Category Archives: Terrorism

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Given that my high school and college years were spent in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I’ve seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

Saturday January 20th was auspicious – Year #2 for the Women’s March in Washington and around the world. So I probably should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers up there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the heart of my city. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered chose to wander out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold brief embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it offered an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. As I mused on their icy exploits, speaker after speaker exhorted us to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. I knew they were preaching to the choir – we were there because we’re the committed ones. Still, even our staunch commitment had limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after the speeches had droned on for well over an hour past the official march start time. So technically I did not march yesterday, but the afternoon was well spent and reinforcing; at this stage I will take whatever solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Our democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will again feel that they’re pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game. Continue reading On thin ice

The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

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Our world is beset by callousness and brutality.

The death toll grows each day from the cruel violence of Boko Haram, Daesh/ISIS, Al Qaeda and its offshoots, Quds Force, Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups, all of whom frequently target even defenseless women and children. President Assad and his Russian allies indiscriminately attack areas thickly populated by Syrian civilians, and the fighting roils on in Iraq, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, South Sudan, Burundi, and Afghanistan. We’ve become numb to the incessant news reports of yet more civilians suffering grievous harm, adversity, or death, and there’s no reasoning with those who place scant value on destroying human lives except as instrumental statements on their unyielding ideological trajectories.

In this context, what are we to make of the opening line of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”? After all, there are no qualifying clauses to cover the significance of human dignity in the eventuality of death by violent extremism. For far too many “free and equal” members of humanity, threats of violence, brutality, exclusion, subjugation, and death itself appear to have rendered our global moment of idealism when that Declaration was signed back in December of 1948 as, at best, a curious historical anomaly.

Is the notion of universal human dignity not sheer folly in 2016?

It’s worth noting from the outset that “human dignity” has several meanings. My first assignment for the students of my new graduate-level course on Human Dignity was to read a short opinion piece – “In Search of Dignity” – that conservative cultural commentator David Brooks had written in the New York Times back in July of 2009. Brooks described a “dignity code” as a set of rules and civic virtues, and it was his contention that this dignity code was exemplified by George Washington. According to Brooks, Washington subordinated his personal interests to national interests and duty. Brooks’ message however was not sanguine, as he concluded that “…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone”. And while Brooks did allow that “Americans still admire dignity”, he asserts that there is no longer any popular consensus on, or practice of, the ethical standards that constitute such dignified convictions and behavior in the United States.

The concept of human dignity however is much more ambitious than seeking widespread consensus on rules of conduct, or on matters of deportment. Yes, for someone to sacrifice perceived self-interests for the greater good is refreshing, and we all know of examples of that taking place (starting with parenting). And human dignity is certainly more than just a reflection of social status or bearing, although that more limited definition of dignity still has its place in certain contexts. So while I applaud David Brooks for his pondering on one dimension of human dignity, I am arguing that in the context of the exceptionally violent world of 2016 we ought to refocus our sights on that most ambitious interpretation of the human dignity concept: that “being human” means that we are each unique and valuable, and that we are each as valuable as any other person on the planet.

That’s a very large statement, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the way in which humanity conducts itself on this planet. Or, as stated most poignantly by Princeton University’s emeritus professor of politics, George Kateb: “The pathetic fact is that the only enemies of human dignity are human beings.” What is it that drives so many who are in positions of economic, military, political, social, or governance power to erode the shared basis that all of us – each and every human being on this planet – depend upon as the moral and ethical foundation for all human rights, all laws, and any sense of justice: human dignity? Continue reading The folly – and necessity – of human dignity

2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

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As someone trained in public policy whose life and career has been international, my end-of-year musings tend toward discerning global trends. Despite the recent flood of dystopian movies and television offerings in the United States, are things getting better and is progress being made? In the face of the rampant barbarity and media-hyped cruelty of movements such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and the Taliban, is civilization getting stronger? Contrary to the grisly death statistics of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, or at Garissa University in Kenya, or the many incidences of Boko Haram violence in Africa that the Western press largely ignores, is safety and security improving for most people on this planet? In the crumbling and almost forgotten remains of the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and Egypt’s latest swing to authoritarianism, and the deepening polarization and distrust of politics in the United States, are democracies still thriving?

