Tuesday, December 23, 2014


The city I live in, was enraged this month. People poured onto the streets chanting "No Justice, No Peace", "I Cant Breathe" and carrying banners that read "Black Lives Matter". Once again the system had failed to deliver justice, and the ugly face of racism emerged. The outrage was justified and the uproar was expected, as yet again men in uniform who were tasked with the job to serve and protect, brutally choked an unarmed citizen to death. And it all happened in front of a camera wielded by an onlooker for the world to see. A specially convened grand jury did not find the dying words of a black man, "I cant breathe" convincing enough to indict the policeman who strangled, while five others jumped on the victim. Eric Garner pleaded eleven times to be allowed to breathe. The officer's humanity did not kick in, and that shocked everyone. But what stirred the public with a clear sense of right or wrong, was the grand jury's decision to not even think there was anything unlawful that took place, when the evidence could not have been anymore glaring.

Last year I had the privilege of serving on a grand jury in Brooklyn. While I was familiar with the term and knew a little about it from watching TV shows and movies, I only clearly understood its purpose, by serving on one. Unlike a trial jury the grand jury can be made up of more than twelve members, and the purpose of it is to examine and investigate whether there is enough evidence of a crime, to bring someone to trial. The grand jury's purpose is not to prove someone innocent or guilty but to find "probable cause" , "reasonable cause to believe" and "legally sufficient evidence" to prosecute someone. It is a lower standard they must adhere to than a trial jury, whose job is to unequivocally find someone guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt".

This is not the first time an African American citizen has been assaulted with overwhelming force by police. The list is long and many altercations have not attracted the level of attention the recent incidents in Staten Island, New York and Ferguson, Missouri have. The first one ever to have been recorded on camera ignited a nation in 1991. Rodney King was captured on grainy video being brutally pummeled by a group of five officers on a highway near Los Angeles. In the pre-internet days, this video went "viral" across all national and local broadcast networks. I had just arrived in the United States from India as a graduate student, and to see the video on television day in and day out was unsettling and disturbing.

Rodney King's case unlike the present ones, actually went to trail and the policemen were acquitted of all wrong doing by the county court. This caused riots to break out in Los Angeles, killing 53 people and causing billions of dollars in property damage. The abuse of Rodney King was so disturbing to so many, that the federal government had to intervene, bringing a civil rights trial against the policemen. Subsequently, two of the officers were found guilty and sentenced to prison, while the others were let go. Attorney General Eric Holder has initiated a similar investigation in the Eric Garner case and people are hoping that a civil rights trial might restore a sense of justice and will bring some closure to a situation that begs for immediate attention.

The conversation around police brutality has always polarized America. Every time the issue rises to the surface it is brushed aside by many. Some make it a point to sight that we should be talking more about "black on black crime" as it is more rampant than crimes committed by the  police who have to do a dangerous job in black neighborhoods risking their lives. The absurdity of this argument is as distant from the truth as reporting is on the right wing TV channel Fox News, which mainly spews such talk. While one could be a symptom of the other, the social reasons behind high crime in blighted black neighborhoods and why American prisons are overflowing with largely black inmates, is a consequence of poverty, racism and a breakdown of a social fabric. The history behind this is long and complicated, tracing back to the days of slavery. But there can be no excuse for police crime no matter the circumstances. Men in uniform are in uniform by choice. And they are paid to serve the people, regardless of race, gender and status. And when they end up killing the people they are supposed to serve, regardless of the crime, they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, so that the men in uniform who actually do their job, are not feared but respected for their sacrifice. So when district attorneys, do not prosecute policemen who commit crime, they send a signal to the public that they are above the law. That in no way is acceptable in any democracy whose foundation is the rule of law.

While the police crimes disturbed many around the country to draw them out in protest, the CIA torture report that the Senate Intelligence Committee released perturbed anyone with a conscience. For anyone following the dirty and illegal wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should not have come as a surprise. Revelations about the secret CIA rendition programs, the Abu Ghraib prison photographs, water-boarding and the term EITs (Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) have been circulating in the American media and consciousness for sometime now. Torture was sanctioned at the highest echelons of American power and men were branded "Enemy Combatants" and locked away for good, stripping them of their rights to human dignity. The term EIT was used to cloak torture and compromise all what America stood for. With the Guantanamo Bay prison still open for business, America's association with torture still has not ended and the uproar is muted.

