Us vs. them

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)

The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teen armed with nothing but candy and iced tea, has got us talking about a lot of things; the “stand your ground laws,” the danger of wearing hoodies and even the fact that we need to talk about race relations in 2012 America.  That’s not to say we are really talking about race relations in 2012 America, we are talking about how we should be.  There’s a big difference.

Personally, I think David Brooks had it right on Meet the Press this week.  We need to talk about race for sure but we need to broaden that a bit.  We need to talk about how we all view each other.  More to the point, how we view people who we perceive as being different from us.  That feels like a really obvious statement but sometimes we miss the things that are the most simple.

I am going to talk about some things that may or may not seem related.

One of my passions is stopping and preventing genocide.  I also have intractable insomnia.  The extra free time the latter gave me the chance recently to reread the book Machete Season; the killers of Rwanda speak.  If you are unfamiliar with it, it is a series of interviews with some of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.  Now, I will set aside for a moment my complete horror at the fact that they seem to sleep like babies whereas I can go weeks without sleep (yes, people who butchered their neighbors and friends with machetes sleep better than me).  The main thing that sets genocides in motion is the ability to look at people of a perceived different culture as bad.

Closer to home the things that come mind for me are the shooting of Amadou Diallo, a man shot 41 times because when the police asked for his ID he went to get it out of his pocket.  I was living in New York City when that happened and I am not going to lie, that made me fear the police  Rudy Guiliani may have become “America’s mayor” on 9/11 but when I lived in his NYC, police brutality had gone up by a whopping 30 percent and his administration’s response was basically “shit happens.”  Ok, he didn’t say that exactly.  After one instance where the police burst down the wrong door (because they wrote the address down wrong), his response was that if you want less crime, you have to expect this sort of thing.  There was no apology for scaring the crap out of an innocent family.

These attitudes trickle down.  Maybe Ronald Reagan had a point, there is such a thing as trickle down bigotry.

The Trayvon Martin case could not have a clearer racial overtone than the killing of Matthew Sheppard was homophobic.  But our prejudices extend beyond that — we judge others based on their religion, culture, weight, gender — anything we can use to classify someone as different.  This sets the stage for violence on the micro and macro level and it needs to stop (I know you knew that).

Brooks mentioned a great project.  It’s called the Implicit Project.  They have several tests on there where you can measure your attitudes towards people based on a number of criteria.  It takes a few minutes and is well worth your time.  I did a few.  I will post my results if you post yours.  Go here to complete them.

No means no and never again needs to mean never again

Paul Rusesabagina and Don Cheadle

Another personal post, don’t worry it’s not as intense as the last one.

Today Paul Rusesabagina received the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize.  I was lucky enough to be able to help out.  Paul is one of my heroes.  His actions during the Rwandan genocide not only saved the people in his hotel but he in an inspiration to people currently dealing with similar situations and those of us who are not but who want to help stop and prevent genocide.

We tend to think of genocide as something that happened a long tome ago in a galaxy far away but that is not true.  When the Rwandan genocide was occurring, Slobodan Milosovic was ethnically cleansing Bosnia.  I mention Bosnia for several reasons.  First of all, I was obsessed with Bosnia while the conflict was happening.  One excuse I hear from people about why we should not intervene in this place or that is that “those people have been fighting for centuries, there’s nothing we can do.”  In Africa, this sentiment is magnified by the thought that it is the ‘dark continent’ and there’s even less that we can do.  Bosnia should blow that idea out of the water.  Before Milosovic riled people up, Sarajevo was viewed as the ultimate example of racial harmony.  The “ethnic cleansing” was not caused by racial tension but this genocide was political opportunism.

I plan to write a more detailed piece on the current situation in Rwanda.  For now, I will just write that Rwanda is not the shiny example of reconciliation and peace.  Paul Kagame is not the new kind of African leader we all hoped it would be.  Since he took over, Rwanda has been fighting a proxy war in Congo and exploiting Congo’s natural resources.  Within Rwanda, Kagame allows no dissent.  There is no freedom of the press.  There is no freedom of expression.  Inside Congo, the genocide continues.  Rape is a common tool of war and it is being employed freely.

Back in 1994, I was obsessed with Bosnia and payed little attention to the horrors being perpetrated there.  I don’t know why I cared more about Bosnia than Rwanda.  In 2001, I went to work for the United Nations Information Centre in Washington, DC.  We received confidential dispatches from all over the globe.  While it was impossible to read all of them, I did read what was coming from Congo and it chilled my blood.  Some of the off the record stories I heard about the UN response to Rwanda did the same thing.  The then-Secretary General Kofi Annan said Rwanda represented the worst failure of the organization.  It was also his failure — and I have nothing but respect and admiration for him but he failed.  He was the head of the Department of Peace Keeping Operations.

