Good reads

Guns don’t kill people – people kill people, with guns

Houston Chronicle - Nick Anderson
Houston Chronicle - Nick Anderson
Houston Chronicle – Nick Anderson

The cartoon above has made the rounds on the Internet in the last few days, alongside the argument that massacres such as the murder of 20 children in Newtown are not an issue of gun control, but an issue of access to mental health services. While I agree that mental health care should be more readily available for people suffering from mental illness, to me this issue IS about access to guns. Look at the cartoon again. What would happen if the gun store didn’t exist, or if it was up a steeper set of stairs than mental health care? Across the world, there are plenty of deranged people with serious mental health conditions, but they don’t all have access to semi-automatic or automatic weapons that make it possible to kill 20 people in a matter of moments.

One of my father’s friends suffered a terrible tragedy earlier this year when his brother was murdered in cold blood by a lunatic with an assault weapon in a cafe in Seattle.My family friend’s brother, a musician, was playing a gig with friends when the murderer walked into the cafe and started killing people. Why did this person have access to assault weapons and military-strength ammo? In the wake of the unspeakable acts in Newtown, my father’s friend took to Facebook to say that anyone who is getting his hands on military equipment – kevlar vests, massive amounts of ammo, etc – does not have good intentions. While this may be something of a generalization, there is some truth to the fact that nobody – no civilian – needs access to this type of equipment. It is simply unnecessary, and it is clearly dangerous.

How many more children need to accidentally discharge their families’ weapons? How many more times are we going to allow such disturbing, life-shattering events of violence to take place before we look deep into ourselves and acknowledge the problem: access to guns – and most especially deadly, military-strength, automatic and assault weapons, what Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls “weapons of war” – is creating opportunities for unstable people to commit insane acts of violence.

The statistics also speak for themselves. Compare the amount of people who die from gun violence in the States to similar statistics for any other industrialized nation. According to statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US ranks 28th in the world in terms of percentage of homicides by firearm (per 100K people). Ahead of the United States? Countries such as Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala…. The United States beats any other country in terms of firearm ownership (270,000,000 guns in the US; second highest is India, with 46,000,000). According to the CDC, in 2009, there were 16,799 homicides in the United States. Of those, 11,493 were firearm-related. Look at the graph below, which charts deaths due to assault (firearms and other weapons included( in OECD countries. The US is an outlier, no matter which way you want to look at this information.

OECD countries: Deaths due to assault per 100,000 population from 1960 to the present

The issue is clearly not just one of access to guns, but also a culture that glorifies gun ownership. Gun advocates tout their 2nd amendment rights – sure, when the founding fathers sat down to write the constitution, clearly, gun ownership to protect Americans from the British was a necessity. But we no longer live in those times. And gun ownership these days has absolutely nothing to do with the “well-regulated” militia cited in the 2nd amendment. There are of course plenty of people who own guns responsibly, but their hobby is not reason enough to continue to sell instruments of death widely across the country. A lot of the sick, crazy monsters who shot up crowds of people in the US in recent years obtained their weapons legally. In some cases, there is no history of mental health problems, nothing detectable at all – only their purchase of hundreds of rounds of ammo may have raised red flags.

Seriously, who *needs* a gun? The answer is no one. I don’t care if it’s your favorite weekend past time, I don’t care if your family spends its quality time shooting stuff up – it’s time to put them down and seriously reflect: is your selfish desire to own an assault weapon more important than the lives of 20 innocent children in a school? More important than the lives of countless innocents that are murdered in cold blood and for no reason whatsoever in malls, movie theaters, universities, high schools?

I get that guns don’t kill people – yes, people kill people. But the presence of dangerous assault weapons sure makes it a whole lot easier for lunatics to wreak havoc on communities. Yes, we need better access to mental health services, but it’s not because these services exist that a) they will be used; b) they will be effective. For me, it’s obvious that better mental health care services are needed, but that actually has very little to do with preventing mass murder. It has a lot more to do with being a civilized society where we care for one another, where the government is able to demonstrate that it is – at least! – attempting to prevent people from falling through the cracks, whether they are a potential murderer or simply living a difficult, lonely life because of a condition that isolates them from their family and community.

Look at other countries: there are plenty of mentally unstable people everywhere, but when they don’t have access to weapons of war, they don’t go – cannot go! – on shooting rampages.

I’ll conclude by quoting Barack Obama, who, I hope will live up to the promise of his words:

We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.  Because what choice do we have?  We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Full of Gratitude

Today is Thanksgiving (well, not where I live, but American Thanksgiving as a way of seeping into my reality every year, no matter where I am). I don’t usually do this, but I feel this need to express my gratitude – and not just as we go around a dinner table, but I wanted to write it so that when I’m feeling down or frustrated I can come back to these words.

