Archive for the ‘Violence’ Category

Yesterday, American journalist Marie Colvin was killed in a government bombardment in Syria. Her final report, issued from the city of Homs, can be found here and reads in part:

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

Marie Colvin

For better or worse, it feels particularly poignant to learn of the death of a journalist as she set to the crucial work of telling the stories of the world’s most endangered and most vulnerable. Amazingly, in the conditions described above, the people of Homs braved the streets of their decimated city en masse last night to honor Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik with a show of gratitude.

In the United Nations, intervention for Syria, such as that that the U.S. sent to topple Qaddafi in Libya, was double-vetoed in the Security Council by Russia and China earlier this month. There is still hope for action by the Arab League, but meanwhile the Assad government continues to attack its own people mercilessly. Bashar Al-Assad acknowledges in this interview with Barbara Walters that no government in the world kills its own people unless it is led by a crazy person as Syria clearly is.

Marie Colvin in her final report wrote that throughout Homs, “On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”” When Assad questions the legitimacy of the United Nations, it is hard for me to disagree, but not because the horrific reports are unsubstantiated. Rather because it cannot seem to move its behemoth bureaucracy to fulfill its purpose: to prevent atrocities, protect the innocent, and create a world where that question can be answered with a resounding “You haven’t.”


There has been some terrible news out of America’s prisons in the past few days. Yesterday, a prison riot in Mexico near Monterrey resulted in 20 deaths, the latest in a string of prison riots in the country (31 deaths in Altimara, Tamaulipas in January, another 20 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in October of 2011 to cover just the past six-months). In Honduras, an indescribable tragedy occurred last week when 358 prisoners, at latest count, burned alive in a fire. Most had not been convicted of any crime.

Although we have more effective facilities in terms of control –better systems, I suppose, to prevent the destructive chaos of riots and fires– the United States ought take the longest and hardest look at itself following these grievous and preventable outrages. The state and federal governments of the United States incarcerate  far more of their own citizens than any other industrialized country in the world –a large percentage for non-violent drug crimes.

I am grateful for Chris Hayes reporting on this silent population that we too often discount in our minds as being undeserving of our attention. How dare we, or any other government authority, shutter people away in such great numbers and with so little recourse?

I highly recommend watching his excellent reporting here.

I’ve been asked several times recently to explain the story of Thanksgiving. Of course, the people asking are my Mexican peers, not American 3rd graders… So, I tell it with lots of disclaimers.

Well, the holiday was only institutionalized 200-years after the supposed event.

But, it’s about the first English pilgrims to America suffering incredible hardship… And then the Natives show up and teach them how to farm and give them food…

Of course, it doesn’t acknowledge any of the anti-Native treachery or conflict in our history.

So, they had a big feast to celebrate their survival and give thanks to their god and they invited the Natives and everyone ate a lot…

Which for then, probably meant that everyone got something to eat. Not that they put themselves into a food coma in front of the ballgame.

Amazingly, Mexicans have a painted history of this early colonial period in the slightly more southern Americas in their Palacio Nacional –done by the master, Diego Rivera. It is not one bit saccharine or glamorous. Rivera may have sweetened Native culture a bit, but he is raw and honest about the human cost of conquest. This would be like having a wall-sized mural of the 1622 Virginia Colony Massacre juxtaposed with the Trail of Tears in the White House.

Pre-Columbian society as imagined by Rivera.

Spanish conquest and the twisted, sickly Spaniards enslaving and murdering the Natives in their quest for gold.

I explored the Palacio Nacional a little more thoroughly with my guests and walked through the portrait gallery for the first time. Mexicans have stunning portraits of Aztec kings hung next to Spanish dictators and Mexican revolutionaries. The portrait of Emiliano Zapata is striking (Vincente Fox, on the other hand, should ask for a do-over while he has the chance).

So, in more than a few cases, you have portraits of the people who killed and overthrew the people in the potraits next to them. That blew my mind. There’s a certain honesty there about history that I think we’ve come not to expect in the United States, but that we should be striving for.

When we’re able to talk honestly about ourselves, where we’ve come from and what’ve we learned, only then, I think, are we truly able to move forward.

First contact between Europe and the Americas is such a bizarre thing. Inevitable, tragic, and in this globalized and increasingly homogenous world, increasingly difficult to imagine. Cortés and his conquistadors arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan a mere 490 years ago. Not surprisingly, the ripples of that cataclysmic confrontation are still jostling Mexico.

Native culture was literally buried for about 250 years while the Spaniards turned New Spain into their idea of a civilization, helped greatly by, as Jared Diamond put it, guns, germs, and steel and their own sense of what norte americanos called Manifest Destiny. In 1790, while excavating for new construction in the main plaza of Mexico City, the broken remains of a tremendous Aztec temple were rediscovered, sparking a Mesoamerican renaissance and a mental reconciliation of the halves that construct the whole: native and European, Maya, Mexica, Aztec, and Spaniard. In Mexico today, there is great pride in both.

It’s an infinitely complicated and compelling history and many of the artifacts that aren’t still scattered across Mexico and Central America are gathered in the Museo Nacional de Antropología which I visited this past Sunday. I’m a huge and unapologetic museum nerd, so if intricately carved basins for collecting sacrificial human hearts and tremendous, ornate feathered headdresses aren’t your thing, I can’t help you here.

Montezuma's headdress and tiny museum visitor doing the only logical thing. If you are thinking that it looks awfully good for being 500-years-old, it isn't. It's a replica.

Jaguar basin --said to be a receptacle for sacrificial human hearts. It's a hard thing to get by, human sacrifice. The Spaniards were burning people at the stake, of course, and perfecting the instruments of the Inquisition... Everyone needed a human rights workshop.

The famed Aztec Calendar and tiny person for scale.

