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

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

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

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

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