They did, in all their cowardly bravado, exactly what they claimed they would do.

Tuesday came the news of another horrifying beheading of a U.S. journalist by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group and major combatant in Syria’s civil war that has recently captured large swaths of Iraq.  Steven Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelancer for Time magazine and other publications, was executed in a second snuff film posted by ISIS online in as many weeks. In it, a masked militant with a British accent stands over the kneeling Sotloff before killing him. “I’m back, Obama,” the fighter says, “and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”

He seems to be the same masked man who appeared in a video two weeks ago in which the American journalist James Foley was beheaded—retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, so the killer said. The militant warned then that Sotloff, who was captured in northern Syria a year ago, would be next. This, despite a plaintive and heart-wrenching plea released last week by Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, who begged the head of ISIS to spare her son’s life.

And ISIS apparently isn’t done. It’s threatening to behead a third hostage–reportedly identified as David Cawthorne Haines, a British citizen– and is holding at least two other Americans captive.

We shouldn’t doubt the group’s intention to do extreme evil and boastfully broadcast it to the rest of the world. These are, after all, the same barbarians who have committed summary mass executions of civilians; crucified—quite literally—Christians and non-Sunni Muslims; rampaged through villages and cities. So why should they suddenly turn into reasonable, rational gentleman-and-professor-types and spare the lives of unarmed journalists who are simply trying to bear witness to a brutal conflict?

The Obama administration has said that ISIS is a cancer that must be cut out; it poses more of a threat to the U.S. than al-Qaeda. Something clearly must be done. Now might be the time to seriously consider arming the rebels who are affiliated with political moderates, an idea that has been kicking around Washington for a while. We’ve hesitated to do so for a couple of reasons: concerns about whom exactly to arm, about whether there are any good guys in this fight; and fear that we might somehow get dragged into yet another Middle Eastern war,

But ever since Foley’s beheading, there have been whispers that the U.S. may start cooperating in some manner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to wipe out ISIS. That would be unspeakable folly. The civil war in Syria began as a popular uprising in 2011 against Assad, who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for over a decade. (And his father before him, for almost three decades.) Assad hit back with relentless, pitiless force that ultimately pushed the protests into full-throttled rebellion, splintered along sectarian lines.

In response, the Syrian Air Force filled barrels with TNT and nails and oil and dropped the improvised explosive devices from helicopters—to devastating effect on the civilians below. It exploded Scud missiles in residential neighborhoods. Most horrifically, Assad launched several attacks of chemical weapons. (Which caught the world’s attention; after the U.S. threatened airstrikes, Assad agreed to have the stockpiles destroyed under international supervision.) The number of victims is breathtaking. Close to 200,000 people have been killed in the three-year-old conflict; 6.5 million Syrians are displaced from their homes; three million are living in squalid refugee camps in neighboring countries with little food or water.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but do we really want to be sleeping, however inadvertently, with Assad? This is a guy who gassed his own citizens. The Obama administration has publicly ruled out any sort of coordinated effort with him to defeat ISIS. But how else could we expand airstrikes from Iraq into Syria? President Obama is correct in carefully trying to choreograph an effect strategy, perhaps one that involves a broad coalition of countries. In a news conference on Wednesday, he said that if the U.S. were to be joined by the international community, it could continue to shrink ISIS’s “sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.” But without building up other rebel forces, taking out ISIS could have the unintended consequence of benefiting Assad.

Sotloff and Foley, with all the courage of their profession, went off to report on a war to overthrow Assad’s tyranny. They died because of it. What sad irony if their legacy is one that helps to strengthen the dictator’s grip on power.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

For those of us who care about love and relationships, there’s much we can learn from a public corruption trial currently taking place in Richmond, Virginia.  Former Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen are accused of pocketing about $177,000 in gifts and loans from a businessman in exchange for favors from the governor’s administration. Mr. McDonnell, a vociferous proponent of family values while in office, is using a novel defense for the alleged misdeeds that essentially boils down to this:  We’re Not Guilty Because My Wife Is A Crazed Bitch.

You may remember Mr. McDonnell, who used to be a darling of the Republican Party. His critics dubbed him “Governor Ultrasound” for his role in legislation that made trans-vaginal ultrasounds mandatory for women seeking abortions. (The bill was ultimately watered down, after much protest, to allow a woman to opt for an over-the-stomach ultrasound instead.) It turns out that when he wasn’t approving bills for invasive medical procedures, Mr. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were busy being showered with gifts by the head of a dietary supplement company, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Mr. Williams reportedly had hoped that the McDonnells would help to promote the supplement. Derived from a chemical in tobacco—which right there ought to give pause to anyone older than a toddler—the drug was touted for its “anti-inflammatory” properties in treating Alzheimer’s disease. (A seriously skeptical Food and Drug Administration recently forced its withdrawal from the market.) Mrs. McDonnell allegedly flew to Florida on Mr. Williams’s plane to pitch the drug to potential investors and later hosted a launch party at the governor’s mansion.

It’s funny how these things go. One minute you’re planning a little promotional get-together at your official residence for a businessman friend—and the next thing you know, the friend’s giving you $15,000 to cover the catering costs of your daughter’s wedding.  And an engraved Rolex watch. And sets of golf clubs in fancy bags. And loans to help pay down credit card debt. And a $20,000 shopping spree in New York. And a vacation at a luxury resort.

