Friday, June 19, 2015

Thoughts on Charleston ...

Racism is like a disease or virus.  Hatred festers quietly, incubating in some obscure corner.  And like measles or Ebola we think we have the monster controlled, perhaps even vanquished, until another outbreak reminds us that the sickness is still in our midst and always has been. 

The senseless murder of nine worshipers in an African Methodist Episcopal Church by a young, white supremacist ideologue, Dylan Roof, is a searing reminder that America’s history of racial violence is with us still.  The passing of time, the turning of generations, has not been sufficient to contain the illness.  Racial hate has not been quarantined to the past – to the bad old days of Bull Connor or the KKK – but continues to infect the minds and hearts of even the youngest.

Signs of progress, hopes that the sickness is abating (like the election of an African American president seven years ago) are countered by the clear evidence that microbes of malice continue to multiply.  Indeed, when President Obama opened his White House twitter account for the first time last month and sent a message of goodwill to his countrymen and women, the response was a flood of race-baiting vitriol.  Not only is the disease still active.  It threatens to reach epidemic proportions. 

In these plague times, indifference is not enough.  Pretending to be “color-blind” or insensitive to racial disparities is not sufficient.  Treating Dylan Roof’s act of savagery as the isolated blunder of a misguided young man will not do, any more than treating a single viral specimen of rabies as an isolated organism will do.  It is a symptom and harbinger of a malady that will linger until its moment comes to manifest in fevers of madness and destruction. 

Like doctors without borders or the CDC, decent-minded people must not only look inward to purge and protect themselves from this illness.  They must travel to the front lines to combat the virus where it exists.  We must become vigilant in our pro-active resistance to racism to build resistance in others.  We must name and turn the microscopes of media examination on this animal, exposing it as the malevolent beast that it is.   We must join in public outcry.  For exposure to the light is like a powerful antiseptic. 

Why did the KKK ride at night?  Why do the authors of malicious tweets cloak themselves in anonymity? The germs cannot breed, except in darkness. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

America Has A Problem

Being youthful, black and male should not be a crime, but Freddie Gray’s death is Baltimore is the latest in a string of police assaults on unarmed African American men.  Before that, just in the last few months, there was Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, John Crawford in Dayton, Ohio, Ezell Ford in Florence, California, Dante Parker in Victorville, California, Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, NY, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Rumain Brisban in Phoenix, Arizona, Jerame Reid in New Jersey, Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin,  and the list goes on.  There is a pattern here that black people have always known about but that now even white folks are beginning to see.  Young black men are being profiled, harassed, victimized and all too often murdered by the police who are supposed to protect the public and dispense equal justice to all. 

What is the remedy?  Body cameras on cops are a good idea.  Here are some other initiatives that make sense:

  • ·        establishing special prosecutors whose sole job would be investigating police misconduct (ending the chummy relationship between law enforcement and District Attorneys)
  • ·        hiring more women on the police force (females tend to be better at negotiation and de-escalating confrontations that men)
  • ·        de-militarizing departments that have become tooled up with tanks, drones and wartime technology
  • ·        providing better training to enable police to deal with psychiatric issues as illness rather than criminal offense. 

First and foremost, we must collectively admit that racism is a societal problem.  We cannot just blame the police without also shouldering a portion of the responsibility for overcoming the legacy of discrimination that continues to make inequality the norm in our country.  Maintaining “law and order” must do more than perpetuate a system that distributes wealth, rank and privilege to those already connected to the echelons of power and opportunity. It is up to each of us to create a future where every child has an equal chance in life.  Until then, we will get the police we deserve. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Remarkable Truce of a Century Ago

Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?  It sounds like a holiday fantasy.  But the truth is that human kindness is always waiting to break out, making “peace on earth, goodwill to all” much more than a feel-good slogan or season’s greeting.

History proved it a hundred years ago, when a week before Christmas at Armentieres,  German soldiers slipped a chocolate cake behind enemy lines and invited the Brits to attend a soiree—ceasing all hostilities.  By nightfall of December 23, Christmas Trees were appearing along the German lines, with placards proposing “You No Fight–We No Fight.”  Soon the Belgians and the French were getting into the spirit.  Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment remembered  a beautiful, snowy moonlit Christmas Eve when a commotion stirred in the German trenches. “And then they sang ‘Silent Night’–‘Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it.”

Others would try to forget it.  The powers-that-be wanted to pretend the Christmas Truce never happened.   In the French press, censorship was complete.  The English military’s official history of the war minimized the occurrence, and the T├Ągliche Rundschau for New Year’s Day of 1915 reminded its readers that “War is no sport.”  The idea that ordinary foot soldiers might simply put down their guns and refuse to kill was subversive, to say the least.  And so the truce was treated with disdain by those in authority, leaving gaps in our historical knowledge.  But what seems clear is that something remarkable happened.

 “What a sight--” recalled one of the soldiers with the Seaforth Highlanders, “–little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front!  Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”  That irony wasn’t lost on Sir Kingsley Wood, a major in the British infantry who later went to Parliament.  During a debate in the House of Commons in 1930, he not only recalled fraternizing with the enemy but declared that “if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

But of course, wars must go on, and when peace once again threatened to upset the grand strategy, the generals were ready.  The following December, the British command ordered a slow, unrelenting artillery barrage during every daylight hour in the days leading up to Christmas, with trench raids by night. 
But what if they gave a war and nobody came?  What if a century ago the generals had been unable contain the spread of camaraderie across the battle lines?  Not only would the First World War have ended amicably, but there might have been no Nazi Germany and no Third Reich.  For Adolph Hitler was a corporal in the German army in 1914.  He was serving as a field messenger in Flanders that December.  Others in his unit crossed the no-man’s-land to share Christmas with the British, but Herr Hitler refused.  “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he raged.  “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?”  Perhaps the future dictator would have remained a corporal, or gone back to painting picture postcards for a living.

The Christmas Truce was ultimately short lived, a few days respite in a grueling war.  But the notable thing is not that the peace was brief, but that it happened at all.  Though the Truce didn’t change the world, it touched millions of lives while pointing toward what’s best and truest in human nature: not the desire for vengeance or annihilation but the simple urge to lay down arms and live in peace.