Taking action

June 30, 2008

Those of you who know me personally know that I am not very good at making decisions, particularly when it comes to personal things. Well, one of the things about which I have recently been plagued by indecision is volunteering. I am eager to volunteer somewhere, doing something for other people in my free time rather than only engaging in activities that are purely for my own enjoyment. I have spent hours browsing lists of non-profits and volunteer positions, but I have not been able to settle on something. I feel as I have an abstract ideal in my head of what exactly this volunteer position looks like, and nothing that exists in reality perfectly matches that ideal. When I look at any concrete volunteer opportunity, I am frozen by doubts – what exactly will be required of me? what if I don’t like it? what if it causes me to have a negative view of people instead of a positive one like I am hoping? what if I don’t like working with people? what if this doesn’t have enough people interaction? And so on. And so, I am stuck in a mode of inaction.

However, today I took action. I came across some opportunities posted on craigslist with a local organization called The Emergency Family Assistance Association. They provide “food, financial assistance programs, emergency shelter and transitional housing programs,” as well as work with other local organizations. They had several types of opportunities posted and in my email I expressed interested in two of them: guiding families through the food bank and helping them with their food selection, and interviewing people to assess their needs. I am more interested in the latter, but I thought it might be easier to start with the former, to ease into volunteering.

It does not perfectly match my ideal volunteer position (does anything?), but I chose to act on this opportunity because it involves direct interaction with people in need, which is something I would like to gain experience with. It is not as directly related to peace and non-violence as I would like, but I feel that it is somewhat related: meeting people’s basic needs of food and shelter is critical to creating a peaceful community.

In the end, I can not know exactly what volunteering at EFAA would be like, or what I could gain from the experience, until I try it. With this realization, I broke myself out of my indecision and emailed the volunteer coordinator. Now here’s hoping I receive a positive response and get to pursue this further!

Juvenile prisoners at Guantanamo Bay

June 26, 2008

This article about the way in which the United States has been treating juvenile prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is absolutely horrifying. I’m really quite at a loss for words, so I’ll let some excerpts from the article speak for themselves:

Military records showed that during a 14-day period in May 2004, Jawad was moved from cell to cell 112 times, usually left in one cell for less than three hours before being shackled and moved to another. Between midnight and 2 a.m. he was moved more frequently to ensure maximum disruption of sleep.

Such tactics used against a detainee would have been severe under any circumstances – Department of Defense guidance limits sleep deprivation to a maximum of four days – but in the case of Jawad, they are particularly disturbing because he was a scared and suicidal teenager at the time. Jawad’s military-appointed lawyer, Maj. David Frakt, described the tactics as “sadistic and pointless,” and moved to dismiss the charges against his client on grounds of torture.

The Bush administration’s refusal to treat these prisoners as juveniles has had profound consequences for Khadr, Jawad and El Gharani. They have had no access to education or recreation facilities and have been housed in the same facilities as adult detainees. After five years of imprisonment, Jawad remains functionally illiterate. None of the three have been allowed to see members of their family.

The effects of prolonged isolation have taken a severe toll. El Gharani has tried to commit suicide at least seven times. He has slit his wrist, run repeatedly into the sides of his cell and tried to hang himself. On several occasions he has been placed on suicide watch in a mental health unit.

Jawad also tried to commit suicide about 11 months after arriving in Guantánamo, by hanging himself by his shirt collar. Prison records also state that he “attempted self-harm by banging his head off of metal structures inside his cell.”

International law does not preclude the possibility of prosecuting former child soldiers for serious criminal offenses. But the standards are very clear: Such cases should be handled as quickly as possible through specialized juvenile justice systems. Rehabilitation must be the primary objective, and conditions of detention must include access to family, education, recreation and other special assistance.

On every count, the U.S. has failed at Guantánamo to meet these requirements.

The behavior of the authorities in charge of these prisoners is simply beyond my understanding of what it means to be human. I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could view another human being with such an utter lack of compassion. How can the us vs. them mentality, that sees a less-than-human enemy rather than a fellow human being, take someone over so completely?

I believe in rehabilitation for criminals of ALL ages, not just juveniles, and I believe that it is never acceptable to treat someone in an inhumane manner. But somehow it seems even worse when it is juveniles – kids who were probably brainwashed and/or threatened into joining with the terrorists to begin with. Is it any surprise that in such circumstances and under such treatment they become suicidal? I have no doubt that if/when they are released they will be in a much worse state psychologically than before being imprisoned, and will probably be even more likely to commit terrorist acts in the future.

U.N. adopts resolution on sexual violence

June 24, 2008

Last week, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution to systematically address sexual violence in conflict. The resolution recognizes that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” It furthermore acknowledges that rape can be a war tactic:

The resolution also noted that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including in some cases as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group”. Stressing that such violence could significantly exacerbate conflicts and impede peace processes, the text affirmed the Council’s readiness to, where necessary, adopt steps to address systematic sexual violence deliberately targeting civilians, or as a part of a widespread campaign against civilian populations.