When news of the McDonnell’s alleged misconduct first broke, some stories suggested that the couple felt compelled to try to keep up with the high-rollers they had to entertain. After all, the governor of Virginia pulls in only $175,000 a year, according to Ballotpedia—the fourth-highest gubernatorial salary in the country. He and his family have to live in state-provided housing: the Executive Mansion, a stately Federalist home done in pale yellow brick. It comes with a chef and household staff. And there’s an official car, driven by a chauffeur.

In his testimony, Mr. McDonnell acknowledged being the recipient of Mr. Williams’s largess, but emphatically denied conspiring with his wife to trade the favors of his office for the gifts. His 38-year marriage to her was simply too broken for the two to boil an egg together, much less hatch any kind of a plot. By his accounting, the couple barely spoke. Mrs. McDonnell was emotionally estranged from him. She resented the time he devoted to his job. She ranted at her household staff. She developed a “crush” on Mr. Williams. She spent hours talking on the phone with him, to the exclusion of her own husband. As proof of the impairment, McDonnell has even moved out of the family home and is now living with his parish priest in a rectory.

What we have here is the old dog-ate-my-homework defense taken to a whole new level. We should all be excited about this. Because if the jury buys it and finds the McDonnells innocent, think of the possibilities it opens up for the rest of us. Finally, a use for our dysfunctional relationships: a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

It’s telling that the barbarian who beheaded the American journalist James Foley kept his face hidden behind his black headdress.

In what was essentially a gruesome snuff film posted online on Tuesday, the masked man stood over a kneeling Foley in a desert landscape. He said the execution was in retaliation for American airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that’s a major combatant in Syria’s civil war and of late has captured significant swaths of Iraq. In his cowardice–the essence of any act of terror–Foley’s butcher hid behind the anonymity of his keffiyeh—a stark contrast to the courage represented by reporters like Foley.

Foley was a freelance journalist covering the Syrian civil war for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse when he was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012 by ISIS militants. His family fought endlessly for his release. (On Wednesday, it was reported that the Pentagon launched a commando raid—unsuccessfully–earlier this summer against the terrorists in northern Syria to free Foley and other hostages.) The family’s desperation was understandable. Mainstream Islamic organizations here and abroad have condemned ISIS’s extremism; President Obama accused its militants of having “rampaged across cities and villages, killing unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence.” Foley, sadly, became just another one of its victims.

Reporting on war has always been a dangerous job. And the death of one journalist clearly can’t compare with the deprivation, destruction and wholesale slaughter the people of Iraq and Syria have suffered. But the point is that Foley chose to be in Syria, that he committed himself, regardless of the risk, to turning our eyes to the hardships of its citizens. And it’s a job that daily becomes more deadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that the number of journalists killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the changing nature of war. Most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. By the CPJ’s calculations, Syria has become the most dangerous country for reporters; at least 70 have been killed covering the war—which has raged for over three years–and more than 80 kidnapped.

So why should you care if journalists are themselves becoming targets? Because democracy only works with an informed electorate. Without the free flow of information, we risk being reduced to a mob mentality. And that includes information from the rest of the world. The increasing globalization of our society means that what used to be an isolated event—say, the conflict in Ukraine—now affects everything from the New York Stock Exchange index to the cost of our gasoline at the pump.  Knowledge matters.

Collecting and disseminating information: that’s all Foley was trying to do. And he paid for it with his life. As the CPJ said in a statement: “Foley went to Syria to show the plight of the Syrian people, to bear witness to their fight, and in so doing to fight for press freedom.”

As a former foreign correspondent who worked in war zones in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, I take this all very seriously. And personally: my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central America. He and a young freelance photographer, Richard Cross, were driving on a road that straddled the Honduran-Nicaraguan border when their car went over an anti-tank mine. The explosion was tremendous. The force of it shot the car into the air, then split the body in half; the motor, blown out of the chassis, was found a football-field away. Dial and Richard were killed instantly.

I never discovered the identity of their murderers. That they were murdered, however, is indisputable: dozens of vehicles passed along the same desolate stretch of road on that day without setting off the explosives. That’s because the mines were command-detonated; someone with a clear view of the cars had to pull a trigger or push a button. Like Foley’s assassins, they hid behind anonymity in their cowardice. Like Foley’s assassins, they intended to silence their critics through fear and intimidation.

Like Foley’s assassins, they did not succeed–and none of them ever will.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

Shades of apartheid South Africa.

That was my immediate reaction when I saw the images from Ferugson, Missouri. Not for the racial divide between the (mostly white) police and (mostly black) protestors demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a cop. Rather, it was the military accoutrement: the armored personnel carrier, helmeted police officers in camouflage and vests, sharpshooters taking aim with assault rifles, tear gas and rubber bullets—all shockingly reminiscent of what I witnessed as a journalist 20 years ago covering the fall of apartheid.

By its very nature, apartheid required the virtual militarization of parts of the country. How else could the white minority government impose racial segregation on the majority black population? South Africans of color, who comprised more than 80% of the nation’s inhabitants, were denied even the most basic rights. Skin color was destiny: it determined where you were born, where you grew up, where you were educated, where you could work, whom you could marry, where you could live, where you would die. And it was brutally enforced.