The Aztec Calendar or Sun Stone --originally called a calendar, now thought likely to have had some role in ritual human sacrifice. In any case, it's crazy cool looking.

The courtyard of the museum --the reed-filled pond represents the marshy highlands that were settled by the original inhabitants of Mexico City.

Maya glyphs and carvings.

Death mask of Pakal --Maya ruler of Tikal in present-day Chiapas.

Maya codice --the Maya had a fully formed and complex written language and books.

Maya ruins in the muesum garden.


Likely the first and last thing that liberal intellectual Christopher Hitchens and conservative talk-radio host ManCow(?) agreed upon was the designation of the so-called enhanced interrogation technique known as waterboarding. Torture, they both said, unequivocally, after experiencing it first hand.

Here is something from Hitchen’s account, published in Vanity Fair in 2008.

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

Read the rest of, “Believe Me, It’s Torture” by Hitchens.

The U.S. has a long and complex history with the practice, from hanging Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs during WWII to military brass explicitly banning waterboarding during the Vietnam War and punishing rogue soldiers who defied the ban. Sometime in 2007, allegation began to surface that the U.S. was using waterboarding on suspected terrorists during interrogations and, as was its style, the Bush administration produced a dubious legal document dating back to 2002 that determined the practice was not torture and authorized its use. Obama banned it, again, in 2009.

In our current age, at the intersection of unbridled curiosity, free time, and media, you can watch dozens of videos on YouTube of people, mostly men, trying it out for themselves –again, mostly journalists and frat guys. The consensus seems to be that, even in a voluntary setting, it’s pretty terrible. Hitchens and ManCow both last about five-seconds and are both visibly shaken after the experience.

Amazingly, in the race to the radical right fringe of the Republican Party, in the latest of what feels like a hundred GOP primary debates, two candidates advocated reinstating waterboarding to enthusiastic applause. We’ve heard GOP audiences cheer letting people without insurance die, whoop for more lethal injections, and boo a gay veteran serving in Iraq. Now, at least about half the room seems to advocate reinstating this immoral, illegal, and ineffective practice, what would be an abrupt about-face for America’s floundering efforts towards credibility in the world.

My best defense of Cain and Bachmann is that they both seem to have  no idea what they are talking about. Cain seems to be taking his cues directly from the applause, as though there is a meter in the back to tell him when he’s getting warm, and Bachmann has already proved there is no point that she won’t chase farther to the right. At least there is some dissent in the small but important voices of Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman.

Sudden death from cardiac arrest or asphyxiation during waterboarding is a threat and I am not advocating these experimental runs, but I do think it is telling that two men from such opposite sides of the political spectrum (Hitchens with his book God is Not Great and ManCow with his conservative talk-radio show) came so quickly and confidently to the same conclusion.

Waterboarding is torture. Torture, as Ron Paul reminds the debate audience, is against U.S. law, international law, it is immoral, and, as though this point might still be needed, it doesn’t work.

The moment of silence is for my computer. After just 14 months of service, it has died. This was very sad news and made me quite suddenly and painfully aware that I use my computer for everything and that I am far too casual with its contents.

I lost a computer once before. It was my classroom desktop unit right before Christmas of my first year of teaching. Windows started acting up, so on an off-period I wheeled it down to our IT guy who wheeled it back to me an hour later after wiping the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system. Dozens of painstakingly constructed vocabulary quizzes and countless hours of anguished lesson planning winked out of existence. Fortunately, I was way too busy to allow myself more than a five-minute panic attack and life went on, much the same as now.

I am borrowing a loaner from work and I am back to blogging.

November 2nd was Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. People still had Halloween parties on October 31st and there was a variation of the Trick-or-Treat on November 1st (it involves costumed children demanding candy from shop owners or money off strangers in the street), but the real festivities, bordering on national holiday, are on November 2nd. People travel to see their families and build altars at home to honor dead relatives. There are kitchy, cartoony gift cards with grinning skeletons and there is deadly somber grief and remembrance. It is a compelling mixture of sobriety and levity, celebration and doom.

I am about to make a generalization, which of course means it will be at least partly wrong, but I think Mexicans have, broadly speaking, a much more embracing attitude towards death and inevitabilty than your average norte americano. The graphic violence splashed across the covers of daily tabloids would be just one place to point. Día de los Muertos could be another.

I went to a Día de los Muertos festival at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) which turned out to be another amazing collective paper-mâché project, creepy and incredible. Below are some photos.

This calavera king would've made me very scared as a child.

UNAM's campus and famous mosaic.

Living calavera.

Amazing giant book containing at least two pages by Borges.

Detail of death in the Borges story.

Calavera in red.

This is everyone's art project.

Papier-mâché skeletons.

Papel picado.

Me on the issues: Gun Control? Pro. If I were to make a list of things I would like my government to do, Make it harder for us to kill each other would be pretty near the top. Pro-Gun people will scoff at this. There is the, “What if someone breaks into your house?” argument and the argument that guns prevent crime. Not in Mexico, they don’t. Guns are super sad, I don’t believe my Constitution gives me the right to one, and I feel compelled to live the way I want to live, not how I imagine society forcing me to live. I don’t want to shoot people or other things. I’d prefer that people and other things not be shot.

Naturally, I like to imagine that people who disagree with me don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and are probably a little crazy. But then the educated side of my brain says no, it’s important to listen to other points of view and weigh their merit, consider context, motivation, and objective, etc… Write an essay about it. Yawn.

This clip from “The Daily Show,” however, really makes the crazy just pop. A quote, to get into it: “Barack Obama has been good to the NRA, but if you want to take away [NRA CEO] Wayne LaPierre’s preconceived narrative, you’ll have to pry it from his cold dead hands.”

"The Daily Show" September 29th, 2011.