Sunday, December 30, 2012

Again and Again

In the four years I have been writing this blog, there have been three deliberations on mass killings. In July of 2011 Anders Behring Breivik unleashed terror on a youth camp on an Island outside Oslo in Norway. Last year Jared Laughner fired at a US congresswoman in Arizona, in the process killing six. Earlier this year in Colorado at a movie theater James Holms ended the lives of twelve, one among them a six year old. There have been many single shooter mass killings in between these events about which I have refused to write, partly because I had no new arguments to add to the debate. But when this month in Connecticut, the horror was brought too close to home, when little children paid the ultimate price, I was compelled to write yet again about a plague that is eating at a nation and its people. This unconscionable event has reignited the gun control debate with much vigor, as a president shed some rare tears at the loss of innocence in the aftermath of a bloodbath.

As I have argued in my previous postings, the remedy to the abominable violence in America is staring in everyone’s face. The will to act as always is muted and mired in ugly politics. The will to do something meaningful is as short lived as the memory of such tragedies. Whether the memory of this catastrophe will last longer, long enough for a nation, a president and a congress to decisively act, only time will tell. The solutions have never been more apparent.

A day before the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, half way across the globe a knife-wielding man attacked 22 children and one adult outside a primary school in central 
China. The latest in a series of attacks at Chinese schools and kindergartens that have left many in shock. While many were traumatized, there were no deaths reported. Japan, a nation that has the toughest gun control laws in the world, saw about twelve people die of gun violence this year. United Kingdom, a western nation with tough gun laws, has one of the lowest gun related homicide rates in the world. So when supporters of gun ownership in America hide behind the 2nd Amendment - an arcane constitutional law that awards every citizen the right to legally own guns - and say that "guns don't kill people, people kill people", the evidence to prove otherwise could not be starker.

 Much like a world without nuclear weapons is unthinkable so is a world without guns.
Many solutions have been proposed to tackle this recurring slaughter and many are intelligent and implementable. The solutions have to be practical and realistic. With gun ownership being very high in the US a buy back program –like the one that was enacted in Australia in 1996 and 2003 - is not possible and is prohibitively expensive. Though successful buy back programs have been implemented on a city and state level. Some argue that the fact that people own guns, and there are enough of them who are responsible, it prevents gun violence. While this “deterrence” idea might work with nuclear weapon states, there are numerous examples to show that it simply does not work when applied to individuals. In a country where gun ownership is a state issue, and owning assault weapons is as easy as owning a pet, and where passions around ones constitutional right to own guns run high and deep, the solutions have to be sensible to avert anarchy.

Regulation needs to be on the ammunition side. The constitution gives one the right to bear arms, but does not say anything about the amount of ammunition one can carry. One could conceivably make ammunition extremely expensive, and regulate it like one controls prescription medication and  contraband. The president has already called for a ban on assault weapons in the aftermath of the Connecticut massacre. Sales of automatic and semi-automatic weapons have shot up as a result. The weapon of choice in the recent killing, The Bushmaster, has become a rare commodity. Americans have begun hording guns and ammunition, in fear of regulations that are to come. The NRA (National Rifle Association) has come out swinging, vowing to fight any regulation as they lobby the gun manufacturing industry more than gun owners. Any regulation will be an uphill task in gun crazy nation and it will test the president and the congress' metal. The manufacturing industry, the vendors and the illegal black market need to be tightly managed and policed to see any improvement.

There is no doubt that the culture we live in, not just in America but around the world is increasingly turning violent. From women and children caught in real war zones to fictional wars on larger and larger TV and movie screens, exposure to gun violence is a constant. While some argue that media violence does not directly spawn violence in humans, there is no doubt that it certainly creates an attitude that is numbing towards violence. So when a nation like the United States which clearly has serious mental health issues amongst its citizenry, looks at the symptoms of gun violence, it has to pay attention to a population in crisis. Being the leading manufacturer of weapons, weaponry and violent media in the world, America needs to look within. The shooter in Connecticut was the son of a gun enthusiast, and was on the verge of being committed to an institution for a mental disorder. Proximity and proclivity to weapons created conditions that turned explosive with extreme consequences. In most mass shootings in the US, a similar scenario has been the backdrop.

The debate over guns and its place in our society has been ongoing for decades with very little action. With more and more senseless killings in places where you would least expect it, the debate for the time being has reached a feverish pitch. Leading to a nation waking up in a paranoid state, more suspicious of their neighbor and the community that they live in. This unintended consequence will only lead to a more guarded society, where people will only feel safe by being under the gaze of surveillance cameras at all times or by having a false sense of comfort by having more people in uniform around them. What is needed at this point it to step back and make an assessment of the world we want to live in and understand where as a society we are heading.

In Newtown, Connecticut a memorial was held for 26 adults and children. The president presided over the memorial. There were 28 who died that day. A mother and a son were missing at the memorial. The killer deserved some sympathy as well. He was not born to kill. No one is. It is society that molds an individual therefore everyone needs to bear some blame. To accept the perpetrator as a product of the same society that awards him or her the means to commit a crime, is a place to begin the healing.

