Oh Lebanon…

For a good summary of the different perspectives on the situation, please check out Thanassi Cambanis’s blog here. I also had a listen today to a podcast I did on Lebanon a couple years ago — about six months after the “mini civil war,” and after I had spent a summer reporting there — to get me back in the Lebanon mood. I talked to four people — a filmmaker, a musician, an insurance professional, and a Syrian en route to America. It had been a while since I had heard those voices, and they brought back a lot of vivid memories of the energy in the country. Among the people I spoke to, everyone was pretty anxious about the future, and while not all their predictions have panned out (yet), it was a good reminder that the drama with government (or lack thereof) in Lebanon is not much of a surprise. If you care to have a listen, the podcast is still available here. (By the way, if I had to do it over, there’d be some more editing. But considering this was the first ‘cast I ever did, I think I did OK… right?)

Another thought: while it’s no surprise that there are problems in Lebanon, it’s also good to remember its resilience, its exhaustion with war, and most importantly its treasure trove of intelligent people who are committed to peace in their own ways, large and small. Let’s hope that this standoff is resolved without bloodshed.

More on convergence of war and gaming

Yesterday, I described two different perspectives about what it means to fight wars remotely and through computers. I’m not a gamer, so I wasn’t aware just how similar video games are to the video from Wikileaks. If you had the stomach to watch that clip (beware, it’s extremely violent and disturbing), you will probably shocked to see just how similar the game Call of Duty is to the actual experience:

My point here is not so much to slam video games, but to suggest there is something remarkable — and awful — about this convergence of technologies. Entertainment, since its earliest forms, has always used war as inspiration. But until now it has been impossible to have a simulated experience that is so nearly exactly like the real one.

And it’s not that entertainment has chased war as much as some experiences of war — the remote ones — are becoming more like entertainment. Part of the appeal of entertainment that shows killing is that it removes all the nastier aspects of the experience — from the humanity of an enemy to the feeling of immediate vulnerability. Old west gunfights were probably nothing like those in High Plains Drifter. Saving Private Ryan might be uncomfortably real, but it certainly can’t be a substitute for participating in D-Day. The similarity between coordinating drone strikes, though, and playing Call of Duty seems unprecedented.

Does this influence how we as a country decide which wars to wage? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are certainly some interesting parallels between our foreign policy and the experience the technology helps create: god-like feelings of omnipotence, invulnerability, superiority, cold detachment from others’ suffering.

It is awe-inspiring technology, but it is also dangerous — not just for journalists carrying video cameras around the streets of Baghdad, but, I think, for the people pulling the trigger (or pushing the buttons). Or maybe I just think that way because my parents read me Lord of the Rings when I was 10.

(Hat-tip MB.)

“It’s different when they’re Muslims”: the GWOT narrative is still alive

In many ways, the Sunday New York Times long article on Anwar al-Awlaki — the American Muslim cleric who they say inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber and Faisal Shahzad — is excellent journalism. It tells the complicated story of a man who was once considered a model, moderate Muslim after 9/11, decamped to Yemen as GWOT amped up, and is now said to be abetting Al Qaeda. The story is thorough and nuanced, and the breadth of sources is impressive.

But there’s something that concerns me about the whole premise of our collective inquiry into what drove Shahzad to try to bomb Times Square, and it’s encapsulated in this front-page story. There is an assumption that the driving force behind Shahzad and others’ turn to violence is powerful and poisonous rhetoric. This ignores the many other factors — many of them material, not ideological — that likely contribute to radicalization. We thus miss the full explanation for why so many angry men are attracted to the idea of waging random violence on Americans.

The Times story focuses on Awlaki as a man with a power of persuasion rooted in his total comfort with American culture (he was born in New Mexico) and his “beautiful tongue,” as one person described it. I have not watched the man’s sermons, but it seems probable this is an accurate assessment.

The interesting thing, though, is that law enforcement — and to some degree the newspaper — draw the conclusion that Awlaki’s charm and power as a speaker make him exceptionally dangerous, and a prime cause of individuals’ radicalization. His sermons alone are said to have the power to “brainwash.” The article suggests that there is a break — sometimes fuzzy, but very real — between Awlaki’s “benign” early sermons and his (malignant, I guess) later material.

The analysis of Awlaki’s character and influence is flawed for two reasons. One, it implicitly describes two versions of Islam in a special way that Western commentators reserve only for that religion. Two, it mostly ignores all the material and social pressures that are creating terrorists, and thus deceptively and erroneously elevates Awlaki’s power. Let me treat these two main flaws in turn. Continue reading

Ridiculous road trip pt. 1: Burundi

Between November 10 and December 5, I went on a road trip that took me from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Bujumbura, Burundi – via Nairobi, Kisumu, Kampala and Kigali. Hitting all five countries in the East African Community (EAC) in four weeks via bus is an endeavor I can only describe as ridiculous. I estimate that I logged more than 75 hours in buses; if someone could calculate the mileage for me, that would be awesome. (This is not counting at least 45 hours of trains and automobiles I undertook at the end of October, going from Dar es Salaam to Tanga to Mombasa, and then from Mombasa to Nairobi, and then back to Dar – see previous posts.)

