Norway and terrorism as a daily event.

In the West, we seem to have at least a double standard when it comes to violence and mayhem.

When violence and mayhem involves People Who Look Like Us (“us” in this case generally translating to: ethnically European/white, not-poor, citizens of a Western-style democracy) — we experience society-wide woe. When it involves People Who Don’t Look Like Us? Often, not so much.

We see this in the semi-annual “OMG heroin has reached the suburbs” stories, we see it in the stories of missing mothers or schoolyard shootings that take place somewhere outside our inner cities or meth-riddled mountains — and I think we saw it again in the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway.

I am not, in any way, suggesting a sliding scale of pain. Pain is pain, loss is loss — if your child, partner, friend, parent, loved one was killed, in Oslo, on her way home from work, or in some random Columbine-like horror, your grief is no less because your skin is pale or your bank account full.

But as someone who follows the news out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as someone who once-upon-a-time covered terrorism’s aftermath as a reporter, as someone who has seen up close and personal the damage that bombs can do, I couldn’t help but feel the vast difference between America’s response to the terrorism in Norway, and our response that with which the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan live on a nearly daily basis.

Part of this is, of course, because in Norway, the line between good and evil was clear, shining and bright. One terrorist, 77 innocents. We know, in a heartbeat, how to direct our horror and revulsion, and to whom to offer our prayers and support.

This is not the case in the Af-Pak region. First of all, the West isn’t even sure of its own role anymore, if it ever was. Are we good guys or bad guys? When children are killed as our soldiers aim for the Taliban — who are we? Should we even be there? Are we imperialists, or did we fail to go after the Taliban hard enough in the first place?

But beyond the complexities of the war and a porous border — Western soldiers are not the ones purposely blowing people up in the middle of busy cities. Surely the people doing that are the bad guys, right? But what if their fight is just? And wait — who gets to decide what “just” means? Throw in the endlessly complex cultural and political realities of the two societies, the fact that Westerners tend to expect Muslims to be violent (though Muslims might disagree) — we throw up our hands. Another 27 dead. Another 22. An 8 year old boy. Those people.

One need only scroll through the Twitter feed of Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel to see that a good deal more than 77 Afghans and Pakistanis were killed in the month of July alone, not on a battlefield, but while trying to live their lives. Hell, nearly 100 were killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in the first week of July.

Some of these were combatants. Some were violent misogynists. Some were trying to go to the market. Some were children. Some of the “innocents” probably deserved to die, and some of the fighters had probably been involved in trying to bring peace. The lines are neither clear, nor shining, nor bright.

But I do know this: Dead is dead. The tears of a Pakistani mother are no less excruciating than those of a Norwegian father. The pain in these faces is as human and as raw as the pain in these.

I don’t have any grand conclusion to draw or act of advocacy to recommend. I know that no human being can carry all the world’s pain without buckling under the weight, and if a geek like me can’t always keep all the warring parties straight in Af-Pak, I surely don’t expect anyone else to manage it.

I just think that as we mourn the losses in Oslo, as we send our prayers and our white light and our best wishes to our Norwegian sisters and brothers, it matters that we also remember those for whom the Norway attacks look horrifyingly familiar. We need to find a way to manage to bear witness to the humanity of those living and dying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, too. As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps we owe the living and the dead at least that much.


If you want to learn more about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the violence that has marked the history of both, here are two great books to get you started: Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, and Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (both of which I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News).

Crossposted at Feministe.

Memorial Day – The loss of strangers.

Please also be sure to take a peek at my earlier post, where I also link to a really wonderful essay about the particular case of young veterans grappling with this nation’s holiday in memory of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

Listening to NPR as I stood cooking the holiday meal for my family just now, I heard a Vietnam vet talk about the need to remember the individual lives lost in our wars — not just the numbers, but the people, and what might have been had they not been lost to us. It made me think of the Jewish notion (one I think that we share with Islam) that when we kill one person, it’s as if we’ve killed an entire world.

This reminded me that I had meant to do just that: Remember individuals, by urging you to go to the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen, and just click on a face or two. Consider the ages (21 — had Lance. Cpl. Jose L. Maldonado celebrated that milestone with a beer or two? 31 — did Staff Sgt. Mark C. Wells leave behind a spouse and children?), look at their faces, imagine their families. For a moment or two, hold these strangers who died so far from home in your hearts.

Back in 2008, when the United States reached the milestone of 4,000 dead, I wrote something about those from my own state, Illinois, who had fallen in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of what I submitted ran, and some time ago, on Veterans Day, I ran the original here on the blog. It seems right and meet that I should run it again today.

In honor of the fallen from my home state — may their memories be for a blessing.

The loss of strangers

As of this writing, 141 servicemen and women from Illinois are confirmed to have died in the course of the Iraq War.