For over a year, I sent out either a press release on Congo — families were jumping into alligator infested rivers to escape the rebels, masses of people were crowding UN offices and were told if they were caught on the street they would be killed — or some other communication to media about the situation.  A few reporters wrote stories just to make me stop sending them information.  It wasn’t much but it was all I could do.

Paul Rusesabagina did not intend to be a hero.  As awesome as he is, I wish he hadn’t become a hero.  I wish he was back in Rwanda running his hotel and this never happened.  But it did happen and he did become a hero.  In his speech at the Lantos ceremony, he said that he used words and persuasion to keep his guests and his family safe minute by minute — thinking all the while that he would be killed eventually — just to survive a little longer.

Senator Dianne Feinstein used to tell her staff, maybe she still says this, that people fail to do good things because they only want to do great things.  While we may not find ourselves in the position Paul was in, we can still make a difference.  We can educate ourselves and others and let our leaders know that when we say never again, we mean it.

We need a truth commission

The problem with torture

It feels strange to have to say this because it seems so obvious but torture is bad. Call it whatever you want – say ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or whatever – it is still bad. Very, very, very bad. Saying this reminds me of an organization I heard about today (no joke, on NPR) called “People Opposed to Homicide.” Being in DC I have heard of all sorts of associations and whatnot, there is a “Pet Owner Association,” for example, but is there a “People Who Love Murder” group out there? I doubt it.

The idea of moral absolutes can be very tempting. With them you have lots of areas that are black and white rather than grey. My world has only a few of these. I oppose the death penalty. I won’t go into the thousand or so reasons but while making my life easier is NOT one of them (I mean intellectually, it does. Should person X get the death penalty? I don’t care if they are the Green River Killer, Pol Pot, anyone who organized the Rwandan genocide or whoever, the answer is no. I don’t have to think about it anymore.

On face value, the issue of torture is another moral absolute for me. The United States of America should not torture people. Never. Never times ten to the millionth power. We are not the United States of Jack Bauer.


  1. We undermine all the good we do and represent and create nasty precedent at the same time. We are the ‘good guys’ remember? We trot ourselves out as the beacon of freedom and justice and democracy. We are a force of good and light in the world. A force like this does not torture people. We set an example for everyone else. If we can torture people when we like, so can anyone else. Robert Mugabe is doing bad things to his people? If we let this go he can hold his head up high and say “You know, I was worried about our national security and didn’t know what to do and then I heard about what President George W. Bush did to people he thought we threats and said to myself, now there’s an idea.” And, yes I think that is possible.
  2. It doesn’t work. VP Cheney, who spent most his time in office in I think a cave or some other place has said that the methods they used provided useful information that protected us from more terrorist attacks like 9/11. Now I cannot prove this is not true but what he didn’t say was that this was the only way to get that same – or maybe better – information. Many, many experts in this have said that torture is not a good way to elicit information because a, some people will admit to anything they think their interrogators want to hear to make it stop (count me in that category) or b, the terrorist groups who would have this vital information prepare to be tortured. Al Qaeda tells its members to expect it if captured. PS to all the “24” fans out there, the military actually sent people to LA to ask its producers to stop showing Jack Bauer torture people to save the say. They said it was hurting morale because soldiers were asking “why can’t we do the things they do on TV?” No, I am not kidding.
  3. We don’t torture others to protect ourselves. Let’s not kid ourselves here. We didn’t sign the Geneva Convention because of altruism; we did it because, as Joe Biden put in a Senate Foreign Relations hearing, we don’t want our captured soldiers to be tortured. (ok, I paraphrased)
  4. If we can do it to others, we can do it to ourselves. This is not a thought I came up with, it was what Phillip Zelikow wrote in a memo to Condi Rice when he was one of her advisors. He reiterated the point this week and said that once we use national security as a reason to do this against enemy combatants we risk giving our government the right to do it to citizens. Given that the Obama administration may try to reverse a Supreme Court decision that requires police to stop questioning a suspect when they ask for or have a lawyer until that person is present, I am not sure Mr. Zelikow wasn’t on to something.

The more complicated question is what do we do now? Here is where my moral absolute fails me and my world becomes grey again. This question needs more thought but I have time.

President Obama cannot initiate any actions against the people who made this policy. Neither can Congress. To do so would just add partisan crap to an already sensitive subject. Any attempts by the Democrats to do this would just feed the never ending cycle of political retribution that began with Watergate (and if you think I am the only one that thinks this, ask around). This cannot be about political payback.

We need a truth commission modeled after the 9/11 Commission and similar to those held in Rwanda and South Africa. We need to take the politics out of it and put the justice back in. Seriously, it’s the best thing for everyone.