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Twin Tragedies

27 Dec

Two horrifying events took place this month – independent, yet born from the same dark place that society has descended to.

One, the brutal murders of 27 people, 20 of them first-graders, in Newtown, CT. The photographs of the children are heartbreaking – kids with so much joy and happiness, taken from loved ones in mere seconds. I’ve lived in the States for around 10 years now, and this is probably the most anger that I’ve seen from the public following a shooting. People are outraged and this time, hopefully, the collective anger can finally translate into a wave of support for President Obama’s plans to push through gun control reform next year.

Two, the gang rape that occurred in New Delhi a couple of weeks ago – the horror and brutality of which has stunned India. Yes, sexual violence occurs on a daily basis in India at an unimaginable scale and yet, very little has come close to angering the public the way this rape has. The cowardice with which the government has reacted has probably outraged people even more, showing just how out of touch our leaders are. Protests are taking place all over the country, especially in Delhi, and one can only hope that this is the wake-up call politicians needed to get serious about women’s rights in India.

I’ve been amazed at the parallels between the response in the U.S. and India, especially around the role of culture in propagating violence. Media outlets and politicians have been quick to target violent video games in the U.S., the same way the Indian media has been to single out the ‘sexualization’ of Bollywood. Another has been around how the media has responded to the stories, with equal levels of poor journalism and self-introspection not long after the incidents had taken place.

More than anything, the biggest parallel that between the incidents themselves is why they happen in the first place. What is it in humans that devolves into killing, violating or hurting innocent people (a more complicated topic is violence against people one knows – far more common, and difficult to unpack). My own view is that the blame falls squarely on the environment around us. Whether it is a society that ferociously defends its right to bear arms or one that has little regard for the safety and protection of women, our environment is the invisible force that nurtures us while young and contributes to our thinking as we get older, through our parents or others around us. It is also the one thing that we are most resistant to change. After all, why would a group of people choose to admit that their way of thinking after all these years is utterly wrong.

But there has never been a greater need to do so. Children should not be gunned down in the middle of their classrooms. Women and girls should not be gang raped and disemboweled while returning home from a movie. People should not lose their lives to the fury of another’s mind. Let us hope that 2013 makes the people, and our leaders, finally abide by the words- never again.

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A Grim Picture of the War on Drugs

5 Dec

Drugs. Bad, evil, society-destroying drugs. Of the many reactions we have on hearing about drug lords and drug czars, overdoses and crime waves, sympathy and empathy are often not part of them. The War on Drugs is an abstract concept, informed by movies like Traffic and Maria Full of Grace, more than the news or any observable impact on friends and family.

The House I Live In, a hard-hitting new documentary by Eugene Jarecki (the director of my favorite documentary till date, Why We Fight) will shatter everything you thought you knew about the War on Drugs. The stories of families across the country, including a poignant one about Jarecki’s nanny, reframe the issue as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice issue. The experts present stunning statistics about the havoc that the war on drugs has wrecked on society, particularly from the 1980s. And it will make you cry bloody murder at the fate of a generation of young individuals (mainly poor individuals, predominantly black) who have been subject to a jail-hungry government, wildly imbalanced sentencing laws and mass hysteria.

First, some statistics.[i]

  • The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but accounts for a staggering 25% of the world’s jailed population.
  • In 2009, in the U.S., nearly 1.7 million people were arrested on non-violent drug charges.
  • African-Americans only account for 49% of crack users, and yet make up an overwhelming 90% of crack charges.
  • As of 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated. At the current rate, one in three black males born today can expect to be jailed at some point in his lifestyle.
  • It costs the State of Maryland $86,000 per year to house a juvenile detainee.[ii]

Pretty grim situation, isn’t it. So what do we do with this information? The film drives home the point that Washington is in no way capable of true leadership on this issues – there are too many financial incentives and electioneering pitfalls to look the other way. The only way this ship is going to turn around is citizen activism, plain and simple.

The positive news is that in 2012, citizen activism is easier than ever. There are a number of ways that folks can get involved, and you can start with looking at The House I Live In website. Other organizations:

The House I Live In, in combination with Waiting for “Superman” (another excellent, albeit controversial, documentary about pervasive challenges with public education in the U.S.), present a picture of the structural race-based and class-based discrimination affecting this country in aching detail. Hopefully, these films also raise the profile of those championing to make a change in society, and in turn, spark a nation-wide movement to reform the American criminal justice and education systems.

An antidote to insanity – humor

23 Sep

It seems as though the world had turned on its head the past few weeks. Incited by a deeply offensive amateur film, angry, sometimes, violent protestors across the globe have come out in large numbers. The turmoil has claimed lives and cast suspicion on the potency of the ‘Arab Spring’, with those who considered as a force for positive change now in doubt.

The whole episode is a tremendous disappointment. Yes, the video is completely idiotic and should be denounced widely. About that there can be no question. And yes, I understand protesting its content. But clearly, there is a more peaceful way to go about it. What is gained by attacking individuals and/or countries who had no hand in its production? Aren’t folks (albeit a tiny percentage of them) doing exactly what the filmmakers hoped they’d do? We must recognize that there are other factors at play – politics, social unrest, economics. But inciting violence for political gain has never ever worked in anyone’s favor. The always excellent Bill Keller of the New York Times has written a piece on the entire issue, which you can read here.

As Keller explains, the problem with these kinds of confrontations is that it riles up extremes on every side. In response to the protests, media outlets in Europe and the United States have decided to stoke the flames by producing materials that falsely paint Muslim communities in broad strokes. I was once told that sometimes the right response to vitriol is silence, and I’m realizing more and more how true that is.

The only glimmer of hope in this debacle was the Twitter response to an absurd cover story by Newsweek about ‘Muslim Rage’. #muslimrage was taken over on Twitter by some incredibly funny and witty responses from folks who recognized the stupidity in all of this. Some of my favorites in this Wired magazine article – http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/09/muslimrage/

Humor is not always the answer to hatred and ignorance – but it certainly is one of the most effective. An example that I love from a few years ago is the Pink Chaddi campaign. By using deceptively simple ways to draw attention to the absurdity of the situation, people often do what the media fails to with extremes – they do not give any lip service to malicious arguments. And to my mind, that works far better than mobs attacking innocent targets.