As a result, there was no such thing as community policing in the townships, the destitute, grossly overcrowded and underdeveloped areas where people of color were forced to live. I spent much of my time reporting in Soweto, Johannesburg’s sprawling black township. To enter the place, you first had to navigate a roadblock manned by policemen decked out in full combat gear. These were not your cheerful cops, walking the beat: the white government believed it was engaged in a full-on war to keep the black population, led by godless Communists (as it characterized Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress) from taking over the country. The police patrolled the township in Casspirs, snub-nosed armored personnel carriers that rode high above the ground to limit damage from mine explosions. They brandished semi-automatic rifles, smoke bombs and tear-gas dispensers. They shot to kill at the slightest provocation.

Is that what we want in our country? It was ostensibly a war—the war on terror—that has turned our police forces into small armies. After the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept.11, 2001, federal funds flowed to these law enforcement departments, which were seen to be on the front lines of a worldwide fight against terrorism. Grants from the Department of Homeland Security paid for bullet-proof vehicles, body armor, night-vision equipment. Justice Department money bought rubber bullets and tear gas. The boys in the Pentagon sent machine guns, armored trucks, aircraft and other surplus war equipment.

If the uniform makes the man (or the woman), then what message is transmitted to police officers when they don all this military gear? That their fellow citizens, whose safety and rights they’re sworn to uphold, are the enemy? We, in this country, are guaranteed the right to peaceful protest. Those guys in the GI Joe getups are supposed to be on our side.

Much of this militarization went unnoticed—and unchallenged—until the confrontation in Ferguson. It’s encouraging that politicians of all stripes have decried the deployment of such equipment and vehicles. President Obama, in his press conference on Monday, said that it’s “probably useful” to make sure that what the various police departments are purchasing “is stuff that they actually need….there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”

Because here’s what happens when that occurs. On March 21, 1960, several thousand black demonstrators gathered outside a police station in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were protesting against having to carry racially designated passes that determined where they could work and live. The 300 or so policemen who confronted them were arrayed atop armored vehicles and armed with submachine guns and rifles. The protest was mostly peaceful; after several hours, a few of the demonstrators threw stones at the police—who began firing their weapons. Sixty-nine protestors died in the two-minute barrage of bullets, many of them shot in the back as they tried to flee.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But we should take it as an object lesson.

 

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

 

 

 

 

The latest outbreak of Ebola virus erupted across West Africa sometime this spring. The symptoms are horrific: fever, diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhaging inside and outside of the body. There is no known cure. About 60% of those who contract the virus die. The disease is estimated to have killed nearly 1,000 people since March, in its inexorable march across Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria. The hospitals and clinics of Sierra Leone and Liberia, rudimentary in the best of times, have been overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses there are themselves becoming infected and dying, leaving few medical personnel to care for the victims.

A few days later, coincidentally enough, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic an international public health emergency, demanding an extraordinary global response. This is only the third declaration of its kind since the body began issuing such alerts in 2007. Even so, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization, called for a “massive deployment” of specialists to the affected countries, saying that “lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”

(The evacuated U.S. health workers are also among the few victims to have received an experimental drug that apparently is effective—but that’s another discussion entirely.)

Why did it take so long for the world to take note? The outbreak is now in its sixth month; would the West have remained so passive if it were Belgians bleeding from the eyes or the contagion had spread from Paris to Rome? It’s doubtful. But by its very nature, Ebola probably wouldn’t find such a hospitable environment in the West. The virus is passed through contact with bodily fluids; modern sanitation facilities, good hygienic practices, well-stocked hospitals, an abundance of trained medical professionals — all would work to help contain an outbreak here.

Not so in West Africa. To be sure, in the nicest neighborhoods of the capitals of the affected countries, the wealthy live in majestic homes surrounded by security fences topped with shards of broken glass. Graceful palms line the streets; there are all manner of modern conveniences, powered by home generators for when the electricity fails. As it invariably does — often. Then there are the slums where the majority of the population live: horrifying, odoriferous hovels constructed from corrugated tin, wood, bits of cardboard, old newspapers. Raw sewage runs in rivulets and mountains of garbage putrefy under the tropical sun.

When my husband and I lived in Liberia, next door to us stood an abandoned home that used to be a Health Ministry office, a once-beautiful building with high ceilings, wide windows and imperious stone lions guarding the stairs to the front door. Squatters had appropriated it; at one point, 87 people inhabited the house. The property was a mess: the windows had no panes; the walls were crumbling; the plumbing had collapsed. People threw their refuse out the gaping windows, creating ziggurats of garbage that grew steadily until someone set them alight to make room for more.

Mornings when I went for a jog along the beach, I’d come upon people emerging like zombies from rotting shells of houses, silently making their way down to the sand to defecate in the tide. Some squatted in the streets, brushing their teeth and expectorating into the gutters; under such conditions, you couldn’t help but come in contact with bodily fluids. Such is the price of poverty in a place where decades of government corruption and graft failed to create basic sanitation facilities. And that was before civil war and unrest in the region further destroyed what little infrastructure existed.

The lack of medical facilities and professionals are equally appalling. Liberia, for instance, currently has a total of about 50 doctors to care for the country’s four million people. That means there are generally more doctors on staff in one urban U.S. hospital than in an entire nation. And doctors there lack even such basic supplies as gloves to protect them from coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients. They struggle too with trying to thwart traditional practices, such as the washing of the dead by village elders, that exacerbate the spread of Ebola.

The West has always maintained a certain lack of feeling about Africa: too distant; too unimportant economically; too other. That callousness is perhaps best illustrated by a former foreign editor for one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S. A friend of mine covered the continent in the 1980s for the paper and was among the first Western reporters to encounter the famine in 1983-84 that ravaged Ethiopia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. He tried desperately to interest the foreign editor in the story. Her response? “People are always starving to death in Africa. Where’s the news in that?”