For some reason, I’m going to start with Burundi, a country where I only spent three nights and didn’t do any real reporting. Burundi was basically my journey’s terminus, and maybe for that reason I can get a little sentimental about it. But for whatever reason, this beautiful, war-torn little country looms large in my mind. Continue reading

Obama prize: for the people

My initial reaction was, like so many Twitterers and Facebookers, “It’s too early.” Obama has not nearly dismantled the GWOT to the degree I want to see, he’s still presiding over two specific wars, he hasn’t taken a position on the Goldstone report or condemned the bombing of Gaza or Israeli nukes, he may send many more troops to Afghanistan. My expectations are high, and there’s too much about American policy that continues to reek of war and imperialism.

But as a day has passed, I’ve grown more and more excited about his award. One person whose opinion I greatly respect prodded us on Twitter:

“It’s the height of cynicism, and the triumph of punditry, to scoff from the sidelines at President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.”

I don’t think all the negative reactions to the award from the left have been simple, sarcastic scoffing. Many are related to the continuing hugeness of the American war machine, the missile strikes on civilians in Afghanistan, the failure to satisfactorily shut Guantanamo.

Continue reading

Interesting comparison: Darfur and Rio De Janeiro

The ICC issued its arrest warrant for Sudanese president for Omar al-Bashir today. I won’t add to the cacophony of voices (including in yesterday’s Times: read for and against arguments) weighing in on where this is going. Suffice it to say, there is plenty of hope and maybe even more anxiety about what the arrest warrant means for peace, stability and justice in Sudan.

In poking around for more info on the conflict, though, I came upon an interesting discussion of violent deaths in Darfur in the first three-quarters of 2008. Analyzing UNAMID and Genocide Intervention Network figures, Alex de Waal at the Social Science Resource Council estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 violent deaths occurred in Darfur between January 1 and September 8, 2008. Between 359 and 720 and civilians died violently in that period. Continue reading

Afghanistan: Ain’t no time to wonder why

On a sweltering day at Woodstock in 1969, the band Country Joe and the Fish did something that every Eighties Baby born to hippies knows well.

First, they led the crowd in a rousing chant of the word “fuck”, just for the heck of it. Nowadays, when soft-porn club bangers saturate the radio, the fact that shouting “fuck” was a show-stopper seems downright quaint.

But Country Joe’s second moment of lasting fame—a rousing, angry anthem condemning the Vietnam War—should continue to give us pause today.

“Ain’t no time to wonder why,” he sang. “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!” Continue reading

Gaza Schools on the Brink

Cross-posted from The Morningside Post.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story for a class on the situation of schools in the Gaza strip. I was astounded to find how dire the situation is there for schoolkids.

“There is a great deal of difficulty concentrating because there’s a lot of trauma,” said Saahir Lone, a New York-based employee of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which runs 221 schools for 200,000 children in Gaza. “It will be some time before some kind of routine can be established.”

Gaza’s educational system—already in a dire state before the recent hostilities—is all but crippled. Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza killed 400 children and injured many, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. With empty chairs haunting classrooms, schools damaged and an estimated 14 percent of all buildings in Gaza destroyed, the United Nations says that there is no easy way to establish a normal learning environment for students. Read more.

Afghanistan: why ask why?

The dedication of 17,000 more troops — with no real explanation about what they are to accomplish, or what the long-term plan for Afghanistan is — is possibly my first real beef with Obama’s policy.

The news comes at the same time that we are learning NATO has killed an astounding number of civilians in Afghanistan in the last year (not to mention Pakistan). In fact, NATO forces have killed nearly as many civilians as the “Taliban insurgents”. If our mission in Afghanistan was not already shaky enough, these facts certainly blur the morality of our presence there even more.

What I want is for people to ask why. Why are we sending thousands of young people abroad with guns to a rural country with a widespread insurgency that we still seem to barely understand? What can we accomplish with bombs in a country that has already been bombed into submission a million times? How can we fight militants who are clothed, fed and sheltered by civilian populations, militants who apparently enjoy some kind of broad support base that allows them to keep coming back? How long will we be there?

What’s our plan for Afghanistan?

It’s time to start hearing some questions like these in our press. We didn’t ask them sufficiently before Vietnam, or Iraq. And look what happened.