theorizing here. In Iran in the late 1970s, the majority of people reviled the Shah and combined their energies to force him out. Countless Iranians told me they didn’t want the ayatollahs who replaced him; they only got on that Islamic bandwagon because it was their best bet. But look at them today. Either radicalized, or marginalized.
In Northern Ireland, my measure of most people over the years I went there was that whether Catholic or Protestant, they wanted the violence to end so that some day they could safely hoist a beer at the pub. But as citizens on both sides continued to die from bullets and bombs, many of these ordinary people themselves became radicalized, and eventually provided money, safe houses, and moral support to terrorists— allegedly fighting for their side— who they once would have condemned. Look at them today; it’s not clear yet whether everyone subscribes to a peace, or just a truce.
In Zimbabwe, I spent time in the bush with Robert Mugabe back when he was the popular leader of one of two rebel armies fighting to overturn white minority rule. Strange as it sounds today, he was a good guy then. But he and his supporters became radicalized after they prevailed, partly by pushback from white ranchers and bankers who worked to undermine the new order. Look at dictator Mugabe, and the poor citizens of his pathetic nation, today.
On both sides of the decades-long divide between Israelis and Palestinians, political intransigence— and the perception on each side that that they are terrorized by the other side— has radicalized people who once believed there was a chance for peace, but now opt for division over détente.
Which brings us back to Egypt. I’ve spent enough time there, and have had enough friends there, to know that many of those who back the Muslim Brotherhood are not, on the face of it, bad people. They are not the Taliban. They are not al Qaeda. What they stand for is an Islamic umbrella over the morals of the nation. To us that doesn’t sound like such a good thing, but to them it merely means counteracting Western decadence and deceit. Think about the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Bernie Madoff and maybe they’re not all wrong.
But they were wrong for the generals, not only for aspiring to a more Islamically-oriented society, but for making a mess of Egypt’s overstressed and frighteningly fragile economy. So the generals renounced restraint, tossed them out, and told soldiers to shoot to kill. And look what they got: chaos in the streets, hundreds of deaths, an economy approaching disaster with nothing to turn it around, and maybe most destructively, millions of citizens who could have been stalwarts for a stable society but now are likely to do what they can to overturn it. Arguably, the generals have radicalized more Egyptians who will drop out of the democratic political process and support, if not actually join, the extremists who would overthrow everything Western.
The Muslim Brotherhood might have been bad but the bedlam that’s replaced it could end up being worse. Worse for our ally Israel. Worse for us. Worse for democracy. Worst of all, not a thing we can do about it.
EAS+Y Does It
I don’t blanch when a store packs my purchases in plastic bags, I’m not fond of organic food, I’ve been known to slip spent batteries into the trash, I even want to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In short, I’m not a tree-hugger. Nor an avid environmentalist.
But still, when I see others doing something for the good of our environment that I’m not doing myself, I’m grateful, because if I am not going to personally practice environmentalism and sustainability, I figure it’s lucky that others are.
That’s what made a presentation by a bunch of do-gooders that I recently attended where I live so thought-provoking. Because they weren’t just do-gooders doing good things for us. Rather, they were teaching us to do good things for ourselves.
This grass-roots do-gooders’ group is called EAS+Y, which stands for Evergreen’s Alliance for Sustainability + You. And at least in our Colorado county if not beyond, it’s the only coordinated community consortium stimulating sustainability. For example, a local realtor and his wife have visited every third grade classroom in the mountains to preach the no-plastic-bag gospel… and maybe convince the kids to shame their parents into using less wasteful alternatives. EAS+Y has gotten our town’s biggest public venue to contractually require every renter— for everything from weddings to fundraisers— to use plant-based plates and cups and utensils in place of petroleum-based. That’s called “zero-waste.” And it helps the renters find the supplies they need.
In sync with this crusade for sustainability, the local Rotary Club promotes solutions for safely disposing of hard-to-recycle electronics and toxic batteries; a local supermarket gets responsibly rid of outdated prescription drugs, which otherwise can pollute our water. There’s even a tree maintenance company that donates a chipper during the Christmas season so that people’s trees end up as compost rather than more waste for the landfill. The grass roots have taken hold.
And it doesn’t stop there. Calling sustainability “the new frontier,” the president of EAS+Y says they’re now trying to figure out how far the grass roots can spread to tackle big-picture challenges like climate change, energy, water. Because in the spirit of Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon, everything begins with one small step.
The next small step is elsewhere in the county. A commissioner tells me that he’s counting on EAS+Y to provide energy and expertise to seed similar grass-roots groups throughout the county. Already, county government is getting on the bandwagon: solar panels for government facilities, energy-saving light bulbs in buildings and parking lots, automatic irrigation systems for parks, better gas mileage for county vehicles.
The step after that? A message to businesses that sustainability isn’t incompatible with development. Because it all comes down to responsible choices. Which is in everyone’s interest. Especially if it’s virtually cost-free.
Proof of the pudding? An announcement by the MillerCoors brewery in Golden, Colorado, that they no longer send any waste— no cardboard, no glass, no metal, no plastics, no grains— to the dump. Everything— every ounce— is rechanneled. Recycled. Reused.
Back in early June, a survey cited my state as the fifth best in the nation for “clean-tech,” the very best not on either coast. If the idea of EAS+Y and the model of MillerCoors spreads, we can be the best in clean communities too. I’d endorse that. Whether I lead the way, or not.
A Special Class of Hero
We all too often forget who the real heroes are. Even when we see them right before our eyes in places like Moore, Oklahoma, and Newtown, Connecticut. We see them, but somehow don’t call them what they are: heroes. Probably because they’re just common folks, like the rest of us. Heroes, after all, are supposed to be bigger than life. Yet some of the heroes in places like Moore and Newtown look like they could live next door. Because in effect, they do. They are teachers. Teachers, who became heroes in Moore, and Newtown, and many other places where children have been defenseless.
And that’s a problem, because in our celebrity-centric society, the wrong people are treated like heroes and the right ones aren’t. Ask some average Americans who their heroes are— as I have— and you’ll get answers that make me cringe. They’ll describe sports stars— who only throw a good ball or swing a good bat— as their heroes. Or movie stars— who only put on costumes and makeup and play an heroic role— they are idolized as heroes too.
It’s bizarre. What’s worse, it cheapens the word. Heroism, by my definition, means you take a risk, you sacrifice your security, to help someone else. Not to line your pockets. Not to entertain an impressionable public. But to change a life. Sometimes to save one.
When we see soldiers fighting for our flag overseas, when we see police confronting criminals at home, when we see common citizens rushing into harm’s way to help people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time— a bombing at a marathon, a tornado in Oklahoma— that’s when we really see heroes.
But teachers— a special class of hero— are still generally unsung. Overlooked. Oh, we have taken note of their courage, and of the lives they’ve saved. But do we actually think to ourselves, “You know, these people are the real heroes here?” No, often we don’t.
Yet in Oklahoma during the tornado, and in Connecticut during the rampage, teachers showed the courage and kept the carnage from being even worse. How many stories have you read now about teachers laying on top of their students while the tornado took its toxic twists across their city? Children there are alive today because of them. Who can forget the principal and the teachers during the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary who faced down the gunman, and died doing it? Children there are alive today too, because of them.
I’ll never forget a story about a teacher I know who, if not literally heroic, deserved a medal. On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the second tower in New York got hit, her husband told her she might as well stay home because none of the parents would even think of sending their children to school after what hadhappened. But she went, just in case her husband was wrong. And was he ever! Every single student showed up. Every single parent had left it to the teacher to explain the terror on that dreadful day. And, every other teacher in theschool was there too, doing the same thing.
