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December 25, 2012

Heal the World: A Personal Reflection on the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

sandy hook vigilIt was with numbing shock and great grief that, with my nine-month-old daughter clasped in my arms, I learned of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14th. I followed the story with mute keenness and baffled interest for the next three days. The tragedy visited upon the small town of Newtown, CT, was unspeakable and the pain untold.  As more information streamed in on the news, I just clutched my baby girl closer, transfixed in horror.

Fast rewind to December 5th: I was visiting with a friend and colleague in Wheeling, WV, when Father Bekeh suggested a visit to some of the kids at the school that he oversees as part of the Catholic establishment in Bentwood, WV. We visited almost all of the classes and found that the five-year-olds were the most fun. When we asked them how old they were, one piped up, “We all five!” And then one of them with an unusually deep voice for a five-year-old joined saying, “I’m almost five!” Some of them even went ahead to venture a guess at my age, coming up with the opinion that I was about sixty or sixty-one years-old, and one of them wanted to know if I was Father Bekeh’s dad! At that moment I realized that I was probably teaching the wrong age group in my current role as an Instructor at a University.

But the best part was when my colleagues and I went to the gym and found a few of the students on stage industriously preparing for a Christmas play. Since I’m a great music enthusiast, this was the most enlivening part of our impromptu tour. At one point, I was so enthused that I jumped in and learned the moves as the children danced along. Again I found myself thinking that I should probably stop teaching university kids and become an elementary teacher, and I shared this with my colleagues.

sandy hook griefSo, when news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting broke, my mind naturally turned to the loveable little people that I had met just over a week before. In our brief interaction, the light of each little child’s unique character and personality shone through.  With each one, I guessed to myself what she or he might grow up to be, thinking “This little child could grow up to be a great actor or this one will be a great leader someday, and this little one might be a famous sportscaster who will give Bob Costas a run for his money,” and I thought on about their potential futures, “…a winning NFL player, …a ballerina, …an opera singer….” Who would ever even hurt, much less murder in cold blood such little angels? What was the unjustifiable and dark “reason”? Why? Questions on top of hard questions without answers filled my mind.

Some of these questions, already asked about similar recent mass shootings, were under discussion on the Piers Morgan news commentary show for two or so consecutive days before the unimaginable, tragic event in Newtown, Connecticut. I am not a US citizen and do not even dare add my voice to what seems to be an intractable historical issue that is enshrined in the constitution. However, I tried to learn more about the “gun culture” in the U.S. that comes up each time one of these terrible incidents occurs.  Besides covering the worrying statistics about how many guns there are in the U.S. (including that 70% of NFL football players carry guns), Piers Morgan’s interview of Bob Costas included the primary justification given by gun owners in the U.S. for having a gun (or more than one) in the home—their guns are used for hunting and the protection of home and family.

Obama sandy hook memorialI laud President Barack Obama’s strongly worded speech in Newtown delivered at one of the saddest moments in U.S. national history, the memorial service for the 26 innocents who lost their lives: “We will have to change. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.” Obama promised to use whatever power available to him in the Office of the President to engage citizens, from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like Newtown, CT; Oak Creek, WI; Aurora, CO; and Tucson, AZ. Obama has lived up to this promise already by promptly setting up a task force (in less than a week) to work on proposals for the reform of firearm laws to be led by vice-president Joe Biden. This is a good start as talk, many words, and much debate about guns following mass shootings begin to be transformed into concrete and constructive legislative action.

Law reforms will go a long way to curb such gruesome events, but as the president said, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in society. That’s an infallible truth. But it is also true that Hollywood and gaming violence sells. Social militarization and regimentation of young people, even young children, is alive and well in our world today. Coincidentally, while writing this piece and listening to an assortment of oldies collected from YouTube, Gil Scott-Heron’s Work for Peace video started to play. The video illustrates my point.  Some of the images that caught my eye in the last half of the video include a young Arab kid in military fatigues posing with a semi-automatic gun; two Caucasian kids with what looks like an AK-47; a girl who could be from Somalia holding a pistol above another girl’s head; an Asian kid adjusting something in a pistol; an Indian/Pakistani kid being helped by an adult to hold a revolver; Monk children admiring a pistol and so on. As children, we are taught that war is play: rat-a-tat-tat, children chase each other mocking the sounds of gunshots. War is accepted as normal human behavior as evidenced by the innocent children and adults struggling to escape a war-torn Syria.

So beyond disarming crazed and disturbed hands, we have to heal humanity’s collective psyche. This will mean a sociological and psychological revolution of sorts: a massive healing of the mind and soul. While this may be realistically and practically impossible, we can sow the seed today. If war is taught, why not teach our children about Peace and call it non-violent conflict resolution?  Why not elevate mediation skills to the top of the curriculum starting early in elementary school?  And why not build rewards into the study and practice of non-violence in all parts of life that are commensurate with the goal—non-violent conflict resolution in every family, every community, every country, and in the entire world. That is how we should demonstrate that we care for our children.