They came from big cities, mall-strewn suburbs, and places I’ve never heard of: Patoka, Gays, Blandinsville, Mahomet. More than 90 of Illinois’s casualties were 25 or younger when they died; thirteen were still teenagers. They were all, every last one of them, strangers to me, but they died in my name.

I don’t know how to truly honor them, any of these people who died so far from home, not the ones from Illinois, nor the 3,859 others. So I find pictures online and look at their faces, at least a few, and try to register the facts. Try to give them that, at least.

I’m pulled in by certain names, the occasional goofy grin, people who seem, somehow, familiar. Navy Petty Officer Regina Clark, 43 when she was killed, originally from Colona, mother of a teenage son; Sean Maher, a Marine from Grayslake, not much older than Clark’s son when he died at 19, two days before he was supposed to go home.

John Olson, 21, from Elk Grove Village, looks as if he’s trying on his father’s hat; Christopher Sisson, 20, might have once hung out at the North Riverside Mall. Illinois’ first casualty, Ryan Anthony Beaupre, was killed on the third day of the war. In his picture, the 30 year old Marine smiles as if on vacation.

Uday Singh. Twenty-one when he died, an Indian national. He enlisted while living with an aunt in Lake Forest, shared a name with one of Saddam Hussein’s despicable sons, and became a US citizen only upon death. Singh was the first Sikh to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his last emails home read: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

Pray for me.

I  pray for him and for all the fallen soldiers, for all the living soldiers, for the families, for all of us in this country, for the Iraqis who also mourn their children. I have always opposed this war, but whatever I may think of the people who sent our men and women into Iraq’s unbearable heat, I know that those who went, did so for me. For me and my children, from a belief that it is right to offer your body as a sacrifice for the country you call home – even if it has not yet given you a passport.

I know that for many soldiers, the military offers an escape; for some, it’s the only way to make a living; others are answering family expectations, or social pressure. Many oppose the war; many support it whole-heartedly. Some do bad things; most, I suspect, just try to get through their days in one piece, with one heart.

But in death, I cannot sort them from each other. I cannot call this one my brother, that one my foe; the war they fought has in some way sanctified them, brought them to a place I cannot reach. I can only look into their faces and thank them, look into eyes that can no longer look back, and ask forgiveness.

American wars and personal responsibility.

I went to my nearest VA Hospital today, to apply as a volunteer.

As luck would have it, I arrived just as the lady who does the fingerprinting had gone on break, so I wasn’t able to actually apply. But I’ve filled out my form. I have a plan.

I admit that I’m a bit perplexed by my decision (taken the day after bin Laden was killed, and the two are very much related) to do this. As a near-pacifist who regretfully but begrudgingly accepted the war in Afghanistan and was powerfully opposed to the war in Iraq, a person who encouraged her brother never to register for the draft, and would never want her own children to serve in the armed forces of any nation, it doesn’t exactly seem like a natural fit. There are a lot of places that could use my time and my skills: women’s shelters, the food pantry, literacy programs. Why not give my handful of hours to another, equally worthy effort? One without the stink of war about it?

I keep thinking (for years now, frankly) about all these young men and women who get sent off to battle. Who are sent off by my government. Who are sent off, this being a democracy, by me.

If my country is fighting two wars (and kinda-sorta a third) — don’t I have some responsibility for that? For the people who take up arms (whether I agree with the specifics or not) and who all too often come home wounded, in body or spirit? Surely the fact that I almost literally never see any of them — in my family, in my neighborhood, or on my TV — doesn’t matter. They’re out there: fighting wars that our nation decided to fight, with weapons paid for by my tax dollars, their hopes and dreams shaped or shattered by what happens on the field of battle, or they’re out there: back home, trying on their old life for the first time in years, trying to carry all that we’ve put on their shoulders. They’re my compatriots. They’re my brothers and sisters. In some cases, in most cases, they’re my kids.

So after a decade, I think primarily because of the work done by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury (the story arcs of BD [continued here], Melissa, Toggle, and Ray, the issues they face, the Vet Center they go to, Melissa’s experiences when she returns to duty), various reports and interviews on Rachel Maddow’s show (particularly her segments with Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America), and one little piece I wrote a while back for the Chicago Tribune — I have finally come to the point where I understand that I have to look that responsibility in the face. I have to look those people in the face.

I don’t know what to expect (and I think that’s a good thing — when I start down a path that makes me nervous, I’m often better off going in a little blind), but I’ve already gotten my first surprise: The men and women I saw at the hospital today were all older than I expected. It was with some shame that I was reminded that there are, of course, a lot of vets out there, only some of whom are young enough to be my children, only some of whom picked up arms in the years since 2001. We send people into battle all the time.

My one concern is that I’m not great at following through on good ideas — which is why the minute I had this one, I called the hospital, and why I’m now a little nervous that having been thwarted today, I may just allow the idea to drift away. It wouldn’t surprise me.