On December 9th, when Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee made the "Torture Report" public, what disturbed many were the techniques that were used to grossly violate the human rights of individuals that were protected under the "Geneva Convention" rules. What was most disturbing to me, was the revelation that 26 innocent people were tortured and a couple died as a result. This admission was chilling, disgusting and horrifying in every way possible. It grossly diminished America's standing in speaking routinely as it does, against torture in places like Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and other dark places. And there in lies the problem.

When the Senate Intelligence Committee decided to release such a report to the public in September, there was severe resistance both from the present administration and hawks from the previous one. CIA directors past and present raised an alarm, that such a report would embolden the enemy and risk American lives on the never ending and nebulous battlefield. After the report came out, the CIA chiefs defended their actions by literally stating that torture had in fact kept America safe and had yielded intelligence that actually saved lives. Former Vice President Dick Cheney came out of the woodwork and actually admitted on television that the torture of innocent people did not bother him as long as the program yielded results, as we were at war with an "unconventional enemy" and any means necessary were justified. Such an argument could very well be made by any power to justify its dubious and diabolical actions. And that is the explicit reason the Geneva Conventions were established to keep human madness and its capacity to do evil under check. America's links with torture as a means of waging war, diminish its standing separating it only slightly from the Jihadist's who make a gruesome spectacle of beheading people to make a point. Its association with torture jeopardizes the safety of its citizens around the world than anything else. 

The police and the CIA exist to serve the people who pay their salaries. Their clearly defined objective is to keep the nation and its inhabitants safe from harm. But it is also their obligation, to uphold the values of a system of government, that at its core protects individual rights and human dignity. Not just of its citizens, but of all those who inhabit the planet. That's what is expected of any civilized nation. So when some "bad apples" lose their way and compromise these values, they need to be reprimanded, otherwise all that is sacred and hard won is lost.

America as a superpower democracy sends a message to the world, that we are a nation of laws and no one is above the law. By releasing the Senate report, America wanted to send a signal that it does make mistakes and loses its way, but eventually it does acknowledge and rectifies. But only to confess does not mean anything unless people are held accountable. The architects of torture in America roam free and are allowed to appear on television and defend their actions. They are immune from prosecution and have been so since the Vietnam War and before. Policemen are set free even when the evidence is clear as day. By not punishing those responsible America sends a signal, that yes we do make mistakes, but trust us, we will not do it again. To the outside world, America's checkered past does very little to instill faith. Unless people are prosecuted for the extra judicial police killings and CIA renditions and torture, the change will only be marginal and superficial and the risk of it happening again remains high.

The public uproar is therefore justified. I am only disappointed that there is so little of it. There were no street protests when the torture report came out. There was no uproar when little children got gunned down in a suburban school in Connecticut and very little was done to outlaw machine guns. There were no street protests when unbeknownst to its citizens, emails and phone calls were intercepted by the NSA. There was very little noise when drones killed innocent people in far off places. There are many things to be enraged about, but there is very little uproar.

A few weeks ago I was called by BET Television to edit an interview of President Obama for broadcast. In the interview he was addressing the African America community about the protests surrounding the recent killings of unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. When asked what he thought of the protests, he said they were essential in a democracy as long as they were non-violent, as it forced those in power to pay attention to issues they normally would not. He went on to quote the adage "power concedes nothing without demand". 

While the protests demanding justice in the police killings are diminishing with the cold weather, they are only simmering under the surface. The violent culture that we live in and have become accustomed and numb to, is disturbing, pervasive and destructive. The violence pushes those who are given the task to protect, turn violent too. Where and how we break this cycle, is a quandary. But if we are to suppress the rage, we need to address the violence in the streets, on the battlefield, in our minds and in the new year, in our hearts. 