The resolution calls in strong language for systematic steps to be taken to address sexual violence in conflict zones. This is excellent news. I am also pleased that the members of the council recognize that in order to address sexual violence and create lasting peace, women need to be involved in the negotiations and peace-building steps:

“We must do far more to involve women in conflict prevention, peace negotiations and recovery after the guns fall silent,” he said, stressing that he needed Member States to come forward with more women candidates. Referring to the all-female Indian civil police unit in the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) as a possible model, he said that, when Member States send qualified personnel, the United Nations could demonstrate the central role of women in restoring stability to war-ravaged countries.

On the issue of Untied Nations operations, the Secretary-General said: “Let me be clear; the United Nations and I personally are profoundly committed to a zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation or abuse by our own personnel.” By creating a culture that punished violence and elevated women to their rightful role, “we can lay the foundation for lasting stability, where women are not victims of violence, but agents of peace”, he added.

Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro also addressed the meeting, which featured the participation of nearly 60 speakers, saying that sexual violence had not only grave physical and psychological health consequences for its victims, but also direct social consequences for communities and entire societies. “Impunity for sexual violence committed during conflict perpetuates a tolerance of abuse against women and girls and leaves a damaging legacy by hindering national reconciliation,” she said.

Ms. Migiro added that tackling this complex problem on all fronts would require the combined effort of all, including Governments, the United Nations system, as well as civil society and non-governmental organizations. She called women “one of our greatest assets” in the fight against such horrific crimes. “If we promote the full and equal participation of women in the security sector, we can ensure that security services effectively identify and respond to their needs,” she added

Echoing that sentiment, General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim said that women must be assured equal and full participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes, and represented in the structures and institutions realized from any peace dividend to ensure that it lasted.

I applaud these words. It will not be possible to create peace if we implicitly accept violence targeted towards one half of the population, and do not include that half of the population in building peace. It is important both symbolically and practically that the U.N. Security Council has publically condemned sexual violence and recognized the importance of women being viewed and treated as equals.

Teacher fired for teaching non-eurocentro viewpoints

June 20, 2008

A post at Feministe alerted me to the recent firing of an English teacher, Karen Salazar, from an LA high school for being too afrocentric and supposedly indoctrinating her students. Democracy Now! interviewed her this week and in that interview she says that she was negatively evaluated for teaching a lesson from The Autobiography of Malcom X, an approved text for her school district:

KAREN SALAZAR: Sure. There was actually one lesson in particular that’s been extremely controversial. I used a three-page excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is an LAUSD-approved text. It’s widely used around the country, in other countries, as well. I used a three-page excerpt, standards-based. They never denied that it was standards-based. But the administrator who observed my class—

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “standards-based” and “LAUSD,” Los Angeles United School District, but LA “standards-based”?

KAREN SALAZAR: Standards-based for the California Content Standards for English Language Arts.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

KAREN SALAZAR: So it was a standards-based lesson. The administrator who came and observed my class later wrote in an evaluation—this is a written evaluation that goes into my file—that I was brainwashing students and imposing extremist views on them, based on this lesson. So that’s one of the controversial lessons, I guess, that I am being accused of indoctrinating students with Afrocentrism with.

I did have a mentor teacher observe the same exact lesson that same day, just coincidentally, because she is my mentor teacher. She comes in periodically to observe my lesson. And she took away something completely different from that lesson than what the administrator did.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, as the Democracy Now! interview discusses. A book about Chicano-American history may soon be banned from public schools, and a teacher in Colorado was fired a few years ago for saying to her students, “I honk for peace.”

These incidents are downright frightening. The little critical thinking that gets taught in public schools is being stifled due to xenophobia. Apparently, we do not want people who know how to think in this country, or people who are proud of their ethnic and cultural background. No, we want brainwashed people who will blindly believe that the United States is a benevolent savior everywhere it goes.

I have always felt that the way history (and many other subjects, but history is the most relevant to these particular situations) is taught in K-12 schools is shameful. Students read eurocentric textbooks and are made to memorize “facts”. Primary sources are rarely used, and students are not encouraged to question what they read. If we want to teach history in a way to make students totally uninterested in either history or learning in general, and totally unable to read something critically, and in a way that is irrelevant to many students’ cultural backgrounds, we could not do it any better.

One point about trying to teach students to think critically is that it necessarily requires teaching non-eurocentric points of view. This is because the eurocentric point of view is the acceptable status quo. So part of teaching critical thinking is showing that not everyone thinks the way the textbook author does. Apparently, doing this is seen as threatening, since Salazar was fired for doing so.

To make the situation even more depressing and frightening, the students loved Salazar. I think this video they made advertising their planned protest speaks for itself:

Clearly, this teacher is doing something right if the students like her that much and feel encouraged by her to strive for more education and not settle for the same patterns that are expected from people of their ethnicity. It is frightening that school administrators would do something that goes against what is best for the students, simply because they are frightened of what could happen if not everyone thought in the same eurocentric way that they do.