So that’s probably why I’m writing about it here. Volunteering with the wounded isn’t like learning carpentry, or picking up knitting, or finding some way to sing in places other than my kitchen and my synagogue — this matters more. I want to hold myself accountable. Someday I’ll do those other things (and catch up on the photo albums, and finish that art project I started seven years ago), but this one I’m going to do today.

Or, you know, tomorrow. When the lady isn’t on break.

Pakistan! What’s up with that?


A whole lot of folks in America have been scratching their heads since Sunday night, a slow realization dawning that as little as we know about Iraq, as little as we know about Afghanistan — we know even less about Pakistan.

And it turns out Pakistan is really rather the point!

Truth be told, I don’t know a hell of a lot about Pakistan either, though I will say that over years of reading about other places (like Iraq and Afghanistan), I’d at least begun to get a sense that I was missing a very big piece of the story. Recognizing one’s ignorance — that’s the first step.

What I do know is how to recognize a good source when it falls into my hands — in this case a terrific book, one which had me feeling the expansion of my brain’s Pakistan Knowledge Node with each turning page: Pakistan: A Hard Country, the result of 20 years of reporting from the country by British journalist and author Anatol Lieven. The title is a nod to something Lieven has heard time and time again from Pakistanis themselves — they live in a hard country, and they know it.

If you’re pressed for time — or if foreign relations isn’t enough your bag that you want to commit to 480 pages — you would be very well served by reading just the book’s 38-page introduction, where Lieven carefully lays out the parameters of his subject and the outlines of his conclusions — but if you do have the time, I highly recommend diving in.

And, hey now! It turns out we probably should have been paying more attention all along. Pakistan’s population (170 million) is close to six times larger than Afghanistan’s, and its army is one of Asia’s biggest, best armed (don’t forget the nuclear weapons!), and most experienced — as Leiven writes: “Pakistan is quite simply far more important to the region, the West and the world than is Afghanistan: a statement which is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics.”

We’ve known for some time that Pakistani intelligence plays a key role in Western anti-terrorism efforts, and have likewise wondered for some time if they were really helping us as much as we might want, but (in keeping with Western tradition), there’s been a tendency to focus on the extent to which their society mirrors our own.

We talk about the President of Pakistan, for instance, as if real power is found in that (nominally) democratically elected office, when in fact, Pakistan’s real power base is its enormous military (particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI), created and maintained out of a deeply felt and powerfully held animosity toward India — a country so much bigger than Pakistan that the latter can’t hope to genuinely keep up, relying instead on a kind of bristling deterrence, fed by a very mutual and deep-running distrust and loathing. (All of which is to say, by the way, that when we deal with India, we’re also dealing with Pakistan. Just, you know: BTW and whatnot).

Lieven grapples successfully with a truly gobsmacking amount of information, transforming it into a lucid — and not incidentally, fascinating — whole, parsing the social and cultural tapestry woven from Islam, kinship ties, the military, and global expectations and pressures (indeed, a sort of patchwork tapestry, as each small section of the tapestry is overlaid with, and butts up against, unexpected intricacies), pointing to issues that few on this side of the ocean appear to have even begun to consider (such as population growth and the climate: “In the long run,” Lieven writes, “the greatest threat to Pakistan’s existence is not insurgency but ecological change”).

His policy recommendations come with a depth of perspective, both historic and geographic — this last particularly important in a country about which people are forever going on about “lawless, semi-autonomous tribal regions” — and Leiven’s writing is excellent (though occasionally a bit paternal), an especially crucial fact in a book taking on a topic with which many readers will be entirely unfamiliar.

Moreover, he clearly loves the place and its people. Pakistan: A Hard Country is the work of one of those rare nonfiction writers who is able to get close enough to their subject to see its complexity, without either turning away, or becoming a partisan of one view or the other.

So, in short, if you’re thinking “Pakistan! What’s up with that?” – this book would be a tremendous starting point.

Even, as I say, just the introduction.

Signs. Not necessarily wonders.

Note: I spent last week dealing with the world’s Horrible Things, so this week, I’ve chosen not to. I’ve been tweeting about the Awful, or commenting elsewhere, but this space has been Awful-free — except at the end of each post, where there have been a few links to The Day In Horrible. Same-same today!


Signs — of spring, of trouble, of the times, of speed limits. They’re everywhere, by gum, occasionally locking out the scenery and breakin’ my mind! (Click on the link. It’s a quote).

But, useful as signs can be in directing us to gender-specific restrooms and/or the exit we’ve just missed, some retain an element of mystery, a need for correct interpretation. One woman’s sign being another woman’s insignificant bit of grit (click on the link. It’s another quote. And a dang funny one!), and so on.