It is what it is.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Today we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States of America. There is nothing more American than this annual family gathering that takes place across living rooms and then dining rooms. Weeks before Thanksgiving day, recipes are shared on cooking shows and in magazines, and between neighbors and friends. The art of baking the perfect moist Turkey, becomes the subject of many a conversation. In a seasonally early supper, Turkey meat is carved and consumed in copious amounts and the Trypotphan from the meat and alcohol from the wine puts everyone in the mood for some drowsy family time, which can get complicated and revealing at times. Many American's joke about how Thanksgiving feasts are obligatory, special and sometimes the most painful meeting to be at every year. From being merry to being sorry, many American movies have depicted the Thanksgiving meal in its full spectrum of emotions. No matter the unpredictability of any family gathering, everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving as it officially marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season, the start of a cold winter with the new year on the horizon.

The first Thanksgiving dinner on record, took place in 1621 somewhere near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1620 a small ship set sail from Plymouth, England carrying 102 passengers, mostly comprising of religious separatists who were fleeing persecution. The Pilgrims, as they later came to be known, dropped anchor off the coast of Massachusetts after a treacherous 66 day long journey. A month later the Mayflower crossed the Massachusetts bay to establish a colony. The Pilgrims, were the first illegal immigrants to arrive on the shores of this land who decided to stay. Through the first brutal winter most of the colonists decided to stay on the ship where many died of disease. Only half of them survived to see the first New England spring. When they moved ashore, they were warmly greeted by members from the Abenaki and Pawtuxet Indian tribes, who taught the severely malnourished immigrants how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants.

In November 1621 after the Pilgrims' first corn harvest was a success, the governor organized a celebratory feast and invited their fellow Indian tribesman to the three day long festivities. This was the first Thanksgiving feast which started a tradition that is celebrated to this today. Historians suggest that many of the dishes prepared may have used Indian spices and cooking methods. A chronicler recorded that a few of the settlers were sent out on a "fowling mission" which probably sealed the fate of the Turkey today. While Thanksgiving was celebrated mostly in the northeast in some shape or form, it was Abraham Lincoln who in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, declared it as a national day of remembrance and thanksgiving to "heal the wounds of the nation". In 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Since then Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

While the original spirit of Thanksgiving was of harmony, brotherhood and coexistence, it certainly did not persist for long. The natives showed the immigrants how to survive and flourish, and inadvertently opened a door to their own demise. Over the next century, native American tribes were decimated and a new world order was established for those who made America their homeland. The growing immigration from Europe that followed carved out a new character to this land of unspeakable natural beauty and limitless resources. The forests were tamed, slavery as a system of commerce was established and then abolished, technology became the driving force behind progress and new waves of immigrants from around the world shaped and reshaped a nation at its core.

When the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of America, they were seeking refuge from persecution. The opportunity they were after, was to live in peace without fear of oppression. The natives gave them that opportunity. That act of generosity laid the foundation for a new nation to be built. While a great amount of blood was shed in that endeavor, no matter how much many have tried to steer the nation from its founding history, it has proven again and again that immigration is the backbone of this nation.

Therefore, America belongs to everyone who comes here. Power, economic and political is distributed along racial lines based on those who had more opportunity relative to when they arrived on America's timeline. The early immigrants and their descendants wield more power today in relation to those who were oppressed and discriminated. The later waves of immigrants are relatively more successful, as America had established and recognized itself as a nation of all peoples, races and religions of the world. Even though it is apparent that America's wealth and prosperity is created by the ingenuity stemming from the continuous flow of immigrants, immigration legal and illegal continues to be a contentious issue. And every decade "immigration reform" is placed high on the agenda of every administration, partly to buy the allegiance of voting  blocks. 

It is not just a chance at economic prosperity that draws people to cross oceans, leave families and risk lives to come to America. The very history and character of this nation beckons all. Emma Lazarus' poem inscribed on The Liberty Statue reads,

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

It does not say give me your rich, most educated, most talented and the most desirable with a valid visa, but still many with skills choose this nation as their home. Even with issues of racism and prejudice, mainly emanating from a fear of a changing demographic, America offers a shot at glory, no matter who you are. It also celebrates those who make it, by calling it the "American Dream" achieved.