It is the end of the year. To end it in an uplifting manner is what one hopes and expects. I was resisting broaching this topic in my year-end post but could not relent. The shooting in Newtown left an indelible mark on America and me. It shook me to the core. Weeks after the incident the conversations in living rooms, cafes and corner shops are still ripe, as the national debate takes absurd turns. Parents are worried, politicians feel an urgency to act, communities are perturbed and schools and innocent children are now expected to prepare for a calamity on a daily basis. So as the year comes to an end it is with hopeful eyes that I look to the future and hope that sanity will prevail. It is what it is.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Homeward Bound


Every year or every other year I make a trip to Hyderabad, India from Brooklyn, New York in search of my childhood. Born and raised in a middle class home in this city, I left for America in my early twenties. Like many in my generation and my socioeconomic class, the search was for change and an education. The year was 1991 and all that I had conjured up of the outside world was through movies, magazines and music. And the drive to see it for real was strong. So I boarded a plane and put on a seat belt for the first time and was off to an American university.

In all the years away, there was always a strong draw to return to the place where I was born, to stay in touch with all those minuscule things that made me who I am. Now that I have two young children and aging parents, the reasons to return have slightly changed. To expose my offspring to the air, aromas and customs that defined my childhood has become a driving desire. To keep them in touch with their acquired "Indian-ness" by birth, is something my wife and I put considerable effort into. As I drive them around my city, through the congested, hot, filthy, chaotic streets, pointing at vestiges of my past, sometimes I find myself boring them with too much detail. To show them the walls I used to climb over to get to school and point at the roadside stalls where I would devour spicy dangerous delectable Indian fast food preparations and to subject their taste buds to a range of flavors hoping it would be an uplifting experience is always a delight. And to spend hours with my octogenarian father over a plate of the best Biryani money can buy, and hear him describe his childhood and the magical kingdom this ancient city once was under the Nizam (the King) is priceless. As I toured the old palace museum where the Nizam once lived and ruled, I could see my father become nostalgic and emotional as he remembered those irreplaceable days of peace, prosperity, piety and just clean, quiet, cool air. As we drove through the congested “old city” he pointed at ornate dilapidated terraces and narrow alleyways, which defined his childhood view, much like I showed mine to my children.

The places where we are born and raised always shape who we are. Whether the beginnings are pleasant or not is immaterial. The friendships forged in those carefree innocent times last a lifetime. Though the friends I search in my hometown have all moved away, and those who are here are caught in the humdrum of life, a phone conversation with an old friend makes everything fresh all over again. An old friend is a movie star, another a successful film director, a schoolmate is the commissioner of police and others own palatial homes and fancy cars, but the memories of when we all played marbles and cricket in an open field, or drove out of the city on motorcycles to catch a late night roadside meal, is what instantly brings us together. People change, the city changes, the country transforms, but somethings never change.

India is a country that is always changing and not changing at all, at the same time. Being the world’s largest democracy, cobbled together by a complicated and tenuous history, it manages to stay together despite all the regional, political, ethnic, religious and communal conflicts tearing at its heart. As some one once said “India is the best functioning chaotic democracy in the world” and nothing can be closer to the truth. At the heart of it are human bonds and relationships that endure time and act as the glue that keeps it all together.

As I have seen my city grow from a quiet, peaceful, southern sleepy town, to a concrete jungle of a metropolis, trying to compete with the great cities of the world, I always seem to ask myself was this inevitable? How much of a role did the nation where I currently reside had to play in this transformation? When I drive around the narrow congested city streets and see BMW SUVs and Mercedes Benz’s on the narrow roads and see brands such as Microsoft, Intel, Accenture and McDonalds displayed on tall shiny buildings where once stood million year old rock formations, the answer is staring at my face. The economic liberalization that took place in India in the early 90s had opened the floodgates. And what was left in its path was a mammoth structural upheaval that is still ongoing.

America’s economic boom of the mid nineties was fueled by the information technology revolution spawned largely in Silicon Valley. Part of that boom was fueled by cheap labor procured in the Indian sub-continent and China. The two southern cities that swallowed a giant share of that business were Bangalore and Hyderabad and that legacy is still intact. Though the progress has slowed as a result of a global economic slowdown, the IT parks and glass facade buildings that were erected almost overnight to house American companies, still define the modernization of India. The IT revolution transformed the social fabric of urban India at a fundamental level. To attract foreign investment Indian cities dreamt of becoming western style metropolises, with giant malls, slick airports, subway systems, high rise apartment complexes and six lane highways. But what was not engineered in a sound fashion was the infrastructure to support such an undertaking. But the Indian’s were adept at adapting to the quirks of a failed state. Having your own dedicated diesel generator solved power shortages, buying your own water solved lack of clean potable municipal water, lack of public hygiene was solved by living in a gated community and driving in air-conditioned cars with tinted windows, served as blinders to the disparity and dysfunctionality that lay outside.