I won’t be surprised if some Americans, whose kneejerk opinion about teachers is to paint them all with a broad bad brush, keep blaming them for the substandard performance of many American students, as if negligent parents and shrinking budgets and violent media don’t bear some of the blame. I’ll be disappointed, but not surprised.
True, some teachers are better than others. But I wish that after watching acts of heroism by schoolteachers who aren’t paid to be heroic, more Americans would stop and realize, it is consistent with why they go into that business in the first place. They like children. They work to help children. They try to improve children’s lives. And when a threat presents itself, they even save children’s lives. Sometimes at the risk, even the cost, of their own.
Faith & Friendship at the Center of a Storm
You can read all the news reports you like, and watch more on TV. But they won’t help you look inside the soul of a catastrophe like the tornado in Oklahoma. So I’m going to try. Because if there is one common thread to natural disasters I have covered across the country and around the world, it is that volunteers come out of the woodwork, and victims support one another, and those who’ve lost everything say they haven’t… because they still have their lives.
One of those calamities was Hurricane Katrina. A cameraman and I got there before the winds stoppedhowling, and didn’t leave until the smell of death was nearly gone. One thing you have to understand about Moore, Oklahoma, just like New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi after Katrina: “the smell of death” is not just a cliché.
In Biloxi we tailed a search team. Firefighters who’d driven all night to get there from South Carolina. And a search-and-rescue dog unit from Ohio. The search is guided by that smell of death. Anyone in the business recognizes it. Except the dogs. They don’t smell death. They smell human hair. When they’re young pups, they’re taught by their trainers to play hide and seek. What the trainers hide is hair. So when the dogs go out on a mission, they are sniffing for the smell of hair. On a body, alive or dead. Even after Moore turned from a rescue operation to just recovery, those dogs were smelling for hair.
And it’s not a matter of sweeping their way down city streets. It’s all unbroken piles of rubble. So they’re climbing over rubble that rests on the ground, but not necessarily the ground it occupied before the storm. Roofs and walls and porches fly away with the wind to new positions. Sometimes far from where they had been.
We came across one couple in Biloxi who looked almost catatonic. Although mostly collapsed, a house stood squarely on their property. But it wasn’t their house. Theirs had blown into a million pieces. Someone else’s landed in a heap where theirs had stood.
We came across another woman, sitting on a concrete wall that had defined her driveway. Her house was gone too. This was a full week after the hurricane and she really had no reason to be there. But she said she also had no reason to leave. Where people go when everything they own is gone, I just don’t know. Neither do they.
Yet in both Biloxi and New Orleans, almost everyone I talked to spoke with gratitude if not hope. Like people we’ve seen in Moore, they were thankful for their very lives, thankful that their families survived. One woman even joked, “I had too damned much stuff anyway. Now it’s down to what’s important.”
What’s important to some is religion. In New Orleans on a Sunday, we found some people from a poor black church. They had dug up folding chairs and were singing like it was the happiest day of their lives. The minister was right out of central casting for a Southern holy-roller preacher. He didn’t just look like Little Richard; he even sounded like him. And when he told this crowd that had just lost everything they owned that their faith would get them through, they said Hallelujah. Because faith was one of the last things they had left.
Faith, and friendship. A chain restaurant called The Waffle House reopened in Biloxi the day we got there. I don’t know how, because power was out and after four days, all the food had spoiled. But somehow they got eggs and white bread, and electrical generators, then gathered all the staff they could locate, and opened theirdoors for three hours to anyone who found out about it.
The place was frantic with activity. The cameraman and I found seats at the counter, and I happened to be watching a young heavy-set black man turning eggs on the griddle as fast as he could. Suddenly an older waitress, white, came along and just put her arms around him and gave him a long hug. And when his face turned so I could see it, tears were streaming down his cheeks. And hers. Who knows what they lost? But there they were, working. Cooking for us.
Natural disasters bring out the worst of Mother Nature. But the best of the human spirit. You can bet it’s all happening in Moore, Oklahoma, right now.
Syria, the U.S. & Russia
You might be right to wonder, what’s the big deal? The United States and Russia announced (on May 7th) that they are going to work together to try to end the fierce civil war in Syria, which threatens to destabilize the whole region… as if it’s otherwise a wellspring of stability. And as if these two world powers can succeed in the wake of nothing but failures so far. Well, the one thing we can count on is, if we don’t get in the game, we can’t possibly come out with a winner.
The U.S.-Russia plan? It’s hardly novel. The goal is to convene an international conference with the combatants themselves at the table. So if you say “Good luck” in a cynical tone, you might be right. First, because one side or another is likely to refuse to sit at a table and talk with its mortal enemies— and remember, one of the big obstacles is that there are more than just two sides in this war. Second, because if there’s one thing to which no one in Syria has proved responsive, at least to this point, it’s diplomacy.
But this is a big deal anyway, because in this poker game on a global scale, the chips are being bet on a bigger battlefield than Syria. They fall on the fragile and sometimes hostile relationship between the brokers themselves: the U.S. (which half-heartedly supports Syria’s rebels), and Russia (which unsmilingly supports Syria’s President Assad).
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that our friendship these days is just one matchstick warmer than it was in the days of the Cold War. We accuse each other of everything from disrespect to malfeasance to brutality to espionage. They say we’re “Russophobic;” we say they’re “anti-American.”
Maybe we’re both right. But that’s why the outreach is so important. And well-conceived. Because for a change, American foreign policy isn’t premised primarily on providing incentives that we’d want if we were in our counterparts’ shoes; we keep trying that approach and it rarely works. This time, although still in the interest of American national security, it is premised on what the counterpart wants which is, in Russia’s case, respect.
I’ve covered news on that side of the world over a span of 35 years — both when Russia was the hammerhead of the Soviet Empire and since it became independent. Back in the day, when the Soviets spoke, the world trembled. They liked that. They called it respect. What President Putin and his populace want today, even crave, is a place again on the world stage. Respect. Don’t forget, they still have a nuclear arsenal, and some alliances we’d like to alter. They want to be taken seriously once again. They are nationalists; they believe they deserve it.
I’ve seen signs of that when covering a wide spectrum of stories there in just the past few years, from thugs breaking heads to support Putin’s aggressive pro-Russia presidency, to teens promoting the adoption of abandoned orphans to keep them in Russian hands, to the Russian space program, which has an honorable heritage and, ever since the latter part of the Cold War, a record of cooperation with ours. Although such stories are vastly different in theme, they’re all about nationalism.
Maybe something will come of this new joint effort to finally get the combatants in Syria to talk about ending the war. Maybe not. But at least if the U.S. and Russia follow through on their intent to work together diplomatically on a big issue for the first time in a long time, then there will be benefits, even if ultimately they’re not felt in Syria. Maybe Russia will see the value of a global partnership between two great powers, rather than reflexively and nationalistically opposing much of what we set out to do to build a better world, or at least to avert a worse one.
Then again, since it’s still a game of poker, maybe not.
I have two grown sons. They hardly, if ever, try to influence their father’s political opinions. But they don’t have to. Not only because on most issues we happen to think pretty much alike anyway (to my never-ending delight), but because the simple fact that I have two childrenalready shapes my politics more than anything else on earth. What I want for them more than anything else is a good, long, happy, healthy life.
So when it comes to issues as diverse as war and peace, and access to health care, and guns, energy, education, Social Security, and everything else, my thoughts and ambitions, first and foremost, are for my children. Then after that, for everyone else’s.
And I’m not alone. It seems that some powerful politicians, although subject to strong influence by everyone from lobbyists to donors to their political parties to (lest we forget) their constituencies, are even more strongly influenced by one factor nothing else can trump: their children.
