Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo

December 1, 2016

What can we do? Can we dance while the children of Aleppo are being slaughtered? Can we smile while the last doctors pull the ball bearings from Russian-backed Syrian regime cluster bombs out of the spines of toddlers? The monarch butterfly only lives for six months. Do we have a right to enjoy its beauty knowing that its wings will soon be broken against the wheel? What can we do? What did you when you saw little Omran in the ambulance? What will we do now that we have seen him?

Wounded Syrian Kid Omran Daqneesh

The siege of Aleppo continues unabated. The once bustling city has been hollowed out by Syrian and Russian jets dropping barrel bombs that spread explosions of shrapnel which decapitate children every single day. The innocent civilians cry to the sky. “Where are you, world? How are you letting this happen to our loved ones?” And the world Tweets something clever, indifferent. #WeirdBathroomConvos

History will ask where we were in 2016 while this horror happened. Just like it asked where where were in 1994 during the Rawandan genocide and where we were in 1975 during the mass killings in Cambodia. We are always in the same place; dancing with our eyes closed.

In 1993, I was in eastern Europe, doing my dissertation work on new fascist youth movements. The civil war in Yugoslavia was in full swing and Bosnian refugees were streaming out of the country with horror stories beyond belief. I tried to make it to Sarajevo, but the city was under a murderous siege and all travel in was closed.

It was a sunny day in Prague so I went to Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, to soak up the sun and some relevant history. There was an exhibit about the internment of Jews in the German concentration camp in nearby Terezin. Toward the end of the war, Hitler didn’t want the world to think his camps were so bad, so he invited the Red Cross to tour the camp in Terezin. The barracks were cleaned, prisoners that were sickly were quickly shipped off to Auschwitz, and the children were given art supplies to show the kindness of the Nazis.

What kind of art would children in a Nazi death camp create?

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The exhibit had some of their art preserved over the decades. The art was their escape. Amid certain death they drew pictures of red birds and green butterflies flying though perfectly blue skies.

Later that day I was in the Old Town Square in the Staré Mesto part of Prague. In an abandoned storefront people had created an exhibit about the war in Yugoslavia to raise awareness about the violence nearby in the Balkans. The exhibit included art by Bosnian Muslim refugee children whose parents had been killed by Serbian soldiers.

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When kind of art would the children of ethnic cleansing create?

Crayola crayon drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

I walked outside and wept that this was happening again. And this time it was happening on my watch. I sat down in the Charles Bridge over the Vlatava River and wrote this.

Terezin Revisited

Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Crayon dreams of simple pleasures

A blue bird and a yellow sun

cross with grey sketches

of a brother being hung

Playground mortar shell

interrupts an afternoon soccer match

Late night round up

Out of bed shouting family snatch

The innocent monsters of childhood

are traded for the nightmare monsters of mankind

Kids in cages, kids in camps

Kids on TV, kids on maps

Twinkle, twinkle, night lights off so far

Doomed by the brands of moons and stars

Red rockets fly from mountain tops

Yellow bayonets from ghetto cop cars

When I grow up I want to be alive

I want to be married to a brave prince

with Mommy and Daddy smiling

But instead I go to Srebrenica or Auschwitz

“Never again” is an empty cry as Sarajevo’s children

relive the genocide plans of the ruling mind.

I wonder what type of art the children of Aleppo are creating now, in those precious moments between bombings and siblings dying. I imagine drawings of red birds and green butterflies flying through perfectly blue skies.

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Andrea and I have been crippled by the images of Syrian children creeping into our mundane lives as parents in America. How can we look away? We are somehow complicit as “strong leader” Putin continues to bomb civilians. What can we do? Could butterflies help?

Andrea made the decision to use her artistic shoulder to slow the wheel. She is doing a series of  paintings of Monarch butterflies, the symbol of her home in Michoacan, Mexico and symbolic of the great migrations we make to live and reproduce. She will be debuting them at my reading at Music Millennium on Saturday. All proceeds go to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. They will also be available on her website (andreabarriosart.com) for only $40 (they come with a little easel). It’s one way relieve an ounce of the suffering of children who do not deserve the hell of adult politics.