While urban India thrived by gobbling rural India, the lack of a cohesive, effective, honest and just local and federal government had made sure that something’s could never change. People who had money could buy into this dream that there was actual change taking place and their life would only become more and more like the west. And those who did not have much before, suddenly felt they had a chance to climb the ladder. And those who did not have anything had to contend with inflation that was debilitating and downright destructive of their very livelihood. A vision for the nation was lacking at a fundamental level and that is a problem that plagues India even today. There is no plan for a universal health system that could serve everyone equally, there is no vision for an education system that could offer quality education for all, and there is no effort to improve the hygiene conditions as well. Yes India is a large country with over a billion people and to provide effective services for all is a challenge. But when you see federal and state governments constantly mired in corruption scandals of mammoth proportion, you cannot accept that as an excuse. 

Any urban street in any city or town in India serves as a great metaphor for the nation that is India clamoring to make progress. The road is narrow with potholes. You could hit a speed bump or a deep crevice at a moments notice. The traffic lights may or may not light up. The traffic policeman who wears a surgical mask to save himself from the pollution can barely stay awake and in control in the heat and grime. The air-conditioned  SUV, the Porsche, the auto-rickshaw, the cyclist, the bus, the truck, the motorcyclist and the pedestrian all squeeze for space on the same road barely six inches from each other. A sidewalk is non-existent as it has been encroached. Yet no one crashes into each other and the street manages to move on in a loud din of horns and some road rage. And when the traffic light does work and you come to a dead halt, the beggars in the most destitute condition holding babies under their arms knock on the tinted window of the newest car for a hand out. The window sometimes rolls down and out comes a hand with some money and the traffic sluggishly moves on.

If you were to interpret the scenario above, as a slice of the way the nation functions this is how it would appear. Indians can now buy the best cars, afford Italian marble under their feet and breathe air-conditioned air but then the infrastructure to support that lifestyle is riddled with problems and has not progressed much in terms of reliability and  sustainability. The haves and the have-nots each assert their space on the road to success squeezing through by the skin of their teeth. The corrupt government stalls and proves ineffectual and leaves behind a huge population to beg for their existence literally and figuratively. The rich get richer, the middle class struggle to move up buying apartments in concrete high rises and the poor struggle to contend with inflation that makes their basic necessities of life a luxury.

Cellphones and Cable Television have permeated through the Indian population like water. These two technologies have transformed the social fabric by touching almost every social-strata like never before. Cable television with its multitude channels is a relatively recent phenomenon. In over less than two decades it has turned the Indian psyche inside out. Aspirations for consumer products across the board have sky rocketed as a result of what television projects and the lifestyles it promotes. Again American influence in the television space is quite dominating. From Indian versions of franchise reality and game shows to sitcoms and movies, America continues to define the lifestyle for the urban upwardly mobile population. Television in all the various regional languages continues to promote traditional and religious values through mythological stories and TV god-men/women. Channels owned by political parties keep the volatile nature of Indian politics alive in people’s living rooms. The Bollywood juggernaut dominates the media landscape and unifies the nation in a warped sense by not only selling a form of cinema that is largely escapist, but also every other consumer product sold by its many celebrity stars. As an outsider when I flip through the TV channels I struggle to find an identity that I could call Indian. What appears to me is confusion. A space where there is a struggle going on to ascertain who we are as a people, a culture war, a clash of aesthetics and ideas that do not meld together.

With all its complexities and various disenfranchised groups and separatist movements India manages to move forward as a largely functioning democracy. Freedom of expression is largely held sacrosanct. But recently that has also been grossly and fearfully threatened to the discomfort of many. When Aseem Trivedi was arrested on sedition charges for highlighting the corruption in India’s power elite in a cartoon, the ugly bullying nature of Indian politics was exposed. The recent arrest of two young women for voicing their opinion on Facebook about the city of Bombay being shut down for the funeral procession of a highly divisive political ideologue Bal Thackery, showed the mafia element that threatens India’s fragile democracy.

The India I grew up in and the India I visit have grown much like I have. I have put on some weight and have lost hair on my scalp, so has India. But my heart has not changed and so has India’s. In the urban chaos and rural upheaval you can still find people who live close to the earth and embody a life style that is sustainable. They practice age-old methods of recycling and consume only what is equitable in ingenious and clever ways. They need to be encouraged on a national scale. Families stay close and embody the ancient codes passed on through the primordial texts holding the social fabric together. Even though the high uncertainty of life makes people more and more religious and the thirst for gold increases as it is seen as the only reliable source of security, people to a large extent live a secular life, respecting each other’s diversity of religion and ethnic make up. The economic disparity I grew up with seems to have gotten starker but the genuineness among people rich or poor I would like to believe has remained the same.