Which might help explain why the nation is shifting faster than it usually does on a controversy of moral, political, and social significance: gay marriage. The most recent political leader to do a 180 on this is Ohio Senator Rob Portman. He has long opposed major gay rights proposals but thoughtfully concluded, and announced in mid-March, that gay people aren’t such bad people after all and deserve the same rights as everyone else. His impetus? One of his own grown sons, who revealed to his father two years ago that he is gay.
It was a reminder of another major politician, also otherwise aligned with the political right, who decided and publicly announced— back in fact when he was only a heartbeat from the presidency, and his Republican party was more stridently opposed to any kind of gay rights agenda than it seems to be today— that his own lesbian daughter’s loves and lifestyle aren’t something to condemn but rather something to support: former Vice President Dick Cheney.
To be bluntly honest, I myself don’t understand how one man can be romantically attracted to another, nor one woman to another.It’s just not how I’m wired. But what I do understand, partly because two of my cousins as well as several friends’ children are great people and oh, by the way, gay, is that whether or not I understand doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this is how they feel and this is how they’re wired— just like Senator Portman’s son, just like former Vice President Cheney’s daughter.
If I do what I can to protect and support my own children when it comes to everything from healthcare to war, then I ought to do what I can for everyone else’s too. And so should the politicians who stillstand in the way of equality for Americans who are gay. These politicians, and their supporters, will tell you that their moral code is what matters, or their religion, or perhaps the old standby that gay marriage destroys the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.
Well, I’ll tell you what: I have a moral code too, and if it is founded on a single principle, it is that all men are created equal. I didn’t write that, our Founding Fathers did, and today, if not in 1776, it means that all men ought to have equal opportunity. Anyway, if gay Americans eventually win the legal right to wed in every state in the union, it won’t put a dent in the sanctity of my marriage, which is at almost 40 years and counting. In fact the only change it will bring about is that gay relatives and friends… and yes, the gay children of politicians too… will have the same rights as the rest of us.
On The Death Penalty
I live in Colorado, and our legislature is considering legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty. There are many compelling arguments to repeal it: it is inhumane, it is inequitably applied, it doesn’t deter murderers, it is outlawed in a growing number of states, it leaves Colorado in a league with distastefully barbarous nations like Iran and North Korea, and maybe most appalling, it has surely led innocent people to their deaths in other states if not in Colorado. The praiseworthy “Innocence Projects” across the country have freed so many wrongly-convicted citizens, that fatal flaw with capital punishment cannot be ignored.
But I’m for it anyway. I want killers to be killed, and if the state has to do it, fine. Because like virtually every issue on which we all have to take our stand, I put the pros and cons on a scale. When I do, the justice of death for murderers still outweighs everything else.
Justice? Yes, that’s what I believe it is, and I hope if my state’s legislature passes a bill to repeal the death penalty, the governor will veto it. When I read storiesabout this controversy and see the smiling face of the longest-serving man on Colorado’s Death Row, multiple murderer Nathan Dunlap— smiling in a police lineup— I want to puke. Why should this piece of scum live to take another breath, let alone break into another sickeninggrin, when the four people he killed at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora, Colorado, twenty years ago never had the chance to breathe again, or smile again, or make drawn-out appeals for their lives or say their goodbyes or anything else. Dunlap was their one-man judge and jury. He deserves the fate he sealed for them.
So let’s review the arguments against the death penalty. Inhumane? If you need a simple rebuttal, how about “An eye for an eye.” Inequitably applied? The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on that, in the past even suspending legal executions until more equitable sentencing laws were established. Not a deterrent? Neither is a life sentence behind bars, so what’s the difference?! Outlawed in other states? So is marijuana. Capital punishment makes us no better than places like Iran? Wrong; what separates us from others with capital punishment is a guaranteed and exhaustive, some even say excessive, process of appeals. As for the fact that mistakes are still made, I can only say that I won’t support a policy if I’m not willing to take the risk that some day I’ll be the victim of such a horrible mistake myself.
Back in 1976, another piece of scum named Gary Gilmore shot and killed two men in Utah during robberies on two consecutive nights. One was a clerk at a gas station, the other a motel manager. For several months I covered the case for ABC News. The story was notable not only because Gilmore told the court he wanted to die and therefore didn’t want death penalty opponents to save his sorry soul, but also because ultimately he became the first American to be legally executed after a Supreme Court moratorium on capital punishment.
But while all the same arguments against executions were made then as are made today, oneargument on the other side trumped them all: both of Gilmore’s victims had widows— victims themselves— and in a tragic coincidence, each had a toddler with another baby on the way. And what both of those widows told me was, they wanted Gilmore to die.
He died alright, shot by a firing squad, a form of execution he was allowed to choose. And not before he got to choose his last meal, and hug a few relatives who spent his final night with him in a holding cell— even dancing with a cousin who brought a boom box. It was disgusting. The men he shot had none of that.
That’s how I came to my own beliefs about capital punishment. If it was good enough for the widows, it was good enough for me. And good enough for society. The killer was gone forever. Good riddance to Gilmore. And Nathan Dunlap. And others just like them.
My Rocky Mountain High
I live in Colorado. When I first moved here from Paris more than 25 years ago as the correspondent here for a new ABC News “Rocky Mountain Bureau,” I was invited to speak to a gathering of civic leaders at what’s called The City Club, and the topic they asked me to address was, “How do we overcome Denver’s image as a Cow Town?” After all, I’d been roaming the world for many years, and represented a television network based in New York City; surely I’d have some indispensible big-city wisdom to impart.
I didn’t. Instead, I told the assembled civic leaders to be careful what they wished for. Because if they wanted to be a sort of New York of the Great Plains, they’d have to take what comes with it: traffic, crime, higher costs, epic discourtesies. Worse than what Denver already had. Who was it, the comedian Rodney Dangerfield who said, “I don’t get no respect?” Denver felt the same way, and didn’t like it. I hope I changed some minds.
Well, now, as a longtime Coloradoan, I find myself torn between being miffed that sometimes we still get no respect, and being glad we don’t. And I’m talking about the weather.
Read the nation’s newspapers, listen to network newscasts. Get a few inches of snow in the northeast, or even mere hailstones in southern California, and The Weather Channel dispatches its crisis team to stand in the heart of the blizzard and tell us it might be the apocalypse. And by the way, complain about your own work if you like, but these Weather Channel reporters’ whole job is to jump on airplanes to the worst weather in the country. I used to jump on airplanes to the world’s worst wars, but I think I had it better than they did because at least the sun usually was shining warm on our backs when snipers took their shots.
But I digress. We have to get about a foot of snow here in the Rockies— heavy, wet, unshovelable snow— to get more than an honorable mention in the national media. Why? Well, maybe it’s because we’re expected to get smothered by snow. I mean, why would anyone live in Colorado if they didn’t welcome winter weather? So what that only a reported 7% of Coloradoans snowboard or ski and the rest don’t really relish snowfall any more than the snowbirds who’ve moved to Miami.
Or maybe no one notices when we’re buried by a blizzard because from the main media centers in America (read: New York City), we are just a blip on the map. Like the famous New Yorker Magazine cover decades ago by an artist named Saul Steinberg that showed Manhattan in the foreground, then looked west across the Hudson River to a great expanse— the rest of America— where a few pimples represented other cities (not including Denver), then came the Pacific Ocean. I have it hanging in my own home as a reminder of why, a few years after I got here, I stayed in Colorado rather than move, at ABC’s behest, to New York.
But a little respect wouldn’t hurt, would it? After all, we have to shovel just as much as, and maybe more than, anyone at our latitude. Sometimes our streets are impassable too, sometimes we lose power, sometimes our schools stay closed. Hey, America, look at us, would you?!
Then again, if they did, maybe more Americans fed up with winter where they are would figure it’s better here where at least they can go to the mountains and actually play in the snow. And then that 7% might swell to 17%, and where would Colorado be then?!