At a time when Western media organizations are closing their Africa bureaus or greatly reducing their presence on the continent because of budget constraints, this indifference only grows. Today there is a famine in Somalia that barely rates coverage. Wars are raging in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo — where several million people are estimated to have died. Add to that list the explosion of the Ebola virus across West Africa.

Where is the news in all that? Apparently only when the victims are from the West.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

If you noticed that the American press—electronic and print—struggled to maintain a semblance of balance in reporting the war between Israel and Gaza, chalk it up to the complexity of the conflict. Moral ambiguity is always a tough one. This was a confrontation marked by stunningly bad leadership on both sides—the same leadership that now intends to sit down for peace talks in Cairo.

Let’s start with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Before it began its rocket barrages into Israel last month, Hamas popularity among Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants had plummeted. Unemployment—much of it induced by Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the borders—was hovering at around 50%; Hamas couldn’t pay its 40,000 government workers their salaries; it had lost its main political patrons in Egypt and Syria. Things had gotten so bad that it even agreed to form a new government with its archrival Fatah, the party that controls the West Bank.

Cue the rockets.

For those of you living in tornado-prone areas, think of how your heart races when you hear a siren sound during storm season. Or any siren, for that matter. Now multiply that feeling by 100 or so—and you’ll get a sense of what it was like to be in Israel on the receiving end of those missiles. On July 10, for instance, Hamas launched 197 rockets at Israel; 162 rockets on July 17; 141 rockets on July 30; in just the last 45 minutes preceding the start of Tuesday’s ceasefire, Hamas fired 13 rockets at Israel. By the time the ceasefire took hold, Hamas had shot nearly 3,000 rockets and mortars into Israel.  Miraculously, only three civilians were killed, mostly because of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and the prevalence of bomb shelters throughout the country, both public and private. (Another 64 Israeli soldiers died in the ensuing battles.)

Hamas embarked on its deadly fireworks campaign knowing full-well that it would invite a lethal response. How could the Israeli government not hit back? And here’s where the cynical use of war as a tactic is most appalling: hide your fighters and weaponry among the civilian population—in schools, mosques, near hospitals—and you’ve set the scene for a disaster. And disaster it was when Israel’s armed forces let loose. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza killed more than 1,800 people, over 70% of them civilians; injured an estimated 9,800; laid waste to entire neighborhoods; destroyed already-meager infrastructure in the direly impoverished territory. A United Nations official said that the war had had a “catastrophic and tragic impact” on Gaza’s children and that reconstruction would cost billions of dollars.

War, by its very nature, is indiscriminate. This is not to diminish Israel’s culpability for the deaths and horrific destruction wrought. But you only have to look at the results of the unmanned drones that the U.S. has used against terrorists to debunk the myth of “precision” or “pin-point” bombing. The Council on Foreign Relations figures that of the 3,400 or so people we’ve killed over the last 10 years in such strikes, at least 12% were innocent bystanders. (“Collateral damage,” in Pentagon-speak, that bland, actuarial-esque term intended to sanitize the unintended and tragic consequences of such actions.) This, when we were targeting only one or two people and not responding in real time to attacks.

Politicians have used war to divert attention from their own failings since the inception of the city-state. Among the most blatant demonstrations I witnessed as a journalist occurred in Argentina in 1982, when the despised ruling military junta invaded the Falkland Islands. One minute there were almost a million people out in the streets of Buenos Aires, calling for the heads of the generals—and the next thing you knew, the country had invaded the Malvinas (as the Falklands are known in Spanish): a clump of wind-whipped rocks in the South Atlantic, inhabited by about 1,800 English-speaking farmers and 600,000 sheep, which Argentina has been claiming ever since the British occupied them in 1833. This flagrant appeal to nationalism worked–that is, until the British arrived to retake the islands, and young Argentine soldiers began returning home in body bags by the hundreds.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. Hamas—and the Palestinians as a whole—have desperately real and legitimate grievances against Israel (which I’ll get to below). But the concept of employing war as a tactic is the same. And what of the 32 elaborately constructed tunnels, running from Gaza deep into Israeli territory, that Israel’s forces found and destroyed? In all likelihood, they would have been used to devastating effect to launch terror attacks inside Israel. What if Hamas had instead funneled the resources and ingenuity and energy used to create those tunnels into bettering life in Gaza? (Or at least diverted some of the cement to build bomb shelters for its people.)

And yet, and yet. None of this happened in a vacuum. The past several years have brought little but despair for Palestinians: continued Israeli intransigence on curtailing settlements in the occupied West Bank; a peace process, so assiduously pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry, that fell apart earlier this year. The people of Gaza suffered continuous fuel shortages, daily electrical outages, failing sanitation systems and water treatment plants, a collapsing economy. In the absence of hope, the Hamas strikes against Israel seemed like a bold gesture to some Gazans.

The magnificent Israeli writer and peace activist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent New York Times op ed: “,,,,,I ask the leaders of my own country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors: How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people—an act that could also have served to pressure Hamas? Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas?” (Grossman speaks with tragic authority; his son, a tank commander, was killed in 2006 in Lebanon in the waning days of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.)

So there you have it: a month-long war, whose inevitability was created by the leaders of one side and set in motion by leaders of the other. And these are the same people who are now going to talk peace.

