Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Us versus Them in Gaza

In 2004, a documentary called “Control Room” was released, chronicling the Al-Jazeera coverage of the United States invasion of Iraq. One of the men featured in this movie was a Marine lieutenant named Josh Rushing. He was a relatively low-level press officer from CENTCOM assigned to handle the foreign news agencies’ questions about CENTCOM matters. During the documentary, Lt. Rushing recalls how disgusted he had felt when watching images of injured and dead Americans. He then recalls how his earlier reaction to even more horrifying images of injured Iraqi children did not affect him as much. He felt ashamed of his double-standard, saying that, “it upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much the night before,” adding, “It makes me hate war, but it doesn't make me believe that we're in a world that can live without war yet.”

It is human nature to flock to a common cause. Us versus them, in other words. We see it all the time, everyday. Your department at work is better than the others. Your company is better than the competition. Your sports team, family, city, state, nation, etc. We all group together to find commonality in ourselves. So when something bad happens to our side, it feels much worse than if something equally bad happened to the other side. It’s human nature.

For example, take the Virginia Tech shootings. In all, 33 people were killed, including the gunman. Compare that to the hundreds killed in Iraq bombings, the thousands of children killed in the Chinese earthquakes, and the scores killed in the Mumbai massacre, and 33 doesn’t seem like a lot. But we don’t feel the same way about the Iraqi hundreds the same way we feel about the students of Virginia Tech because the Iraqis weren’t Americans. The loss of life at Virginia Tech means more to Americans than loss of the Iraqis, the Chinese, and the Indians. It’s just human nature.

What’s the point of all this?

At the end of this year, fighting has erupted once again in Gaza. The cease-fire was broken by Hamas, by their continuous rocket attacks; Israel has retaliated with continuous bombardment. So far, as of this writing, over 350 Palestinians have been killed, and Israeli deaths are in the single digits. Yet even with the high disparity between death tolls, American political and general opinion is in full support of the Israeli bombardment. As one Washington Post columnist asks, “What Reasonable Alternative Did Israel Have?

Before this question can be answered, others need to be asked first:
1) What is life like for an average Palestinian?
2) Who does more for this Palestinian: Hamas or Israel?

These questions are crucial to understanding why Hamas and groups like it have so much support. They have support for the same reason men like John Gotti had support: Hamas, like John Gotti, supported the people. Groups like Hamas are well-funded, and not all those funds go to weapons purchases. They provide health care, schools, and basic necessities to help people live a dignified life. Hamas may be a terrorist organization that needs to be eliminated, but they are not the ones who have killed Palestinians.

One might ask, “But what about the life on an average Israeli?” It’s a fair question, but it’s a question that has many more answers than the previous questions I posed. We here in America know more about the plight of an Israeli than we do about the life of a Palestinian. As such, we care more about Israeli citizens than we do about Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, and yes, Iraqis. The death toll in the current conflict suggests that the life of an Israeli is worth more than the life of a Palestinian. To assuage guilt, we can justify the disproportional death toll by claiming that while the Israeli casualties are innocents, the Palestinian dead and injured are all Hamas or Hamas supporters and deserve it.

Regardless of Israel’s response, it was Hamas who broke the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel. It would be irrational to think that those rockets were meant for any other reason than to kill Israelis, and Israel has every right to defend itself. But at the end of the day, we end up with thousands on one side dead and injured, and a minuscule fraction of that on the other side.

So, what to do? Here’s my suggestion, and it’s a risky one. Israel should treat the Palestinians in Gaza better than Hamas treats them. If Hamas gives them clothing and food, then Israel should give them better clothing and more food. If Hamas gives the citizens in Gaza the semblance of dignity, then Israel should treat Gazans with even more dignity. Because until one life is seen as equal to another, there will be no end to this conflict.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Thoughts on this Rick Warren thing

When Senator Obama was elected President of the United States on November 4, 2008, it was a very happy day for me and many of my friends. I felt personally vindicated by his win, because to me, Barack Obama has been the quintessential equivocator. His oft-repeated phrase from "A More Perfect Union" was the epitome of equivocation: "I can no more disown [Reverend Wright] than my own grandmother."

The trouble with being an equivocator is that with the ability to understand all sides of an issue, explanation or even defense of an otherwise untenable position is seen as tantamount to unequivocal support. I can understand why pro-life activists are so passionate about wanting to prevent abortions, but that doesn't mean that I support the sabotage of family planning centers.

The way in which President-Elect Obama filled his Cabinet surprised many of his supporters and his detractors not only in terms of speed, but in choice. Liberal and conservative voices alike were intrigued at the pragmatism of his choices; if you had listened to Obama's speeches, read his books, and followed his demeanor throughout the campaign, you should not have been the least surprised.

During the past two years, Barack Obama has shown himself to be a man who follows his own drumbeat. He was never a fiery speaker, and (with prepared speeches) he was never boring. His eloquence was only matched by his temperance: pundits and supporters alike were wondering why he didn't go negative during his primary campaign against Senator Hillary Clinton. Why didn't he immediately and forcefully sever ties with Reverend Jeremiah Wright as soon as the "God Damn America!" clips flooded the airwaves and cyberspace? How could he be so gracious and magnanimous to his opponents during the debates when they were all hounding him? Obama didn't listen to criticism from his supporters; he did what he always did and kept it cool and equivocal.

What gave Obama the label of being a liberal was the only quantifiable thing that anyone could offer as evidence: his voting records. Because voting only calls for a yes or no, equivocation is absent in the results. But his books, his speeches, and his conversations with reporters and citizens have all shown listeners his appreciation for the pragmatic center. His ideals may be to the left: support for a woman's right to choose, ending the Iraq war, and unapologetic support for homosexual rights, but even these issues are tempered with sympathy for their counterparts (overall reduction in abortion, refocusing on Afghanistan, a lack of desire for federal support of legalized gay marriage).

And so we come to Pastor Rick Warren, who has been asked to deliver the invocation at the inauguration of President Obama. Here is a man who has been deeply committed to using scripture to inspire activism in the realms of poverty, disease, and the environment. He has also been a fierce proponent of Proposition 8. Gay voters who voted for Obama see this pick as a giant slap in the face to the advancement of gay rights. That the inclusion of the gay marching band is seen as a weak consolation goes to show the anger many in the gay community have.

I am dismayed at this criticism. President-Elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to lead the invocation should not come as a surprise to anyone who supported Obama. Obama has shown himself to have deep faith in the Christian religion, and he also recognizes that a vast majority of Americans do as well. And given his choices, what should he have done? Let's see what his other choices could have been:

1) Pick Candace Gingrich to lead the invocation. Result: slap in the face to anyone who considers themselves moderate or conservative.
2) Pick an unknown or a non-denominational speaker to lead the invocation. Result: slap in the face to atheists and non-Christians.
3) No invocation. Result: slap in the face to any person who considers themselves religious.
4) Pick Joel Osteen. Result: fill in the blank.
5) Pick James Dobson. Result: slap in the face to every single one of his supporters.
6) Pick James Earl Jones. Result: the most memorable invocation in the history of the world.

Andrew Jackson ordered the forced relocation of Native Americans. He also brought the national debt to the lowest in its nation's history. Abraham Lincoln threw potential enemies of the federal government in prison without charge or trial. He also ended slavery. FDR quarantined Japanese-Americans during World War II. He also desegregated the Defense Department. Barack Obama invited an ignorant man to give the invocation at his inauguration.

He also is the first person to have a gay and lesbian band march down the street to help inaugurate an American President. Let's not forget that.