Okay, fine, ignore us. We’ll survive.
Air Over Syria
Let’s get one thing straight: no matter how ugly the war has turned in Syria, few if any Americans want to put our soldiers’ boots on the ground there. In fact, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine who those few Americans would even be. President Obama must understand that.
But let’s get something else straight: as citizens of the most powerful and, arguably, the richest nation on earth, it’s painful to just sit back and watch so many people die, and so many homes destroyed, and so many refugees suffer. It’s equally painful to see militant Islamists redoubling their own power and influence in the revolution, which ultimately might make Syria even more hostile to the U.S. and its interests than it was before. President Obama must understand this, too.
So here’s the thing: we don’t have to just sit back and be as passive as we’ve been. Beyond underwriting the rebels’ training and diplomatically recognizing their coalition, President Obama can directly influence the outcome of their battle, not to mention save some lives… without putting boots on the ground at all.
It’s called air power. It’s something else the President ought to understand because he used it in Libya— Gaddafi’s aircraft were neutralized and his regime was neutered. Long before that, we used it in Bosnia. American casualties were minimized, while American air power changed the course of the war.
To be realistic about America’s place in the world, we can’t do it alone. But we rarely if ever do. For the Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition through the United Nations to give us cover. For Libya, President Obama enlisted NATO. I don’t care how we justify an incursion from the air; I just care that we do. Because if we don’t, Assad’s air force will continue to decimate entire civilian neighborhoods simply to kill the rebels who use them as safe havens. Some now say it’s genocide and if genocide isn’t worth our attention, nothing is.
Is there a guarantee of success? Of course not. Anyone who used to have blind faith in the inevitable triumph of air power learned otherwise after the Shock and Awe of Iraq. But anyone who can’t see what good it could do in Syria— basically grounding Syrian aircraft and creating more of an even battlefield— isn’t paying attention to what we demonstrably can achieve. Would there be American casualties? Maybe. But most likely not many, because without question, we have superiority. Russia still acts in the Soviet tradition, never giving allies like Syria anything better than second and sometimes third generation weapons and aircraft. Against the rebels, Syria’s military is stronger. Against American air power, it would be no match.
Of course, Americans might be war-weary enough to be wary of an humanitarian intervention. But there’s another reason to get involved, and that is to get in the game. In the old days, leaders of Third World countries had to choose between the Soviet Union, and us. These days, it’s between extreme Islamism, and us. There are many things we don’t yet know about Syria: who’s going to prevail, and if it’s the rebels, who will they ultimately befriend? But one thing we do know is, the more nations controlled by Islamic extremists, the more threats we and our allies are likely to face.
The other thing we know is, if Assad wins, it won’t matter that we flew in to defeat him; in his mind, we already are the devil incarnate. But if the rebels win, it will matter a lot that the United States finally took decisive action, albeit late, on their behalf. We will be the superpower that helped save their revolution, and save their lives. They still might not love us, but they might not hate us so much.
President Obama ought to get off his stick and get some planes in the air over Syria.
If you measure all forms of democracy by the standards of our democracy, of course they’ll most likely fall short. But more important, you’ll fall short yourself, because democracy in some parts of the world doesn’t look anything like ours. Which is why it’s so hard, but so important, to understand what’s going on in Egypt. You would shortchange the democratic ideal if you simply write off Egypt’s effort as a failure.
Why does it even matter? Because the Middle East is still a powder keg— and maybe it always will be— and Egypt is the most important Arab nation in the world. It fields the biggest army, has the most people, and not just incidentally, gets the most money from the United States. Moreover, hard though it might be to accept, in some ways it is still an American ally; Egypt helped us bring a truce in Gaza, and so far at least, helps us by honoring its treaty with Israel.
But here’s the kicker: yes, for all the chaos, Egypt is still a democracy. A messy one to be sure… and that’s on a good day. But when you see and hear about dictatorial government edicts and angry street responses and violent police retaliation, consider the alternative, the kind of no-holds-barred battles I’ve covered everywhere from Iran and Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. When you think about it, that “alternative” is exactly what we’re seeing these days in Syria.
Think of what you’re watching in Egypt as the production of a Hollywood film. The difference is, the moviemakers in Hollywood do countless “takes” on the set ‘til they get it right. Egypt can’t do that. One reason is, they don’t have the luxury of a closed set; the whole world gets to watch. Another is, they’ve never made this movie before.
So when it comes to the elected President, Mohamed Morsi, he’s been on a learning curve since the day he took office. With no role models in his part of the world, he still doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a plural democracy like ours, and a winner-take-all democracy like, say, Iraq’s. His efforts to soften his blunders, if inept, seem genuine. Credit where credit is due: he has tried.
But democracy is more about the people than the President, and beginning with the revolutionagainst Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the people of Egypt have had a taste of something they’d never tasted before. It’s like what I saw in Communist Poland a quarter century ago, when a limited democratic revolution called “Solidarity” was slapped down, but people everywhere told me, We’ve tasted it and we won’t forget. They didn’t. And eventually they were free.
So, the demonstrations against everything from closed constitutional assemblies to death sentences for soccer rioters are an extension of the first heady days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the forces of Egypt’s revolution coalesced. The difference between the bloody outcomes there and the peaceful air of almost all American protests arguably is only a matter of degrees. In both nations, it is a picture of people who believe that in a democracy, open, even angry protest againsttheir government is an intrinsic right.
The President of Egypt still has a lot of lessons to learn… if the military is disposed to give him more time for his painful education. The people of Egypt have some lessons to learn too… if the government is disposed to let them vent their rage and everyone eventually learns that no blood need be shed to have one’s voice heard. But it’s all part of the passage to democracy. In the context of “be careful what you hope for,” it’s probably better than the alternative.
Clear As a Bell
Fifty years ago, there was a Broadway play, followed by a Hollywood film, called “Bells Are Ringing.” It was about a lonely woman who works for an answering service, lonely until she falls for the voice of a client who calls in.
Well, my bells started ringing last month, and I’m anything but lonely. To the contrary, I did just one shift ringing bells for The Salvation Army in front of a supermarket not far from my home. And although seeing friends shouldn’t be the motive for that kind of public service, spend a couple of hours in front of your local supermarket and you’ll see half the people you know. Which is kind of nice.
However, my motive was different. I knew that helping fill a Salvation Army bucket would be worth doing. At every natural disaster I ever covered in this country, The Salvation Army was there, not only to help people who’d just been burned or blown or flooded out of their homes, but to help the first responders who appeared, no matter what the hour or what the day.
But back to the bells. They were still ringing in my head when I finished my shift. And drove home. And went to bed. And they were still ringing the morning after. Which brings me to a list of things you should be aware of, if you ever stand in front of the supermarket yourself to ring a bell and raise money for The Salvation Army.
• When you start your shift, dress like a screaming blizzard is heading your way. Even if it’s not, it’ll feel that cold by the time you’re through.
• Try to mask your shock when you’re standing there like Frosty the Snowman and some teenager walks by in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Remember, their blood runs different than ours.
• Don’t waste time trying to figure out whether to face in or face out. The whole goal here is to engage everyone who’s passing you. So circle like the beacon in a lighthouse. Some donors are more likely to stop and give going in, before they’re laden with shopping bags. Some are more likely to stop and give going out, when they’re nice and warm after a shopping spree inside.
• Stare down the kids. Sometimes parents will bring them up without being prompted, to teach them to be charitable. Sometimes the kids will be the first to make the move, so they can stuff a coin or a bill through the slot. Either way, it teaches kids to be generous with their good fortune. The world’s going to need that.
• Stare down the adults too. Guilt is an amazing thing.
