Sunday, November 30, 2008

My solution to terrorism: Teach people to value women

Some acts of violent terrorism are, for better or worse, easier to internalize. They hit home. Others are incomprehensible, but somehow don't cause the same emotional impact. For instance, the genocide in Darfur is horrendous, hideous and appalling. And I experience all those words though the filter of my brain, not my heart. It doesn't hit home for me. The recent attacks in Mumbai/ Bombay are all together different. I find myself in the process of completing a routine act and suddenly the absolute repulsion of the recent Mumbai attacks knocks the wind out of me. My mind trails to the nanny who managed to sneak the small boy from the Chabad center. Amazing woman, God bless her. I think about that boy- Did he see his parents murdered? Tortured? What horrendous images have scalded themselves against the membranes of his eyes, in the recesses of the folds in his brain?

Maybe because the recent terrorist attacks hit close to home for me- the International Jewish Community and the International School Community. (A Couple whose three children attended the International School in Mumbai were killed.) - Maybe because India and Bangladesh used to be one and the same...

With all the violence in the world (and yes, on television, in films) I wonder if we have become desensitized to the extent that we have forgotten, as a community and as individuals, what it means to be outraged. For some acts to cause our guts to turn, our jaws to clinch and our fists to tighten until our knuckles are white and we're oblivious to the pain of our nails digging into the flesh of our palms. -An outrage that motivates us to action and kicks us out of complacency. Why do I feel that we are all standing slack-jawed as the images pass before us on the screen of our choice? And when we turn our heads, we shake the images loose and continue. We might bemoan the world, blame the groups that we perceive as responsible, and sigh about the world. And then we keep walking. Why aren't we screaming?

And I wonder, if we were to scream, what would we say? What words would shape themselves to express our angst, our fear, our outrage. And who would hear us? Really, what good would a little screaming do? Do my scream, my tears, my pounding fists, count for anything? All the problems seem insurmountable, impassable, unmanageable.

Today I read an article in the NY Times. Careful with the link- the image is unpalatable. Kristof is in Pakistan- again close to 'home' for me in Bangladesh- and he's discovered what he dubs "Personal Terrorism". He is aghast and screaming (Thank you Kristof) about acid victims.

Living in Bangladesh, I'm already familiar with the concept of acid victims because of the Acid Survivors Foundation here. The basic concept is that upset husbands, jilted lovers and any one who can access acid (Bangladesh is actually the only country in the region who has tried to limit access.) can throw the acid at a person. Let me say that again. Revenge is taken out by throwing acid on a person. The acid burns through the flesh, the muscles and the bones and causes almost instantaneous blindness as the smoke rises from the living person's body. The victims are primarily women.

My apologies for the graphic speech.

Last year I also worked with a senior as she researched dowry practices in Bangladesh. What I never throughly thought through before last year was the violence that comes with dowry. This is most graphically seen in India where men marry women, accept the dowry (which is usually preposterously large compared to the family's annual income) burn their new brides (usually gasoline + match) and then can start the search for another woman and her dowry.

Now, I think we can really start to talk about terror. The "War on Terror" is focused on guns, bombs and terrorist cells that are, supposedly, coming from elsewhere to attack us at home. What about the terrorist that sleeps in your own bed?

Previously, I purported that when we devalue other humans that we devalue our own lives. How can men (yes, most international terrorist are men.) be expected to value the lives of humans in different countries, with different value structures, and different belief systems if they cannot even value their sisters, wives and mothers? Where is the sanctity of human life?

It is painfully obviously that women are indeed the weaker sex in many places throughout South Asia and the world. Their weakness is not because of actually physical inability or inherent mental inferiority. The societies in which they live subjugate women- not usually the upper classes- but yes the lower stratum that are the majority of society. Bride burners and Acid throwers are usually not prosecuted by law nor admonished by society. Somehow, these individual terror attacks have become normalized.

I think that by the time a young man or woman picks up a bomb, a gun or grenade and is intent on creating death and pandamodium, we've lost our chance. It's too late. We can track terrorist organizations and cells and renegades for centuries. As long as the communities that produce terrorist are untouched, the cycle will remain. But what if we could push for woman's rights? The right to live without fear? To fight against rape, international trafficking of women and children into sex slavery, against dowery, against bride burning, against honor killings, against female genital mutilation, against acid attacks- if we could slowly put pressure and cause the most vulnerable members of so many societies- women- to be valued- maybe if the young men coming from those communities could see all people in their societies as human and deserving of basic human rights. Maybe, just maybe, we could reduce the number of people who could envision themselves as terrorist.

Currently the there is the International Violence Against Woman's Act that is waiting to be passed through congress. This is a way to act, a way to scream, a way to pound your fists. This could be a start to providing protection for women globally and possibly changing the mentality of terrorism as acceptable ways to show power and strength. Unfortunately, the bill currently lacks enough votes to pass.

So, what are you going to do?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Turtle's follow up thoughts

Here is another example how lack of value of the lives of other humans directly lowers the value of your own life. The terrorists who committed the siege on Mumbai were lead to believe that they would come back alive. If the people who trained and armed them didn't value the lives of their indescriminently chosen victims, how foolhardy were the terrorists to believe that their own lives held value?

