Category Archives: terrorism

Notes from an Anglo-Irish-German-Czech-American Jewish Atheist

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Desra gave us a ride back to the Air B&B.  Inside, Lynn said pensively, “If I went to dinner in London with someone who was Afro Caribbean, I don’t think the subject of race would even come up—but we spent the whole dinner tonight talking about race.”

Of course they don’t have African Americans in England.  The race labels were confusing when I lived there, especially who was covered by “Asian.”  In Minnesota, Asians are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Thai.  By far the largest group, the Hmong, are mountain tribes people from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China—where they are called the Miao. That’s pronounced “meow.”  Our newest arrivals are the Karen, an ethnic group from Burma/Myanmar.

In England, an Asian is most likely from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.

Lynn herself is Anglo Indian because her ancestry is English and Indian.  Note that the Anglo comes first, whereas in the U.S., we say “African American” or “Muslim American.”

This labeling is all very fraught with the peril of offending one side or another.

“What if you were having dinner with a Pakistani or other Muslim?” I asked Lynn.  “Would race or religion be a theme in every angle of the conversation?”

“Hmmm…maybe,” replied Lynn. “Yes, that might be it.  It’s not that we don’t have prejudice in the UK.  But I think it’s the Muslim population that’s getting the brunt of the suspicion and animosity, especially since September 11 and seven seven.”

July 7, 2007—the day on which 52 people were killed and 700 injured on the London transport system in an Islamist terrorist attack.  I remember watching it on the news, in Spanish, from my bed in a hotel in Cusco, Peru, where I was vomiting my guts out into an ice bucket after eating some bad guinea pig. That’s a story for another post, but here’s a free tip for you: never use a hotel ice bucket for ice.

We reference so much with these simple dates: 9/11, 7/7.   So much has changed.  In the U.S., half the population—the conservative half—replaced its constant fear of a mass attack by communists with fear of a Muslim attack, which has made possible the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump.  The strange thing is, they don’t fear the white guy next door with 50 guns who just lost his job and his wife and is acting strangely—just “the Muslims.”

The third major terrorist attack in the west was 11-M, the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004.  Almost 200 people were killed and 2,000 were injured.  I don’t remember where I was that day.  But I do vividly recall being in Spain sometime after 9/11 but before 11-M studying Spanish.  I was chatting with a British woman and somehow 9/11 came up.

“Now you lot know what we’ve been living with all these years from the IRA,” she said casually about the attack in which nearly 3,000 people died.

Back in St. Louis after a good night’s sleep, Lynn and I were preparing for our last day on the road.

“What do we do with the doughnuts?” she asked.

I carried the box out with us, thinking I would take them home to Vince.  Then I spotted a kid on the porch of the house next door and approached him.

“Hey kid, want a box of doughnuts?”  He was chubby and his eyes said Yes as he also backed away from me toward the door and called, “Daddy!”  The father came rushing outside, looking panicked. I could just picture myself at the police station: “No officer, really! I just wanted to give him the doughnuts; I wasn’t trying to lure him into my car.”

I offered the box to the father, who looked inside to make sure they really were doughnuts (I wonder what else he suspected could be inside?  Snakes?).  He looked up at me with a grin, thanked me, and the two of them hurried inside, where I could hear the boy calling out excitedly, “Mom! We got doughnuts!”

Gittin’ in Trouble

This is the seventh post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

Before we left Santiago de Cuba, we took an excursion to the nearby Parque Nacional de Gran Peidra—a sort of national park. I love the outdoors and got excited that we might go on a hike, but we only skirted the park on our way to our real destination, Guantanamo Bay.

If you look at Google maps, it’s really confusing. What you would think was the U.S. territory with the detention center is marked as Cuban territory. Google has steered me wrong before, mostly memorably in Nairobi where it sent me to a slum instead of to the Ford Foundation’s offices, so I would never count on it except for a rough approximation.

Guantanamo

There was excitement on the bus as we got closer to Guantanamo. “Get out your OFAC letter!” someone exclaimed. “We’re being tailed by the CIA!”

As I mentioned previously, we were required to carry letters from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control at all times to show we were there legally. I couldn’t imagine we would get anywhere near Gitmo—you didn’t have to see it to know it would be surrounded by 20-foot razor-wire fences and heavily-armed guards. What were we going to do, ram the gate? That would put a crimp in my plans to apply for jobs with the CIA and the Foreign Service!

But then the bus stopped, and most of us waited while a couple of Interfaith Task Forcers got off and held an animated conversation with the driver and our guide. Then we turned around and went back to Santiago. I will never know how the leaders of the Task Force talked our guide and the Cuban bus driver into driving to Guantanamo Bay, or how close we really got, or exactly where its limits are.