• Some of the people who tell you going in, “I’ll get you going out,” do. But don’t be surprised when others, if they can dodge and weave past you by doing a hard turn after walking out the door, don’t.
• Keep count. Not of the amount of money, but the number of donors. You’ll like what you learn: far more walk up, than walk past.
• Just for entertainment, watch how many cars breeze right past the “Stop” sign in front of the supermarket. If I were a traffic cop, I’d station myself next to a supermarket, issue my quota of citations in the first hour, then go inside and buy a donut and take the rest of the day off.
• Just for protection, have the name handy of a good therapist for carpal-tunnel syndrome. Preferably one who also serves donuts.
• When your shift is over, turn on your iPod, your smartphone, your radio, your stereo, or whatever else you use to listen to music, and play it until you go to bed. If you don’t, then instead of your favorite song ringing through your head all night, it’ll be the bells.
I want to raise a question, and it’s about an issue that is far more important than the fiscal cliff, or gun control, or violence in Syria. The topic? Tipping. The question? Don’t you get tired of people who harken back to “the good old days?”
So do I. But maybe this will be an exception. Because the good old days I want to talk about are the ones when you were expected to tip for exactly two kinds of service: someone at a restaurant who served you a meal, and in the era before an unsung hero (to whom I shall be eternally grateful) put suitcases on wheels, someone at an airport or a hotel who lugged your luggage so you didn’t have to. Okay, maybe you can add in taxi drivers, although in my experience, as often as not I’ve wanted to ask for half my money back as compensation for the sheer terror of the ride. And as long as we’re already expanding the list, hotel maids. Traditionally poorly paid, they deserve a little extra just for the drudgery of their work, changing someone else’s smelly sheets and wiping up someone else’s yucky bathroom.
Yet those hotel maids often are ignored. While with less justification, there are tip jars on just about every sales counter in America. Stroll into Starbucks to drop four bucks on a caramel something-iatto and you’re expected to drop an extra greenback into the tip jar. Or how about the counter at the convenience store? Buy a bag of chips and if you’re not a cheapskate, you’ll deposit the spare change from the cashier into the tip jar. For the cashier.
And how about the driver on a tour bus, the outfitter on a river raft, the attendant at a parking lot?! They don’t exactly hold out a can with TIPS inscribed on it, but they might as well, for the look you’ll get if you don’t slip a bill into their palms.
Then last month, as the holiday season came on, I got nice little Christmas cards from my newspaper deliverer, my postal carrier, and my trash collector. Now, let me be clear: in terms of daily life, there’s little I appreciate more than having my newspaper waiting when I get up, my letters in the box when I stop for them (although when it comes to the bills, not so much!), and my garbage gone by the time I get home at the end of the day. And in each of those cases, I am blessed with 5-star service, as if each provider subscribes to the postal creed of swift service despite snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night.
But here’s a question: isn’t just about everyone I’ve written about here pretty much paid a livable wage already, commensurate with the skills required for the job? Well, maybe not restaurant servers or suitcase carriers; state law here in Colorado and, so far as I know, all across America, says they don’t have to be paid the standard minimum wage, since there always has been an assumption that they earn their money in tips. But aside from that….
And here’s another: what’s the meaning of a tip, anyway? Extra pay for the underpaid? NO. It is a reward for superior service. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to deliver the daily paper when every copy has to be in place by 6 a.m., which is the newspaper’s promise to its residential customers. But while I appreciate my carrier’s incredible allegiance to the alarm clock, that promise is part of the job description and therefore, by definition, not extraordinary. To say nothing of the clerk at the convenience store who is supposed to sell me that bag of chips the same way whether there’s the chance of a tip or not. Although I wonder, what would it look like if the clerk knew no tip was coming?!
The reality is, in some jobs— no matter how well or how poorly people are paid— there is little difference between superior and inferior service. Which means, by leaving a tip, we’re merely rewarding the barista at Starbucks— or the convenience store clerk, the taxi driver, the car wash attendant, the hairdresser, the letter carrier— for doing the job he or she has been hired to do. They’re not hired to do a better job for a tip; they’re hired to do the best job they can do, tip or no tip. One might argue, maybe they should even put a few bucks in our pockets for patronizing their business and keeping them employed.
Now for the sake of disclosure, let me be honest: I’m not the curmudgeon you must imagine I am; I tip darned near everyone. All I’m saying is, I shouldn’t, because the list of people on the receiving end has grown, way beyond the tip’s original purpose.
Next thing you know, even though they’re paid to perform at a high level, we’ll be expected to tip pilots for smooth flights, quarterbacks for touchdown passes, and journalists for good op-ed columns. Come to think of it, maybe that’s worth discussing.
Arguing Over Connecticut
How can we talk about the shootings in Connecticut— or Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech or an Oregon shopping mall or anywhere else— without getting into an argument?
If you’re pro-gun control and you tell someone that most of the mass murders in America have been carried out with legally-purchased guns and that therefore we’d be a lot better off if they weren’t so easy to get, as likely as not they’ll argue back that there are cities and states with strict gun control laws that suffer higher rates of violent crime than those that don’t. And that anyway, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And that the Second Amendment is a constitutional right and don’t mess with my rights.
On the other hand, if you’re pro-gun ownership and you tell someone we’d be a lot better off if more of us had guns because maybe then, before some nut case can kill a dozen people at a theater in Aurora or more than two dozen at a school in Connecticut, someone packing heat will kill him first, they’ll probably argue back that guns are the problem, not the solution, and point to Great Britain where guns are relatively rare, and so are murders by firearm. And that anyway, when it comes to gun laws, there’s a difference between a pistol or a shotgun in a hunter’s hands, and an assault weapon or a semi-automatic with high capacity ammo clips in a cold-blooded killer’s. And that the Second Amendment was written to enable militias, not mass murderers.
But then, if you’re pro-gun, you’ll argue in response that we have a need, as well as a right, to defend ourselves in our homes, our stores, our theaters, our schools. And that it’s absurd to argue that we should take guns away from law-abiding citizens, because then only the criminals will have guns. To which, if you’re anti-gun, you’ll argue in rebuttal that we have an equally important need, and right, to be safe from guns. And that there’s something absurd about an argument that says more guns would lead to less violence.
You might even argue on the pro-gun side that if deranged madmen like the Connecticut killer didn’t have guns, he might have stabbed the kids with a knife, attacked them with a hatchet, beaten them with a club, blown them up with a bomb. If you’re anti-gun, you’ll turn to the madman in China who, the very same day in a very chilling coincidence, attacked 22 schoolchildren with a knife, which injured all of them, but didn’t kill any.
Do you see where we’re going with this? Nowhere. Politicians and pundits are filling our pages and airwaves and computer screens with arguments for and against gun control. And calling for better mental illness detection. Yet we’re going nowhere. We can move on to video games, to TV and movies, to the prominence guns get in the news media. Arguably, all of these glorify violence and diminish regard for life and feed ideas to the next potential killer. Yet debates about their role in America’s culture of violence go in the same direction as debates about guns. How do we decide what’s good and what’s not?! Who has the right to decide? It all leads nowhere.
Which leaves us with two choices: avoid the ugly argument by continuing to avoid the subject. Or have it, seek some middle ground, and maybe find a way out. Stripped to the basics, the choice is to do nothing, which ensures the status quo, or do something, which might change it. Which makes more sense?
I have been in the Gaza Strip. Many times. The place feels like a prison. Because with the main gates in and out of Gaza long slammed shut, with openings only into Egypt’s Sinai Desert, its citizens feel almost totally confined. Measured in square miles, Gaza is smaller than Denver. Sure, Denver’s a great city (and trust me, Gaza’s not), but imagine being confined all your life to just the city of Denver. With only one road out. Which means even most of the suburbs are out of reach. And even that one road’s not always open. And the airport has been destroyed. And by the way, from time to time your neighbors attack you. Welcome to the Gaza Strip.