So when President Obama this month decided to use the power vested in him by the people, 
to offer a few million illegal immigrants reprieve from being hounded by law enforcement, he was called out for overstepping his powers and acting like a monarch. While everyone agrees that the immigration system is broken, and has been so for a very long time, the gridlock caused by partizan politics has become unacceptable to many. And so the president decided to do something about it. With 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Obama's plan would let some 4.4 million who are parents of citizens and legal permanent residents remain in the country temporarily, without the threat of deportation. These undocumented residents could apply legally for jobs and join American society, but not vote or qualify for insurance under the president's healthcare law. This measure would apply to those who have been in the United States for the last five years. An additional 270,000 people would be eligible for relief under the expansion of a 2012 move by Obama to stop deporting people brought illegally to the United States as children by their parents, known as the "Dreamers".

In selling his decision to the people, President Obama said “We’re not a nation that kicks out strivers and dreamers who want to earn their piece of the American dream. We didn’t raise the Statute of Liberty with her back to the world, we did it with her light shining.” This small step in the right direction, will allow the few who live in the shadows, to live in dignity. Deporting 11 million people is unrealistic and expensive. Some think this might send the wrong signal to those who desire to come to this country illegally. The reality is those who want to come here, will come no matter what. The creation of a police state will not solve the problem of illegal immigration, as America is founded on the principle of accepting all those who want to "earn a piece of the American dream".

Thus America finds itself in a quandary. On one end it needs people to abide by its immigration laws, so that people who are waiting in line to become legal immigrants are not undermined. But on the other, it cannot effectively prevent people from entering its borders without becoming an inhuman militarized fortress, which goes against its founding tenets. And so the debate rages on, with politicians using fear tactics to dissuade illegal immigration and brainwashing the public by visions of terrorism and jobs stolen. The bulk of all undocumented workers in America are honest hard working people from South America and the Caribbean. They work in subhuman conditions, taking jobs most legal immigrants and citizens would not touch. They keep our strawberries cheap and our restaurants and meat processing plants competitive and open for business. They pay taxes but receive no services. They live as invisible people, contributing billions of dollars to the economy.

It is hard to argue for the deportation of people when this nation in its foundation was created by mostly illegal immigrants. Even though President Obama has deported more people than any president before, what he did with the signing of this executive order was not something out of the ordinary. Many presidents before him, Republican and Democrat, have offered amnesty to immigrants. But any serious change can only come about when the congress and the president work together towards meaningful long term reform. That is a gargantuan task in the present viscous political climate. But the president has shown that much can be done on the sidelines and he is willing to take necessary steps however small, to push for immigration reform. In a world defined by borders and increasing inequity and conflict, any humane longterm solution to immigration in affluent nations is knotty.

Another tradition that defines Thanksgiving, is the presidential pardon of Turkeys. This year President Obama pardoned two Turkeys, named Mac and Cheese. The chosen birds will live out their lives safe from slaughter on a 10,000 acre farm in Virginia. The president joked, "I know some will call this amnesty", alluding to the other Executive Order he passed earlier in the month. "But don't worry, there is plenty of Turkey to go around" he concluded. 

It is what it is.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unintended Casualties of War

One of the cheapest things to do in New York city as a tourist, is to take the Staten Island Ferry and watch the Liberty Statue pass by in close proximity. There are no excruciating security lines to pass through, and best of all, the ride is absolutely free. This is certainly one of my favorite rides to take with visitors as the vistas on a clear night are breathtaking. As the orange ferry pulls away from lower Manhattan, the view of the densely populated glass skinned monoliths that make up the skyline of lower Manhattan is spectacular by night. Cutting through the jungle and touching the clouds is the imposing new world trade center building, built on the very footing where the old twin towers once stood.

On one of my recent trips, as the ferry pulled away and the buildings began to shrink, I could not help remember in flashes that day when the towers fell. I was just across the river and the enormity of the  situation jolted me in spurts as the day progressed. What struck me on this night a decade later, was the enormity of the hatred and animosity one had to harbor to plan and execute such a horrific act. And what I realized was that the new world trade center stands tall as a symbol of America's resilience and wealth, but the killing that started on that ill-fated day has not stopped and shows no sign of relenting. The hatred harbored against this nation does not seem to stem and that has become a source of constant vigil causing this nation to turn inward and spend billions of dollars on security. As a result new wars get started in far off places, even as wounds from the old ones are no where close to healing. While Manhattan has rebuilt itself, Iraq and Afghanistan are still tearing apart with no sign of reconciliation and rebuilding. Guantanamo Bay still remains open causing those who hate America to hate even more. Thirteen years on, the war of minds and the clash of cultures continues taking unintended innocent victims in its wrath.

