JUSTICE


Children subjected to horrific punishments in American schools and detention centers


The New York Times writes:

Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging for any inmate, but it is especially perverse when it is used to discipline children and teenagers. At juvenile detention centers and adult prisons and jails across the country, minors are locked in isolated cells for 22 hours or more a day. A recent Justice Department review of suicides in juvenile facilities found that more than half of the minors who had killed themselves had done so in isolation.

The problem isn’t isolated to detention centers. This story is bone-chilling, describing what is essentially the torture of a child:

Rose had speech and language delays. At school, her mother and I found Rose standing alone on the cement floor of a basement mop closet, illuminated by a single light bulb. There was nothing in the closet for a child — no chair, no books, no crayons, nothing but our daughter standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands. On the floor lay her favorite purple-striped Hanna Andersson outfit and panties.

Rose got dressed and we removed her from the school. We later learned that Rose had been locked in the closet five times that morning. She said that during the last confinement, she needed to use the restroom but didn’t want to wet her outfit. So she disrobed. Rather than help her, the school called us and then covered the narrow door’s small window with a file folder, on which someone had written “Don’t touch!”

We were told that Rose had been in the closet almost daily for three months, for up to an hour at a time. At first, it was for behavior issues, but later for not following directions. Once in the closet, Rose would pound on the door, or scream for help, staff members said, and once her hand was slammed in the doorjamb while being locked inside.

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Why I Plan to Pursue Defamation Action Against Those Who Distort My Childhood War Experience


Over the course of the past year, I have been subjected to some of the most aggressive trolling and personal attacks of my 15 year political career. Virtually all of it stems from my advocacy for Hillary Clinton.

In recent months, those vicious attacks on my character have taken a very dark turn.

And I intend to deal with it through legal means.

First, some background: My mother is American, my father was Lebanese. I grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and as the son of a Christian father, I was required to undergo military training by the Lebanese Forces. The mandatory training began when I was in high school and lasted for three years. It took place after school hours and during the summer. My schoolmates were also conscripted.

Even though I am a U.S. citizen by birth, I was forbidden from leaving Lebanon without written permission from the military. My father ultimately secured a waiver and I moved to my mother’s home city of New York. I’ve only been back to Beirut a handful of times since. The last visit was in the early nineties. I still find the memories traumatic.

As a child, I survived some of the most brutal urban warfare of the 20th century. I witnessed terrible things: bodies torn to shreds, car-bombed buildings, jets falling out of the sky. I lost friends and relatives. I spent countless nights in dank, candle-lit bunkers as missiles rained down.

I was a few hundred yards away from the American embassy when a car bomb demolished it and I saw blood dripping down its shattered facade. I had many close brushes with death, as did my family.

In all my time in Lebanon, I never harmed a soul. But I learned the horrors of war up close and personal and it shaped the person I am today. I have survived intact by owning it all, by accepting everything I went through as a trial by fire, in the most literal sense of that phrase. It was an awakening to the cruelest aspects of human nature.

Coping with war is not easy and I’m eternally thankful that I’ve been able to build a successful life and career despite growing up in a living hell.

But never in my wildest imagination did I think there were individuals who, decades later, would mangle and contort my childhood pain to accuse me of killing women and children. Even writing that phrase turns my stomach. But it is time for me to confront the individuals who would publicly accuse me of the most despicable acts imaginable without an iota of basis in fact or reality.

If you wonder what would possess someone to make such outrageous and libelous claims against me, it’s simple: They don’t like my politics. Imagine that: hundreds of people have taken it upon themselves to post hideous accusations about me because I support Hillary Clinton. Or because they don’t agree with my political ideology. It is mind-boggling.

It is also the classic definition of defamation and I have methodically taken screenshots of every instance and reported the harassment to the appropriate social platforms. Furthermore, I am consulting with attorneys to pursue claims of defamation against these individuals. I have also contacted the writer of this Alternet story to object to them misrepresenting my words, referencing me in an article about war crimes, and doing so without even trying to reach me for comment. [Update: The reference to me has been deleted by Alternet.]