So it’s not hard to understand why Palestinians in Gaza hate Israel. But here’s what you hear less about: Israelis feel imprisoned too. Oh, they live a much sweeter life, thanks to their hard-fought transformation of an inhospitable sliver of land into a culturally sophisticated, agriculturally rich, commercially high-tech, and politically democratic society. But still, with neighbors like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, not to mention Gaza and the Palestinian West Bank, Israelis too are confined to the walls that define their nation. And by the way, from time to time, whether it’s an assault on a public marketplace or rockets from Gaza, their neighbors attack them. Welcome to Israel.
That’s the paradox in the heart of the Middle East. Each side lives in confinement and fear. Each side blames the other. Each says the other side fired the opening shot. Each says it’s only defending itself against a brutal enemy.
The fact is, it’s hard to say who fired first. Did the current conflict begin when Palestinians with Hamas shot rockets into Israel? Or when Israeli airstrikes killed a top Hamas military commander? Or, should we go all the way back almost 65 years to the creation of Israel? I once did a story there in which, basically, I asked Israelis about their animosity toward Palestinians, and Palestinians about their animosity toward Israelis. The Israelis said it was because when Israel was founded, Palestinians fled rather than live beside Jews. The Palestinians said it was because when Israel was formed, Jews pushed them from their homes. Welcome to the history of the Middle East.
Actually, there is some truth in both versions. But here’s the thing: the people I deliberately targeted for those interviews were all young, not yet born when Israel was. So the stories they told me— with both bitterness and conviction— were stories passed down from their fathers. And their fathers’ fathers. And in my trips to the region clear up to last year, those stories didn’t change. It’s not true of everyone, but many on each side were born to blame the other side. And to hate the other side. Welcome to the Middle East, today.
We can argue about the sins of each side. It seems that Israel is publicly censured because it has superior firepower and is killing a lot more Palestinians than the Palestinians are killing Israelis. But having covered several wars in that part of the world, that is the nature of the beast: the stronger side inflicts more casualties and the weaker side inflicts fewer. When it’s the U.S. that’s at war, would you want it any other way?
Meantime, the fighters from Hamas largely avoid censure, even though their rockets don’t discriminate between military and civilian targets; they seem satisfied to hit whatever they can hit, while Israel is trying to target its enemy’s military infrastructure. Yes, there has been collateral damage, too much of it, but that too is the sad but realistic nature of war. Especially when military targets are camouflaged in civilian settings. Shame on Hamas. However, media offices in Gaza aren’t military targets; if Israeli strikes are meant to suppress news reports from the inside, shame on Israel.
I have sympathy for civilians on both sides. But I’ve seen each from the inside. Israeli warriors want to preserve a democratic society. Palestinian warriors want to destroy one. Each side sins. Both sides lose. Welcome to the Middle East.
When I’m sick, I want the world’s best health care as much as anybody. But I wasn’t real optimistic that I’d get it a couple of weeks ago when, on my way to shoot a television documentary, I suffered a significant amount of internal bleeding aboard an overnight flight. Collapsing twice after we landed from massive blood loss, evidently I almost died.
That’s why I’m ecstatic to report that my fears of inferior care were ill-founded. In fact I’m ecstatic to be around to report anything at all. But I am, and here’s one of the reasons why: an expensive and innovative (Israeli-designed) tool I had to swallow called the PillCam. 36 hours after launching on a fantastic journey through the length and depths of my digestive system, collecting almost 60,000 diagnostic images inside me to pinpoint the source of my bleeding, the PillCam successfully completed its mission.
The thing is, this 21st Century marvel wasn’t at the internationally-famous Mayo Clinic, or the vaunted Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, or the top-rated New York Presbyterian. No, it was at the big, battle-tested, National Health Service trauma center in Belfast, Northern Ireland called Royal Victoria Hospital, which I knew from covering the warfare in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s for ABC News.
Frankly, that’s why I had felt so low about what I faced. The Royal Vic was for victims of external bombings, not internal bleeding. What’s worse, I was being thrust into the hands of the cash-strapped budget-dependent National Health Service, and I would be hospitalized in the long-war-torn city of Belfast. I’ll admit, I was scared.
It wasn’t a perfect experience. I felt lost in the chaos of the emergency room. I had bloodlines spring leaks where they were inserted in my arms. I heard fellow patients around me screaming all night. And while recovering, I was presented with a couple of plates of food I wouldn’t pay for at a restaurant. But you know what? It’s a hospital. As a veteran of a few other life-threatening traumas, I’ve suffered the same at institutions in the U.S.
More important, just as I have in American hospitals, I had the high-tech procedures I needed when I needed them. Two angiograms, two endoscopies, CT scans, x-rays, a colonoscopy, and that tiny alien capsule that traveled through me, the PillCam. Some argue that in a universal healthcare system (which critics would call a euphemism for “socialized medicine”), you’ll only get urgent care if you have urgent needs. Well, about ten years ago when my back collapsed and I was reduced to crawling around my house with screaming pain until I could have some vertebrae fused, I’d say the need was pretty urgent. But it took a week-and-a-half to get me into surgery. That was in suburban Denver.
The bottom line is, maybe it’s socialized medicine but the doctors and nurses and procedures and protocols were first rate; they saved my life. I have pre-existing conditions, which disqualify me for most insurance at home. Here? Except for personal medical histories to help treat me, no one even asked. In fact, the bureaucracy is so minimal and the priorities so different, no one ever even asked to see an ID card to prove who I am, let alone a credit card to prove my ability to pay!
And the cost? The “emergency” parts— the ambulance, the ER, the transfusions— came with no charge. The rest? Since I only went to Belfast to shoot a television news segment and don’t pay taxes and thus am not insured, I’ll pay alright, but since the model for hospital revenue isn’t based on market-driven, sometimes price-gouging profit centers, I won’t pay through the nose. If you think it’s no different in the U.S., you’re not paying attention. Market-driven healthcare systems certainly provide the best… but a big downside is cost.
And here’s the biggest difference between the two healthcare systems: the one in the U.K. is open for everybody. Residents don’t have to assess and agonize over the cost because they don’t have insurance. If they need medical care at any level, they just go. As I did. And get fixed. As I am.
And guess what: anyone who doesn’t like their universal healthcare system and wants something more can have it, through private insurance, if they’re willing and able to pay for it. Just like us. Socialized medicine? It’s not perfect, but then, neither is ours. This system saved my life. That’s good enough for me.
Fame and Fortune
Whether you like him or not, President Obama really nailed it at a dinner with veterans from the war in Iraq. He said, “In a culture that celebrates fame and fortune, yours are not necessarily household names.” He went on to call the vets what they are: “patriots who served in our name.” The next day in The Denver Post, my daily newspaper, that story was right where it belonged, on Page 2.
But then, as if to prove the President’s point about our culture, Page 4 carried the day’s obituaries. And who got star billing? Davy Jones, the “heartthrob” singer of The Monkees. I guess he was good at what he did— NBC News showed 35-year-old video of teen girls swooning at his feet— but he wasn’t the best to ever do it and what he did wasn’t really very important. He was an entertainer, that’s all. Yet Davy Jones had the fame and fortune that our culture celebrates. On the other hand, the patriots at dinner with President Obama don’t. You can bet that when any of them dies, they won’t rate Davy’s 19-column-inch obit in The Post. Or a whole story on NBC News. They probably won’t even rate a mention at any daily news outlet in America.