And what about respecting human rights and the recognition of human dignity? Do these terms mean much anymore? What of the plight of the most vulnerable among us? Women’s rights? The humane treatment of animals? The plight of the elderly? The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons? Freedom of expression, movement, participation, conscience?

In short, what about us?

Is the grand experiment known as humanity getting any better? Are we moving slowly toward global peace, not just in the sense of an absence of violence but in the much deeper sense of what peace really entails? Are we “developing” in a moral sense? While most of us have our own intuition on these matters, there aren’t clear answers, and the distortions in our perceptions are legion. The media by its nature focuses on what sells: disasters, terrorism, wars, failures, disappointments, violence, corruption, crime, immorality, betrayal, or avarice. We hear or read very little about integrity, compassion, solidarity, sacrifice, teamwork, bravery, mercy, or humility. Enormously important words like wisdom, virtue, statesmanship, authenticity, and idealism slip from our vocabulary. Continue reading 2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

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For a non-Catholic, I’ll admit to a certain grudging admiration for Pope Francis.

Why grudging? Well, he’s the leader of a religious denomination of 1.2 billion persons, still exclusively led just by men. Any organization – even a small one – that limits its leadership to persons of one gender is poorly situated to understand the dynamic tapestry of humanity, or to draw upon the spiritual and worldly gifts that men and women, boys and girls, each uniquely offer. The Roman Catholic Church however isn’t a small organization, so sexism institutionalized on such a gargantuan scale leaves me profoundly uneasy (and to be clear, I’d be every bit as uneasy were this church led only by women).

Pope Francis seems unlikely to morph into the Angel of Gender Equity any time soon. This Pope has also said some very unflattering things about people who are transgender, such as comparing us with nuclear weapons! Perhaps I should be flattered with such a comparison – it is seldom that a transgender person is ever described as supremely powerful (even if in a destructive sense). Pope Francis however has taken the view that the world’s nuclear arsenals are to be equated with some of the world’s most disempowered and persecuted people – both standing accused of failing “to recognize the order of creation”. So while I lack the weight of a billion-plus congregation, I refute the Pope’s accusation, remaining convinced that the divine light shines equally in each and every one of us. That’s the “order of creation” that I feel most led to respond to, and to reach for.

So I have reasons to feel under-appreciated by this Pontiff…and “grudging” I will remain. Still, the Pope’s recent observation about the Christmas season that we’re entering upon left me deeply moved, if also deeply saddened. His words:

“we are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

I just set up my Nativity scene at home, and here in Maryland there are already Christmas lights. Yes – I have received invitations to parties, and I will be happy to attend. This morning I’ve spent time online trying to locate (affordable) tickets to take my children to the ballet (The Nutcracker, of course). “Black Friday” (a name that should be a warning) was yesterday, and the media has once again ramped itself up to its usual annual frenzy of commercialization, ever-increasing crassness, and rank consumerism.

What does any of the American Christmas Industry have to do with the celebration of the remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a humble stable? We no longer even ask. Continue reading A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

Kenya – trouble in paradise

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Spectacular! Stunning!

My quest for superlative adjectives wasn’t up to this, and so I just gazed, wide-eyed but in silence. I shared the small plane with only the pilot – my friend and rock-climbing buddy Frank Barnes – as we flew west from Nairobi towards the Ngong Hills. We stayed relatively close to the fascinating patchwork of farms below, until I gasped; suddenly the earth dropped precipitously away as we crossed over the Escarpment. We soared out in the cloudless sky to the northwest across the Great Rift Valley, and circled lazily over the hikers on the crater trail at the summit of Mt. Longonot volcano (pictured above). Then we circled first north and then eastwards, out across Lake Naivasha and then up to the Aberdares National Park, with snow-capped Mt. Kenya on the horizon. The beauty and grandeur of this country simply overwhelmed me.

Poignantly, that aerial safari was my farewell gift from my friend, the pilot, as I put ten years of living in Kenya behind me and headed back to the United States. Frank would meet an untimely death a few years later while piloting his solo balloon in the UK, but this remarkable hour with him in that small plane will live in my heart for my whole life. So would the realization that God has truly blessed the people of Kenya with one of the most beautiful countries on this planet. Of course my admiration for Kenya extends beyond the breathtaking landscape. Kenyans are a hard-working, hospitable, patriotic and civic-minded people, seeking what we all seek – a chance at a meaningful, happy life within a vibrant community.

