My return to journalism

16 November 2011 § 1 Comment

I should have posted this earlier, but I’ve been traveling for much of the last 10 days. (I’ll be writing about that in a future post.)

My first article after a pretty long break from reporting came out last week. In it, I detail the situation of the Colombia office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, and what the office’s significant funding shortfall in 2011 means for the country’s millions of internally displaced persons. Read the article here.


2 May 2011 § Leave a comment

My first reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death were similar to those of many Americans. I felt glad that a decade-long mission had been accomplished, and I felt that his killing had achieved some measure of justice. Reading celebratory emails from friends still in the United States, I shared some sense of victory, if a little uneasily. I stayed up well past my bedtime to watch the president’s speech. As soon as he finished, I went to sleep, since today would be another Monday, and I had classes to teach.

The morning greeted me with many more emails, news stories, tweets, photos. The small sense of shared victory I had enjoyed the night before began to fade as I saw and heard about celebrations. I went about my day relatively normally today, not too affected by bin Laden’s death or the reaction to it. But I kept checking in, reading and seeing more. And I’ve become more emotional.

I don’t have too many original words to write about bin Laden, the United States, terrorism, and related issues, so let me quote liberally from others. I found all these authors through James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among my usual go-tos for help thinking things through.

The group blog Fabius Maximus (via James Fallows) wrote:

Summary:  It’s not a big event.  It might not even be good news for the US, from a long-term perspective.


  1. It’s not a big event
  2. Killing bin Laden might make al Qaeda more potent
  3. The weirdness of President Obama’s speech about the news
  4. For more information

(The rest of the post fills in those subjects.)

Kai Wright (via TNC) wrote:

Upon the news of this victory, crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” It was as if we’d just won an Olympic hockey game, rather than capped a decade worth of war and recession with a singular act of violence.

“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” the president declared. “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” he concluded, after insisting that the execution represents justice. “That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

How perverse. President Obama is the leader of a nation in which justice is but a distant dream for millions of residents. He leads a nation that can afford billions of dollars annually for war but cannot feed the nearly 18 million children who lived in homes without food security in 2009. And yet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.

The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.

The president says we can do anything we want because we can kill. We could not stop poverty rates from spiraling upward to a record-setting 14.3 percent of Americans in 2009, but we can kill so we are exceptional. One in four black and Latino families live below the poverty line now, and as a result America’s child poverty rate—one in five kids—is the second worst among rich nations, behind Mexico. But we can kill, so we are great.

Radley Balko (via TNC) wrote:

In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—-an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.

We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 . . .

  • [13 bullet points detailing U.S. government expansions to warrantless seizures, indefinite detentions, torture, spying and eavesdropping on citizens, and more]

I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. And for all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there’s something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.

But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the September 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country last night. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls last night, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

And James Fallows quoted a reader who wrote in response to him:

I did not find the news heartening, I found it slightly depressing. I support the action to kill OBL, and I believe that the world is a better place w/o him. But I find that reality depressing, and the fact that ‘we’ choose to celebrate his death (there were fireworks in SF) more depressing still. It reminds me how base we (humans) are. I’ve never lost anyone in a terrorist attack, so this is easy for me to say, I know.

Let me, after a day of consideration, echo all these sentiments. Today I am glad Osama bin Laden is no longer alive—but I am unable to forget the world that existed yesterday and still exists today, I see no reason to celebrate his death, and I am disturbed by that response from my countrymen and friends.

I had been meaning to share, before events of the last week, recent events and feelings inspired by two books I’ve read. A couple months ago I read The Looming Tower, a “biography” of Al Qaeda. The book is remarkable for its comprehensive, straightforward account of how Al Qaeda began, how it grew, and what it became in the 1990s. No reader can come away from the book thinking that Osama bin Laden equals Al Qaeda, or that either one is the only principal in 21st-century terrorism. Soon after reading The Looming Tower, I read Columbine, which gives similarly comprehensive treatment to that high school’s massacre, covering the school, the killers, the community, the causes (as well as they can be determined), and the aftermath.

“Reading” both of those as audiobooks during my commutes, I set myself up for an unfortunate experience: Three or four times during Columbine, I began to cry, not loudly, but visibly to any fellow bus riders who happened to glance my way.