Where, oh where, are the Nelson Mandelas of the Middle East?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

Of the myriad bills that Congress didn’t pass this year and issues it didn’t address—thereby earning it the dubious distinction of being the least productive in the legislative body’s history—leaving fully one-quarter of our 169 embassies without ambassadors stands out as a huge failing.

Consider where the vacancies are: until last Tuesday, there was no U.S. ambassador in either Honduras or Guatemala—both countries from which tens of thousands of children have washed up on the Texas border. (The Senate did confirm the nominee to Honduras; the ambassador-designate to Guatemala has yet to have a vote.) In Africa, 13 of our embassies are without top envoys. They include such critical countries as Niger, which the Obama administration sees as vital to fighting terrorism in the Sahel region. (That’s where Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group that kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in neighboring Nigeria last April, operates.) Even the ambassador-designate to Russia –Russia!—may not get voted on before the congressional August recess.

The reason for the vacancies is the usual partisan food fight between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, which controls the confirmation process for all ambassadors. That, and the perception that President Obama is allocating an inordinate number of the top embassy positions to political benefactors instead of career diplomats. (One example: Colleen Bell, a producer of the soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who contributed or raised $800,000 for the Obama campaign and apparently had a less-than-stellar performance when she appeared recently before the Foreign Relations Committee to be grilled on her nomination as ambassador to Hungary. The committee approved her nonetheless, but she’s still awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.)

Do these vacancies matter? Having worked as a foreign correspondent and been married to a U.S. ambassador, I’ve seen both sides of the profession. Just as there are bad butchers and dental hygienists, so too are there lousy ambassadors. Many are preening peacocks with an inflated sense of self, more interested in the trappings and perquisites of the office—having traffic stopped for their convoys, flying the flags on their limousines, staging grand parties in their grand residences—than in the substance of their work.

(Those characteristics aren’t limited to our envoys. I once had the privilege of witnessing the wife of a European diplomat throw a world-class hissy fit when her country’s entire delegation was inadvertently denied seats at a luncheon following the inauguration of an African president. “We give so much fucking money to this fucking country,” she announced loudly, flouncing out of the venue, “you’d think we could get a fucking seat at a fucking table!”)

But I’ve also encountered many dedicated and brave practitioners of diplomacy, men and women who care deeply about the power the U.S. can wield for good in the world, and have used the position of ambassador to further that aim. It’s not always easy. They have to navigate the delicate balance between the dictates of their boss back in Washington, and the sensibilities of their host country. Often times they are required to take actions that seem, from their vantage, counterproductive or a violation of personal principles. The courageous among them will find a way to stand up to Washington; some will even go so far as to quit. For them, the position is almost one of a sacred trust.

And when these posts go empty for months on end, it matters–even in this era of instant communications. Yes, you could send in the deputy-ambassador to deliver a stern message to, say, President Putin of Russia that the U.S. is not going to countenance him arming rebels in Ukraine—but Putin knows that the deputy- ambassador isn’t Obama’s man (or woman.) The deputy wasn’t specially appointed by the president, wasn’t vetted by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t have a confirmation vote by the full Senate. The deputy doesn’t possess a document, signed by the president, declaring him to be “extraordinary and plenipotentiary.” For career diplomats, who historically have filled about 70% of all ambassadorships, attaining the title is a huge feat; only about 5% ever achieve it.

By contrast, the deputy is just another bureaucrat who obtained his position by having served long enough in the State Department to rise to the proper rank. No matter how talented or intelligent the deputy may be, a head-of-state isn’t going to be inclined to invite him for a quiet drink or a one-on-one lunch or a round of golf in which to develop an intimate working relationship; second-in-command just doesn’t cut it. It’s the equivalent of consorting with a colonel instead of a general. The title bestows authority: a foreign president or prime minister wants to talk to someone who ostensibly has our president’s ear. Or, at least, that of the secretary of state.

While it all may seem antiquated, a holdover from the days of morning coats and top hats, this is the way nations have always dealt with one another—and still do. (In fact, many countries—Norway, Thailand, Spain and Japan, to name a few–continue to require the ambassador to don a morning coat when presenting his or her “letter of credence” to the head-of-state. Here’s what the Dutch government says about the ceremony: “The king puts a gala carriage drawn by two horses at the disposal of every ambassador that present their credentials and, if appropriate, a so-called blue carriage for the embassy staff. Ahead and behind every cortege ride two Military Police riders in ceremonial uniform. At Noordeinde Palace, a guard of honor and a military band is drawn up. Following a salute by four drum-rolls and the national anthem of the ambassador’s country, the guard of honor is inspected, after which the ambassador and retinue goes inside. On departure, the ambassador is again given four drum-rolls. The dress code for the ambassador is morning-coat or traditional dress of their country.”)

Pomp and circumstance aside, you’d think that with Russia meddling with deadly results in Ukraine, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists running amok in parts of Africa and thousands of Central American children turning up on our doorstep–Congress might have figured out that ambassadors do matter.  Why send colonels to deal with these issues when we’ve got dozens of generals waiting to go?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

The next time you see video of a hateful, vitriol-spewing crowd chanting against allowing immigrants into our country, you might want to think what it’s like to be a refugee.

And with good reason. By the end of last year, civil wars and other violence had forced a mind-numbing 51 million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. To put that number into perspective, it’s tantamount to the entire population of South Korea pouring out of the country and decamping to other places. And half—half!—of all refugees are children.