We live in difficult times – sure, there are fewer wars today then they’re used to be, but there is growing inequality and protracted, low-level conflict all over the world. Poverty and exclusion, injustice and pain. I wonder how (and why, really) I was lucky enough to be born on the “right” side of these issues. I never in my life have experienced true poverty, or true injustice. I’m privileged, and unbelievably lucky. I want to acknowledge a few things that make my heart feel full:

– I’m grateful for the love, support, understanding and companionship of the people in my life. My parents, my husband-to-be, friends near and far. I’ve been blessed with strong, deep friendships and relationships, and these people carry me through life.

– I’m grateful for my health, and for the health of those around me. Some people close to me are going through very challenging times health-wise at the moment, and seeing them go through these ordeals makes me appreciate good health even more. (Remember: one glass of wine a day keeps the doctor away)

– I’m grateful for living in a peaceful country, where I am free to speak my mind, where women are treated as equals (well, in theory at least), where people have rights and democracy prevails. Billions of people across the world can’t say this – and in spite of all the money or good health they might have, individual and collective potential can only be fulfilled where there is freedom, actual space for people to be creative, bold, daring, controversial. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be who I am.

– I’m grateful for all the things that make my life feel full: a job that is fulfilling, volunteer opportunities that bring meaning to my life, a (new!!) roof over my head that is truly my own, a little feline companion who brightens my day.

I am brimming with thankfulness and gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving!

New Yorker Tid Bits

“Well, it _was_ original.”

In the past week, two New Yorker features have caught my eye, and I thought I’d share them here. The first is about Bill Clinton’s epic speech at the Democratic National Convention, and how WJC doesn’t just read the teleprompter, he converses with it. The article is replete with quotes comparing the official speech to what was actually delivered, and it’s awesome (the speech ended up being twice as long as originally intended).

On a bit about Obama’s health-care law, the Teleprompter gives Clinton: “The Republicans call it ‘Obamacare’ and say it’s a government takeover of health care that they’ll repeal.” Clinton spits back:

The Republicans call it, derisively, “Obamacare.” They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a disaster, and that if we’ll just elect them they’ll repeal it.

That “derisively,” which underscores the point and clarifies it for anyone unfamiliar, is a good idea. The insertion of “a disaster” as the rhythmic fulcrum of the second sentence is an even better one. But the caustic irony of that “if we’ll just elect them”—that’s the kind of nuance that you could expect from a master speechwriter who has had days or weeks, not split seconds, to consider the best way of putting things.

Brilliant.

The second article is about Facebook and the “Nipplegate.” It’s so incredibly silly, but I love the New Yorker’s treatment of the issue. Here’s a great out-of-context quote:

While female nipple bulging, or F.N.B. for short, is a potentially serious problem, with as yet no known cure, it also has no known victims. That is, unless you count freedom of expression, common sense, and humor.

Justice for Syrians?

syria

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

***

Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

The Truth About Foreign Aid

NGO Cartoon

…That could be the title of a new 3-part BBC podcast, “The Truth About NGOs“. This documentary explores whether and how should NGOs be politically involved, as well as the consequences of having a large international NGO sector in a developing country. The first episode begins with a focus on Malawi, and how the LGBT rights movement has been buoyed by NGOs and their foreign donors. It’s an interesting piece, though this is not about “NGOs”, per se – it is also about the powerful influence of donors on their grantees, and even in this podcast, the politics of state-level aid are discussed. NGOs, the actors on the ground, are only one part of the puzzle.

The podcast is probably nothing new for NGO policy wonks – the discussion of whether organizations are influenced by or beholden to their funders and donors is an age old discussion. Same goes for failed, poorly designed and implemented development projects that never see the light of day and/or disappoint and anger communities. Or the notion that some NGOs only pay lip service to the notion of “participation” (the podcast actually defines “dragonfly skimming” and “helicopter consultancy.”)

In spite of going down some already well trodden paths, the podcast raises some interesting points concerning the role of NGOs in perpetuating the poverty they seek to alleviate. (I can already hear my aid/development colleagues’ feathers getting ruffled, but bear with me.) While this probably merits much more than a few sentences on this blog or a few minutes in a podcast, one of the more interesting notions explored by the podcast is the idea that international NGOs are “depoliticizing” poverty. ” I thought this line, by Firoze Manji, editor in chief of Pambazuka News, was spot on: “If the NGOs participate in the process of alleviating the nasty parts of becoming poor, they are actually colluding. It comes back to saying being brave enough to take on the “politics of impoverishement”. Either you fight that, or you’re part of the problem.”

The question posed at the end of the podcast is whether NGOs should focus on “on advocacy, on leverage, rather than delivery of aid.” What do you think? There are obviously circumstances where this might not make sense, in particular in emergency situations where NGOs provide life-saving aid. But beyond that, is advocacy, rather than aid delivery, the future of NGOs?

Listen to the podcast here.