The war with American in some parts of the world had started even before the towers fell, but September 11th, 2001, everyone agrees was the day it spilled over, marking a decisive turning point whose casualties are still piling up at a steady pace.

One of the most recent victims of the long war was James Foley, who entered the public's consciousness via youtube when his gruesome murder was posted online for all to see. A freelance war correspondent, James Foley made a living going into war zones with a camera and bringing to the world in images what most people read in words. Some of his work can be seen in the new documentary film titled E-Team. While covering the carnage in Libya he was captured for forty four days and then released. That did not deter him from entering the next war zone that emerged in Syria. On November 22, 2012 on his way out of Syria, a few miles from the Turkish border, James Foley was taken from his taxi at gun point by a band of thugs. At this point the militant group known as ISIS had not come into existence. James Foley like many of his other colleagues from other parts of the western world, was kidnapped as a bargaining chip for ransom. An array of militant groups embroiled in the chaotic Syrian civil war, routinely have used western hostages for income.

When ISIS did come into existence this year, and the United States decided to bomb them to "dismantle and degrade" their barbaric advance, American journalists in captivity quickly became even more valuable assets. US policy against terrorist groups is simple and direct. Under no circumstances do they negotiate and this the State Department claims deters terrorists from taking Americans hostage as they cease to be lucrative, and thus saves lives. While European governments doled out millions of Euros to bring their citizens home, British and American citizens had no recourse. After almost two years in captivity James Foley was hauled out and beheaded in response to America's bombing raids against ISIS.

In a chilling, detailed and well researched report this week, Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, revealed the harrowing months, days and moments James Foley and his colleagues spent in captivity. Three of James' compatriots were also murdered in cold blood after his execution and three others still remain captive. What we learn from the New York Time article is that James Foley was physically tortured in captivity. And one of the chosen methods of torture was the one widely used by the American military known as "waterboarding". Where the sensation of drowning is simulated by pouring water on ones face which is covered by a cloth blocking all breathing passages. We also see in his murder video, that James is wearing an orange jump suit, much like the ones the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are forced to wear.

The dirty illegal wars that were waged soon after the attacks on the twin towers, took America into some deep and dark corners from which to recover could take generations. When torture became endemic, a democratic nation formed on sacrosanct principles of human dignity, crossed a line it could not return from. The illegal CIA renditions, the torture apparatuses ingrained within prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, scarred the very character of a nation which had signed on to the Geneva Conventions as a matter of pride. When it was revealed in Senate hearings that America had in fact sanctioned torture at the highest levels by using a despicable term called "Enhanced Interrogations", not a single person in charge was held to account and there is little hope anyone ever will. America prides in its system of justice, and has chosen to not sign onto the International Criminal Court, stating that it can prosecute its own criminals. In this case its institutions have failed miserably, and this is not the first time. And as long as people remain incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, without a trail or any hope of getting one, America's institutions stand compromised and it's dirty association with torture sees no end. And the ones who pay a price for its failures are its innocent citizens, and James Foley and his friends were some of the unintended casualties.

When a nation or an individual engages in torture of another human being, he risks putting all those he represents in danger of meeting that same fate. The Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws were established to suppress the madness wars trigger in human beings. But it is not just wars that dehumanize, nations engage in torture through their own systems of oppression. While America cringes at the sight of ISIS beheading one of its own, it has no problem doing business with Saudi Arabia that beheads people routinely for crimes like sorcery and drug smuggling. In a controversial human rights case, Iran hung 26 year old Reyhneh Jabbari for stabbing her would be rapist this month. China which gives us everything cheap, regards the life of its citizens even cheaper, torturing and executing more than any on earth. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq followed by the US lead the world in the business of capital punishment.

There is no question  there are threats that need to be confronted head on, to create a better world. The genocidal group ISIS is just one of many. One must also recognize that it is the bloody sectarian policies of Nouri Al-Malaki's regime that gave ISIS its wings, as shown in the remarkable Frontline documentary "The Rise of ISIS". The unspeakable Shia-Sunni bloodletting in the middle east is not just a result of bad American strategy, but also centuries of deep ingrained mistrust and hatred of each other. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is another threat, where America's intervention is commendable in the service of humanity. 