In addition, 10% of the sales for my new novel, The Dream Police, are going to UNICEF Aleppo Relief. It’s not much but if the book does well, it might be.

I think of all the places that children suffer from the actions of adults; Syria, South Sudan, Chicago. I think about food contaminated with plastics and guns in schools and lead in water. I think about how much we don’t think about our children and I want to turn into a butterfly and fly away.

Please help UNICEF help Syrian children by donating here: UNICEF

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Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump)

August 3, 2016

Sometimes I wonder when my thoughts about the world won’t have something to do with Donald J. Trump. I’m hoping by the second week of November. But his shameless attack on U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan’s family after their emotional appearance at the Democratic National Congress last week actually inspired me to have a hopeful thought. Seeing Clown Prince Trump claim he’s sacrificed as much as this grieving Gold Star family sent what few military families were still on the Trump Train jumping from the caboose. Trump tried to recover by waving around a Purple Heart that wasn’t his and claiming that he’s wished he’d gone to the Vietnam War (instead of taking all those rich kid deferments).

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Trump’s Islamophobic comments aside, the important part of this narrative was Khizr Khan’s passionate assertion that the the Republican nominee was devoid of empathy: empathy for veterans, empathy for the families of troops killed in combat, and empathy for the Vietnam Veteran whose Purple Heart he gladly took and showed off at a campaign rally.  “This person is totally incapable of empathy”, Khan told CNN. “I want his family to counsel him. Teach him some empathy. He will be a better person, but he is a black soul.”

Trump (and his authoritarian followers) aren’t the only people who need a lesson in  empathy. The lack of empathy knows no creed or color. But, unless you are a sociopath, there is hope that it can be learned. I’ve written about it in this blog and I teach it and I’m trying to maintain it when I talk about Trump supporters (which is getting increasingly difficult after the billionaire’s daily assault on core American values).

Here’s where this glimmer of hope from the Trump-Khan “feud” links to rape culture. And here’s where feminists can find unlikely allies. Every man has some female he loves, right? A mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, gaming store clerk. One would assume that they don’t want that female to be sexually assaulted. So if that dude learns that there is a good chance that she will be or already has been (a one in six chance by the most famous study on the topic), he might feel something: anger, maybe guilt that he doesn’t worry about being raped, hopefully concern for the (potential) victim he cares about, and MAYBE concern for other women he doesn’t even know. Empathy.

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I wrote about this power in a chapter I published in the 2004 book, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. An emotional connection to a female can allow even the most committed right-wing hate-monger to build empathy towards others, including the people they are supposed to hate. So many hate group members left that world because a female impressed upon them how they are the victims of hate every single day as potential targets of sexual violence.

There’s a second link. I think most men, even the war-loving Trumpists that want to “bomb the shit” out of somebody, understand the complexity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When my dad was in high school he had a teacher who was a “shell-shocked” veteran from World War II. The not-empathetic 1950s kids (you know, when America was “great”) would make the sound of bombs falling to see the poor guy dive for shelter. What a hoot. Now we all have an idea of the ongoing hell many of our troops suffer when they return from war. We might not agree with the war, but we are all in agreement that those people served in conditions that the rest of us could never imagine and we owe it to them to take care of them and be mindful of the triggers of PTSD. Gone are the days of joking about vets who “go all Vietnam” when they get home. Maybe that was a contribution of President Reagan, maybe it was the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, or maybe it was the result of thousands and thousands of vets demanding their stories be heard.

PTSD def

Well, I’ve got some important news for you. Those thousands and thousands of women who have suffered from sexual violence can also suffer from PTSD. This includes a lot of women you know, maybe more than you could ever guess. You think there are a lot of reminders of war in the daily life of a vet? Ask a rape survivor about the daily reminders of sexual violence in America. It doesn’t have to a news report, or a rape scene in Game of Thrones, or a Robin Thicke song. It could just be in a setting or the sound of a man’s voice. I am looking out my window right now and across the bay is Cancun. That word alone surely brings back some nightmarish memories for many women (as I wrote about last year).