What Faith Can Do

We can disarm our neighborhoods with loving care and a warm sense of community and togetherness. For sorely needed words of comfort and inspiration, I suggest a song from Kutless entitled What Faith Can Do.  My thoughts are with the parents who lost their children, people who lost loved ones, and Newtown, a small town that lost the intangible sense of safety in a hail of bullets from a legally purchased and registered, private citizen-owned firearm.  To those whose grief is profound, to them I say you’re not alone.

sandy hook candlelight vigil

December 2, 2012

Gaining Freedom from Fear in Myanmar

Aung_San_Suu_KyiMyanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, has been gaining an increasing amount of international attention this year. There is great hope that this once stagnant country will navigate the brisk transformation that is currently transpiring. This rapid change is due in part to the Obama administration’s decision to ease the ban on investments in Myanmar. Equally important, however, is the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and once one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.

Freedom from Fear Book CoverSuu Kyi is the only daughter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, considered by many to be the “father of modern-day Burma” and one of the heroes of the nation’s independence in 1948. Inspired by her father and influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, Suu Kyi entered politics to work for democratization.  One of her most famous speeches was Freedom From Fear, which began: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Her outspoken protest again the country’s military rule and widespread repression led to her detention in 1989 and she was held under house arrest for nearly two decades until her release in November of 2010.

Suu Kyi’s release was followed by significant change in her country. President U Thein Sein became president in early 2011 and has moved the country swiftly toward democratization, freeing a number of political prisoners and taking steps to liberalize the state-controlled economy. His government also reached out to Suu Kyi. In response, she returned to political life and was elected to Parliament in April 2012. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won nearly every seat in the elections. Following this landslide victory, Suu Kyi stated, “What is important is not how many seats we have won — although of course we are extremely gratified that we have won so many — but the fact that the people are so enthusiastic about participating in the democratic process.”

On the heels of Suu Kyi’s victory the European Union and Australia suspended their sanctions against Myanmar followed by the United States’ suspension of the enforcement of most American sanctions. In September 2012, President Thein Sein publicly praised Suu Kyi, stating, “As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy.” In another first, Mr. Thein Sein’s speech was broadcast live in Myanmar, allowing the country’s citizens an opportunity to witness the president’s outspoken tribute to Suu Kyi.  President Obama paid an historic visit to Myanmar in November to push the country’s leaders to continue their democratic reforms, and announce new trade initiatives between the two nations.

That one woman’s strength in the face of so much repression and suffering can effect so much change in a country in desperate need of hope is a testament to the power of peace.

November 4, 2012

High Stake in the American Election

H2012 presidential election old on to your hats!  November is here. As we round the corner to what has increasingly deteriorated into a vitriolic and polarizing campaign cycle, it behooves us to step back and consider what exactly is at stake when Americans go to the polls this Tuesday, November 6th.

The US presidential election cannot be squarely pegged as a referendum on the performance of President Barack Obama’s administration over the last four years. Granted there is a deep rift between many policies endorsed by President Obama and Governor Romney, policy differences are just the icing on the cake of what is at stake in this year’s American election.

More profoundly, this election is about two candidates with fundamentally different philosophies about the role of the state, individual rights, and the global commons. The ideological incongruence of President Obama and Governor Romney, in turn, makes this election a zero-sum game where the stakes are particularly high for the losing party.

One fundamental issue on which the candidates are diametrically opposed is the appropriate function of the state.  Consider the contrasting interpretations of public versus private goods espoused by each presidential candidate.   Healthcare, education, and social security are generally considered public goods that the state is responsible for overseeing. Yet, President Obama and Governor Romney have vastly different views on the degree to which states should be responsible for providing these goods. President Obama passed a universal healthcare plan; supports increased federal funding for Pell grants, making education more affordable; and staunchly opposes social security privatization. At odds with President Obama is Governor Romney who vows to repeal Obamacare, advises entrepreneurial students to borrow money from their parents to kick start businesses, and chose as his running mate Paul Ryan, the architect of the most comprehensive plan to date to privatize social security.

Within the social sphere, the election has prompted debate over what constitutes pliable versus fixed social norms. Should rape, for instance, be viewed as an inevitable part of life? Should we, like Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, resign ourselves to the idea that rape is an act of God? Perhaps a reflection of the near historic gender gap in this election (according to statistical guru Nate Silver, President Obama holds a 9 point lead among women), social conservatives have also made this election about women’s rights. More to the point, they have made this election about restricting women’s rights, most notably by revamping efforts to challenge Roe v. Wade.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the consequences of this election will spill over beyond US borders. As a US student studying in the UK, this is all the more clear in the attention the US election receives in the news media and the interest in American politics by British people in general. There seems to be a common understanding that US elections matter, particularly since the US rose to become the world’s most dominant global actor after the Cold War.

Collective problems that transcend borders, such as global warming or terrorist cells, require international resolve and cooperation. While President Obama and Governor Romney have prioritized US interests in foreign affairs, both candidates differ substantially in their approach to global governance and, more fundamentally, on the sorts of issues they deem relevant. For instance, President Obama has been adamant about the need to restrict certain human activities that cause global climate change, while Governor Romney denies that global climate change exists, let alone that it is caused by human activities.

presidential election candidates 2012In sum, this November 6th is not merely a referendum on policy decisions made in the last four years. Rather, this election is about choosing between two largely incompatible philosophies that will have broad implications for the role of the state, individual rights, and our global commons. The stakes are high no matter how you flip the coin.