It is clear though, that one cannot bomb ones way out of real existential Geo-political problems, the costs are unsustainable. War with consistency, raises the specter of drawing people into committing savage and heinous acts that question the very essence of being human, no matter what religion one belongs to. What James Foley's tragic life teaches us, is that torture chambers in the deep recesses of a war zone are no different than those operated in developed peaceful nations. Inhumanity is everywhere. The path one chooses when faced with inhumanity, is what makes us humane and "civilized". It is what it is.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Can we change for Climate?

It is that time of the year when New Yorker's curse at the United Nations in unison. Not because it keeps failing to meet its mandate of stopping war and violence around the globe, but because it makes traffic unbearable for many who live on the island of Manhattan. Every year in September, when the weather is just perfect, world leaders gather in New York city, which hosts the United Nations building complex, to make speeches and take part in summits and meetings, with the intention of making the world a better place to live in. Dictators, despots, monarchs and democratically elected leaders, big and small, are all welcome into a league of nations, a disparate quilt which is the UN. While most speeches in front of the garish green marble backdrop are lofty and veiled in accusations of rival nations, it is questionable how much is really achieved here, other than millions poured into the New York city hospitality industry.

This year a meeting on "Climate Change" grabbed headlines as the largest ever in it's history. With over 120 leaders attending it was billed to be consequential and vital. A few days before the meeting, over 300 thousand people poured into the streets of Manhattan, forming a protest rally called "Peoples Climate March". With biodegradable signs, giant puppets, colorful banners and T-Shirts and Hollywood celebrities, the march demanded the attention of leaders to enact policies that would address climate change and global warming. At the meeting President Obama said "urgent and growing threat of climate change" would ultimately "define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other" issue. The United Nations even drafted the familiar Hollywood face of Leonardo DiCaprio, to deliver a message of urgency. The three largest polluting nations on the planet, Russia, China and India, did not attend the meeting. And other than some lofty goals and Hollywood advertising, nothing was committed and very little was achieved in tangible progress.

So the question rises, can humanity really change for climate? Can summits, meetings and Hollywood pomp really bring about change, when the planet seems to be slipping beyond humanity's grasp? Even Leonard DiCaprio in his valiant speech acknowledged that upgrading light bulbs and driving electric cars cannot reverse climate change as we have crossed the point of no return. According to scientists, cutting carbon dioxide emissions is the answer to stem climate change, but most governments are averse to doing it, as targeted growth rates are not achievable with strict environmental controls.

Another impediment that stops governments from taking action, are "global warming skeptics". While making my recent documentary film "Garwin", I encountered some from this lot. While filming, my colleague and I visited an important annual conference titled "International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies" in Erice, Italy. Prominent scientists across all fields have been gathering in this picturesque medieval hilltop town since the sixties, to discuss the dangers that face humanity and the planet. Through their research they propose remedies in meetings and seminars which have significant impact in their respective nation's policies. In 2012 when we were there, "Global Warming" was a hot topic. What took me by surprise, were the number of scientists who were presenting arguments that the science was not conclusive to single out human activity to be the cause for climate change. Therefore there was no need to change the path of human progress, in the interest of development and commerce. Some prominent scientists and politicians were making a committed argument that the fear tactics used by environmentalists and global warming proponents were akin to those of communists and fascists of the past, to make humanity suffer in the shadow of alarmist visions of planetary catastrophe. And their goal was to resist such an onslaught by proving that climatic anomalies were just normal planetary cycles, that have been taking place for eons. Many Republican Senators and Congressmen in the US are beholden to this belief as well. In the recently concluded House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, some Republican congressmen displayed apathy, ignorance and plain disdain towards prevailing overwhelming scientific evidence, that proves that human activity is causing climate change that is detrimental to all, rich and poor.