So as I wind up my recent trip to India I come to a realization that I will always live in two places at the same time. Remembering my childhood with my children and reminiscing with my father of a time that today sounds like a fairy tale, I always am left with one question to ask myself. Will my children think of my time as a fairy tale, or will they remember it as a time when everything began to fall apart and all that was sacred and pure, began to fade way. Only time will tell. It is what it is.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Real Debate


The debates are done. The countdown has begun. Election day is fast approaching. Many are already in a state of malaise and cannot wait for the election to be over. For others November 6th is “judgment day”, a day of reckoning. The battle lines are drawn and the intensity is building on all sides towards a crescendo. Will the American people come out and vote, will they cast ballots against their own interest or are they aware of what’s at stake to make an informed decision. That is what hangs in the balance.

Over the last few weeks, like many millions, I watched the three-part saga in its entirety. The debates had all the makings of any exciting live television event, with the welcome exception of annoying commercials to disrupt the flow. The first debate had the president in a kind of slumber. Some compared his behavior to the famous Mohammed Ali "Rope-a-Dope" technique, where one purposely loses a fight only to come back and stage a surprise win. In the second one, the two candidates unleashed upon each other, interrupting and overstepping each other in a "presidential" joust. In the third and final round, seated around a table, they managed to make their case for the presidency, by not directly answering questions with flare and adding very little new substance.

The media, which only cares about declaring winners and losers, and analyzing body movement and eyebrow twitches to mold perception, as usual did their level best to sound intelligent. CNN teased the audience constantly with a poll that would determine the winner. The panels they assembled over analyzed even things that were not said. The "fact checkers" tried to keep ahead of the double speak politicians are known for. And FOX News, the Republican Channel and MSNBC the Democrat channel went to absurd lengths to put a shine on their beloved candidate or find excuses for their lack luster performance. In the end pseudo polling declared Romney the winner of the first debate, Obama the victor of the second and the third was declared more or less a tie. Personally I thought the real debate never took place. What took place was a sparing match to determine "best in show".

The first debate dealt with the economy, the second with domestic issues and the third with foreign policy. Tax plans and gargantuan figures were offered to reduce the national debt and create jobs, gun violence and gay rights were fleetingly discussed, healthcare was fought over,  the need for a stronger and larger military was expressed, China was pummeled, Bin Laden was dead and Al-Qaida was declared in decline, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan were toyed with and the "rogue" nation of Iran was labeled the biggest threat facing the planet. Both candidates proposed ambitious plans to bring jobs back to Americans. The president wanted the rich to do their part, pay more taxes than they have become accustomed to and Romney held onto a belief that the rich were the ones that created jobs so they should be left alone. Both accused each other that the "math does not add up" and so the voters were left scratching their heads. In the end the real debate around real issues was left to the wayside. The drug war, electoral reform, the overflowing prison system, housing, education, white-collar crime, gun control, immigration, extra judicial drone killings, Guantanamo Bay, illegal and devastating wars past and present, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Gaza, Pakistan and its nuclear threat, were largely kept out of the discussion.

You often hear that the 2012 election is about one thing and one thing alone "the economy". "Jobs, jobs and jobs" are what will define the victor in this race they say. If that is in fact true, then as a voter I feel quite emasculated. At a time when certain Republican candidates like Todd Aikin and Richard Mourdock make comments that inadvertently endorse rape and when the candidate and the party categorically refuse to refute them, the election cannot only be about the economy. When a woman's right to choose contraception is under threat, the election cannot be just about jobs. At a time when there is high unemployment and a growing sixteen trillion dollar national debt and there is talk about another war and a larger military the election cannot just be about numbers. When children do not get a good education and those who do are burdened by a herculean debt, this election cannot just be about hollow ideas. And when good healthcare is only the privilege of the wealthy, this election cannot be about one thing, and one thing alone.

America is a land of excessive choice. When you walk into even a small grocery store on any given day you can buy about fifty brands of potato chips, thirty kinds of beer, fifteen kinds of toothpaste and almost a limitless variety of cosmetics. On an over crowded highway, it is hard to spot two similar car models. A large variety of choice is an American birthright that people have come to accept not only as a matter of pride but also as an indicator of wealth, democracy, freedom and prosperity. The same does not apply to elections. The choice there is extremely limited. Only two parties, two candidates and only two approaches to governing that often have only six degrees of separation. The pendulum swings every four or eight years and with it comes very limited change. There are core philosophical differences between the parties that alter decision-making and agenda setting, but to a large extent Washington operates entrenched in a system of special interests and jockeying Senators and Congressmen. Recently the system of checks and balances which the Congress and the Supreme Court are supposed to provide, have been seen to fail much too often with disastrous consequences. Every time an attempt is made by a third or fourth party to join the fray, it is often beaten as a result of not having the financial wherewithal to reach a national audience. In this election Democrats and Republicans have spent more than 900 million dollars combined on advertising alone. For any viable party to compete on that scale is virtually unthinkable.

