A few years ago I was traveling through Africa and found my self in a rickety cab. As I bounced up and down in the lumpy back seat, shifting spots to avoid the broken springs and whatever was festering in the exposed paddings, another passenger got in and sat in the front seat. He was in a jovial mood and had just passed some sort of certification exam. “I passed! I passed!” He declared.
First I thought it was a college exam, or some life changing professional achievement. Turns out it was an HIV/AIDS test. And if you know anything about Africa, you know the importance of such a test. Conversation rolled from AIDS to lack of employment, poverty, state corruption, war; then the passenger sighed and said.
“You know, I really admire Ben.” The driver agreed. “Oh yes. Ben. He is a great man. We need somebody like him here in the Congo.”
I wondered who Ben was. I had lived in the country for months, and not heard of anyone by that name. “Sorry — Ben? Who is Ben?” I interjected from the back seat, shifting over the lumps and bumping my head violently on the ceiling as the cab cleared another pothole.
“Ben! You don’t know Ben? Madame! He is very famous. Il est Genial.”
“Ben what? Who are you talking about?”
“Laden.” Both men chimed. “Bin Laden!”
Amazing! Here I was in a Christian country. The Moslem population in Congo is miniscule, and yet Bin Laden represented something of a hero – a symbol of resistance to a higher injustice.
I have traveled almost ten years in Africa. On this continent, the narrative often goes like this: Bin Laden was a hero, Ahmadinejad should be admired for standing up to the West, Ghaddafi will be remembered for the many mosques and schools he built; and the Palestinians – well, Palestinians are the very embodiment of suffering; the equivalent of Jungian archetypes for victims of all things unjust, unfair and hypocritical; the ultimate evidence that the lectures on human rights by the masters of the world, and all that talk of democracy are nonsense. Palestinians are the very essence of pain and resistance with whom anyone from any corner of space and time can relate to and stand with in solidarity.
In Africa, most people are only too familiar with hopelessness, lack of recourse, lies, oppression and co-opted systems in which they have no part. They are also familiar with the basic reality that desperate people beget desperate actions. And when all other options fail, in the absolute vacuum of hope, the most radical elements will emerge to reinvent their own brand of justice to right all the wrongs that cannot find recourse in alternate forums.
This week as rockets fly overhead, the headlines on the 24 hour news cycles focus on the terrorist strikes at the urban centers of Israel. Newly elected Barack Obama who has evidently forgotten that he has nothing to fear from AIPAC anymore, releases his stale clichés on Israel’s “right to defense” even as he stands with his Nobel Prize counterpart and lectures the Burmese Junta on the rights of dignity and equality for all people. The narrative in the U.S. focuses on “terror” in Israel and the 90% Israeli support for the attacks on Gaza. Indeed the CNN poll shows that 57% of our own citizenry are in favor of the strikes, evidence of the complete disconnect from context at the confluence of selective reporting, ideology and middle class consumerism.
That the Jerusalem post has printed an op-ed to the effect that entire communities should be flattened in Gaza, left without water, electricity and basics has not triggered outrage in this country, nor has it made a dent in the absurd notion that Gaza has had self-determination since 2005. America’s mainstream stands with Israel. Congress stands with AIPAC. And Operation Pillar of Defense plays out as a bad sequel to Operation Cast Lead – as if the obscenity of the title in itself is not an outrage.
The casualty figures at the bottom of the TV screen in fact tell the whole story. Day 6 of the conflict. Gaza: 107 dead; Israel: 3 dead.
Israel maintains it is only pursuing “terrorists” and the rest are unfortunate collateral losses. They even go so far as to say that casualties are results of a deliberate Hamas strategy of employing civilians as human shields, thereby disassociating the reality of the cause of the militants from its fundamental connection to the perpetual anger of a humiliated people – one, an inevitable consequence of the other — like gravity.
Mr. president – for all the talk of not wishing to lead from behind and being a force for good; for the $1.4 trillion spent to date in pursuit of jihadists; and for the thousands sacrificed in the fight for what has been summarily dismissed as mindless terrorism, how about walking the talk of justice and focusing on the oldest grievance in the Middle East.
How can you pretend to push for human rights by upholding a six-decade Cuba policy while washing your hands from the crushing Israeli blockade of Gaza.
How can you reconcile your crippling sanctions on Iran for possible breach of NPT commitments, while vetoing any measure that would condemn Israel’s continued occupation in violation of International law.
How can you rise up in defense of Libyans and Syrians while staying mum on the continued aggression against Palestinians.
How can you rationalize your national outrage responsible for waging two wars in pursuit of one man culpable of killing 2900 Americans in 9/11, without on some level understanding the outrage against decades of Palestinian humiliation, displacement and occupation and the need to avenge it.
How can you expect to further the cause for democracy and peace if you don’t play the part of the unbiased advocate for dignity for all people.
How do you expect to hold back the wave of anger against the U.S. and the creation of a new generation of activists every time you opt to read from the “unconditional support” script, brandish the lone veto on the Security Council and value the Israeli life over that of a Palestinian.
Gravity is a fact. Those who pretend to live in a void may never fully grasp its meaning. But they are no less susceptible to its effects.