Thursday, October 22, 2009

Security, Cowboys, Irrational Fear Mongers, and Fanatics

What people do with their power, or not, creates winners and losers, health and wealth, and the imperative to feel safe. Where I live we mostly march along our merry ways driving our proverbial SUV’s, eating our Viagra, sipping lattes, flitting from flower petal to flower petal, watching our investments, and thinking everything is just fine.
9/11 shattered our illusion of security but we rebuilt it, making a stronger illusion than before. Most airport security is a joke, - smoke, mirrors, and detectors in service of business and optics more than safety. The spin is that it must be working because there have been no further attacks, so we continue to do what we do - installing more fences and checks, in our frenzy for “national security”. The fear on one side is matched by the fanaticism on the other. Both fuel uncompromising positions where means justify ends and violence remains profitable for the powerful. The result is not greater security but an increase of inhuman behavior. One recalls the four armed and armoured cowboys who killed an unarmed, unarmoured innocent man at the Vancouver airport, then tried to blame him for their brutal behavior. Last week the Guardian published a story about an American guard at Guantanamo Bay who converted to Islam after six months on the job. Why? Because he found the “terrorists” to be more humane than their guards, who he describes as “ridiculous Budweiser-drinking, cornbread-fed, tobacco-chewing drunks, racists, and bigots."
But where does such judgment and polarization get us? Security for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics will cost about $900,000,000. The annual cost of anti-terrorism in the U.S. is around $30 billion. How many good peacemaking ideas, resources, schools, hospitals, etc., could we generate with that money? Instead we feed the frenzy, - embracing illogical public policy and paying dearly to make our fears look rational, most mainstream media follows along, seemingly unaware that there are better, cheaper ways to eliminate terrorism than parading around under all the pervasive disguise of aggressive national security. We are going to have to talk with “the terrorists” sooner of later. Sooner is better than later. Instead of asking ‘How can we protect ourselves?’ our curiosity should concern itself with the bigger and most important question: why this is happening? Fundamentalism is only part of the answer. The Taliban grew out of the religious schools, madrassas, in the refugee camps on the Afghan/Pakistan border during the war with the Russians. Fanaticism was the fuel thrown on an underlying hatred that, in the Taliban’s case, grew honestly out of isolation, ignorance, poverty, disentitlement, and hard-core religious propaganda. With hordes of young boys sitting on dirt floors hypnotically droning, reciting and memorizing an ultra conservative form of Islam, the Mullahs who embedded their puritanical rantings with a cane, asked ‘How can we protect ourselves?’. Violence, it turns out, is not much of a solution.
"Students" outside Madrass
Afghan refugee camp
Injustice is a global phenomenon, but it can trigger compassion, as well as anger. It takes only a few fanatics waving the torch of righteousness and glory to misguide jihadists. Like smoke in the eyes, fundamental ideology hides our neighbours humanity even as it brings forth bitter tears. People and objects are turned into symbols and metaphors, so it will be meaningful to destroy them, and so, even in Canada, people make plans to blow up the Toronto Stock Exchange, or a military base. But if we were to ask them: what is it that you find so offensive about the stock market, or the military? The reasons they give will not be so foreign to many. For though the gulf between us may seem large, I believe we differ only by degrees, and if I believe there’s hope for me, I have to believe there’s hope for everyone else. In the end it will not be bombs, but books and ideas, especially for women that secure Afghanistan. Educated women will not allow their sons to be Taliban. If the Taliban has to compete as a democratic political party, it's power will quickly diminish, because in Afghanistan there is far more thirst for education than suppression, as there is everywhere. It’s part of what it means to be human and our shared humanity is our basis for hope as we try to imagine and work out alternate security strategies.
In the winter of 1996, I was documenting deminers (those who disarm landmines) in Afghanistan and arrived in Kandahar, a cold dusty place of broken roads and abandoned buildings, aboard a Red Cross airplane. I was told to “report” to the Taliban’s Minister of Security. A dark-turbaned bearded man, he sat on a colorful carpet in the corner of stark room in a dilapidated building in the centre Kandahar, apparently the Taliban's equivalent of a foreign affairs attaché. After a short conversation between him and my 19-year-old interpreter, Abdul Wali, he turned to me and said, in barely audible English, "If you take pictures of anyone but deminers working in minefields, I shoot this boy." He pointed to Abdul. Then I was told that I could only photograph people from the waist down. I took a deep breath and began to explain how I was here to help rid his country of landmines, by helping to educate people in my country about this terrible weapon mostly sown by the Russians. I explained that I needed to show that it was real people with real faces, who were working in the minefields, and that they were all different. He insisted that landmines damage only the legs, and forbade me to photograph whole people. I took out a photograph of my one-year-old daughter and handed it to him, and pled my case again. He looked at my infant daughter and finally nodded his head. I was allowed to photograph “all the person” in the minefields. I could begin my work there, but the work of seeing ‘all the person’ is never really finished.
Wasiristan girl
Bakery, Herat
family photos in Kandahar

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