The genesis of these execrable assaults on my integrity goes back to 2015, when a handful of people on Twitter identified six tweets where I mentioned my military service out of over 20,000 tweets I’ve posted since I joined the platform. Each of those six tweets was made in the same context: arguing with rightwingers about terrorism, the military and their misguided definitions of “manhood.”

In one tweet about my service, I was arguing in favor of a mosque at Ground Zero. In another, I was speaking out in defense of Palestinian children. In yet another, I was directly asked if I had served in the military.  I stated in my replies that as someone who was drafted into a sectarian militia, I had firsthand experience of war and terrorism. It was my rebuttal to those who talk big about dealing with war but have never lived it in person.

Somehow, that triggered a coordinated effort to connect me to the heinous Sabra and Shatila massacre, which I had condemned in a 2011 Mother Jones article by saying “the massacres and targeting of civilians by all sides was beyond despicable.”

During Lebanon’s sectarian war, all sides committed horrific atrocities, from Sabra and Shatila to Damour to thousands of kidnappings and murders based on religion alone. Civilian neighborhoods were shelled indiscriminately. Snipers shot people trying to buy a loaf of bread. It was evil made manifest and I still can’t believe my family and I survived it in one piece. It causes me profound sadness that so many of my fellow Lebanese, Christian and Muslim, were not so fortunate.

Claiming I was involved in atrocities when I was a child conscript who never harmed a soul is truly one of the ugliest things I’ve ever experienced in my life — and I’ve seen a lot of ugly things.

Imagine randomly targeting an American service member online and photoshopping pictures of their face next to slaughtered children. Imagine calling them a member of a “death squad” because someone, somewhere, committed an atrocity.

That’s what I’ve been dealing with on a daily basis. I have a family who can read those things about me. I have friends and colleagues who may not know the reality of my childhood. Ignoring the trolls hasn’t worked. It’s time for me to confront this monstrous (and illegal) effort to damage my reputation.

________

UPDATE (3/22/16): I’m deeply gratified by the outpouring of support. I can’t thank you all enough.

UPDATE (3/24/16): In the 48 hours since I posted this piece, I’ve received hundreds of supportive comments and emails from friends, colleagues, acquaintances and social media peers. I am humbled and deeply appreciative.

However, as a counterpoint to their gracious support, a number of anonymous online accounts have continued to defame me, believing they are protected by the cloak of anonymity and by the mob effect. Legally, they are not.

I also want to add further context after seeing the responses to my piece. The issue is not whether I was trained by the Lebanese Forces or whether I said so online. I did and I’ll continue to do so. It’s that people who don’t know me (and who I don’t know) have falsely and maliciously extrapolated from my mandatory conscription to accuse me of unthinkable atrocities without an iota of evidence or basis in fact.

It is just about the worst thing one human could say of — or to — another. As I’ve argued, it would be the equivalent of accusing every American service member of war crimes.

The willingness, even the eagerness, of strangers to falsely accuse someone they don’t know of such terrible acts is staggering. Is that what a computer and a fake name does to people? Are they so needy of approval? Of attention? Are they that callous?

And is Twitter willing to let those vile accusations stand despite having them flagged repeatedly?

I’ve been open about my experiences in Lebanon. It’s one of the ways I cope with the bloodshed I witnessed. My website bio describes my background in detail. I’ve referenced my military training in debates about the Mideast, terrorism and war. That’s my right. It’s my life. I’m proud of having survived the horrors of war.

When someone I’m engaging online says I know nothing about terrorism and I respond by saying I faced it in person, that’s the truth. My family and friends were exposed to car bombs, snipers, kidnappers, residential shelling and more. We fought with every fiber of our being to survive, to escape alive. I’ll continue to tell my story and use my experiences to inform my point of view.

To take those tweets out of context and make an outlandish, untruthful and libelous inference that I was part of a “death squad” or that I harmed women and children, is beyond the pale. It is deeply immoral and offensive. It is intolerable. And it is illegal.

UPDATE (5/14/16): It has come to my attention that Vice published an article in February implying I’ve “killed” people. Again, this is a classic instance of defamation and I will pursue all legal means to protect myself against such malicious lies.