It is a reminder, once again, of misplaced priorities. How many times during the Denver Broncos’ enriching run to the playoffs did we hear fans calling Tim Tebow their “hero?” God only knows how many pages of the newspaper or minutes on TV will some day be devoted to his demise! And how many of us watch Hollywood performers on the big screen and subconsciously attribute the “heroism” of their roles to the stars themselves? Trust me, from John Wayne to Harrison Ford, they are actors, not heroes. Their most amazing on-screen feats, in fact, usually are done by doubles. I take nothing away from the men and women who win fame and fortune with their special talents by giving us something to cheer or laugh or cry about, but given the demands of their trade, they risk little and sacrifice nothing. When we refer to mighty but mortal idols as heroes, we do ourselves, not to mention our language, a disservice.
So, who are the real heroes? How about firemen who rush into burning buildings to save lives. Police who run into blind alleys to catch criminals. Volunteers who fly into disaster zones to mitigate suffering. Teachers who show up in ghettos to uplift children. Doctors who labor in sick rooms to conquer disease. And yes, soldiers who face gunfire to defeat the enemy. Heroes are people who risk something precious, even sacrifice something irreplaceable, to help someone else.
How each of us felt about the war in Iraq or feels about the one in Afghanistan— how every soldier feels about the wars they are sent to fight— is immaterial. They lay their lives on the line. They wage war for their country. They do what they pledged to do when they put on the uniform. They obey the order of their Commander-In-Chief.
Soldiers go to the hellhole because that’s their job. Those are the heroes. Wouldn’t it be nice if our culture would celebrate their heroism more than screen and sports stars’ fame and fortune?
We’re at no loss for confidence from presidential candidates about how good things will be if they win. But I’ll tell you in a moment why they’ve all got it wrong.
First, the Republicans, the ones who’ve managed to stay in the race? They promise us that if elected, they will trash whatever Barack Obama has done and put America back on the path to prosperity.
For his part, President Obama has the same playbook but a different strategy: he will build on what he already has done to keep America on the path back to prosperity.
Good luck to both sides. If there’s one thing on which we all can agree, it is that we like prosperity, and want as much as we can get. But you know what? No matter who wins in November, it won’t primarily be his policies that get us there. And here’s the proof: while our economy went south under the policies of the last Republican president, we didn’t see an eye-popping U-turn to the north under the policies of the incumbent Democrat. Some would translate that to read, a pox on both their houses.
Yet America will recover, or continue its recovery (depending on who you talk to). But it won’t be because of our ability to manufacture hard goods any more; sure, what we do build we now build well and if you include petroleum, we are still the biggest producer of goods and services in the world. Otherwise though, although a little more manufacturing is coming back to our shores from overseas, by and large, it’s still cheaper to build things elsewhere.
Rather, we will find prosperity because of an intangible quality I’ve always had trouble getting my head around…until now. It’s called innovation. Inventiveness. Entrepreneurial brainpower. But what I’ve never gotten my head around was, how do those uniquely superior American qualities translate to prosperity? What good does it do us to imagine great things if we aren’t actually turning them into something solid?
And then I read this headline: “App Economy has created 466,000 jobs.” That’s the “app economy” as in “Angry Birds,” “Facebook,” “CNN.com,” apps that give you the world via the smartphone, the tablet, and the social media. The online piece under the headline— reporting a study by TechNet, a think tank for high-tech corporations— likened the “App Economy” to “a 21st Century construction sector.” That’s when the little light went off in my head: we still build things, but we don’t buy them off the shelf any more at the mall and, standing alone, we don’t even hold them in our hands.
No, what we do today to stay at the apex of global commerce is innovate, then turn those innovations, however physically intangible, into something that people can actually use. And if you doubt that, consider this: today there are something like a million apps out there in the marketplace, and every day the number grows. Lest you think they’re mostly games that fling birds into buildings, think again: according to TechNet’s report, “Every major consumer-facing company… discovered that they need an app to be the public face of the business.” In other words, “app” employment is the construction sector for the 21st Century because apps have become the front door we walk through to do business.
Oh, our next president— and all the politicians down the pyramid— will claim credit for our prosperous future. But truth be known, they don’t have nearly so much to do with it as they used to. And that’s a good thing. We don’t have to depend on dysfunctional elected officials to find prosperity; we only have to depend on ourselves.
Republican Representative Mike Coffman, of Colorado, is my Congressman. It was never my choice, because he and I don’t sit on the same side of the political aisle. But that doesn’t have to mean I can’t respect him. I always have. Not only has he been one of the harder-working public officials representing me— both during his days in Colorado state government and now in Washington— but more than once he put his political career aside and put on a uniform to do his duty in Iraq.
But the other day, I heard Coffman on the radio, and my respect went down the drain. He was talking about President Obama’s stated wish to take more time to evaluate the proposed Keystone pipeline, which would carry Canadian crude oil to U.S. refineries by running across several American states. Coffman supports the pipeline. But some of America’s leading environmentalists don’t. It scares them.
Now, let me make something clear: like Coffman, I’m for Keystone. I’ve been several times on Alaska’s North Slope, where the decades-old, 800-mile long Trans Alaska Pipeline begins. Seeing its success, I have confidence that a Keystone pipeline— especially by being built in this day and age— would be not only in our oil-dependent nation’s best interest, but safe.
But apparently, according to Congressman Coffman, anyone who doesn’t see it that way isn’t a patriot. He was talking about Obama and the pipeline, and the political implications of the President’s hesitation about it, and said, “The problem is, he loves being in office much more than he loves this country.”
So apparently if you don’t agree with Coffman’s policy on the Keystone pipeline— or, by extension, with his take on tax policy, abortion policy, education policy, foreign policy, or any other policy— you don’t love America. At least not if you’re President Obama, who simply has different policy priorities than Coffman. Of course this censures every other American who isn’t on Coffman’s side too. Including me, and pretty much every constituent who ever voted against him. Congressman, you can go do you-know-what to yourself.
How dare this elected representative impugn the patriotism of Americans simply because they aren’t in sync with his ideology! Like the ones who generated this controversy over Keystone. Although I’m not on their side, environmentalists who oppose the pipeline oppose it precisely because they do love their country, and fear it will be fouled by a pipeline stretching from the Canadian border almost to Mexico.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the patriotism of well-meaning Americans has been questioned. Remember the run-up to the ill-fated war in Iraq? Many Americans didn’t buy into the connection President Bush claimed between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, to which the President basically said, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Bush was playing the game Coffman’s playing now, labeling citizens who don’t believe in his policy as traitors. As if only one side on the political spectrum has a clue about what’s best for America. As if only one side has a hammerlock on patriotism.
Patriotism is about respect, love, and support for our nation. What myopic political animals like Mike Coffman don’t get is that some of us can respect, love, and support our nation without respecting, loving, or supporting him!
Putin and Russia
If you weren’t in awe when you read about the anti-Putin demonstrations all across Russia, let me tell you a story.
Last time I shot a television program about politics in Russia, only a couple of years ago, the camera crew and I happened upon a public demonstration across the street from the Moscow headquarters of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party. There were about 20 men standing silently in a straight line along the sidewalk. They were holding signs protesting a decision in their town, not far from the capital, to build a United Russia office building on an empty plot of land where they had parked for years when they headed to their factory jobs next door.
To be sure, in the dark days of the Soviet Union, I saw KGB thugs assault and arrest dissenters for simply stepping across a chain to lay a flower at the foot of a statue. (They also pulled the camera off my cameraman’s shoulder and threw it on the ground. Thankfully, heavy snow cushioned the impact and the tape survived, airing across the U.S. that night on ABC.)
In contrast, the men I saw across from Putin’s party headquarters weren’t hauled away and arrested. Russia had come that far. But when the protest leader saw that one of his comrades had backed halfway off the sidewalk and had his heels on the grass, he shouted a stern warning to everyone to keep their feet strictly on the sidewalk. They were still burdened with memories when simply stepping on the grass could be called “destruction of public property” and used a pretext for imprisonment.