Consider these statistics: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees figures there are about 6.5 million people displaced internally in Syria because of civil war, with another 2.5 million squatting in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. That’s about 40% of the country’s total population. In Colombia, 5.4 million have fled their homes, the legacy of internal conflicts that have dragged on for decades. Three million people from the Central African Republic have been displaced by sectarian fighting, some walking for three months to escape to surrounding countries while subsisting on leaves and contaminated water, many bearing terrible wounds from machetes or gunshots. And here in the U.S., 57,000 children have turned up on our doorstep, most of them fleeing gang violence in Central America.

Whether it is internal displacement within your home country, or flight to borders beyond, the experience is nothing less than traumatizing. The decision to leave is usually made hastily, with bombs exploding in the distance or machete-wielding rebels bearing down on your home. You grab whatever you can think of in the moment—bedding, food, cooking utensils, a few sentimental trinkets—and dash. The lucky ones leave in cars. The less fortunate—read: most refugees—head out on foot. Propelled by the violence at their backs, they scurry forward under the weight of their belongings, herding their children, trying to find food and shelter along the way. Fear is the animating emotion: fear of what they are running from, fear of what lies ahead. Think, for instance, of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the 20,000 or so children who were displaced and/or orphaned by civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and traversed a vast and dangerous wilderness on foot for months, so desperate were they to seek refuge in Ethiopia. Think of the fear and despondency that must impel the Central American children nowadays to make their perilous trek to our border.

The fortunate among refugees will often find shelter with extended family members. It’s a humiliating situation, at the very least: squeezed into someone else’s space, living on their largesse, hoping for their patience and understanding. And that’s a best-case scenario. Many refugees end up living in squalid, fetid camps. Seasonal rains inundate their tents; food is scarce; medical supplies, rudimentary; schooling for the children, virtually non-existent. They sit in these camps for days, weeks, sometimes even years. They have no idea what has happened to the homes they left behind, their neighborhoods, businesses, friends, families. It is impossible for them to know when they will be able to return. They become people with no past and no future—only a present of ceaseless misery.

As a foreign correspondent covering wars, I wrote often about the plight of refugees. It was part of my job description. These were some of the saddest stories I had to report, yet I never fully appreciated what it meant to be uprooted until I, too, became a refugee of sorts. In the summer of 1990, I was living in Liberia with my husband, a career foreign service officer who was charge d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. Rebels led by the warlord Charles Taylor were bearing down on the capital in what had become a grisly tribal conflict. Fearing a bloodbath when Taylor entered Monrovia, the State Department ordered all Americans out of the country except for essential embassy personnel. The other evacuees were going on to Washington, but I got off the airplane in neighboring Sierra Leone to sit on a beach until the war ended. I didn’t want to be so far away from my husband.

It was an agonizing wait. Days turned into weeks. I had only radio reports from the BBC to keep me informed of the war’s horrific progress. I had no idea if my husband was safe. (Later, I would learn that a stray bullet whizzing through his office window missed lobotomizing him by about two inches.) I had no idea of the fate of our Liberian friends; of the families of our employees (who were hiding in our basement); of our house; our belongings. I couldn’t work and I couldn’t make plans. Those were among the most disorienting and dispiriting weeks I’ve ever spent. Life itself seemed suspended. And I was lucky. Unlike most refugees, I had an American passport that would gain me entry to just about anywhere in the world. I had a credit card to pay for an airplane ticket out of there, a bank account back in the U.S. to allow me to begin anew. (Which I would eventually have to do: I was never allowed to return to Monrovia.)

We, as citizens, can’t end the world’s civil wars and violence; they require political solutions forged by political leaders. We can, however, recognize that refugees are the flotsam and jetsam of such conflicts. So when you see those demonstrators screaming against the Central American children who’ve crossed into Texas, think about what it would be like to be a refugee. How we respond speaks volumes about us as a people–and as a nation.

 

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

It used to be easy to ignore news of the world’s horrors. All those accounts of wars, famines, earthquakes, those pictures of fly-swarmed children with distended bellies, of mothers weeping over open graves — they all happened out there. By the time we saw the photographs and read the stories, they were usually days old. We could justify averting our eyes with the thought that the world had moved on and so, probably, had those people.

Not anymore. In an age of instant information, out there  has emphatically become here; those people are us; their humanity, ours. Now we watch world events unfold in real time. We are all intimately and immediately connected — for better or worse, as I have come to learn.

As a teenager growing up in Detroit in the early 1970s, I couldn’t wait to leave home. My parents were in the midst of a messy divorce; I wanted nothing to do with their muddled lives. Throughout high school, I worked in a bakery on most afternoons and weekends. While my peers were experimenting with drugs and having sex, I was shoveling éclairs into small white cardboard boxes and plotting my escape.

Friends of mine, a couple of years older and wise in these things, told me about how you could live and study on a kibbutz in Israel for free in exchange for work. You just had to get there. They shoved copies of  O, Jerusalem and Exodus my way, and these romantic renderings of history seized my imagination and inflamed my wanderlust. I sped through my classes, piling on extra credits and arguing with the principal about letting me graduate early. He finally agreed that I could leave a year ahead of schedule.

The dark-eyed official at the Israeli Embassy didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t even close to the required age of 18. The next opening on a kibbutz ulpan  (work/study program) is here, he said, pointing to a small speck on a map of Israel. Upper Galilee, near the Golan Heights, he said. Very beautiful.

I said: I’ll take it.