What It’s Like to Be a Refugee: My Terror as a Displaced Child and Why I Love America


lebanon hellI love America. I love America because it afforded me the opportunity to start a new life when my old life fell apart in a torrent of bombs and bullets.

I’m the son of a Lebanese father and an American mother. I’ve had the great privilege of being born a U.S. citizen while also having roots in the cradle of civilization.

I spent much of my youth in Byblos, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, where ancient ruins intermingle with modern structures and where you can stand atop a Crusader castle and stare out across the blue Mediterranean. Byblos is the origin of the word “Bible.”

My father, who passed before the turn of the millennium, belonged to the Maronite sect of Christians, who trace their roots to the Phoenicians. He took me to old stone churches in his (and my) ancestral village of Lehfed and gave me a sense of history that has rooted me through decades of turmoil.

I was a child when war broke loose and the world around me crumbled. Looking back now, I can still see the fear and anguish in my parents’ faces as they tried to protect their children from missiles and bullets and bombs, from kidnappers and snipers. I remember nights in dark, dank bomb shelters with no heat and no electricity, huddled against my siblings. I remember the whistling sound of incoming rocket fire and that deathly moment of anticipation – hearing the explosion meant you were still alive. It also meant someone else, perhaps your friend or neighbor, wasn’t as fortunate.

As an American, I had somewhere to escape from the war, somewhere to build a better life. That’s not the case for most refugees, who rely on the compassion of strangers to escape the living hell that is war. As America debates the plight of Syrian refugees in the aftermath of a spate of violence from Beirut to Paris, voices of intolerance get louder. We must counter those voices by speaking the truth.

Refugees are not the problem, they are the victims.

I’ve been in their shoes, I know what it feels like when your home is no longer a safe haven, when your parents lose the ability to fulfill their most basic role as protectors. Imagine resting your head on a pillow at night and wondering if you and that pillow will be obliterated before morning.

My family escaped by paying hundreds of dollars to a taxi driver willing to risk a gauntlet of snipers to reach Beirut’s airport. As we grabbed our belongings and squeezed into a beat up Mercedes ready to face the harrowing airport drive, little did we know that in the chaos, my father had packed his expired passport and that he’d be forced to leave us at the airport to make the dangerous round trip to retrieve the valid one. It was the longest wait of my life, but thankfully, he made it.

We spent time in Paris, where there is a large Lebanese expat community, then in New York, where my mother’s family lives and where I eventually settled. We returned to Lebanon in the vain hope of a lasting ceasefire, a hope that was shattered over and over again. Round after round of terrible violence followed. One of my family’s attempts to escape the bloodshed involved a midnight ferry to Cyprus. The Syrian army, under Bashar Assad’s dad, got wind of the journey and began shelling the port. Miraculously, everyone survived by hiding in a reinforced structure, piled on top of one another as fire rained down.

Brutality was everywhere. I was a few hundred yards away when the U.S. embassy was brought down by a massive bomb and I watched bleeding victims scramble away from the devastated structure. Months later, I remember driving to a market and hearing a huge explosion behind me. A suicide bomber had accidentally detonated his explosive before reaching the market and he lay in the street, car mangled, his body in two pieces. The force of the blast had blown his hair out grotesquely and I stood there contemplating what might have happened had our paths intersected just a few minutes sooner – or later.

When I was 15, the Lebanese Forces, a leading Christian militia during the civil war, began mandatory combat training of high school boys. I was one of them. That lasted for three years and I was not allowed to leave the country without written permission, which proved nearly impossible to procure. When I finally received it, I moved to New York and enrolled at NYU. I’ve only been back to Lebanon a handful of times since then – the memories are still very painful.

All these experiences inform my view of the current political debate on terrorism and refugees. I’ve come to understand that there is a relatively small but highly destructive segment of human males with a thirst for violence. Whether they massacre school children in the U.S. or concertgoers in Paris, whether they pour acid on girls or become serial killers, their goal is the same, to take life, to taste blood. They wrap themselves in different flags and different religions and rationalize their barbaric acts with everything from extremism to racism to misogyny, but those excuses shouldn’t distract us from their common nature and common purpose.