On October 17th while President Obama and Mitt Romney were locked in their second debate, there was a picket outside on the Hofstra University campus which largely went unreported in the main stream media. Police arrested Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala as they tried to enter the debate. The two of them were protesting being barred from participating in the debate despite being on 85 percent of ballots nationwide in this election. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which sponsored the debate, requires any third party candidate to poll at 15 percent or higher to participate. The Democratic and Republican Parties set up the Commission in 1987 and have run it since. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Stein and Honkala said they were handcuffed to chairs for eight hours in a warehouse. They were arrested for blocking traffic after sitting down in front of a line of police officers standing in the street.

What every subsequent outrageously expensive election highlights is that democracy in this nation is under threat. If democracy just means having the choice to buy a desired product or a life style, then the constitutional ideal of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is very much alive, as long as you have the means to afford it. But if democracy means an active, diverse and intelligent exchange of ideas, with the media engaging the public with issues that constitute a “real debate”, then one must demand it.  American presidential elections in the recent past have had historical low voter turn out. Often averaging at 50% or less. Is it voter apathy or just a loss of belief in the system as a result of a lack of a "real debate", is hard to tell.

This election like never before could change the trajectory of the nation on many levels. The polarized nature of the electorate reflects the gravity of the situation, on racial, political and gender lines. While Mitt Romney tries to move to the center, hoping to broaden his appeal, President Obama and his campaign hammer away at his flip flopping credentials and other right wing views he has expressed in the past. What will determine this election is not the so called “undecided voters”, those who have either been living in a cave or have been comatose for the last fourteen months for not being able to make up their mind. But the people who will show up on voting day, very clear about what they believe democracy should be and which candidate is most likely to uphold it in their limited way within the American political frame work. When no system is perfect, and no democracy is ideal, one must chose the lesser of two evils.

Bob Schieffer the moderator of the last presidential debate ended the session quoting his mother who used to say to him on election day, “Go vote. It will make you feel big and strong”. In 2008 when Barack Obama became president, many symbolically felt their voting power paid off. To see it happen again, the “real debate” within the voter needs to begin. It is what it is.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Absurd Frenzy

An American flag burns. An angry mob goes on a rampage. A car is set ablaze. Black smoke rises to the sky. People scatter attacked by water canons and tear gas. Yet again anger against America ignites violence in some parts of the Islamic world. And American's are left aghast as the reasons don't make sense. Unfortunately the reasons have always remained the same, it is the spark that is always different.

This time it is a youtube video. The trailer for a despicable and amateurish film titled Innocence of Muslims by a man named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is at the heart of the anger and the rage. Mr. Nakoula is no film maker of any repute. A Coptic Christian from Egypt, he may not even be an American citizen. In 2010 he was convicted of check fraud and was on probation. A 14 minute preview for a supposed feature length film that depicts Prophet Muhammad as a badly dressed buffoon, womanizer and pedophile was uploaded to youtube in June. No one paid any attention. It was then translated into Arabic and uploaded several more times in the weeks leading up to the infamous day, September 11th. The video was then shown on Egyptian television which sparked an unforeseen chain of events that has caused death, injury and destruction. A response to no film or any kind of expression in this world justifies killing and mayhem the likes of which we have seen over the last few weeks. So is this absurd frenzy really a reaction to the film or is it just a pretext to something that is very present.

Today, the Pakistani government declared a public holiday giving people the leisure time to protest against what they see as an attack on their religion. Images of people after Friday prayer going on a destruction spree of their own property, took the absurdity of the situation even higher. But then again Pakistan has a lot to be angry about. And Pakistanis in the last decade or so have taken every opportunity to publicly exhibit their disgust against America for the war they have brought to their region. Here seemed to be another occasion to display that anger. A minister even declared a $100,000 bounty on Nakoula Basseley and a few dozen people have already died in clashes with the police. From the Middle East, South Asia, Africa to the Far East, protesters have come out displaying their anger against America. Even though their numbers seem to have swelled, they are a minority, but a loud and raucous one.

In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric leader of Iran, used Salman Rushdie and his book The Satanic Versus as a soft target to launch his attack on the west. When he announced a Fatwa, calling for the author's death for desecrating Islam, people who had not read even a page of the book or knew a word of English went into a state of mass frenzy expressing their anger against the west for harboring him. Other nations resorted to banning the book, including the democratic nation of the author's birth, India. Even though freedom of expression was and is an integral part of India's constitution, its leaders buckled to the frenzy of the extremists who were not interested in an intellectual debate but were more energized by a medieval response, much like what is being seen today.

The furor over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten lead to the undesirable death of hundred mostly Muslims around the world. Again a medieval response was favored by some people instead of a non-violent discourse. Much like in the case of this film, there was a four month delayed response to the cartoons since the time they were published. Why that was the case is open to speculation and the absurdity of it all becomes even more pronounced as a result.

