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Hostage Situations: Culture, Charity, and Cures

A few years ago a Washington DC taxi driver, Timor Sekander, a survivor of the Afghan war  with Russia, saved my emotional life by sharing the pain of his losses–a father, and two brothers–with me,  a stranger, looking for answers en-route to the Vietnam Memorial. He turned off his meter and spent two mercurial days introducing me to dozens of grateful refugees who mediated their memories and healed their common wounds by helping each other survive everyday challenges through trade, fellowship and commerce in a country not yet sure how to appreciate their talents or accept their presence.

On Twitter yesterday I engaged in a conversation with a man in Mississippi who had publicly decried Obama’s recent executive order that will close Guantanamo Bay (Camp Delta) within a year while granting legal rights to those incarcerated like the Chinese Uyghur Muslims held there for years without formal charges or trial.  In 17 current cases, detainees were found innocent of any wrong doing and worse yet, some Uyghur prisoners arrived at Gitmo months after being kidnapped near Afghanistan by U.S. supported vigilantes who were paid bounties to round up suspected terrorists. I replied by applauding the executive order and let him know that I had read on, past the section granting constitutional rights, to the section with a clearly worded directive ordering trials and punishment for those the evidence suggests are truly terrorists.

This is not, and was not, a political argument for me.

gitmo-prisoners

My new “follower” on Twitter used the heavily charged word “terrorist” during out talk to describe the detainees still held at Guantanamo and said they did not deserve constitutional protection. He went on to say that the terrorists were being well cared for and nothing at Gitmo could be “construed as torture.” I contend (ed) that being separated from your family and locked in even in the cleanest of cages for four to eight years with recreational water-boarding occasionally on your schedule could hardly be construed as a tax payer funded vacation in Cuba….Terrorist is a word we have been conditioned to associate almost exclusively with the Arab world, so it is easy to imagine that where there is religious smoke  there is terrorist fire; conversely to entertain “torture” as a part of the American lexicon is to appear anti-patriotic,or treasonous at best….

Last week I was talking to Diaster Relief Shelters founder Roland Catellier about the trials inherent in fund-raising for homes and dormitories in Sichuan where millions are still without adequate protection. Those Chinese now living in temporary shelters may well be sharing cooking and toilet facilities with dozens of other families. It is a disaster-induced prison with many innocents serving indeterminate sentences for the crime of poverty.

Collecting funds to help survivors of disaster or trauma is the greatest challenge of any charity in China.  Many people view the Middle Kingdom and all its inhabitants as economic terrorists who are part of an industrial entity that has robbed them of jobs or shut the doors on their neighbor’s family business. And the huge and faceless numbers of those dead in China keep us and any Chinese who could help from looking too closely at the anguish partly made of indifference, or helplessness or fear of falling into some mournful abyss. It is hard for many to care amidst soaring unemployment that has now washed ashore in China and the beleaguered in Sichuan are hard to segregate from the 900 million others in poverty trying to live on less than $1.50 a day.

Sichuan Destruction

I feel ill today and spent the day, when not sleeping, in video and written excursions away from fever and body ache. There is no fun in dwelling in physical or societal misery and I spend more time in concocting solutions than I do recounting trials. So, today I read and  listened to teachers and practictioners of comfort and compassion. My favorite diversion today was a visit with the “happiest man in the world,” Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, author and photographer via his lecture on TED.Even the man whose extraordinary bliss has been scientifically documeted spoke about the fleet-footed nature of feelings. He acutely feels anguish and sorrow, but can skew his thoughts and actions toward solutions and reconciliation. His spiritual leader recently said that while he often diagreed with George Bush, but he loved him–and I believe him.

I know, as one who lives daily with the extreme and varying degrees of pain associated with an autoimmune disease, that it is through compassion or sharing that I can dissolve associated anger, irritations or suffering. Teaching and writing are my active meditations, my ways of showing compassion: In classes where I really give of myself I often vanquish colds, unlock painfully secured limbs or transform a mood from depression and despair into extreme contentment. And the receipt of good teaching and compassionate words that issue from sage friends like Des Walsh, Zach my monastic guide and Debra Xiangjun Hayes can have the same impact.

Ricard talked to the unseen dual nature of things like the depth of an ocean below a roiling, temperamental wave: There is more than meets the eye in all things. It brought me to thinking about how charity and compassion and even health are often hostages of  our narrow fields of vision–those accepted by us, even if foisted upon us, without compassionate investigation on our part.