Violence is the story of human history. We can’t embrace intolerance in the false hope of protecting ourselves from every possible threat. What we must do is maintain our principles and our dignity and show these murderers that we will always stand strong. Our legacy is one of compassion and integrity, theirs is one of hate and failure. The former will prevail.

My Rude Awakening on White Males, Brown Females and #BlackLivesMatter


LPA personal epiphany about race and gender, to my fellow white males:

No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

I’ll explain.

It started in 2012 when I met Leela at the iconic Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls. Leela (pictured right) is of Indian heritage but is ethnically ambiguous and is regularly mistaken for someone she is not.

Two things there is no confusion about: to the outside world, she is a woman and she is non-white.

Leela and I moved in together within months and are happily married after four years. My rude awakening began almost immediately. First, the skewed glances when we held hands on the street. Not only are we a mixed couple but there is an age difference between us, so I chalked it off to curiosity. I assumed New York City was as tolerant a place as you’ll get in America and that we would barely merit a passing glance.

How wrong I was.

Shortly after we met, Leela moved into my apartment in Battery Park City, an oasis in the bustling heart of the world’s money machine, a stone’s throw from the towering headquarters of Goldman Sachs. It’s a neighborhood where privilege abounds, where dogs have walkers, kids have nannies, homes have housekeepers, and buildings have attendants. It’s where supermarkets deliver at all hours, where main courses start at $30, where weekends involve loading the family SUV and driving being driven to the Hamptons.

I chose that neighborhood years before it became what it is today. A long-time Upper West Sider, I moved to lower Manhattan shortly after the September 11th attacks for a number of reasons, not least of which was a sense of solidarity with the victims, several of whom were friends. I stayed because I thought living near a river was the only way my young daughter could get a taste of nature while still growing up in a polluted, over-crowded metropolis. (I’ve since moved near the park, for the same reason.)

Back to the present and my induction into a world seen through a darker prism. A day after Leela moved in, she came home visibly upset. I asked what happened. Apparently, the doorman had blocked her from entering the building, refusing to believe that the keys she was carrying were legitimately hers. She had to convince him to check the approved tenants list before he allowed her to go to her own home.

The incidents piled up. Things that may seem small to someone who doesn’t endure these experiences, but that in aggregate soured her daily life. The cabs that wouldn’t stop when she tried to hail them but hit the brakes and backed up when they saw she was with me. The clerks asking her to verify her ID every time she presented a credit card. The smiles at me from neighbors and barely concealed scowls at her when I turned away. The usual catcalls and crude comments when she walked alone. It quickly became clear that although we shared the same day to day life, her existence was profoundly different from mine.

The event that brought it to a head was when she pressed ‘PH’ in the elevator and the other occupant, a white male, asked which penthouse apartment she was going to clean. The idea that she lived there didn’t occur to him. When I heard about it, my indignation was palpable. It was the indignation and disrespect she lived with every day and that was alien to me.

Over the years we’ve been together, like all couples, Leela and I have shared our deep secrets, formative events that have left lifelong scars. We each have our stories. But nothing we spoke about prepared me for the steady accumulation of little emotional cuts, the insults of everyday life that keep her guard up at all times. This was something entirely new to me.

A progressive activist since college, I’d convinced myself that I was sensitive to the plight of others, enlightened about the hardships that humans face, self-aware enough to know that my experience was not necessarily that of the people around me. As a Lebanese-American who grew up a child of war and witnessed and survived death and destruction, I told myself that I got it. I knew to respect the perspective of other individuals, no matter how different that perspective was from mine.

What I didn’t realize was that we are stuck in our own heads far more than we can appreciate and that empathy has limitations. As a white male, I can convince myself that I understand racism and sexism, but it’s far more intellectual than visceral. My point of view is distorted by the culture I exist in.

These numbers from the Washington Post provide context:

In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race. The average black person’s friend network is eight percent white, but the average white person’s network is only one percent black. To put it another way: Blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends.

Until I married Leela and saw the world through her eyes, I was partially blind, believing I saw the harsh truths but only seeing them through a white-tinted lens. Living life as a woman of color is an automatic double strike against you. Leela and I move through the same physical space but our mental space is altered by the people around us, by the insidious prejudice (pre-judgment) surrounding us and shaping our reality.