While not attending the meeting on climate change at the UN, India's newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made some interesting comments on the environment in his speeches at the United Nations and other venues. His campaign pledge to clean up one of the worlds longest and most polluted rivers, the Ganges, is a lofty one wrapped in symbolism and pride. But his vision to make India a high growth nation by attracting and expanding manufacturing and industry is in direct contradiction to any environmental mission. The air quality and sanitation in most Indian urban environments is deplorable. The carbon emissions per-capita may be low compared to the west, but if India is to achieve growth rates in competition to China, there is no way it can do it without further decimating its environment. China and India are the worlds first and third most polluting nations. The United States is a proud second. And China has paid a heavy environmental cost for its so called economic progress. Development of this nature is not something to celebrate and applaud. Mahatma Gandhi, who Mr. Modi liberally quotes as his poster boy, would never approve of such development. Mr. Modi proposed Yoga, inner peace and holistic approaches towards environmentalism. They might be good ideas in speeches, in reality these will not stem carbon emissions. It is time for drastic measures and there are no leaders who are willing to make the hard sacrifices needed to turn back or even stop the clock.

Climate change skeptics can doubt the science all they want and present counter arguments. What they cannot turn away from are some unflinching facts. Human addiction to fossil fuel is deep and unending. Factories, power stations, plastics, cars and other machines predominantly still run on and are manufactured from fossil fuel and the attempt to reverse that trend is minuscule in relation to the crisis we face. Oil is still a currency that is booming and search for more and more of it, in the hardest of places, is always in progress. From the tar sands of Canada, which hold oil the size of Saudi Arabia, to the threat of drilling in the pristine wilds of Alaska, the thirst for oil is unrelenting. This week it was reported that a joint venture between Rosneft, a Russian oil company, and Exxon, an American oil company, had discovered black gold in the Arctic. It is estimated that a well drilled into the subterranean deposits could harness 100 million tons of oil and 338 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The report did not reveal how much carbon dioxide that much oil and gas would add to the planet's atmosphere.

An alarming report by the Living Planet Index, revealed today that deforestation and loss of habitat due to human activity had caused 52% of all populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish to plummet, only in the last four decades. Populations of freshwater species have suffered an even worse fall of 76%. Globally, habitat loss and hunting have reduced tigers from 100,000 a century ago to just 3,000. The report also shows that the biggest recorded threat to biodiversity comes from the combined impacts of habitat loss and degradation, driven by what WWF calls unsustainable human consumption.

Thus one wonders what these meetings mean and what Leonardo DiCaprio is there for. Is he just grabbing more advertisement for his fictitious movie persona, or does he really think he can make a difference using his diction and dance. And what weight do President Obama's words, or that of any leader really carry? While it may feel good to be part of a march that proclaims people power, when the scale of the problem is of planetary proportion, does the size of the crowd really matter? Do we really need more awareness, is there really a need for a debate? There is need for action and unfortunately there is very little of it. For tangible change to occur, humanity has to fundamentally change the way it lives and aspires to live. That is not happening any time soon. It is what it is.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Human Nature

There is only one species on earth whose domination is so absolute that it can tame almost everything in its path - the human species. And it is the expression of human nature that has brought enlightenment and destruction to the world on an unprecedented scale. While human nature overflowing can express kindness to save the world, it can also harness the power of the atom to assure the extermination of all that is beautiful.

There are many characteristics of human nature that set us apart from others who share this rich planet with us. Humor is certainly one them. The ability to recognize and derive pleasure in a nuanced way that no artificial or natural intelligence can replicate, is unique to the human experience. It is also believed that when we see our reflection in a mirror or in water we instantly recognize ourselves. Animals lack this awareness and that is what differentiates us from them. Another salient feature that differentiates us, is our ability to inflict violence not just on the other species but our own. Human nature has developed intricate and diabolical methods to impress mental and physical violence that never ceases to surprise. From racism, rape, terrorism to genocide, humanity has used its awareness and ingenuity to oppress, strangle and dominate its own kind with a high degree of precision. A quick study of human history would validate this point with repeated consistency. Today while large swathes of people on the planet live in relative peace, violence is always round the corner. And therefore the idea of peace is often advertised as something important to cherish for human prosperity. But then again the idea of peace would not exist, without the idea of war and violence.