The first thing a police negotiator does in a hostage crisis is to begin calling the victim in peril by their true name so that the perpetrator can hear and see that he is a life threat to a vital, breathing person, a sentient being and not just an object for ransom, or a means to an end. There is always hope that you can resonate with the good, the ocean below, in even the most violent of waters.

charity

Michael Berg at the Kaballah Center says in a recent article that we must make conscious decisions that bring us to a place where we are willing to experience the pain of taking on the burdens of others. I think before we can devote ourselves to the Sisyphus-like toil of charity in a place like Sichuan, as has Roland, we must acknowledge some emotional or human connection. we need to see the faces of those in distress, we need to hear their stories and politics will be forced to embrace new priorities. I will settle for even a few more of us taking time to divest ourselves of preconceptions so that we feel an imperative to engage, not war with, people making decisons, not to interfere with our well-being but to survive themselves just one more day. It s then we can follow Berg and feel, to paraphrase Camus, that to help someone you have been taught to revile or to offer money time or comfort to aid someone who may only have minutes to live is a struggle, but one toward the heights of selflessness and it is, by itself, enough to fill any man’s heart.

More in Part II

Addendum: Four good places to begin to appreciate China’s people: Blog of Dreams, Tom Carter, The Library Project, Derrick Chang’s Mask of China

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Hostage Situations: Culture, Charity, and Cures”

  1. Molly Mednikowon Jan 28th 2009 at 9:07 am

    Your blog post left me speechless. Though my Twitter name is CheckMyStyleOut, that is a silly hobby compared to my true vocation as Founder and Director of the Amazon Jungle’s first animal welfare charity, Amazon Community Animal Rescue, Education & Safety. Despite being located far from Ica, Peru, the epicenter of an 8.2 Richter scale earthquake in the fal of 2007, I packed up our employees and vets and we headed to the earthquake zone to provide animal rescue services. We organized and housed over 30 International volunteers. When it was over we had $10 in our account. Too often, remote charities have extreme difficulty raising funds. We have no lack of qualified veterinarians coming to volunteers with us, but these trips always drain us financially, despite generous donations of time and many supplies by those who volunteer.

    I was evacuated from Peru due to a very volatile political environment, and following a kidnap attempt on me. I now operate the charity remotely, but I am also pursuing another dream of writing. Your blog teaches me just how much I need to learn. Your insights and thoughtful manner of relaying them makes your blog a stand-out among others. Congratulations.

  2. Clement Wanon Jan 28th 2009 at 9:57 am

    I read your post with interest though I wonder about the comment with respect to Guantanamo. First off, as others elsewhere have commented, love him or hate him (and for the record I don’t either love him or hate him – and besides, I’m Canadian), GWB’s methods were successful insofar as the US has not experienced another attack at home. Having done a considerable amount of traveling, and I am imagining you have as well, from a government policy perspective, the US response has been relatively timid and has attempted to balance out civil liberties and the very real threats of extremists.

    What your example has noted however, is a rather gross simplification of the issue and to a large extent a red herring. You note your critic is from Mississippi (which is largely irrelevant except many elsewhere read it as “red neck hick”) and while there are quite probably innocents in Guantanamo, there are are also clearly those who would do the Western world harm. Call them extremists, terrorists or oompa loompas, this underlying reality does not change.

    The question is where to put these people who do not exactly fall under the classic definition of “criminals” or even “prisoners of war” many who willingly use proxies to blow civilians up in pursuit of a supposedly religious cause. The US is fully engaged in a war on foreign soil but they are the only ones expected to live up to the terms of the Geneva convention while much of the media gives a pass to her opponents using euphemisms as “freedom fighters” (Reuters), or insurgents who pass themselves off as journalists setting up in schools, hospitals and civilian areas.

    As for the the Uyghurs specifically whom you refer, one of the problems with Guantanamo is that few know what really goes on – we’ve definitely heard some of the potential horror stories, and granted it is no club med, but frankly I’d be concerned about their safety if they are indeed innocents and are sent back to China. There really isn’t any good answer what to do. Now with the Obama administration in power, a solid Democratic House and Senate, time will be the only judge of the success of the new approach.

    I agree that the old approach had much to be desired, but let’s also recognize that the even older approach prior to GWB that may have started with the lack of response in the Reagan years to the bombing in Lebanon also culminated in September 11th, and also with a middle east that is still largely populated by horrifically oppressive despotic governments (who had detention facilities that WOULD make Guantanamo seem like club med) that the US government had propped up because it was too afraid of what new change might bring.