I say all this as #BlackLivesMatter draws stark lines of demarcation between those who get it and those who don’t. I know I’ll never fully feel what Leela feels, but I can still rage against racism, fight inequality and injustice. I can still take a stand and make a difference, but I must do it with humility and acknowledgment of my own biases.

I’ll conclude by re-posting something I wrote after the Charleston massacre:

I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.

Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.

The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice shot down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…

Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.

No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.

We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name.

Yes, #BlackLivesMatter. So much is contained in those three words, so much more than many of us understand, however well-meaning we are. As I said: No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

UPDATE (7/7/16): This was published a year ago and since then, many more lives have been snuffed out under similar circumstances. Most recently: Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. This brutality must end.

PUBLICITY IS COMPLICITY: Don’t Grant Fame to Mass Killers


mass shootingThis is the age of fame for fame’s sake, the strange loop of becoming famous for becoming famous, where Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube create instant celebrities whose only achievement is becoming an Internet celebrity.

An entire generation is growing up craving shortcuts to the public spotlight, hoping for that one offbeat “viral” video that can catapult them from obscurity to national recognition.

The desire for fame is the need to prove we existed, to cheat the eternity of death, to show we mattered, to leave a mark in the minds of others in the hope that they will remember us. It is the deepest of all needs, the existential urge to mean something, to be somebody.

For a small segment of individuals, who are either evil, barbarically murderous, mentally ill, easily manipulable by the language of hate, or some combination thereof, a mass killing is the surest and quickest path to “being somebody.” It is no coincidence that of the 12 deadliest shootings in the United States, six have happened from 2007 onward. The advent of  social media and the rise of instant celebrities creates the unrealistic belief that fame requires no training, no hard work, no accomplishment. Anyone can be famous for any reason – or for no reason at all.

With the proper cocktail of guns, racism, misogyny, hate, mental illness, gullibility or evil, some young men choose the surest path to fame: mass murder. Society must deny them that fame. Censor their names. They do not deserve to commandeer the national spotlight by taking the lives of others. Make them invisible. Refer to them as “the killer” or “the murderer.” Obscure their face.

In 2012, after the horrific Aurora shooting, David Kopel wrote an impassioned plea to deny shooters the celebrity they seek:

How the media covers one event affects whether there will be similar events. That is why TV broadcasts of baseball games turn the cameras away from nitwits who run on the field, seeking attention. Media coverage also affects copycat murders — by encouraging more of them.

Nearly two decades ago, Professor Clayton Cramer detailed how mass killers obsessively study the publicity which the media have given to previous killers. His 1993 article “Ethical Problems of Mass Murder Coverage in the Mass Media,” won a journalism award, but it didn’t change media behavior.

A 2004 book by Loren Coleman, The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines provided a horrifying litany of examples in which media coverage of one killing has led to copycat killings. Sometimes the attention given to a teenage suicide leads to more teenage suicides. Often, the media attention given to a mass killer lead to more mass killings.

After the Columbine High School murders in 1999, the media were particularly irresponsible, as when Time and Newsweek magazines put pictures of the killers on the front cover. In 2007, the Virginia Tech murderer sent NBC News a videotape of himself. Rather than showing that video on national television, NBC should have made a copy for law enforcement and refused to broadcast the killer’s self-promotional video on television.

Alex Mesoudi digs deeper into the effect of media frenzies on nascent killers:

Mass shootings such as these are now invariably followed by a media frenzy, particularly since the emergence of 24-hour rolling news channels seeking to fill their airtime. Commentators can often be heard arguing over the single cause of mass shootings: the availability of guns, mental illness, violent movies and video games, poor parenting, high school bullying, and so on.

Despite the confidence of many of these commentators in their views, empirical research into mass shootings is far less conclusive, and points to a confluence of factors. The availability of guns surely plays a role, as indicated by the sudden drop in mass shootings in Australia following a ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles. But while the availability of guns is necessary, it is surely not sufficient.

Some perpetrators may suffer from some form of mental illness such as antisocial personality disorder, but the frequency of psychosis or severe mental illness amongst mass shooters is surprisingly rare. The effects of violence in movies, television and video games continues to be studied and debated: violent video games can trigger aggressive behaviour in a laboratory setting, but whether this extends to real-life cases of mass shootings is uncertain.