Descriptions of kids running away from gunfire, or trying to get their dying friends out of a school erupting with the sounds of explosions, absolutely melted me. Even harder to hear about were the parents collected at the school, kept behind the police perimeter, losing their minds trying to find their kids, desperate to learn that theirs weren’t the ones who had been killed.

[In this space I wrote and deleted four paragraphs about September 11 and me. That’s not what I wanted this post to be about. I’ll get to that eventually, when I’m ready to really cry and write about it.]

September 11 began years of suffering that can only be described by communicators far more skilled than me. New Yorkers experienced heart-wrenching pain that day, and 3,000 families have not been whole since then. Millions of Afghans and Iraqis have lived through similar events every day for nearly a decade. Americans all over the country, and people all around the world, have suffered much less visible and much more insidious violations that will probably never end. Terrorism and counterterrorism live on. Wars, targeted and global, continue. Suffering continues. Pain remains.

Yesterday’s flawlessly executed mission was a long-sought and hard-fought victory for the United States military and intelligence community. It was (probably) a limited strategic victory for the security interests of the country. It was another day of suffering for so, so many. It is fire with fire at its most necessary—and its most futile, since neither fire is anywhere near extinguished.

The last 24 hours have seen city-wide parties across a country.


“Catharsis” is the reason I have most frequently heard today. I don’t understand.

For those who feel victory today, I ask what has been won. What will be better tomorrow?

For those who are happy today, I ask: Why is death—even when it is just—to be celebrated? What does it build, create, or improve?

For those who feel catharsis, who just feel calm and at peace as a result of this, I ask what you will feel tomorrow. What has been made whole? What pain has been undone?


31 March 2011 § 6 Comments

I just got a call from a guy saying he found some documents of mine. Of course, I thanked him, but I didn’t promise I would meet him; instead, I said I’d call him back.

To any of you who care to give advice: Is it worthwhile to go meet this guy? As I explained, the documents are pretty worthless–but maybe there’s a security benefit to maintaining possession of them (to prevent any potential attempts at identity theft)?

Also important for my decision, I think, is whether I believe this guy is the guy who robbed me or is connected to that guy, and not someone who “found” my documents. Over the phone he mentioned an insurance card and my learner’s permit, and he must have the business card, since that was the only thing with my phone number on it. So his story is that he found all my documents, but without the wallet or money.

He said he found them near Salitre Plaza, the mall directly outside of which I boarded the bus. That throws in the wrinkle of possibility that the wallet just slipped out of my pocket as I got on the bus, or that someone picked my pocket before I even boarded. (I removed the fare from my wallet a minute before getting on the bus, so the last place I know I had the wallet was on the street near Salitre Plaza).

Anyway, if I meet this guy, I can get back the few cards and hear more of his story about where he found them. But I’ll also have to spend time to do so, and I’ll be wondering the whole time: Is this guy really a good samaritan who picked my things up and contacted me to return them, or is he the criminal or an accomplice now trying to reduce the violation already committed?

La lluvia

21 November 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve joked about the rain here in Bogotá because it has rained most days since I got here. For the last week or two again, the rains have been torrential. One evening last week was the first time I’ve experienced flooding; luckily for me that just meant being incapable of crossing streets without stepping through ankle-high water.

Elsewhere in Colombia, the weather and its effects have been much worse:

(CNN) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has declared a state of emergency in 28 of the nation’s 32 departments because of heavy rains and flooding that have affected some 1.2 million people.

He called on the international community to help and said the capacity of the Colombian government is overwhelmed.

Flooding and mudslides have killed at least 136 people, injured 205 and left 20 missing, the nation’s Interior and Justice Ministry reported.

Emergency officials say the heavy rain has led to problems in 561 municipalities in the South American nation.

“Many have lost everything they had and the capacity of the government [to help them] has been overwhelmed. We’re trying to find ways to get more resources and that’s why we’re calling on the business sector, the public in general, and the international community to help us because, unfortunately, the situation is getting worse,” said Santos.

The unseasonable weather is apparently a product of La Niña, which may bring rains like this for several more months or up to another year. For the sake of people across Colombia–those outside of Bogotá more even than us here–I hope that forecast is much exaggerated.

In brighter news, today (at least in Bogotá) is beautifully sunny, so I’m heading out for a Ciclovía bike ride with one of my roommates and Isabel.