So why is this gorgeous country experiencing such bad governance?

OK, my view of Kenya is no longer from the window of a small plane, but I am keeping close watch as I read many reports of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s crackdown on civil society. While such organizations lack the traditional levers of power and wealth, governments around the world have come to respect (and sometimes fear) the influence of civil society organizations (CSOs) to expose government malfeasance, corruption, waste, and inefficiency, and to demand critically needed social services, genuine justice and rule of law, and higher standards of government professionalism. So when Kenya’s CSOs speaks out on challenging topics such as human rights, inadequate social services, corruption, and the government’s ineffectual reaction to various real and imagined threats of terrorism, such criticism rankles those at the top of the political hierarchy who until now have been largely “above criticism”.

These aren’t insignificant crackdowns; recently Kenya threatened 959 CSOs with deregistration. Officially this is attributed to alleged financial irregularities in the way these CSOs are being managed and funded, and I accept that there may be some degree of truth in this assertion. CSOs around the world struggle with very limited and insecure financial resources and with overall “capacity” challenges – i.e. with attracting and retaining well-qualified managerial, accounting, and administrative staff. Being in full compliance with complex government financial reporting requirements may be a particular burden for a few of them.

But 959 of them? Continue reading Kenya – trouble in paradise

Awkward but obvious questions from Kabul

 

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I really wasn’t pondering the obvious question. Instead, I was absorbed with watching the muscular, handsome Afghan man standing there with his luggage cart. He was heavily bearded and tall, with intense but kindly eyes. Dressed in t-shirt and jeans, he and his young son were being welcomed by two elderly men – relatives no doubt – who each sported traditional Afghan Pashtun attire. We were all among the throng of people who waited in the arrivals hall for the “all clear” after the truck bomb’s powerful explosion just 30 minutes earlier at the main gate to Kabul Airport. Oddly, no one in the arrivals hall seemed particularly anxious or distressed; the three Afghan men were entirely focused on the antics of the young toddler perched on the cart. It was a tender family scene, in a country now much better known for the type of intense brutality and violence that had just claimed the lives of five people only a short distance away.

The question awaited an answer. Why was I here? Officially I’d come to Kabul to assist as a senior policy advisor, to work alongside a multinational team of engineers on the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s transportation sector. Given Afghanistan’s widespread insecurity it seemed an ambitious venture at best, although there was little doubt that without roads, rail, and air transportation, Afghanistan’s development prospects would continue to remain mostly theoretical. Yet “development” is elusive in Afghanistan, a predicament shared with all countries afflicted by terrorism and instability. My effectiveness as a foreign advisor raised many troubling questions in such circumstances.

Once the airport reopened, my security team helped me don a heavy Kevlar vest and installed me in an armored Land Cruiser for the relatively short drive through some of Kabul’s most dangerous streets, to the hotel. Actually “hotel” is an inadequate descriptor; once past the crude and unremarkable metal gate in the small street I entered a high-walled maze of security checks and screenings, finally arriving at the heart of a fortified compound more reminiscent of a medieval fortress than a hotel. Everywhere I looked, there were European, North American, even Gurkha men each equipped with weaponry sufficient to blow away a small village.  Their nonchalance and casual manner made it clear that “normal” now had to be redefined.

The fortified compound was as much my prison as my safe haven. A pleasant enough prison to be sure in the circumstances – with rose beds and gardens, a pool and a gym, and basic but comfortably furnished air conditioned rooms. Yet I wouldn’t be able to leave this compound without the armored vehicles that brought me here. The upper slopes of the surrounding jagged lunar-grey mountains were visible above the high walls, but I would see very little of Kabul from this location. That also meant that connecting with Afghan people – civil society, government officials, women, ordinary folk – would be nearly impossible.