Like it was the last car left on the lot.

Despite my parents’ vehement opposition, I bought an airplane ticket with my bakery money and went. The geography of the place awed me. Beyond the kibbutz’s eastern boundary, the terrain snaked steeply down to the now not-so-mighty Jordan River, then up to the Golan Heights, snaggle-toothed against the heat-hazed sky. Mount Hermon, of biblical renown, loomed moodily to the north. Damascus lay just over the horizon. I couldn’t have been happier.

Yom Kippur, 1973, I awoke to a khamsin, the suffocatingly hot wind that blasts in from the Arabian desert. Khamsin is the Arabic word for 50: the wind supposedly blows sporadically for 50 days. It drives people to madness. Legend has it that during the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey ruled that part of the world, a man couldn’t be held responsible for killing his wife during a khamsin. (Those Ottoman women must have trembled at every breeze.) A few hours later, massive explosions shattered the echo-quiet of the holiest day of the Jewish year. The Syrians breached the border and bombed the Golan Heights; in the south, the Egyptians crossed into Sinai.

Israel was at war.

That night, lying on my back on a wooden bunk in a bomb shelter deep underground, I watched the sleeve on my shirt fluttering, as if in a strong wind, from the concussion of the artillery above. I watched for hours, fascinated, unable to sleep for the noise and the excitement. This is how it would be for the duration of the three-week war.

Nights we hunkered outside the shelters until it was time to sleep, listening to static-swooshed reports of the BBC from London. Days, we popped up above ground for air, meerkats-from-our-burrows, during lulls in the fighting. Pairs of Israeli Mirage jets screamed low over the Galilee and into the Golan, the earth quaking as they dropped their load of bombs and screeched back overhead to base. Of course I understood, in an abstract sort of way, that people were dying. But my solipsistic and immortal teenaged self was thrilled to be at the center of world events.

My parents obviously did not feel likewise. My mother had a rather fuzzy concept of geography and was thus spared instantly understanding how close the Syrian soldiers were to my kibbutz. She followed the war’s progress through stories in the Detroit News which, given that it didn’t have a Middle East bureau, relied mostly on wire- service stories or pieces from the New York Times and Washington Post wires — accounts that were at least day-old by the time she read them. Television news was only slightly less stale; film had to be physically transported to a relay station outside the region, rendering it several hours old at best.

My father, who had moved to London after his divorce, did manage to contact me. (This, after calling the U.S. Consulate and demanding that the Pentagon send a military transport to evacuate his daughter.) It’s quaint now to think of how we managed to talk. One night a runner from the kibbutz’s communications bunker appeared in my shelter to say there was a telephone call for Lynda Schuster. Bemused, I followed him into the total blackout, stumbling along blindly, the thwump, thwump, thwump of cannons at my back. My heart was making almost as much noise as the guns.

“Here,” came the command in the darkness. A light suddenly illuminated an open doorway, and I followed the runner down the stairs to a bank of telephones.

I said: “Hello?”

“Lynda, this is your father. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. We’re in bomb shelters.”

“You have no idea how worried I’ve been.”

“Dad, I’m fine. Really. It was just a little scary to come out and take this call. I can’t believe you got through.”

“I’ve been trying for days. Lynda, you should come to London.”

“I can’t, Dad. There’s really no way out of here. And the roads aren’t safe.”

“Well, then don’t leave your bomb shelter.”

“I won’t as long as I don’t have to take any calls.”

Fast forward a few decades. My teenaged daughter wants to go to Israel for the summer with her youth group. This doesn’t seem an opportune moment in which to embark on tourism there; the neighborhood is restive. The Syrian government is — quite literally — slaughtering its own citizens; Iraq, fracturing along sectarian lines; Iran, engaged in its nuclear kabuki dance. Seen through the prism of parenthood, an adolescent foray such as this – such as mine —  seems a thing of folly and peril.

My daughter says: You, of all people, should understand.

Somewhere along the way into adulthood, I — like many adults — lost the hot-breathed urgency of youthful experience, that almost overwhelming drive to discover the world. I recognize it again, the shock and pleasure of seeing an old friend, in my daughter’s gaze past the door to departure. There is one difference now: instant communication. Unlike my parents, who had scant and tardy resources to rely on for news of me and the rest of the world, I am awash in electronically imparted information. I cling to this idea. It is like a totem: having instant knowledge of what is happening in the world will somehow empower me to keep her safe. Magical thinking, I know, but still comforting. This, and the fact that unlike me, she will be on a tightly controlled and supervised program in which even blowing her nose will have to be scheduled.

So some might say it was karmic justice that just after she and her comrades arrived in Jerusalem, rioting started in the eastern part of the city. Palestinian youths were protesting the murder of an Arab teenager, who had been killed apparently to avenge the murders of three Israeli youths. My daughter was able to text me her whereabouts in the western half of Jerusalem — nowhere near the clashes — and that provided a modicum of reassurance.

Then Hamas started shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel. And the Israeli air force began hitting Gaza with air strikes. My daughter and her group were in the southern part of the country; just as they were about to embark on a desert hike, a rocket exploded in the vicinity. I knew this because I had started checking news sites. Quick, frantic text to her; quick text back to me: the southern part of trip was being postponed; they were being moved to the north, ostensibly out of rocket range.