Major Colombian news today

23 September 2010 § Leave a comment

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA – The legendary military strategist of Colombia’s largest rebel group has been killed in a military strike, a development that President Juan Manuel Santos called Thursday the biggest blow against a guerrilla organization in the rebels’ 46-year war with the Colombian state.

The commander known as Jorge Briceno, 57, was killed Wednesday morning when military aircraft bombed a large rebel base operated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the country’s isolated south, senior military officials said. Troops recovered the body, and the military later confirmed the rebel commander’s identity, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said at a news conference Thursday in Bogota.

“He symbolized terror,” Santos said in New York, where he is attending the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting. “This is the most important blow ever against the FARC.”

[The Washington Post]

I’m unfortunately not yet knowledgeable enough about Colombian history to give any of my own context or commentary, but this is a major event, and I’m sure there will be updates and aftershocks to come.

Deafening silence

22 January 2010 § 1 Comment

Two nights ago, in the early-morning hours after the Republicans’ first day with their 41-59 Senate majority, after that first day in which the Democrats put on their weakest, most pathetic costumes, I sent the following email, copied below in its entirety, to a listserv of Democrats here on campus:

For the last 24 hours I’ve been wondering how I can possibly motivate myself to go vote in November. Ezra Klein has been putting into words what I’m feeling and why:

For now, it’s worth observing that a Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn’t a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power. If they don’t believe in the importance of their policies, why should anyone who’s skeptical change their mind? If they’re not interested in actually passing their agenda, why should voters who agree with Democrats on the issues work to elect them? A commitment provisional on Ted Kennedy not dying and Martha Coakley not running a terrible campaign is not much of a commitment at all.

And here‘s a longer way of saying that:

The loss in Massachusetts was a terrible disappointment to Democrats. But it can be explained away. Martha Coakley was a terrible candidate. Scott Brown ran an excellent campaign. These things happen.

But the reaction congressional Democrats have had to Coakley’s loss has been much more shattering. It has been a betrayal.

The fundamental pact between a political party and its supporters is that the two groups believe the same thing and pledge to work on it together. And the Democratic base feels that it has held to its side of the bargain. It elected a Democratic majority and a Democratic president. It swallowed tough compromises on the issues it cared about most. It swallowed concessions to politicians it didn’t like and industry groups it loathed. But it persisted. Because these things are important. That’s why those voters believe in them. That’s why they’re Democrats.

But the party looks ready to abandon them because Brown won a special election in Massachusetts — even though Democrats can pass the bill after Brown is seated. What that says is crucial: Whereas the base thought it was making these hard compromises and getting up early to knock on doors because these issues are important, the party thought all that was happening because, well, it’s hard to say. It was electorally convenient? People need something to do? Ted Kennedy wanted it done?

If Democrats let go of health care, there is no doubt that a demoralized Democratic base will stay home in November. And that’s as it should be. If the Democratic Party won’t uphold its end of the bargain, there’s no reason its base should pretend the deal is still on.

Luckily Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that shit’s a little more complicated, and reminded us that we should think back a few years:

All that said, and as horrible as the Democrats have been all year, the most amazing — and depressing — aspect of all of this is how Americans have so quickly forgotten how thoroughly the Republicans, during their eight-year reign, destroyed the country.  Whatever the source of our national woes are, re-empowering that faction cannot possibly be the answer to anything.

So rather than ask others to convince me why I should bother voting for a party that shows no evidence of principles or a spine (I get it, the Republicans are a lot worse), I’ll ask this: Shouldn’t the primary goal of anyone who wants to support a progressive agenda be, not the election of more spineless and unprincipled deal-breakers, but rather the end of the filibuster? Is there anything that can be done in the next year or five years that will more effectively advance these causes (not to mention the cause of democracy) than the mounting of a large-scale campaign to convince Senate leaders to ditch the filibuster now and forever?

Maybe there’s something else that can be done. Maybe a grassroots campaign showing strong political support for the end of the filibuster won’t work. But there must be something that passionate citizens can do that will be more effective than influencing electoral outcomes. After all, this group of elected Democrats has shown that elections can be ignored even by those elected. So are there any ways we can empower our elected officials to work for the better future we envision—across the board, not just by, say, lobbying issue to issue—that won’t set us up to be betrayed by those very people?

I received three replies, all from people I know. (The list includes, I believe, hundred of students, most of whom I do not know.)

