Look through his eyes
Every baby is born with identical, basic needs: nourishment, shelter, safety, affection. From this foundation, it’s easy to trace upward and understand more sophisticated human needs: a sense of dignity, self-worth, the respect of one’s peers, and so on. We all share them, folks. When we understand them, and how they rise and branch out, and why they may fail to be met, we begin to understand how simple many needs are to satisfy…and how stupidly self-defeating it is to deny anyone of their needs wherever it is possible to fulfill them.
One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.
Please indulge me while I briefly offer a voice to the voiceless.
I am an Afghan husband and father, a cobbler by trade. I desire only to keep my shop open, earn at least enough for basic family needs, and maintain some dignity among my peers. I know that the violent men who sometimes place roadside bombs near my neighborhood will kill me if I rat them out.
Not “kill” like in your movies, my Western friends. This is the kind of kill where men punch my face and pull me into a car, then drive me to a private place while I beg to go free and I promise them more than I have. The kind of kill where they beat my arms and cheekbones and knees and groin with sticks, then bruise my temple with the barrel of a pistol while I sob in terror. The kind of kill where they pull the trigger, and I can’t just leave the theater or put another quarter in. This is the kind of kill where my young wife is suddenly and forever a widow, like many of her neighbors.
What, then, shall I do? Should I watch Mel Gibson in The Patriot and suddenly realize that a man’s gotta risk everything to do the right thing, step forward, and warn the Coalition patrol not to take this road today?
Are you insane?
Hell, no! I’ll keep my mouth shut and hope to God my family isn’t harmed during this horrible plague of violence and lawlessness that’s crushing my town and my dear neighbors. I’ve made a commitment to care for my household, and they need me. Many of you reading this have the same commitment, yet you find it easy to judge me when you don’t live with the same dangers. Make no mistake: I will feel terrible that some young American’s life may be snuffed out and his parents devastated…but I have my own sons to protect….
If only this were an isolated case of individual suffering. I’ve actually pieced this story together from many accounts, over many years at war.
The concept of “One’s Own” is a key element of happiness. The availability of adequate resources and alternatives is essential to reducing conflict. If men in an environment like today’s Afghanistan have no viable means of making a living except supporting an insurgency, it should come as no surprise to find them joining an insurgency…for the sake of Their Own. We in the West have to break free from an Us-vs-Them perspective regarding foreign cultures in order to develop real security. Disregarding “Theirs” to ensure the wellbeing of “Ours” just doesn’t cut it.
And I’m not talking about high-minded altruism, here, although I pray altruism can flourish and grow further out of this mindset. Here I’m talking about cold, hard, objective pragmatism. It is in “Our” best interests to deny our enemy the opportunity to drag down Our national reputation. He celebrates every clumsy mistake we make in mistreating or neglecting local citizens—it reinforces the message that he is the lesser of evils. If instead we will increase efforts to facilitate improved opportunities at the motivating source, we can accelerate toward an irresistible tipping point of mutual benefit. Our empathy can accelerate Their opportunity. With opportunity comes the sense of ownership for an improved lifestyle, and a corresponding willingness to defend it. The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011demonstrated this. People want to live in peace and freedom. Not fear and abuse. All people.
Those who should heed this most closely include any who imagine they can brutally oppress those under their care after the example of Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak, and many other fallen dictators. In an era of radical transparency, the street is empowered like never before.
Are you not convinced? Consider my favorite anecdote on the dynamic of public security needs: While I was in northern Iraq, a common fundraising method of Mosul’s AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) consisted of weekly, house-to-house shakedowns for the equivalent of $50 each. It was a great plan: low-risk, high gain, and a steady flow of revenue. No homeowner could resist, because his life simply wasn’t worth risking to protect 50 bucks—and that mob, in that environment, possessed the power to kill without consequence.
Try that same tactic in my hometown in Northern Virginia! Sure, I’d probably open my wallet and hand over the $50 to avoid having my head blown off in the moment, but before you can sashay over to hassle my neighbor John, my other friend Johnny Law will put you on the ground in an undignified and mildly painful position. Americans often can’t appreciate how empowered we feel to speak out and act out confidently only because we have already passed through a defining crucible and rejected uncontrolled lawlessness within our own borders.
Anyone who casually declares that there will never be peace in the Iraqi or Afghan societies is simply not exercising his vision muscles hard enough. Yes, it will be exhausting. Yes, it will take a long time. (Read any account of the American Revolutionary War to glimpse unthinkable hardship and prolonged determination!) But the payoffs that accompanied transforming my town from Wild West (er…East) into the prosperous and productive society of today can be repeated, with respect for the unique culture involved, when we dare to assist troubled populations at least some way down the path we’ve blazed.
Don’t believe the cartoon depictions of these populations. An Iraqi man is fundamentally the same as an American man—is the same as a Somali man—is the same as a Japanese man—is the same as an Uzbek man…I know! I’ve lived and worked among them in almost three dozen nations. I’ve become friends with them. Each of these men requires dignity and respect. We can offer dignity and respect at no cost to ourselves. He also needs to make a living; he needs to be able to put his head on his pillow at night and feel pretty good about how the day went.
If he is satisfied in such modest essentials, he’ll be much more likely to contribute meaningfully at local and possibly international levels. If rule of law emboldens and supports him, he’ll be much less susceptible to the intimidation and manipulation of organized brutes.
This energy, HAL (again, the fundamental “Human Aspect of Life”), is more powerful than all the bullets in the world. Vision and heart outlast force. Force will always become exhausted. “Necessary violence,” which I passionately endorse, is an appropriate tool for only select, temporary conflict situations and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Force will always collapse eventually. The failed Soviet and Nazi regimes, even the global dominance aspirations of the humbled British Empire, proclaim loudly that force will not prevail.
Contrast the blind use of force with great concepts that can never be killed, like the gift of cooperative democracy passed down from humanity’s Athenian ancestors. Such ideals may fade from sight while baser urges guide a region for a generation or more, but when fear and abuse inevitably reach the limits of tolerability, the higher character of our species rises from its patient slumber to risk and work for something better. When we successfully communicate this message of something better, we tap the universal human desire for security. So simple. So human. So true.
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