So what drives humans to commit violence? Is it inherent? Is it part of our DNA, that can only be suppressed by living in a coded society? Or is it something else. It is certain, that when humans see no hope and have no future they turn on each other. Poverty and destitution can turn humans unpredictably violent. When Mahatma Gandhi proposed the idea of Ahimsa (non-violence), he wanted humanity to achieve the high ideal of refraining not just from violent action but more importantly violent thought.

The recent Ebola out break in Western Africa has been pushing an already desperate people ravaged by war, over the edge. The rapid spread of this virus in this day and age has shocked many and its far reaching consequences have left many nations on edge. While stories of men, women and children dying and nations struggling to get a grip on the situation has disturbed many, an incident that took place in Liberia recently shook me even more. Earlier this month an Ebola quarantine center in Liberia was attacked by an armed gang and looted. The patients who were taking refuge and receiving treatment had to scurry and the looters made away with blood stained sheets, mattresses and medical equipment increasing the chances of further contamination and spread. Whether the center was looted out of frustration and anger for Ebola being brought to Liberia or for personal gain was unclear. But the desperation of a people and the loss of humanity in this instance was starkly disturbing.

In other news from the continent of Africa, the plight of the majestic vegetarian animal, the elephant, was again at risk. Human poaching of elephants for their ivory has pushed their  population further to the brink. 35,000 elephants have been killed annually since 2010 and the forecast is that if this rate continued the elephants would vanish from the wild in less than a century. Another reflection of humanity's desperate need or greed that leads to shocking brutality.

The killing in the middle east has been horrifying people around the world for more than three years now. From Syria, Libya, Iraq to now Israel and Palestine it seems relentless. UNHCR this week declared the Syrian tragedy "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era". Three million Syrians are in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa. 6.5 million are displaced within Syria and the killing goes on unabated, as a abominable dictator holds onto power and a terror group called ISIS fills in the vacuum as it unleashes unspeakable violence against anyone in its path. From beheadings to summary mass executions, ISIS has pushed the limit of human violence on human to another level. With a warped vision of creating a state ruled by fear and mass murder, they have shown yet again that an extreme ideology can spawn extreme violence that can attract sizable support. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the death squads of Indonesia and Pol Pot's killing armies in Cambodia, ISIS is a threat not only to global security, but to human conscience. While the tribal wars within that region see no end, the emergence of an organization this extreme, that is attracting faithful fanatics to join its ranks from America and Great Britain, is sending shock waves. The west seems incapable of drafting a compelling response to this threat, and by the time there will be one, countless lives would have been lost. Much like the delayed response to Hitler and his demonic vision saw the extermination of defenseless and innocent Jews by the millions and the slow response to the Rwandan genocide caused unprecedented murder, humanity is once again failing the Syrians. 

Humanity is no monolith. Humans have egos and egos separate us from each other with far reaching consequences. Egos create dictators and power hungry leaders who can whip up violent ideas of nationalism and fascism without much effort for personal gain. Vladimir Putin in Russia has proven himself very adept at this. With public support most democratically elected leaders would kill for, he has turned one of the largest nations on the planet into an authoritarian state. As he pushes into Ukraine, testing the west's resolve, he is behaving like many past leaders with visions of regaining lost empire. 

Empire building through out human history has been a cause of death on a massive scale. Colonization and slavery in the last two centuries has seen the decimation of many indigenous peoples across continents. Wars as recent as the one unleashed on Iraq by America, were driven by underlying ideas of empire building causing death on a massive scale and inadvertently spawning groups like the ISIS which threaten the very idea of being human.

When Mahatma Gandhi famously said “the world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed”, he had traveled the world and had acquired a deep  understanding of human history and human nature. But even he could not have foreseen
how uneven the world would become in its evolution. The wealth gap between nations and neighbors has never been so wide and is only rapidly expanding. Technology in some ways brings people out of poverty, but in other instances concentrates wealth at the top. The rapidly shrinking middle class in America, is a stark reflection of this phenomenon. Global warming poses other challenges whose ramifications are barely beginning to be felt and the forecast is not promising. Yet humans seldom can agree on remedies even when their own survival is at stake.

It is in human nature to have hope, as without hope there is no future. But if hope becomes a privilege of a few, and a future becomes a prerogative of the wealthy, then humanity will fall victim to its own progress. It is what it is.