On September 12, 2012 prisoner number 156 at Guantanamo Bay committed suicide. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemini was picked up by Pakistani security forces in late 2001 near the Afghan-Pakistan border and was handed to the American forces. Barely 20, he was labeled a "foreign fighter" a foot soldier for Al-Qaida and transported to a hell that would see his end. Without a shred of evidence to prove he was part of a terror group or had committed a war crime he was held without being charged, deprived of any contact with the outside world. He was the ninth detainee to commit suicide at Guantanamo Bay. 170 detainees still stare into the abyss, and they are all Muslim. Drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen steadily kill what the media calls "suspected militants". This month alone there have been several dead and some were women and children, "Collateral Damage" all Muslim. Israel continues to inflict a system of apartheid on millions of Palestinians, all Muslim, with the world and America just watching by. The casualties of illegal wars orchestrated by America in response to the action of a few Muslim terrorists are still on going. Not a single American in power has been prosecuted for those criminal wars and the present US administration recently made sure no one ever will.

There is enough anger simmering in the Muslim world, justly so, as a result of the double standards the west has so blatantly advertised. On one hand the west talks peace, freedom of speech, social justice and rule of law and on the other allows institutions like Guantanamo Bay to exist and places like Gaza to fester, with no recourse. Therefore a large majority of Muslims around the world believe 9/11 to have been an inside job. The conspiracy theory that the Israeli intelligence agency was involved behind the planning and execution of the attack to stoke up western hatred for Islam, is a widely believed thesis. According to the magazine The Economist three quarters of Egypt believes in this account. So the protests we are seeing could be an expression of this indignation and it is important to pay attention to it, if we are to understand the world we live in today.

In a recent interview while publicizing his memoir about living under a Fatwa titled Joseph Anton (his code name in hiding), Salman Rushdie conceded that he would not have been able to publish The Satanic Versus today. According to him, there has been a chilling effect as a result of what has gone on since those days of mass hysteria, and the casualty has been the freedom of expression. In an earlier interview he expressed the opinion that the battle that is ensuing today is not between Islam and the west, more so it is a battle between moderate and liberal voices within Islam against the extremist ones. It seems like the extremists are setting the agenda. Fear and intimidation is working in drowning the moderate voices and a version of the Muslim world is filtering through which is far from accurate. The unspoken casualty is civility and the outcome is the demonizing of a people and a religion.

The film Innocence of Muslims is an anomaly that is so extreme, the fact that it warranted such attention is astonishing. Much like the propagandist films of Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist groups, this film was purely made to offend, create hatred and instigate a response. The slow burning fuse was lit on the internet and certain vested interests succeeded in fanning it into a fire. Whether the fire will turn into an engulfing blaze, only time will tell.

The corner stone of any civil society is the right to express oneself without fear. Without it there cannot exist a healthy mind and without which there can be no progress. Everyday even in the most democratic of societies this freedom is under threat. The imprisonment of the Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi and the sentencing of the Russian feminist punk band Pussycat Riot are recent examples of state oppression against free speech. It is the fight for freedom to express new thoughts and ideas and to do away with the old guard that gave rise to the religions of Islam and Christianity. Jesus did not accept the law of the land he lived under, nor did Muhammad. They both had a clear idea of what the world should be like, and the idea of "peace" played an important role in shaping it. They both fought against persecution to make a new path for their followers. There in lies the irony of the world we live in today. It is what it is.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Pause

"Human hate is bigger than god's love for man, if you let it be"
- Anonymous

This statement captures why there is so much violence in the world and it does not seem to desist. For those who live their life in moments of conflict, here is a moment for pause and reflection. Violence is a human problem and therefore there can only be a human solution. It is what it is.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Vio-LENS

An all too familiar brand of American horror unveiled its ugly face at a cinema theater in Colorado. This time it was not on the screen. A young man unloaded his gun into an engrossed crowd who were taking in a fictional shoot out from the latest Batman movie. By the time it was over twelve people were dead, fifty eight were wounded of which nine clung to life as the nation came to grips with yet another senseless orgy of violence. Much like those who came before him, this murderer's psycho-graphic profile was familiar and predictable. An intelligent man, a PhD student in this case, a social recluse, with an ideology that is not yet clear, snapped at a place and time where he could get the maximum attention. The opening night of the most anticipated block buster movie of the summer. And attention he did get. Instantly the news-media went into over drive, speculation was rampant and Warner Brothers' ongoing promotions for Batman were suspended. Even the presidential campaign was halted and the world turned to America and wondered in dismay and disdain, thinking "Only in America!".

The irony behind the choice of location for the massacre is hard to ignore. The gunman did not chose the movie "Ice Age" to unleash his terror, he chose "The Dark Night Rises". A violent and dark movie that is rated PG13, in which the villain commits mass murder at least a few times spreading panic and peril. This is certainly not a case of life imitating art. This is a blatant example of a culture making a crime easy to take place. Both by providing the means to do so and creating a climate to do it within.