Now, tens of thousands are openly defying Mr. Putin. And no wonder. As one of his opponents put it to me in Moscow, Putin has “squeezed the life out of Russian democracy.” While roughly fifty political parties were born in the 1990’s when the Soviet Empire crumbled, Putin disqualified one after another and whittled them down to about half-a-dozen, all friendly to his government. While there were popular elections for governors and senators in the new Russia, Putin pulled off a u-turn and today they are appointed by the president. While free speech blossomed in those early days, news organizations that aired dissent were shut down. Basically, the liberties for which people had yearned for decades didn’t last for a single generation.
While it would be foolhardy to predict the outcome of these new nationwide protests— more are planned for Christmas Eve— here is a hint: Russia will not necessarily turn to American-style democracy. One reason is obvious. At a certain point Putin will have to decide: is he like Mubarak in Egypt, willing to throw himself on his sword to preserve the peace, or like Assad in Syria, willing to take off the gloves to preserve his power. That verdict isn’t in but never forget: Putin’s roots are in the KGB.
But a second reason is more revealing of Russian history and the Russian people. On my trip two years ago, I interviewed a member of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. He was in one of the last surviving opposition parties (although since we met, his party has been disqualified along with the others). One of my questions was, how has Putin gotten away with dispossessing people of the democracy they had craved for so long?
His answer was, “Russians in the ‘90s had major problems: the economy fell down, incomes fell down, corruption grew up, many things were terrible. And the name for that was ‘democracy’.” From their experience, their definition of democracy is different from ours.
The third reason we can’t predict Russia’s political future is the immediate past. Yes, Putin’s party showed up with the most votes. But whose horse came in second? The Communists.
For a variety of reasons, the United States needs to partner with Russia. But any future partnership may be no better than it’s been.
• Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. — Thomas Jefferson
• If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. — George Orwell
• We report. You decide. –– Fox News
Apparently Herman Cain’s fall isn’t Herman Cain’s fault. It’s the media’s. That’s what one supporter meant after Cain “suspended” his presidential campaign, telling a reporter for Politico, “This is your fault;” it was Politico that first reported accusations of sexual harassment against the candidate. And it’s what another supporter meant when she angrily told reporters at Cain’s suddenly defunct Iowa headquarters, “You guys know what you’ve been doing,” and then defined the media the way so many Americans do: “The very good are often the target of the very evil.”
So, we— journalists— are “the very evil.” But it’s no surprise; I could have predicted it. In fact it’s been predictable ever since the Greek poet Sophocles wrote almost 2,500 years ago, “None love the messenger who brings bad tidings.”
Of course the media’s critics will cite news stories they like— analysis, polls, gossip— until they’re blue in the face. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh. But give them news they don’t like and they call it a lie.
Who knows? Maybe all four women who accused Cain— including the two who had worked for Cain and got a year’s severance after the alleged harassment— are lying through their teeth. And maybe Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White is lying about a 13-year extramarital affair with Mr. Cain. Maybe his documented middle-of-the-night calls and text messages are a lie too.
Look, I don’t know what Cain did or didn’t do in his private life. His behavior isn’t the point. The media’s behavior is. So what I wonder is, what exactly do the media’s critics want?
Cain’s supporter in Iowa, the one who thinks the media is “evil,” has an answer: “You’re supposed to have facts when you report something.” You’re right, lady, so here’s some news: four different women charged Cain with harassment; that’s a fact. Another charged him with an extramarital sexual relationship; that’s another fact.
I’ll bet she— and millions more of the media’s fuming critics— didn’t complain when the media reported the fact, presented by President George W. Bush, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Nor did they likely complain that to its lasting disgrace, the media subsequently failed to dig deep enough to discredit the President. That one cost us a lot more than the presidential candidacy of the former CEO of a pizza chain.
The media is far from perfect. In fact it is deeply flawed, particularly in this relatively new era of 24-hour access to the news, which in too many cases has pushed news organizations to place more value on being first than on being right. But personally I resent the implication that we’re not just flawed, but evil.
In my own career as a reporter around the world I have been kicked and beaten, shelled and shot at, and chased by gangs with machetes. I’ve slept on Saudi sands crawling with scorpions and in caves under attack in Lebanon. I’ve been arrested everywhere from Communist Poland to Afghanistan. And gotten the runs in countries many Americans couldn’t even find on a map. Why? To report the news… which the media’s critics gobble up just as fast as everyone else. If that’s someone’s idea of evil, they’ve gotta get a life.
My own response to critics of stories like Herman Cain’s has long been, “The media can’t make you look silly, or stupid, or corrupt, without your help.” But that wouldn’t dissuade those supporters who said after Cain’s departure from the presidential race that they still stand by him. Why? Because according to one, “I believe in him.” And from another: “It’s because he is a Christian.” Gosh, I can’t argue with those facts!
Since I’ve covered news stories in Libya half-a-dozen times or more, and interviewed the late Colonel Moammar Gaddafi on several of those visits, I was asked by a television station to talk about him on the day he was caught and killed. And when the reporter asked, “What’s next for Libya?”, my answer was, “If I sit here and actually tell you what’s next for Libya, kick me out of the room.”
No doubt, plenty of experts will authoritatively tell us anyway. But here’s why they shouldn’t: no one knows. And if you don’t believe that, consider this: at the beginning of this year, you could have asked that question, “What’s next?”, to the leaders of the very nations where rebellions rose up— Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak of Egypt, Assad in Syria, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saleh of Yemen— and they themselves didn’t have a clue….even though each one had eyes and ears on every street corner of his country.
So we can only guess about what’s next, and we can only base those guesses on our experience. Mine, covering many nations rent by revolution, is that a whole spectrum of opinions and ideologies bands together to fight a common foe; the Arab adage is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But that bond sometimes doesn’t last beyond the last rifle shot. One thing we know about Libya is, some of the rebels who fought shoulder-to-shoulder were guys who, before the revolution, wouldn’t have sat at the same table together.
History also shows that when so many have waited so long for a place at the table, they’ll push everyone else out of the way to get a chair. Such conflicts can torment a nation.
What’s more, those who speak now for Libya liberally use the word “democracy.” However, that means different things to different factions. For some, it means American-style freedoms of everything from speech to religion to opportunity. But for others, democracy means too much freedom— the freedom to upset moral and cultural norms that have stood them well for millennia.
But I also can cite encouraging signs that date back to my times in Libya. I never went there without meeting someone who told me, “Oh, I have a brother living in the United States,” or “My son is going to college in your country.” There is not the kind of intellectual vacuum in Libya that I’ve seen in less sophisticated countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, a vacuum that can enable the radical forces of terror to gain a dominant hold on power. Quite simply, Libya has an educated and comfortable middle class— not by our standards, but a middle class of merchants and technicians— whose lives have gotten better these past few decades and they know it wasn’t thanks only to the force of Allah.
If I see a problem, now that the rebellious factions in Libya must actually govern, it is that Gaddafi gave them no foundation to start. That’s because for forty years, Libya was a one-man show with Gaddafi at the top of everything: government, military, business, oil. Under his leadership, there was no individual initiative. Not even individual sports; everything had to be a team endeavor, everything had to be in the collective.
That’s one reason he stayed in power so long: he didn’t permit the organization of any kind of civic group that might grow into organized opposition. Libyans didn’t have the equivalent of our chambers of commerce, or PTAs, or even Girl Scouts. Every decision about people’s lives emanated from the top. The new Libya is born without a skeleton to build on. That’s worrisome. On the other hand, the new Libya is born without a legacy anyone would dare to emulate. That’s encouraging.