That separation is corrosive. While international development practitioners do possess experience and skills honed by project assignments around the world, our ability to support and sustain positive change rests entirely with the quality of the relationships we forge with our local counterparts. While a few Afghan staff do endure the intrusive daily security screenings to come to work with me and my team each day, the notion of broad engagement with the Afghan public on development issues was an absurdity. A debilitating absurdity too; it would be nearly impossible to learn about Afghan culture, values, aspirations, and history from behind my fortified walls. Continue reading Awkward but obvious questions from Kabul

International development – A Voice at the Periphery

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It was remarkable. There was so much expertise, caring, and experience gathered together in that one room! The annual conference of the Washington DC chapter of the Society for International Development on May 27th brought together a dazzling cohort of more than 900 people who have committed their careers to caring about and doing something important, effective, and sustainable to overcome poverty. Isn’t it odd then that the larger world knows so little about this community of development practitioners, and so often stands in opposition to (or in tepid support of) the work that they do in foreign aid?

The development practitioners who come together for this yearly event have made enormous and well-documented strides to contribute to humanity’s well-being, and to make stewardship of this planet’s environment their focus. Human development is a complex notion, and in that room sat individuals whose daily routine is built around extremely diverse pursuits: agriculture, health, education, democracy strengthening, economic growth, energy, rule of law, entrepreneurship, gender equity, youth, infrastructure, the elderly, women’s empowerment, civil society, political processes and elections, global climate change, peacebuilding and conflict mitigation, natural resources management, human rights, public administration, to name but a few. Together these practitioners support and facilitate – in the most adverse situations imaginable around the globe – humanity’s universal aspirations for a life of dignity, health, and meaning, all set within a harmonious and healthy natural environment. Given the scale, complexity, and intensity of the challenges standing in the way of human development around the world, these earnest and competent practitioners are far too few, far too poorly resourced, and – as a result of how the aid industry’s procurement processes are structured – too divided by fierce internal competition to overcome poverty or be the catalyst for human well-being. They know this – we know this – but still we persist. It’s what we do, and the solidarity and energy that comes from gathering this community together from time to time was the reason I had arranged my own schedule to return from a consulting assignment in Jordan specifically not to miss this event.

Like any conference of international development experts, the daily fare was all about problem-solving. Plenary speakers, panelists, and members of the audience participated in weighty and often discouraging discussions about the forces arrayed against development, about the many problems and constraints we all contend with, and about the cumbersome bureaucracies that fund and deeply influence development’s goals and accomplishments. So much energy and intellect was directed at problems, issues, challenges (or “grand challenges” as USAID is prone to framing them), budgetary constraints, procurement minefields, and humanity’s many foibles and failures (weak states, failed states, greed, corruption, conflict).

In many ways, we forgot to talk about development as human flourishing, or what concepts such as “flourishing” or “human dignity” might mean. Continue reading International development – A Voice at the Periphery

Immanuel Kant, Jesus Christ, and Garissa

 

 

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President Obama’s heartfelt response to the mass slaughter of college students at Kenya’s Garissa University College was to state that “Words cannot adequately condemn the terrorist atrocities that took place.” That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to try. This is indeed a time for words and thoughtful reflection, every bit as much as for urgent action. This is a time for taking a clear and articulate moral stand and understanding what that signifies in our lives. The time is also long overdue for identifying the deeper ethical and moral societal changes that will have to occur to stop the terrorists’ fingers from squeezing the triggers.

Peace is much more than the absence of violence, but specifically what does this mean right now, for the people of Kenya?

As details of the tragedy of the mass slaughter of college students at Kenya’s Garissa University College fill the media, few will think of Immanuel Kant. Perhaps, since tomorrow is Easter, some will think of Jesus and the significance of the sacrifice of his precious, innocent life. Yet the majority of us will be contemplating Al-Shabab’s latest threat that Kenyan cities “will run red with blood,” and the Kenyan president’s pledge to “fight terrorism to the end” and “respond in the fiercest way possible.” We all feel the repugnance of this attack, and we want to be comforted that evil will be met and overcome by a stronger force.

I certainly hope so. Having lived in Kenya for a decade, this tragedy feels very personal to me. Kenyans, just like all of us, deserve safety and security in their lives. Every life pursuit, including a college education in Garissa University College, depends on security. Still, I know that force alone will not put an end to threats such as Al-Shabab. Fighting terrorism must include peacebuilding as an integral part, and building peace includes changing humanity. It’s a tall order, but that’s where Kant and Jesus might be able to offer some help, as odd as that might seem in the circumstances. Continue reading Immanuel Kant, Jesus Christ, and Garissa