“A Way Out of Hell”

I first watched Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” when I was a teenager. I’ve seen it several times since, but there is one particular scene that has always stood out. To me, it is as powerful as any film scene I’ve encountered.

For background, the scene takes place during a period of rioting between Muslims and Hindus. Brokenhearted by the violence, Gandhi vowed to fast until the fighting stopped or until he dies, whichever comes first. Due to the reverence that people held for him, Gandhi’s fasting helps to bring the riots to a halt. As he lay in bed, weak from hunger, a group of Hindu men hand over their weapons and pledge not to engage in further violence.

As they leave with Gandhi’s blessing, a solitary man with a crazed look barges in. I don’t think I can do the rest of the scene justice, so it is probably better just to watch.

A few months ago, I finally decided to ask someone well-versed in Gandhi’s biography if they knew whether the events in the scene happened as they were portrayed. Kindly, a historian answered my question, although their response was indirect. Instead, they cited the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is often attributed to Gandhi and can be found on bumper stickers, internet memes, and t-shirts. However, there is no record that he ever spoke or wrote those words. Gandhi did say something along those lines, but it’s not exactly made for a t-shirt: 

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The Dignity and Future of the People of Laos

Today, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. It’s kind a big deal. So far, I think he’s hit all the right notes, pledging a substantial increase in funds to help clear unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes decades ago during the Second Indochina War. Whereas the U.S. had given about $100 million over the last 20 years to help clear some of the bombing, this will now be increased to $90 million over the next three. The effects of these bombs have lingered for too long, causing about 20,000 casualties since the war officially ended, so it is good to see Obama take this seriously. (And, by the way, the New York Times has just published a story on how this increase in funds is almost entirely due to the amazing Channapha Khamvongsa. She has worked on this for a long time, and she is to be admired).

Others have observed that because Obama was too young to have served in the military during the Vietnam War, he has a fresher perspective and can therefore act as a generational page-turner. Perhaps that is sometimes necessary in order to rise above the past, as people often become entrenched in their views. The old guard phases out, and new blood enters the picture. In fact, Obama declared that his visit marked a new era in U.S.- Lao relations, based on mutual respect and “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.”

I’ve given this some thought. When I was younger, whenever I read a story about some tragedy — a car accident, a war, a terrorist attack, refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, a victim of sexual violence, etc. — I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of how long that type of emotional pain could endure. Those things don’t just clear up overnight. They can persist well beyond the actual offense, even for decades. Because we are such a social species, intensely connected to others and highly attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the people around us, it seems that one of the key ingredients to healing is to hear that others recognize and respect our pain.

I think Obama recognized this. If I were a poor Laotian farmer whose fields were contaminated with leftover bombs, I would probably put more weight on the $90 million than on any speech or anything Obama might say. Yet, symbolic gestures can also go a long way. Obama’s statement that he recognized and had high hopes for “the dignity and the future of the people of Laos” is a potentially powerful one. At least I think so. Let’s see what happens during the next few days of his visit there.

Impermanence and Letting Go

“All is flux”Heraclitus

 

Yesterday I started the move to a new office just down the hall. I’d been in my old office since I started teaching at UMass Boston in 2003, and when a new office opened up I was asked if I wanted it. It has some advantages. It’s (slightly) larger than my old one, it’s off the main hallway (i.e., a bit more private), and it has a better view. But another factor is that I simply felt like moving. Sometimes change is good for its own sake — a breath of fresh air.

To make the move easier, I did something I’m normally not too good at, which is letting go of things. I recycled a lot of old files and articles that I had held onto for years. Some of them I’ve kept since graduate school, even though I’d not revisited them in nearly 20 years. It felt good to dump them.

I’d like to say that I don’t need anything. At an intellectual level, I understand that everything is impermanent —  organisms, mountains, relationships, nations, memories, jobs, planets. Time devours all things. On the other hand, when we’re in the present moment, some things appear to be really important and worth prioritizing and holding onto.

Maybe I don’t need anything. Except of course, the chair, the remote control, and the paddle game. And that’s all I need. So I do need some things.