One potential cause of mass shootings that receives little attention in the mass media, however, is the mass media themselves. It may be that, simply by devoting continual, non-stop coverage to these events, the media may be encouraging ‘copycat’ mass shootings. … In simply devoting so much time and attention to mass killers, the mass media may be – unintentionally – conferring prestige and success onto them. For certain individuals, this may trigger a copycat effect and result in another mass shooting.

Ari N. Schulman explains the exhibitionist motives of mass killers:

Eric W. Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies, in his 2009 book “Serial Murderers and Their Victims,” writes, “massacre killers commit a single and final act in which violence becomes a ‘medium’ to make a ‘final statement’ in or about life.” Fantasy, public expression and messaging are central to what motivates and defines massacre killings.

Mass shooters aim to tell a story through their actions. They create a narrative about how the world has forced them to act, and then must persuade themselves to believe it. The final step is crafting the story for others and telling it through spoken warnings beforehand, taunting words to victims or manifestos created for public airing.

What these findings suggest is that mass shootings are a kind of theater. Their purpose is essentially terrorism—minus, in most cases, a political agenda. The public spectacle, the mass slaughter of mostly random victims, is meant to be seen as an attack against society itself.

Kopel, Schulman and Mesoudi are absolutely right. It is long past time for the media to block this brutal shortcut to fame.

Alarmingly, the opposite is the case in the Charleston church shooting. Every major media outlet is featuring the killer’s face and name, granting him importance he doesn’t deserve. He is just another murderous young human male – they’ve existed for millennia and they will for ages to come. In this case, racism was his driving motive. In other cases it’s misogyny, or pure bloodlust, or even boredom.

No need to plumb the depths of this murderer’s life and mind. We know the evil that festered in it. We know racism is alive and well, but we’re not going to eliminate it by ceding the national spotlight to a single heinous 21-year-old who is now basking in the personal attention he’s getting from millions of viewers and readers.

The media, and anyone who publicly disseminates this barbarian’s face and name, are gifting him his day of infamy when they should be erasing him from public memory and focusing exclusively on the lives of the victims. Shame.

UPDATE: Tragically, since the Charleston massacre there have been more mass killings in the U.S., the most recent at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. In every case, the national media willingly give the killer the fame he seeks. It is time to stop the complicity.

UPDATE 2: In the aftermath of America’s worst mass shooting ever, at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, the national media have put the killer’s face on permanent loop. Turn on a cable network and you’ll see his smiling selfie over and over again. The purpose? None. Granting this mass murderer personal fame is beyond reprehensible.

Praying While Black: The Charleston Massacre and Terrorism against Black Americans


Black lives matterOur individual perspective on race and justice is a product of our background, our upbringing, our experiences, our identity, our own moral code. I see America through the eyes of a Lebanese-American, married to a woman of color, raised in a war zone. I have spent the past two decades as a progressive activist and the past 15 in the thicket of American politics as a consultant and campaign adviser.

With each passing year on this planet, I find myself more disturbed by human violence and injustice, more distressed by the horrific things humans do to one another. I thought time would bring numbness, but the reverse is true.

I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.

Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.

The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice gunned down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…

Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.

No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.

One of the most troubling of all these incidents is described in chilling detail by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I took some time this weekend to re-read Jennifer Gonnerman’s piece on the odyssey of Kalief Browder. I wanted to understand how, precisely, it happened that a boy was snatched off the streets of New York, repeatedly beaten, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and yet no one was held accountable.

His parents were told to pay a certain sum, or he would not be released. When they did not pay, he was beaten and then banished to lonely cell. Browder’s captors then offered him a different way out—pay for your freedom in the political currency of a guilty plea. He refused. More beatings. More solitary. The sum was lowered. Browder still refused. He was subjected to the same routine. Browder defeated his captors. They tired, released him, and likely turned to perpetrate the same scheme on some other hapless soul.

