Trying to Remember My Alternatives

When my idealistic anti-war activism came up against the face-to-face life stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, the intellectual result wasn’t pretty. It disconnected me — and still does — with the leadership of my otherwise beloved religion, Unitarian Universalism. To tell the truth, though, these final few steps away from Gandhian pacifism were no Robert Frost “Two roads diverged” moment. That had happened long ago.

And what had happened to shake my idealism? Not a new view of human nature — that came much later, with personal maturity and theological education — but a decade of studying the ways that local histories are not all the same. The differences are not national, but regional, ethnic. What explains so many wars, so many famines, so many human rights violations, began with failures in building local community. By the time national and international elites take notice, it’s way too late to stop the group that has bullied its way to the top of a small local power hierarchy. They’ve done in their critics, moved against their enemies, and, sadly, have only caught our attention in the final round of mopping up.

So if you want to know what we can do about these folks, I would say, we need to learn from community policing and policies to thwart domestic abuse.

Community policing says that the police need to be part of the community they are protecting, in order to know, constantly, the difference between the brute leaders and the brutalized or befuddled followers. The former you strike early, strike hard, strike specifically. The latter you provide with alternatives for immediate activities and long-term opportunities.

Prevention of domestic abuse says that you start way before the first blow ever falls. Unlike community policing, where a single event can mark a target, the signal here is entry into a pattern of excessive control of one person by another. You hear “I don’t like that woman you always hang out with,” and immediately wait to see if the next statement is, “I don’t like you out with people I don’t know. I don’t like. You need to be with me, with my people.”  And at that point, you see you’ve got a partner on the path to abuse, and you get out. You find places and people who can keep you safe, because this person might well come after you with murderous intent. No shot has yet been fired, no strangulation attempted, knife drawn. But it can be. It will be. And if your family, your friends, the communities of authority in your life, do nothing at this time, they have only themselves to blame when, later on, the police find themselves on your door.

International analysts are bitterly divided between those who believe all international acts begin and are guided by regional details, and theorists, who see it in grand terms, impersonal forces whose actors are only coincidental. These folks might see an ideology at work — communism, radical Islam — or they might see some deeply evil, inherent national characteristic. The Russian self-selection for a powerful leader who makes them proud by overpowering others on the people’s behalf. The Shi’a drive to control everyone, or, the Sunni drive toward same, or both. The Manifest Destiny of Northern European civilization to populate and thereby develop the North American continent. The German insistence on power over European neighbors, if not militarily, then economic.

You can probably add to this list. Many Americans have spent the last quarter century learning that Native Peoples, Africans, Asians, and Africans have versions of their own.

These myths have roots in local realities. They started with regional imbalances of power, in which no outside equalizer intervened. Now those imbalances are so badly exaggerated that the question of how much intervention an outsider would need to exert, to reestablish some idyllic original balance, yields only the most terrible results.

That is why the best thing we can do is not to send in some kind of fancy weapons, way after the damage is done, but to constantly help local activists, regional rabble-rousers, as they battle the attempt of local bullies to shut them up. To send them away. In fact, it is the military-industrial complex whose credibility is most on the line. Not the President’s. Not the nation’s. Certainly not the men and women of our active military. 

But neither does our growing industry of philanthropic-cultural development funds have any real role to play. This well-meant (sometimes) attempt to justify the radical imbalance in our own income distribution is just as foreign, just as meddlesome, as military intervention or political deals with ambitious local power-brokers. 

If we got anything at all out of the brief, shining moment of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, on the left, and the Tea Party and its national debt obsession, on the right, it was the shared idea that hard work begins at home. Yes, so it does, but it doesn’t end there. We need to be ready to slap down emerging bullies, whether here or abroad, before they become regional powers and international hegemonists.

I’m not holding my breath about this, but it is what I believe. And the more I preach it — one reason I left foreign policy for ministry — the more likely I am to contribute to making it real.

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