  3. adminon Jan 28th 2009 at 11:21 am

    I read your post with interest though I wonder about the comment with respect to Guantanamo. First off, as others elsewhere have commented, love him or hate him (and for the record I don’t either love him or hate him – and besides, I’m Canadian), GWB’s methods were successful insofar as the US has not experienced another attack at home. Having done a considerable amount of traveling, and I am imagining you have as well, from a government policy perspective, the US response has been relatively timid and has attempted to balance out civil liberties and the very real threats of extremists.

    –Thanks for the thoughtful response….
    Well, that we have not had another attack is anecdotal. Who knows what worked? That analogy is akin to the old tiger and drum story: If I beat a drum in the middle of Detroit and tigers don’t attack is it superstition or a reality?

    What your example has noted however, is a rather gross simplification of the issue and to a large extent a red herring. You note your critic is from Mississippi (which is largely irrelevant except many elsewhere read it as “red neck hick”) and while there are quite probably innocents in Guantanamo, there are are also clearly those who would do the Western world harm. Call them extremists, terrorists or oompa loompas, this underlying reality does not change.

    –Actually, my father was from Kentucky and I lived in Mississippi for some time. It was simply a descriptor….There is a greater concentration of hate rhetoric laden blogs coming out of this guy’s area than most…

    –I thought I was pretty clear that I supported the prosecution of those responsible for terrorist acts. I do believe that we ave an obligation to try them or at least charge them with a crime if evidence exists they are indeed a threat. we have a long record of keeping people incarcerated who warrant better treatment (insert Coptic Christians and Cuban refugees here)…There must be a better way to handle immigration issues than via a $40,000 a year taxpayer bill to house people that should have been freed YEARS ago….I also question the the veracity of guilt claims in Gitmo anyway. I was a military officer and my roomie was an Afghani translator/Interrogator who resigned his post as a conscientious objector. Given a very short period of time under the right conditions I am positive we could make you, who has probably never been to the deep south, confess to the murder of MLK in writing. Ask McCain about coercion.

    The question is where to put these people who do not exactly fall under the classic definition of “criminals” or even “prisoners of war” many who willingly use proxies to blow civilians up in pursuit of a supposedly religious cause. The US is fully engaged in a war on foreign soil but they are the only ones expected to live up to the terms of the Geneva convention while much of the media gives a pass to her opponents using euphemisms as “freedom fighters” (Reuters), or insurgents who pass themselves off as journalists setting up in schools, hospitals and civilian areas.

    –The detainees at Gitmo were classified as enemy combatants specifically so we could dodge the Geneva convention….Take a very close look at the events in Haiditha (among many) and the cover-ups that followed and then speak to sanctioned rules of engagement….Since this has devolved into a political conversation I think that we should be abiding by some set of rules in a country we invaded merely because of bad intelligence and a need for greater oil reserves….But, just for the record, I garnered several thousand signatures on a petition asking for leniency for Lt Calley after his involvement in the My Lai Massacre during Vietnam and I supported the medal of honor for Hugh Thompson and his crew who stopped the carnage Calley was ordered to commit…These are issues too complex politically and psychologically to properly debate here, but ….There are no absolutes that any politician or statesman can demand of men put in harms way by unethical leaders….I am pro soldier, but fiercely against this war and the civilians it has left dead and the thousands of amputees and disabled young men who fought there….I most detest the hatred for peace loving islamics who have become this generation’s Nazi, Jap, Gook, Commie bastard by association and continued profiling by the US…

    As for the the Uyghurs specifically whom you refer, one of the problems with Guantanamo is that few know what really goes on – we’ve definitely heard some of the potential horror stories, and granted it is no club med, but frankly I’d be concerned about their safety if they are indeed innocents and are sent back to China. There really isn’t any good answer what to do. Now with the Obama administration in power, a solid Democratic House and Senate, time will be the only judge of the success of the new approach.

    Some of the Uyghers have admitted they were training to create havoc in China; some are wholly innocent. Were China, or any country, holding admitted terrorists plotting against the US we would demand or enforce their return for prosecution….The innocent ones should not have to be farmed out to developing countries nor sent anywhere where they would be in peril. They should be taken care of by the government that kidnapped them and robbed them of a decade of freedom…

    I agree that the old approach had much to be desired, but let’s also recognize that the even older approach prior to GWB that may have started with the lack of response in the Reagan years to the bombing in Lebanon also culminated in September 11th, and also with a middle east that is still largely populated by horrifically oppressive despotic governments (who had detention facilities that WOULD make Guantanamo seem like club med) that the US government had propped up because it was too afraid of what new change might bring.