Browder’s victory came at the cost of martyrdom, and in his name we should be strong enough to speak directly about what he endured. Kalief Browder was kidnapped in our name. Kalief Browder was held for ransom in our name. Kalief Browder was tortured in our name. Kalief Browder was killed in our name.

We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name. When an entire segment of the population lives in fear of random unjustified violence with little legal recourse, then they are being terrorized. Let’s call the injustice and violence against black Americans what it is: Terrorism.

Ten Global Travesties


A list that shouldn’t exist in the 21st century:

  1. Worldwide, women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined.
  2. One in seven people on earth goes to bed hungry each night while 25 hedge fund managers made a combined $21 billion in a single year, enough to feed every hungry person on earth.
  3. Global military spending exceeds $1.7 trillion per year, 100 times more than annual cancer research spending.
  4. The Forbes 400 billionaires have as much wealth as the entire African-American population of the U.S., nearly 42 million people.
  5. 1.6 billion people face economic water shortage, while 2 to 4 million gallons of water are used to frack a single well, polluting our water supply.
  6. Over a million people around the world lose their lives to violence every year, yet 40% of Americans live in a household with a gun, more than the percentage of young adults enrolled in college.
  7. It costs just 25 cents a day to provide a child with the vitamins and nutrients to grow up healthy, but every hour of every day, 300 children die from malnutrition.
  8. One of the leading causes of death for pregnant women is homicide — and one out of every three women will be a victim of violence in her lifetime.
  9. The world’s nations pumped nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the burning of fossil fuels last year.
  10. Cigarettes – often the product of child labor – will kill up to a billion people in the 21st century, yet remain legal and are marketed to teenagers.

Why violence is worse than other existential threats


“No more hurting people” - Martin Richard, 8, killed in Boston Marathon attack.

Violence: “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

The World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health states that violence is “among the leading causes of death among people aged 15-44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females.”

Millions of people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year. What is infinitely disturbing is the myriad forms this violence takes and how pervasive and borderless it is. Across the globe and across the centuries, humans have committed the most barbaric acts, limited only by their imaginations, and the march of civilization has done little to change the grim reality that on any given day, in every corner of our planet, gruesome and ungodly things are done to women, children and men.

Growing up in Beirut during the 70s and early 80s, I witnessed terrible acts of violence, car bombs at markets and artillery strikes on residential neighborhoods, bloody bodies and corpses in the street, the carnage of urban warfare. I saw the darker aspects of human nature, the willingness of people to brutalize one another. After four decades on this planet, I still cannot fathom how a man can rape a baby, how people can gas, hack, strangle, shoot, bomb, smother, burn, and torture their fellow humans. Rather than become dulled and inured, I am ever more appalled and horrified by violence.

Preventing violence should be our highest priority. Tragically and deplorably, it is not. For every paroxysm of grief and shock over a mass killing, there is apathy in the face of events like this:

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. “We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Something like this should stop the world in its tracks, but it doesn’t:

Jessica Marie Lunsford was a nine-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida in the early morning of February 24, 2005. … Couey entered Lunsford’s house through an unlocked door at about three o’clock in the morning, awakened Lunsford, told her “Don’t yell or nothing,” and told her to follow him out of the house. He admitted in a videotaped and recorded deposition to raping Lunsford in his bedroom. Lunsford was kept in Couey’s bed that evening, where he raped her again in the morning. Couey put her in his closet and ordered her to remain there, which she did as he reported for work at “Billy’s Truck Lot”. Three days after he abducted her, Couey tricked Jessica into getting into two garbage bags by saying he was going to ‘take her home’. He instead buried her alive as he decided he could do nothing else with the girl. According to the publicly released autopsy reports Lunsford had poked two fingers through the bags before suffocating to death.

Or this:

Turkish police have recovered the body of a 16-year-old girl they say was buried alive by relatives in an “honor” killing carried out as punishment for talking to boys. The girl, who has been identified only by the initials MM, was found in a sitting position with her hands tied, in a two-meter hole dug under a chicken pen outside her home in Kahta, in the south-eastern province of Adiyaman. … Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter – one of nine children – had male friends. The grandfather is said to have beaten her for having relations with the opposite sex. A postmortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.