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I’ve known so many women who have suffered sexual assaults, many when they were very young. Those scars last lifetimes and are heartbreaking. I’ve had female students in my criminology classes burst into tears when I talk about rape statistics. I now give a “trigger warning” before I even bring up the subject. You wouldn’t dream of telling a war vet to “just get over it,” so don’t expect a rape survivor to be on some magical recovery path that the guy who did two tours in Afghanistan isn’t on either. Like war vets, rape victims have a much higher rate of suicide. Both need our open hands, not dismissal.

And there are surely others who suffer from some variation of PTSD, including police officers, abused children, and the millions of Americans who have been incarcerated. These are all people we care about. So if you are a conservative who cares about veterans and police, you can totally care about returning inmates and women living in a culture that has normalized rape. And if you are a liberal, the converse is true! Empathy is a powerful thing! It can even turn Mr. Rambo Republican into a feminist. Let’s care about others besides ourselves. Really care.

The only question left is – Is it possible for Donald J. Trump to learn empathy or is he a sociopath. America’s soul hangs in the balance.

PTSD

The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism

July 6, 2016

I don’t know who first said, “War is terrorism with a bigger budget,” but it seems profound these days. Smart bombs away! Boys love war. They’ll lead wars against poverty, against crime and drugs.  And don’t forget the war against terrorism. All of which have been miserable failures. And yet boys think more war is the answer.

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When I was a boy, I loved war too. I played with G.I. Joe and my plastic machine gun. I did school reports on Sherman tanks and studied the dogfights of World War 1 pilots. I watched John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Green Berets. Like John, we boys played Vietnam War in the Georgia woods, only this time we won. I wondered what war I would fight in when I grew up. I imagined I’d be an Air Force pilot, safe above the clouds as I dropped bombs on the faceless enemy below. When I was 16, Ronald Reagan was elected on the promise of more and better wars and my testosterone pumped. Iran, Afghanistan, maybe even Mother Russia herself. But suddenly the 4 O’clock movie started to look like a reality and I began to have second thoughts about the thrill of war.

Then I grew up. In college I read Gandhi and Martin Luther King and The Gospel According to Matthew. And my love of war began to fade.  I met some of those soldiers I had romanticized and the dream of war became a nightmare. Over the years all the warriors I’ve met have told me tales of dead friends, sleepless nights, long waits at the VA, and 4th of July fireworks triggering PTSD. I haven’t met John Wayne once, just men and women who need support in managing the effects of politicians playing soldier.

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So you will excuse me if Mr. Trump’s talk of “bombing the shit out of ISIS” just makes me want to puke. We’ve dropped countless bombs on the middle east and people are still being killed by terrorists in cafés and nightclubs. The war in Afghanistan is in its fifteenth year and the place doesn’t look that much different than when we showed up in 2001.  And today we learn that 8400 US troops will remain in Afghanistan in the war without end. (But war profiteers have made billions of dollars so don’t expect it to end any decade soon.) George W. Bush’s (and Tony Blair’s) idiotic invasion of Iraq that opened the door for ISIS and Obama’s “clean” drone strikes in the region have only made us less safe while funneling trillions of dollars out of the American economy. Do you think those dudes sing along when they hear Mavin Gaye ask “What’s going’ on?” Maybe they just giggle at the “War is not the answer” part.

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The Obama administration released a report last week about civilians killed in drone attacks in Africa, Yemen, and Pakistan. They believe that between 2372 and 2581 “enemy combatants” were killed between 2009 and 2015. We trust that these “enemy combatants” were sociopathic terrorists who want to blow up shopping malls in Kansas and not kids who were forced into someone else’s jihad. For the same period, the administration estimates that between 64 and 116 non-bad guys (men, women, children, doctors, aid workers, etc.) were accidentally killed by our drones. Investigative journalists think that count may be ten times higher. And this does not include civilian deaths from the drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that are a daily terror. By the way, the going price for a remote controlled MQ-9 Reaper drone is $12, 548,710.60. (The 60 cents is for the pine scent.) And we wonder why we can’t “afford” free college or health care.