I have since become a crazed news junkie. I downloaded alerts from the New York Times, Washington Post, wire services, Israeli newspapers, Al Jazeera. My phone now sports an app that tells me, in real time, where rockets are hitting in Israel. It features an insistent, hairs-raised-on-the-back-of-the-neck alarm that I can turn on if I want to make myself truly crazy. That’s how I knew the other night that rockets were fired from Lebanon at the area in the north where the kids had been moved. Panicked, I texted my daughter, who was staying in a youth hostel. She answered:

There was just a code red (siren) here We ran to the kitchen where we still are

Why the kitchen?

No windows

Are your counselors with you?

Yeah. Did the rocket get intercepted?

Can’t tell. How are you doing?

Okay I’m shaking.

Her messages then ceased — and I, along with about a hundred other frantic parents, bombarded the program’s director with phone calls and texts. 45 minutes later, I received the following message from my daughter:

Sorry we were in the bomb shelter and there wasn’t wifi. We’re back now

Do you want to come home?

NO!

What I’m experiencing obviously pales in comparison with the terror felt by Israelis and Palestinians. My daughter and her comrades were moved the next day to a part of the country that has been free from rocket attacks. The kids all want to stay in Israel; the directors of their program are keeping them out of harm’s way.

But it’s telling that all this instant information I presumed would be a comfort is making me feel much, much worse. Of course, I could stop compulsively clicking onto news sites and turn off the apps and alerts and alarms and bells and whistles. And I do  —occasionally. Chances are my daughter and her buddies are going to be fine, so do I truly need to know — in real time — that a rocket is going off? My mother had no idea of the magnitude of the danger I faced during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War. Even if she had, what could she have done?

Here’s a heretical thought: a little bit of ignorance might, at times, be bliss.

 

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

As parents, we transmit the qualities—and myths—of our leaders through the stories we tell our children. Think George Washington and his cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King and his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

But what if we not only did not pass on those tales to the next generation, but actively worked to suppress them? Surprisingly, that is what happened in the case of Nelson Mandela. That he was nonetheless able to seize the imagination of hundreds of thousands of young South Africans and inspire them to rise up against apartheid’s unspeakable oppression is yet another tribute to what was his last-of-a-kind leadership.

The details of Mr. Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment are well known. In July 1963, South African police raided the secret headquarters of the armed wing of the African National Congress at a farm outside of Johannesburg, arresting most of its leaders. Eight of them, including Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island, a desolate stretch of rock off the coast of Cape Town. The raid effectively stilled black opposition for a decade. What remained of the ANC was forced to regroup outside the country, far from South Africa’s borders. An entire generation of black activists was imprisoned, banned or exiled. To deter resurgence of political movements, the police assumed unbridled powers of arrest and detention and recruited an army of black informers; the government imposed harsh restrictions on the press.

The measures left blacks utterly intimidated. People shunned political discussions; to speak of such matters was to invite repression. The ANC’s protest campaigns of the 1950s, the creation of its Freedom Charter, the stories of its leaders—all slipped into obscurity, suppressed by parents too frightened to tell their children. Newspapers could not even print Mr. Mandela’s photograph.

A young man recounted to me a remarkable example of this parental attempt to protect their children when I was working as the Monitor’s South Africa correspondent in the late 1980s.One day when he was a little boy, he asked his father about graffiti he had seen spray-painted on an electrical sub-station on his way home from school in the sprawling black township of Soweto. “Who is Mandela?” he inquired. His father instantly slapped him across the face; in a choked voice, he ordered his son never to utter the name again and stalked out of the room.

To an outsider, the anecdote was startling on several levels: the young man’s ignorance, as a boy, of Mr. Mandela; his father’s visceral response to the ANC leader’s name; the seeming success of the white-minority government to gag an entire generation of black parents. But perhaps even more astonishing was that when the young man told me the story 15 years after the fact, Mr. Mandela had become an iconic presence in every township across South Africa.

For although the government succeeded in obstructing the usual imparting of political lore from parent to child, those stories—like most universal truths–found another conduit. Here is how it happened: the mid-1970s saw the rise of a new anti-apartheid movement, Black Consciousness (which generally rejected the ANC’s non-racial and inclusive philosophies), and other leaders, most notably Steven Biko. Influenced by the movement, high school students in Soweto led a massive protest march on June 16, 1976, against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. Their parents knew nothing of the planned demonstration. The police responded with violence; the protest turned into rioting that raged for months.

The government ultimately stamped out the unrest through brutally repressive measures that included arresting hundreds of the student organizers, putting them on trial and sending them to be imprisoned on Robben Island. There they met Mr. Mandela and his cohorts. It was nothing short of an epiphany for the youngsters: the ANC leaders organized stealthy study sessions, away from the prying eyes of their wardens, in which they taught the ANC’s philosophy and history and the roles they had played in earlier demonstrations and protests. One such student told me he used to feel practically dizzy with all that his elders had to impart.

For the first time ever, the young people learned about how the previous generation had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. (Which earned the Robben Island prison the sobriquet of “The University” among activists.) So that when the youngsters were released from the jail in the early- to-mid- 1980s, they returned to the townships as fervent ANC converts, eager to spread the stories of the organization and of Mr. Mandela. Their activism, among others, spawned another spasm of violent protests that ultimately led to Mr. Mandela’s release in early 1990, and to the country’s first democratic elections four years later in which Mr. Mandela was elected president.

It is thus one of the great ironies of South African history that where most parents had failed, the apartheid government unwittingly succeeded in elevating Mr. Mandela to the very status it had so cruelly sought to suppress.