That’s the thing about travel, if you’re doing it right. You’ll come home shaking your head and laughing to yourself because there was some mysterious situation for which you’ll never have an explanation. That’s assuming no one got hurt or arrested, of course.

Now that I am working for the Center for Victims of Torture, it would be hugely prestigious to be able to say casually, “I was arrested at Guantanamo a couple years ago.”

CVT has been active in advocating for the closure of Guantanamo. First—obviously—because we, torture people there (yes, we, if you’re an American). Half the American population (and I think we can guess who their presidential candidates are) believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. “How we gonna catch the bad guys if we don’t torture people, huh?”

I could write 10 posts about why that’s a dumb statement, but for now I’ll just say, if you think torture is okay, go read someone else’s blog. And even if I thought it was okay, it’s still illegal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came about in response to the WWII and specifically the Holocaust, outlawed torture. Ronald Reagan signed the international Convention Against Torture in 1984. President Obama issued an executive order on his second day in office banning torture. In November last year, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which “placed all U.S. government interrogations under the United States Army Field Manual on Interrogations, and requires that the International Committee of the Red Cross have prompt access to all prisoners in United States’ custody.” In other words, there are grownups in charge now.

Very few people know everything that’s gone on at Gitmo, but we do know that people have been detained indefinitely, without charge or trial. If you imagine yourself in one of those prisoner’s paper slippers, you will understand why they go on hunger strikes. We then subject them to another form of torture, forced feeding. If you wonder, “how bad could that be?” watch this video of the rapper Mos Def being force fed; he volunteered to show us what it really involves.

Back in Santiago, none of this was on my mind. My biggest concern was finishing my master’s and getting a job. Vince’s time in prison, and researching prison for this blog, changed all that.

Happy Christmas, Ten Years On

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.

queen

Crazy Eyes, Evil Eyes

The massacre in San Bernardino is really weighing on me.

Right after it happened, I wrote a post in which I suggested that mental illness could have been a factor, just as it is in many other cases.  Why do we assume that white guys are deranged, but Muslims are evil?  In this case, there was an additional question mark for me about possible post-partum depression, since the wife had given birth six months earlier.

But then we learned that both of the shooters in San Bernardino had been radicalized and had been planning some kind of attack for years.  I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy staring at photos of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

They don’t look like these guys:

imagesimages (4)images (3)download (1)

They don’t look crazy.  They look dead.  Cold.

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What kind of woman leaves her six-month-old infant behind, knowing she’ll never see her again—knowing her baby will be removed from the family, that her life will be tainted by a legacy of death?

What kind of son leaves his mother behind, knowing she’ll be interrogated by law enforcement?  Maybe the mother was involved, too.  In which case, what kind of son would leave his mother to face life in prison?  But these are silly questions.  This couple murdered 14 people and injured many more.  Why would they care about an old woman and a baby?

If they weren’t mentally ill, were they evil?  And what does that mean?  We can sometimes catch mental illness early and intervene.  But how would we spot evil?  Who would we call to report it?

There have been so many mass shootings in the U.S.  Until now I have reacted the same as anyone else—shaking my head, feeling bad for the victims, wondering when we will finally enact some reasonable gun reforms.  Then I’m over it.  Until now.

Where I work, at the Center for Victims of Torture, many of our clients come to us after suffering unimaginable torture during ethnic or religious conflicts in their home countries.  There is always the possibility that someone from the enemy side could enter the U.S. and come looking for them, just when they thought they were safe.  If someone would shoot up a center for developmentally disabled people, like the one in San Bernardino, why wouldn’t they shoot up a torture rehabilitation center?  There have been so many mass shootings, but this was the first one I could really imagine myself being involved in.  I imagine myself hiding in a bathroom stall or coat closet.  Of course I always—miraculously—am one of the survivors.

A father whose six-year old daughter was killed in the Newtown shooting was interviewed on public radio last week.   He and his wife are both scientists and they have started a research foundation to look into the connections between mental illness and violence.

The father said, “We have to recognize that, of course, all of our behavior comes from our brain. So just like any organ can be healthy or unhealthy, when there’s risk factors that lead to malfunction of certain circuits or regions of the brain, that’ll lead to bad behavior.  And yes, it is preventable. It’s a matter of chemistry and not character.”

I hope he’s right.  I hope someday we’ll discover that evil is a biochemical imbalance that can be fixed with a pill.  Maybe some day we’ll routinely test kids’ DNA and put them on medication if they’ve got the gene that could turn them into the next mass shooter.

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.