Here in America to say that we live in a climate of constant violence is an understatement. From wars that are orchestrated by the mammoth military industrial complex, a pop culture that peddles violence for a profit, to the violent words that are constantly hurled at each other in the name of freedom, America has become accustomed to violence like never before. It was appalling to hear on the airwaves from some people in power that this was not the moment in time to discuss "gun control". Thirty people die every day in this nation from guns, a million have died since Kennedy and King were shot. This murderer bought six thousand rounds of ammunition and other accessories using the internet and FEDEX, while most people are humiliated at airports for carrying a nail clipper. Even if you were a rabid advocate of gun ownership, you could not ignore the ludicrousness of this situation. In America to watch Batman with a bucket of popcorn and a giant soda on your lap and not be phased by the violence is called entertainment, and to own a deadly weapon with ease is called living in freedom.

Acts of violence in movies or video games do not drive the consumer to commit horrific acts of violence. This has been often proved by statistics and qualitative academic discourse. While in graduate school studying Mass Communication Theory, this was always a topic of discussion in my classes. But there is something to be said about a culture that celebrates acts of violence as pervasive pop consumption and rewards it with bigger and bigger box office collections. When I came to this country I took part in a campus ritual of Halloween by seeing a horror film at midnight, as that was the thing to do. I saw the horror "classic" from the 80s "Texas Chain Saw Massacre". This is definitely among the most violent movies every made and I was quite disturbed by the constant sense of peril embodied in its sheer rawness. I was even more disturbed by the interaction of the audience with the film. There were people laughing and relishing in the orgy of violence on screen while I was petrified. I was in shock, culturally and otherwise. I was later told that I had completely missed the cultural context of the moment since I was a foreigner and it was Halloween. Later I wrote an academic paper on the American obsession with the horror genre of cinema and realized that this is unique to the American experience. A "thrill ride" that has roots in Christian mythology and War. Only Japan and Korea seem to compete in this arena.

Among the twelve victims who were gunned down in Aurora, Colorado, there was a six year old. There is nothing more grim in this world than to witness the death of a child. While I was shaken by her death, I was also disturbed by the fact that she was an audience member at this movie. Batman is a comic book hero, but the movies in every sense of the word are adult. Being a father of a six year old, I am very cautious of what she is exposed to in a world that comes at her without filters. And I feel in America there is a rapid loss of innocence by a carefree attitude that anything goes. And there is a belief that children can adapt and learn anything when provided the right context. The television landscape is a great example of the changing standards and so are the toys that are manufactured for consumption and advertised to the impressionable while the adults are turned away. As a society there is a high degree of insensitivity, an attitude towards violence that is indifferent and it only becomes real for a brief moment when an act such as this one in Aurora occurs.

In a bizarre response to the tragedy, gun sales in Colorado jumped 43%. 2887 people were approved over the weekend to legally possess guns. Fear is a reason given for this absurdity and certain insanity.

The shooter when displayed to the world with orange hair and dazed eyes, conveyed a disturbed mind. He was not born like that. He apparently grew up in a stable middle class family among sprinklers and white picket fences in California. So what went wrong? What role did the people who made his world have to play? No matter what, there is no excuse for a crime of this nature. But these are important questions to ask. A killer is made by society. And then society gives him or her access to commit the crime. It is a proven fact, that nations that have strict gun control have less or no gun crime. In this country the constitution gives you the right to legally bear arms. Guns can be purchased at expos, internet and in some places at the local mall. The National Rifle Association's (NRA) sole purpose is to make sure that the second amendment stays alive in all its glory and criticize vehemently those who oppose it. President Obama is often lambasted by the right for having plans to take guns away from the people and deny them their second amendment. In reality he has not tabled a single policy aimed at curtailing gun violence during his term in office. And the Republican nominee for president Mitt Romney, could not form a single coherent idea in response to the tragedy in Colorado to save his life. Such is the bankruptcy of the American political system.

No matter what lens you look through, there is a perception that the world is in a grip of excessive violence. The media certainly makes that impression more present when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs. There is no doubt that popular culture around the world has come to embody more violence in its content. But even with the senseless killings in Syria, Afghanistan and Africa, terrorism and human rights abuses in other places, statistically more people on the planet are living in peace today than they have ever before. Humanity has always been plagued by a culture of violence. Religion to some extent has tried to tame it by promoting ideas of peace and harmony in scripture. But religion has also spawned some of the most horrific violence known to man. Peace through deterrence seems to be a norm as the Gandhi and King model is relegated to history books and commemorative postage stamps. In this age of surveillance, drones and excessive policing the bumper sticker "If Guns are Outlawed, only Outlaws will have Guns" sadly still rings true for many Americans who still like to believe they live in the "Wild West".

As this Colorado killer is brought to justice and many call for his head, and as the wounds of those who have lost everything begin to heal, there is very little hope that there will be a shift in the culture of violence. The last time something horrific like this happened in America, was when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and six others were shot mercilessly in Arizona. Not much has changed since that 2011 incident and the hopes that anything will now, are slim. Despite the glitch, as expected "The Dark Night Rises" broke all records at the box. Many of the movie makers expressed their grief publicly in response to this aberration. In light of this incident if the producers of the film could use some of the box office money to fund a campaign against gun violence in our culture it would be a much more poignant way of expressing grief than just words and photo ops.