    Two of my friends died in Lebanon. I still grieve. But, I think it is a stretch to believe that 9-11 stood on the shoulders of our poor security and failure to protect the troops or our failure to turn Lebanon into an oil slick in retaliation….THAT is simplistic!
    I am not sure if you are blaming the US in your last paragraph for the present turmoil and historical abuses of power in puppet regimes or if you’d like America to continue to act as the world’s policeman…Neither role appeals to me….

    Engagement, charity and spending allocated BILLIONS on peace initiatives does appeal to me….

  4. adminon Jan 28th 2009 at 11:55 am

    Just a Post Script….Gitmo is not gone….The order gives it a year yet…and it will not be an easy year: Cartoon

  5. Clement Wanon Jan 28th 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for the response – rereading my comment I came across a bit harsher than I intended. I think the one thing that is pretty clear is that there really aren’t any clear answers – and as for your last response “spending allocated BILLIONS on peace initiatives does appeal to me” – I would say that depends and in general I disagree.

    You may be interested in a new blog by William Easterly, a former economist with the World Bank who also wrote “Quest for Growth”: http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/. Absolute poverty and starvation are a government/politically created issue. It is ironic that even at the height of the famine in Ethiopia in the late 80s, the western part of the country had a pretty good harvest. It became such that it became more costly to transport food from the west to the starving east than it was to move a ship of grain from the US. Zimbabwe being just another miserable example of governments starving their people (and they were enabled by Europe who claimed that they were concerned that US food aid would seep into food crops that potentially had GMO).

    I believe that the Iraq war was a just war based as you note on faulty intelligence, and not based on an attempt to secure oil reserves (though I think we could probably devote a whole blog to arguing back and forth but my basic reasoning is that there would have been far easier ways to get them like France, Germany and Russia had bartered for). I don’t know that you can ever get perfect intelligence and Hussein had spent billions on developing nukes before unbeknownst to much of the world’s intelligence services (until that senior official defected). You can also see a somewhat surprising video on Youtube with Gore on the campaign trail making the argument that he was the better choice on the grounds he had a better understanding of foreign policy and more had to be done with respect to Hussein. Depending on how Iraq evolves it could still be the trojan horse into the Middle East that shows at a minimum that the populace does not need to be controlled by despots in order to be governed.

    Personally I think the demonization of the Bush administration is a bit overdone though one thing that you presumably like with respect to his legacy is that of AIDS and poverty alleviation in Africa that you don’t hear so much about.

    But the question comes down to what to do. Spending billions is what gets us into problems like this to begin with – and the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on foreign aid have been largely wasted over the past several decades. The best approach is one of promoting economic and political liberties. Promoting property rights can unleash far more billions than any aid that Western governments could hope to contribute – much of which realistically speaking gets funnelled either inefficiently or into the hands of corrupt leaders. Further, property rights and markets mean more sustainable development.

    One of my interests is microfinance, and my background is finance/accounting. I worked in Uganda for a brief period of time with a microfinance institution – but there was a Scandanavian aid agency that donated 4 M USD to a competitive institution in a bit of a hurry in order to make their budget time constraints – and then started asking other MFIs what the best way to monitor the funds might be. This of course was AFTER they had given the money to an institution that had long had rumours of issues with respect to governance/management. Done for the sake of saying that their country had contributed x% of GDP to aid and development.

    I’m sorry to hear about your friends in Lebanon. My point with respect to Lebanon was that the lack of American response – or rather adequate American response allowed gradual escalation over time. I’m sure you’ll agree that the Middle East is a powder keg just waiting to go off with despots running amok and scapegoating both the US and Israel. I’d like to believe that on some level we can all be reasoned with but I think history tells us different – and of those I met on recent travels through the middle east, suggests there are those who are always willing to die for land or for that matter religion.

    Incidentally, it is ironic but the Palestinian family whom I stayed with already had kids into their 20s but the hopes of the parents was that they would be able to emigrate to the US. Perhaps even more ironically (they travel on Jordanian passports), he was telling me shortly after September 11th, 2001 he visited his eldest son in Dallas, TX and he thought the rest of the passengers were given more of a security check than he was – as a Muslim male.

    Granted, it’s anecdotal and I have no doubt there is considerably more racial profiling, and it’s human nature to fear what you don’t understand. But when it comes to racist attitudes Americans empirically have nothing compared to the rest of the world (e.g. attitudes of Black people by most Asian/Oriental societies). I’m just glad at least the Americans either leak like sieves when it comes to supposed coverups and that ultimately leads to some level of accountability (incidentally I thought that much of what happened at Haditha was shown to be overblown). http://newsbusters.org/blogs/robin-boyd/2007/09/01/cnn-perpetuates-myths-haditha .

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