 

 

Thresholds of Inclusion

“Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” (Abraham Lincoln)

 “Blood just looks the same, when you open the veins.” (Karl WallingerIs it like today?)

 

If you wish to find someone just like you, who looks and thinks exactly the way you do, then perhaps the only place you can look is in a mirror.

However, here’s a thought. Imagine that as you’re looking at the mirror it begins to move progressively farther away from you. The further away it is, the more time that transpires before the light bearing your image reaches the mirror and returns. If, in this scenario, the mirror should reach, say, the distance of the sun (for the sake of argument, it’s a really big mirror), then the image that you would see is still yourself, only it’s you roughly sixteen minutes ago.

Broad Museum

Mirrors, at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles (source)

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Reconciling “Unbridgeable Differences” in Vietnam

Last week, U.S. Sec of State 

A fourth and final lesson of the Vietnam conflict is playing out before our eyes: that with sufficient effort and will, seemingly unbridgeable differences can be reconciled. The fact that Mr. Obama is the third consecutive American president to visit Vietnam is proof that old enemies can become new partners.

Looking to the future, we know that mutual interests, above all else, will drive our partnership with Vietnam. But it is strengthened, as well, by the natural affinities between our societies. These include family ties, a tendency toward optimism, a fierce desire for freedom and independence and a hard-earned appreciation that peace is far, far preferable to war.

 

Perhaps this is another reminder that the conditions of the present are not permanent. Nations and individuals who are currently at odds may find themselves as future allies. All is flux.

The Allison Center for Peace

Flowers are better than bullets.”       – Allison Krause, 1970

 

This week marked the 46th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University. On May 4th 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 shots at college students who were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Four unarmed students were killed, while nine others were seriously injured.

A few months ago, I found a website named after Allison Krause, one of the young students killed that day. Just as this website is named after my brother Kevin, Allison’s younger sister, Laurel, created the NGO The Allison Center for Peace in honor of her memory and as a way to search for the truth for what happened that day.

In 1979, the relatives of the victims at Kent State received an out-of-court settlement from the state of Ohio and a “statement of regret and intentions” from Ohio officials. However, even today, they do not have all the answers. In 2012, they formally requested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague consider justice at Kent State. And this Wednesday, they asked that the FBI release whatever relevant documents they possess.  

Laurel Krause cited the British government’s apology for the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland as a possible model “for America to heal the wounds of Kent State.” There are parallels between Bloody Sunday and the Kent State incident, both involving government troops firing upon their own citizens. After a lengthy investigation and report, in 2010 British Prime Minister David Cameron had this to say:

“What happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and hurt of that day, and a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces. And for that, on behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am deeply sorry.”  

The families of the victims of Kent State are looking for more than “a statement of regret and intentions.” An apology and an honest accounting can both go a long way.  As I’ve written before, several governments have shown courage by confronting some of the more difficult parts of their past. In addition to Bloody Sunday, the Japanese government apologized for colonizing Korea, and the U.S. Senate apologized to African-Americans for slavery and segregation. My favorite example comes from 2007, when the Danish government apologized for the Viking raids of Ireland, which occurred 1,200 years earlier.

If an apology can be extended (and accepted) after a millennium, then perhaps there is no statute of limitations on confronting a difficult past, for understanding, or even for reconciliation. While others have warned that apologies and truth commissions are not a panacea, and that “confronting the past is ineluctably political,” it is clear that the families of Kent State should not have to wait 46 years for their wounds to heal.   

“It’s never too late” to do the right thing: UXO in Laos

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Laos on Sunday, foreshadowing a visit by President Obama sometime this autumn. It will be the first ever visit by a U.S. President to Laos. There are probably several reasons for the visit, including strengthening ties, checking Chinese power in the region, etc. Most relevant to me is the hope that more will be done to alleviate some of the damage done during the war years, especially by removing leftover unexploded ordnance (UXO).

CNN article mentions two emotions that Americans might feel toward President Obama’s position towards Laos: guilt and optimism. It quotes Channapha Khamvongsa, who founded he NGO Legacies of War, which works to raise awareness of UXO in Laos.  Continue reading