I think if I was a young man in Yemen and one of those 116 “non-enemy combatants” killed was my child, I might be a little angry. In fact, when I found out my child was killed by some American sitting in an air-conditioned office in Colorado, manning a flying robot bomb with a joystick, I’d want revenge. I’m like that. I’d find Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or whoever was screaming the loudest in my village and ask what I could do to strike back against these terrorists. Strap a bomb to my chest and walk into a crowded European airport? No problem. And I get to see my child again. I want them to hurt the way I’ve been hurt. It’s the cycle of pain that war perpetuates and we are all guilty.

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It’s easy to talk about how Presidents Bush and Obama and Prime Minister Blair (and Secretary Clinton) have blood on their hands, but there’s plenty of blame to go around as we fan the flames of war in somebody else’s backyard. We don’t want to be accused of not “supporting the troops” as a another generation of young warriors gets sent into the meat grinder only to become the next generation of old vets standing on an offramp asking for spare change.  They’re keeping us free, right? Why should we stop that?

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So that brings us to Mr. Trump. After the mass shooting in Orlando, Trump renewed his calls for an all-out ban on Muslims entering the U.S.. Omar Mateen, the shooter, was born in Queens, New York, just like Trump, so I’m not sure what his ban would have accomplished. He repeatedly tells his crowd that his strategy will be to “bomb the hell out of them” and his sub-moronic loyalists scream in approval. The problem is the recent attackers in Turkey and Bangladesh (and Orlando and San Bernardino) did not come from the battlefields of Syria. Like Mateen, they were most likely radicalized online. So I guess Trump’s plan is to bomb the hell out of every Muslim with a laptop or a smartphone. Gee, I wonder what the unintended consequences of that type of genocidal violence might me.

Do you think President Trump might end up creating more terrorists than he kills? You could make the case that lesson should have been learned by Bush, Blair and Obama. Oh, never mind. His fans love war. Trump is John Wayne! More bombs! That’s the answer! Today, a sister of one of the British soldiers killed in Iraq called Blair, “the world’s worst terrorist.” Tony has some competition for that honor. (4,486 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq.) Maybe President Trump can win that title. Winning!

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Of course, Trump wants to make this about Islam and not the conditions that push young men into war. (Our war on their terrorism or their war on our terrorism.) The attacks this week in Saudi Arabia should prove that ISIS is not a real Islamic organization any more than the KKK is a real Christian organization. What could be more anti-Muslim than blowing up Muslims in Medina on Ramadan? (Wait, is ISIS a Trump front?)

Scholars have described the bulk of the rank and file members of these jihadi groups as being either illiterate or barely literate. They’re not reading the Koran; somebody is telling them what it says. Sort of like that backwoods Pentecostal preacher telling some hill person that dancing with a poison snake will make Jesus happy (and killing gay people is God’s will). You don’t stop their anger at the world with more bombs.

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“So what are we supposed to do, Professor Blazak?” Here’s the part you don’t want to hear. Terrorism is a complex issue, with a lot of moving parts (including a military part). But in an election year,  Americans want simple, bite-size solutions. Most could care less about the difference between Sunni and Shia followers of Islam. Just bomb the hell out of all of them. Am I right? Maybe not. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face by the Taliban, famously said, “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.” But what does that kid know? And old guy in rural Georgia knows that our bombs can beat their bombs. “More war! (As long as I don’t have to go,)” he bleats.

Look, can we have a moment of national honesty? We’ve finally admitted that the War on Drugs was a horrible waste of lives and tax dollars. Republicans and Democrats actually have some agreement on this. Can we just admit the war on terrorism is sucking the soul of America dry and making the world less safe with every “smart” bomb we drop. Are we ready for a permanent state of world war or are we intelligent enough to imagine a more effective strategy? Just maybe war is the problem, not the solution. The answer is probably not going to come from a boy (or a girl who acts like a boy). I might listen to Malala. Just sayin’. War is over, if you want it.

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