Sometimes when my wife and I have a fervent disagreement and walk away feeling enraged, she always says, if things cannot be peaceful at the family level how can one expect harmony between nations and peoples. I always shrug it of as a very simplistic view, an analogy that has no bearing on the complex issues of nation state. But then again, there never can be real peace unless there is a "culture of peace". And culture is created by the sum of its individuals. It is what it is.




Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Riot Within

A grainy shaky video of someone being ruthlessly beaten by a gang of uniformed men dominated America's television screens over and over in 1991 and 1992. There was no "youtube" then, or else the word "viral" would have been associated with this video which etched itself into millions. I had just arrived in the United States as a fresh graduate student from India, and watching this from a remote mid-western campus in Ohio was deeply disturbing and unsettling. The man being beaten was Rodney King and the gang doing the pummeling were Los Angeles policemen. When the story behind the video eventually emerged and the severely bruised and swollen face of Rodney King with a blood shot red eye was published, the horror of it all shook America to its core.

It was March 2, 1991 after a night of watching basketball on TV and heavy drinking Rodney King and his two friends left a friend's home. Around 12:30 AM a couple of Los Angeles policmen spotted them speeding down a highway. The officers pursued the car which turned into a high speed chase. Rodney King had enough alcohol in his body to get arrested for drunk driving. He was out on parole for a prior theft and an arrest could send him back into prison and he did not want to take that risk. After approximately eight miles, with several police cars and a helicopter on his tail, he decided to give up. The police asked his two passengers to exit and face down on the ground. They complied. When Rodney King was asked to do the same, he acted strange, giggling and waving at the helicopter above. King then grabbed his buttocks and the officers thought he was reaching for a gun. At this point one of the officers drew a pistol and King complied by lying face down. Four other officers proceeded to hand cuff King at which point he began to resist causing one of the officers to fall off. The officers withdrew and King got back on his feet and an officer deployed a "Taser". The electric shock immobilized King but not completely. The officers then proceeded to attack him with their batons, hitting him hard on his joints. After 56 blows and 6 kicks and surrounded by seven officers he was finally subdued and cuffed by his hands and legs and dragged on his stomach to the side of the road for an ambulance to arrive. Unknown to the policemen the whole incident was captured on video by George Holiday from his apartment window. Video technology in a citizen's hand for the first time had unlocked the doors to what was to come.

The video was first shown on a local television station in its entirety and the response was immediate. Within hours the video went national and Rodney King became a household name. The court case that finally got underway had the nation gripped. The color line grew thicker and wider and the justice system was under a microscope to see if the officers would be prosecuted for their brutality. The graphic video to many seemed enough to prosecute the white policemen. A year later an all white jury acquitted the officers of assault and hours later an already simmering city burst into flames. The "LA Riots" as it came to be known ignited the "City of Angels". It was certainly not the first race triggerd incident, but the extent of it was wide. By the time the US Army, Marines and the national guard controlled the violence it was six days and 53 people were dead and $1 billion dollars worth of property was damaged by looting and arson. Most of the violence took place in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Smaller riots were reported in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

In the midst of the rioting Rodney King appeared on television. Hunched over a microphone he pleaded "can we all get a along?". His voice tempered by emotion added "We're all stuck here for a while". His plea had little effect. His plight had exposed the racial divide in the country and like the O.J. Simpson trial a couple of years later and the Trayvon Martin shooting early this year, the polarization of opinion was stark.

Rodney King eventually sued the city of Los Angeles and won $3.8 million in restitution. Even though he was made into a symbol of resistance by many civil rights leaders, he never fit the mould. He became a victim of his celebrity. His drinking problem only exacerbated. He squandered his fortune in bad investments and could never hold a steady job. He also had trouble keeping away from the law. He was arrested in 1995 for hitting his wife with his car and in 2003 for drunk driving. In April if this year he published a memoir titled "The Riot Within" to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his ordeal. On June 17th he was found dead in his own swimming pool. He was 47.

Rodney King was no saint or a civil rights leader. For that matter he was no hero or an activist. Like many of us he was a deeply flawed individual, probably a victim of his upbringing. But his story acted as a catalyst in exposing the divide which America still struggles to bridge.

The 1992 feature film "Malcolm X" opens with the grainy video of the Rodney King assault. The image then dissolves into the letter "X" and the movie takes you back a few decades. Spike Lee, who's films mostly deal with the subject of racial tension in America, was trying to make a statement that not much had changed since Malcolm X embarked on his struggle from a street hustler to a charismatic leader. Though America has come a long way enacting laws to blur the color lines, every now and then when there is a crime where race is a factor, and justice seems to falter, the nation erupts in a polarized debate that often turns appalling. In a recent interview with the LA Times Rodney King said "Obama he wouldn't have been in office without what happened to me and a lot of black people before me". While there must be some truth to this statement one thing is certain the Presidency of Obama has certainly psychologically pushed the nation further in the direction of racial amity. More so by default, rather than design. It is what it is.


 
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