No fate seems more ghastly or any act more abhorrent than the kind of evil deeds described above. That these things occur every day, every hour, across the planet is horrific beyond words. That the world is largely apathetic about it is loathsome.

There is something qualitatively different, something worse about violence than other existential threats. It may be impossible to distinguish between the mortal terror of being trapped under a building in an earthquake and being trapped under a building after a car bomb, between the agony of death from cancer and being beaten to death. But there is a difference. We all die in some manner or another, but an act of human will, of intentionality, a choice by one person to harm another, is not the same as an act or accident of nature or a cruel vagary of fate. The immediacy, intentionality, and physicality of a violent act sets it apart, precisely because free will is involved, because it is a choice in the moment, because it is avoidable by virtue of being the will of a person.

Although the relative scale is disproportionate (vastly more people are at risk from hunger and disease) violence touches virtually everyone, directly or indirectly. Is there a single person reading this who hasn’t been affected by it in some way or who isn’t concerned about being harmed or having their loved ones harmed? In many ways, violence – the fear of it, the reality of it, its history, and its many representations/permutations in art, film, music, media and modern culture – defines our modern life.

I believe that the decision by an individual or group of individuals to destroy or inflict damage on others, to rob them of their freedom, to strip them of their dignity, to dehumanize them, is fundamentally worse than any other mortal threat we face. Violence is an affront to our souls, a stain on our humanity.

Should it be our top order of business to eradicate violence? Yes. Is it possible to do so? The report I referenced at the top of this piece is a good place to start.

The pervasive oppression of women and girls


The greatest travesty of human life:

  • One out of every three women will be a victim of violence in her lifetime.
  • In some parts of the world a girl is more likely to be raped than to learn how to read.
  • Murder is a leading cause of death for pregnant women.
  • The children most at risk of attempted abduction by strangers are girls ages 10 to 14.
  • Every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or on their way to school.
  • Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
  • 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
  • Femicide is the leading cause of on-the-job death for women.
  • Only about one third of countries around the world have laws in place to combat violence against women, and in most of these countries those laws are not enforced.
  • Women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined.
  • In Asia and South Asia, in addition to sex-selective abortions, millions of girls and women are killed after birth through starvation and violence, forced abortions, ‘honor’ killings, dowry murders, and witch lynchings.

And the reward: Women work 67% of the world’s working hours, yet earn only 10% of the world’s income.

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Threats to justice everywhere


Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963

Those searing words are as apt today as they were a half century ago.

Look around:

  • In some parts of the world a girl is more likely to be raped than to learn how to read.
  • It costs just 25 cents a day to provide a child with the vitamins and nutrients to grow up healthy, but every hour 300 children die from malnutrition.
  • Global military spending exceeds $1.7 trillion per year, 100 times more than annual cancer research spending.
  • One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, while black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • Worldwide, women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined.
  • The world’s nations pumped 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air every second from the burning of fossil fuels last year, poisoning our children and endangering life on our planet.
  • Over 40% of Americans live in a household with a gun, more than the percentage of young adults enrolled in college.
  • One in seven people on earth goes to bed hungry each night, while 1,426 billionaires have a net worth of $5.4 trillion, more than 100 times the amount necessary to eradicate global hunger.
  • Only about one third of countries around the world have laws in place to combat violence against women, and in most of these countries those laws are not enforced.
  • Our government regularly uses unmanned drones to fire missiles at ill-defined targets, killing babies in the process.
  • Every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or on their way to school.
  • Our government detains people indefinitely with no charges and no recourse then forces feeding tubes down their throat when they protest.
  • Every 2 minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, but 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
  • 1.4 billion people in developing countries live on $1.25 a day or less, while the top 40 highest-earning hedge fund managers made a combined $13.2 billion in a single year.
  • Over a million people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year.
  • Murder is a leading cause of death for pregnant women.
  • 85 of the richest people on the planet are as wealthy as the poorest 3.5 billion.
  • Our government assassinates its own citizens with no trial.
  • 1.6 billion people face economic water shortage, while 2 to 4 million gallons of water are used to frack a single well, contaminating aquifers with methane, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

We truly share a “single garment of destiny” and if we accept one of the injustices above, we are enabling all of them.