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a student several years ago. Throughout his questions and my responses, I wanted him to see that once you start dividing and classifying humans (in this case, black/ white and christian/ not christian) and then you place different values on humans who can be labeled with different classifications, you've lost. Maybe today you'll be in charge and deciding that your group has value and granting yourselves privileges and prestige- but the system of division, categorization and then judging and valuing humans based on their grouping is a monster. The idea the one human can be of more or less inherent value based on grouping is a mentality that devalues human life in general. As history shows, the people who hold power and make the rules, inevitably change. And those who thought that they were making gains for their own lives, their own people, can just as easily fall victim to their own inhumanity.


My uncle lead me to an interesting article in the Economist that links petty lawlessness with increase in other crimes. It's termed "The broken windows effect" I think we can see the same idea playing out on the world stage in terms of increased terrorism.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A turtle's response to terrorism

I feel like such a turtle. I’m just so overwhelmed by today. One glace at the BBC front page is enough to send me reeling. The three top stories are presented 1) the attacks on civilians (mainly tourists) in India with a slideshow of images 2) Thai protestors who have shut down the Bangkok airport are “braced for battle” (and I know of various people trapped in Bangkok as that is one of the primary hubs for getting out of or into Dhaka) and 3) Suicide bombing at an Iraqi mosque.

I’ve been reading updates from Mumbai and one of the terrorist targets that is still currently under siege by the Indian military as they try to regain control of the building is home to the Chabad House. Many Jews, myself included, go to Chabad Houses for kosher food, conversation, to meet other travelers, and enjoy Shabbat meals and services together. In fact, I’ve been to the Chabad Houses in Kathmandu, Bangkok and Koh Samui. And if I had been in Mumbai, I would have gone to the Chabad House there too. Since I live in Bangladesh, going to India isn’t such a far-fetched idea.

For all the associations we have with the world of terror being centered in the Middle East, I was surprised to learn that save for the treacherous war-zone that is Iraq, I’m living next to (indeed surrounded by) the country that suffers from the highest number of deaths by terrorism. Yes, it even outnumbers Afghanistan. (Okay, population density also needs to be taken into account here.)

I’ve found all this so overwhelming that I got in touch with my inner turtle. Instead of completing the umpteen works tasks I had allocated to myself for this afternoon, I went home, covered myself with a blanket, shut my eyes and did my best to block out the world. The only problem is that the world, as noncompliant as it is, was still around when I woke up from my nap. Terrorists are still rampaging in Mumbai, there is still a horrid war in Iraq, pirates in Somalia, genocide in Darfur and countless other examples- big and small- of human beings who refuse to be humane. (I know the pirates are a bit of an outlier in that list- but hey- they’re pirates. I couldn’t resist.)

Alan, who hosted our thanksgiving dinner recently moved here from Afghanistan where he was working on a nation-building project. (And yes, some of his colleagues there were killed and he could have been too. He said the daily question was “Is what I’m doing worth losing my life?”) I think his reaction to the current large-scale terrorist attacks in Mumbai sum up so much what many people feel. He repeated time and time again- “I’m just tired of it all.”

Terrorism is not new- not to the 21st century and not to humankind. The question is, how can we who value human life live in a world where human life is not valued? And it doesn’t take a gun, a grenade or a bomb to show that human life doesn’t hold value. Here in Bangladesh I see men tear down large buildings by hammering away on the very walls on which they are precariously balanced. They wear cheep flip-flops or no shoes at all and a lungi (traditional man-skirt). There are so many people here, that they are considered expendable.

In one of the many books I’ve read on Judaism/ Israel, the authors contend that when we accept terrorism (particularly in this case, suicide bombings) against our allies or our enemies, that these tactics will eventually spread to be used against us. (Look at the current use of suicide bombings by Arabs against Arabs in Arab states.) The bottom line is once the world does not universally condemn an act that devalues life- whether that life be of a friend or a foe- the act becomes acceptable. In short- if the people (whomever they may be) who trained and armed the young men/ boys who are carrying out the attacks on Mumbai think that they are furthering their own cause they are wrong. (Unless, of course, their sole cause is indiscriminate mayhem and destruction- then they’re spot on.) This mentality- that devaluing the life of others can bring more value to one’s own life/ causes- is simply incorrect. When we devalue human life for a specific group, regardless of the excuse (poverty, race, religion, communism, capitalism, etc), we devalue our own lives and those of the people we love. Those who teach hatred, embody it, perpetuate it, are doing nothing but escalating hatred and dehumanizing the world. Hatred, war, terror- these are illogical acts- they might be taught with “facts” ie, People X stole our land, People Y oppress us, People Z killed our loved ones, etc- but all logic falls away as the animalist/ emotional side reigns and people can then talk calmly about how they will die/ kill to further their own cause. A stark and scary example is a recent article in the BBC, “Just married and determined to die”. The goal worldwide needs to be the de-escalation of violence, not the escalation with justification. (Just to reference my sources, the ideas that war is illogical and de-escalation is key- came from a recent conversation I had with Karim H., one of the Egyptian diplomats here.)

And here in Bangladesh, I’ve already lit my shabbos candles. I am required to be joyful on this joyous day. Sometimes, it is increasingly difficult to find joy in the world. Yes, my personal life is wonderful and I have much for which to be joyful and thankful. However, how can I treasure such joy in such a world? Does this require me to turn a blind eye to the reality of human existence? Yet, even in- especially in- difficult times, joy for living must be found- life must be celebrated. As Alan continued as he lamented the terror of the world, “Don’t these people have anything to live for?” Maybe if everyone could perform the simple, yet sometimes difficult task, of finding joy in the world- no matter how small, this subtle change of perception could make a global difference. Maybe.

In the mean time, I’m going to contemplate the beauty of my Shabbat candles.