Gas prices and meeting people’s needs

June 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking about gas prices recently. I am, personally, pleased to see the prices rising, because when you think in terms of cost to the environment, gas should cost much more than it does now. I also hope that more people will be encouraged to use alternate means of transportation as gas prices continue to rise. However, I am also sheltered from the rising costs of gas. That is, I already use alternate means of transportation for the vast majority of my various trips in and around town, and thus I buy gas quite infrequently. In addition, I could afford to pay that much for gas if in fact I needed to.

I don’t usually express these thoughts (in particular, pleasure to see gas prices rising) when talking to other people because most people express concern over how much of their salary they are spending on gas. Sure, there are some people who are just lazy: they earn plenty of money to fill up the tank of their SUV, they could easily bike or take the bus to work, and they still complain about the cost of gas. I don’t have sympathy for such people. But there are other people who really do not have such options. This hit home when I was on my bicycle trip in eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. This part of the midwest consists of tiny towns and large farms separated by many miles; there are no buses and many of the small towns do not even have grocery stores. What can you do when you live on a farm in eastern Colorado and the nearest grocery store is 20 miles away? A 40-mile round trip by bike to buy groceries? I don’t think most people will go for that.

There are several possible responses to those people who are truly affected by the rising cost of gas. We could say “too bad, sucks for you” and let them sink in to poverty, we could subsidize the price of gas, or we could work on putting alternate means of transportation in to place. The first option is not productive and will result in unhappy people who have to struggle to make ends meet. The second option will encourage people to continue to behave in a way that harms the environment. The third option is the most productive: it will support the people’s needs in an environmentally friendly way. Although it seems like the second option, subsidizing the prices, is addressing people’s need, it is actually addressing a false need. It says, “these people need to be able to buy gasoline, so we better make sure it is affordable”. But, in fact, people’s need is not to be able to buy gasoline. Their need is to be able to get where there are going. If we provide them with a good, usable alternative to driving where they need to go, then their need to buy gasoline will disappear. In other words, by looking at the actual needs of people we can start to think of positive actions that both encourage environmently friendly behavior and address those needs. Subsidizing gas prices is a false solution. So, back to my pleasure at the rising gas prices: yes, I am pleased about it, but I am not pleased with the government’s response to it. I think it is a recipe for disaster if the prices continue to rise (and then be subsidized) without the government starting to seriously and actively work on alternate means of transportation that meet people’s true need: the need to get somewhere.

In general, different people in different life situations have different priorities and needs. One of the most critical things one can do to create and maintain peace is to take the time to truly listen to people and figure out what will address their particular, individual needs. Only by doing this will we be able to solve problems and conflicts in a sustainable and peaceful manner.

Death penalty addendum

June 18, 2008

I was searching for “death penalty” on Google’s blogsearch and I came across this article about a horribly tragic event: a young mother (23 years old) murdered her 11-month old baby and now may receive the death penalty. This is so incredibly sad in so many ways. It is hard to imagine how someone could do that to their own child, but saying that she is a “monster” (as one of the comments does) and does not deserve to live is not a solution. Clearly, she has psychological problems, so why not offer her resources to help her become a more healthy person instead of hiding her behind bars and ultimately killing her? Instead of demonizing and dehumanizing violent criminals (which allows us as a society to murder them in cold blood and consider it justice), we need look at them as follow human beings who went wrong somewhere and who desperately need help. Yes, we may need to use physical restraints to keep them from hurting other people, but we don’t need to just leave them to rot behind bars or, worse, kill them. We could also have intensive psychotherapy and other programs in place to help them.

The death penalty

June 17, 2008

Human Rights Watch issued a press release today calling for the newly elected government in Pakistan to abolish the death penalty. I fully agree with this. The death penalty is cruel and inhumane and violates an individual’s fundamental right to life. We are not going to have peace as long as it is acceptable to kill a fellow human being as a form of punishment. The death penalty is an inherently unpeaceful, violent act. Often arguments against the death penalty focus on the fact that it is too final and mistakes can been made (resulting in the murder of someone not guilty of the crime), or they do not call for abolishing the death penalty altogether but simply call for more “humane” ways of putting people to death. However, these arguments miss the point, in my opinion. The phrases “humane” and “murder” are oxymorons to me: killing another human is by nature inhumane. The death penalty, which constitutes state-endorsed, legal murder, should not be used even if one could be perfectly sure in every case that the person being put to death is in fact guilty of the crime of which they are accused, and that the method being used resulted in the least pain.

I am extremely displeased with the fact that the United States continues to be one of the leading countries using the death penalty, with the fifth-highest number of executions in 2007, according to a report from Amnesty International. Certainly the 42 executions in the United States does not seem like much compared to over 100 each in the top four countries (including Pakistan), but it is 42 more than it should have been.

I am pleased that the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution last December by a wide margin calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, and unfortunately not shocked that the United States voted against it, as mentioned in this article. I am a bit horrified that the U.N. representative from China apparently said, about this resolution, that “the issue was a question of judicial process — not human rights — and every country should be able to decide without interference.” I’m sorry, but the death penalty is very much about human rights – the right to live – and I’m glad that the majority of U.N. members recognized that. A government’s right to create their own judicial procedures should not trump individual, fundamental, human rights.