One, a close friend, sent back a video of Noam Chomsky with the title, “In swing states vote Obama without illusions,” and asked whether I wanted to get lunch soon. (We’re on for next Tuesday.)

One, a budding politician, wrote a thoughtful, three-paragraph response, making the following arguments (with more words in between): “There should have been a greater effort to restrict the filibuster months ago,” “I don’t think that we’ve been abandoned by anyone either. … The spineless dealbreakers who slow-walked the process are exactly who we thought they were; did you expect anything different from Lieberman, Nelson, Baucus, or Conrad?” and “I think that the take-away is that we have to stop voting for candidates because of their partisan affiliations or because of what they run against. We have to become active in primaries and put our energy and resources behind those who actually seem to have agendas. And, of course, we’ll be disappointed sometimes.” He finished by writing: “But the next election is never too far away.”

And one wrote back: “Nice email,” before a couple more paragraphs about how bad the Democrats’ “messaging” has been and how Obama has “abdicated all pretense of leadership.”

In the last couple days, since I sent my email, the listserv has seen emails about an event discussing Israel and Palestine, Cindy McCain appearing in the “NO H8” campaign, a used 2008 Princeton Review MCAT review book, an effort to get Yalies to fill out their census forms in New Haven, and a poll showing Mike Huckabee barely beating Obama in a hypothetical election today.

No one came close to answering my questions.

Of course, they don’t have to. I’m just one person; I’m a reasonably cynical voter, so some who know me might have thought that any response would have been a waste of their time; and no one has to answer any email. But I think the fact that the above are the only responses I got from hundreds of young, active Democrats is telling—and discouraging.

As much as it was an invitation to engage in discussion on an issue (which I very much hoped people would do), it was also a challenge to the people in this group to think about how they want to spend their time and energy between now and November, and beyond

Many of the people on the list have devoted hundreds or thousands of hours to campaigning in recent years. So I understood I was challenging the activity they’ve poured themselves into, and which many of them find as rewarding as any in life. I wasn’t trying to dissuade them from their passion, but I was trying to get them to think about it, to think about whether that’s the best way they can work toward their goals for the country and the world.

And, more than that, I was hoping to inspire them to make their case for something—anything—to a depressed voter right now who has voted before and seen that elections aren’t enough to make a difference. And I got silence.

I understand that many of them are similarly depressed. I think it’s fine to check out from time to time, to give yourself a break from your passions when they become too much. And, again, I recognize there are countless good reasons for individual people to have ignored my email, or to have read it and not responded. But I’m discouraged that the collective response was so weak.

This generation of young activists is being squeezed on both sides by two competing, and very much related forces. On one side, the public is increasingly cynical, a trend that began decades ago and will continue until something acts to stop it. On the other, individual people have ever less ability to make a difference. (Big news announcing one more step in the the perpetual march against real democracy came out yesterday, thanks to five justices on the Supreme Court.) And caught in the middle for the coming generations will be these young activists, the people on the listserv—if they keep up the fight.

If they want company in the cause, they’ll have to take up the challenge I gave. They’ll have to convince me and millions of other voters not only why we should vote a certain way, but also how we can work to change the political system. Right now—if they didn’t before—the arguments for voting smell like bullshit. As I wrote in my email, we’ve seen that elections can be ignored even by those elected.

This week has been one more reminder that in our political system as it is today, electing some people over others won’t create the meaningful progress craved by people on the left. (And maybe people on the right feel the same way, but I won’t speak for them.) “Messaging” certainly won’t. Maybe something will. I challenge someone to help motivate me, and show me what I can do to make a difference in American politics between now and November, and beyond.

Please don’t say “vote.”

Update 1/23/10: The House is doing something to try to fix the Senate, urging the upper house to restrict its use of the filibuster.

My thoughts on Haiti

20 January 2010 § Leave a comment

Put better than I could put them, by channeling Martin Luther King:

For King, giving money to Haiti would not be enough. In order to be good citizens of the world, it is not good enough to just to give money, we must make sure to end the economic and social climate that led to the disaster. Here’s an excerpt from his speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.


So on Martin Luther King’s birthday, let us reflect on our fellow human beings in Haiti. Let us help them out with our donations, but also let’s fight so third world people do not have to suffer through the poverty that has inflamed this natural disaster. Let us be reminded of how what goes on in our own country affects the rest of the world.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the News category at PETER F. MARTIN.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 292 other followers