In the course of a life veritably chock-a-block with experience, I have, myself, unearthed some signs that need a bit of exegesis in order to be properly understood, but reveal Significant Truths. Or at least support for our nation’s public radio. I’ve done the work for you — now you need but learn, grasshopper:

  1. Sign That Civilization Is Not Ending? Starbucks’ unfortunately tweely-named “Petites.” I left this country for an unexpectedly long time in 1984, and when I got back in 1998, coffee house pastries were as big as your head. I ask you: Who needs a scone as big as your head? Or my head, for that matter? Certainly not the English, who invented the scone, and had no idea that Americans would appropriate their tea-time staple and reboot it as a vast flour desert over which one might hike for days. And while we were all hiking across our scones, you know what happened? Reality TV! Skinny baggies! (no, seriously, you have to click). The confusion of electronic devices with books! Into this maelstrom of slippery slope-ism Starbucks very recently stepped, with a line of wee little goodies, all just the right size to go with a cup of coffee (not a chai frappacino with low-fat vanilla whip & cinnamon dusting or some such monstrosity – a cup of damn coffee). My faith in the ability of civilization to right itself has been restored.
  2. Sign That Momentous Events Are About to Unfold on the Domestic or World Stage? The Daily Show goes on vacation. For real, man: Health Care Reform? Passed when The Daily Show was on vacation. Stimulus bill? Passed when The Daily Show was on vacation. The UN declared a no-fly zone over Libya yesterday? The Daily Show is on vacation. If a thing long talked about is ever going to happen? It needs Jon Stewart to take his kids to Disney World (where he was, on vacation, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down).
  3. Sign Of Spring’s Arrival? My house is daily revealed to be a hovel. If I wake up, come downstairs, and all the dust on my furniture and crumbs on my floor are standing out in sharp relief, almost as if a sprite had tip-toed in and scattered them about to try my patience, it means our earth has reached that point in its annual circuit that allows sunlight to pour in, blindingly, through my front window, at just the right angle to illuminate every single limitation of my family’s paltry housecleaning skills. Luckily, as a Jew, there’s a holiday for that — soon I will be cleaning for Passover, and the earth will continue its orbit, and the sun will no longer fill my house in just that fashion — and I can go back to feeling like, hey! The place looks pretty good!
  4. [Related] Sign That I Will In Fact Get The Kitchen Cleaned And Various Other Small Kitchen-Suitable Tasks Done of a Saturday Morning? I’m listening to NPR’s Wait Wait! Don’t Tell Me! I’m not always at home and/or near a radio at 10:00 am on Saturday, when Wait Wait! is broadcast in the Greater Chicagoland Metropolitan Area. Sometimes I’m already running errands, occasionally I’m out of town, and now and then, I’m actually praying with the Jews (Saturday being Shabbat and all). But if I’m home and Wait Wait! is on, it’s on in my kitchen, and if it’s on in my kitchen? I find myself miraculously doing jobs that have been piling up for days (that vase that needs the green gunk picked off, those season-specific tchotchkes that need to be put back in their boxes, that floor that apparently really needs sweeping), and laughing! All but whistling as I work! Because Wait Wait! is just that awesome, and I’m laughing so hard, that I hardly even notice that I’m in the midst of drudgery. It’s entirely likely that I should have podcasts of the show on endless loop in every room of the house — perhaps that lovely springtime sun would not then find so many crumbs to illuminate. But it’s hard to know for sure. If only I could get some kind of sign.


Your Day in Horrible:

  1. Yemen declares ‘state of emergency’ – “Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, has declared a nationwide state of emergency, after a violent crackdown on anti-government protests killed at least 41 people, and left scores more wounded, in the capital Sanaa….Security forces opened fire in attempts to prevent protesters from marching out of the square where they were gathered, sources said. Medical sources said the death toll was likely to rise.”
  2. Voting – The Rising Degree of Difficulty – “There are new efforts across the country, led mostly by conservative activists, aimed at making it more difficult for people to vote…. The new laws pending in more than 30 states “are far more restrictive than we’ve seen in the past,” said Weiser. To voting rights activists, the trend represents an alarming reversal. In the decade since the Help America Vote Act was enacted in the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election, state and federal officials have toiled to modernize voting through better machines and streamlined registration systems.”
  3. How Obama Lost Karzai – “The road out of Afghanistan runs through two presidents who just don’t get along…. Ironically, 2010 was supposed to be a new “year one” for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, when the Americans, after years of neglecting the country in favor of Iraq, finally invested the resources necessary to defeat the Taliban and rebuild the country. Instead, things got worse…. At the heart of the failure, both a cause and consequence of it, is the tattered U.S. relationship with Karzai, an alliance that has cost the United States more than $330 billion and nearly 1,400 soldiers’ lives, but is now at the lowest ebb of its nearly decade-long history. U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration plainly do not trust the Afghan leader, or even much like him.”

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

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