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Monthly Archives: December 2012

On Friday, December 14 Adam Lanza, 20, broke into a locked up Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and proceeded to murder 26 people, 20 of which were children under the age of 7. All of the victims were shot multiple times, most at very close range. The investigation continues as to why Adam would commit such an atrocity, although public discourse will mostly focus on obvious, direct causality for the attack. We will question his sanity, access to assault weapons, motive, and the inability of his parents or other adults to recognize the threat Adam posed, among others. We will disparage him as a “monster” and the “personification of evil,” placing all of the blame on his parents or on Adam himself. Obviously, Adam was responsible for his own actions regardless of any mental issues, just as his parents and others may bear some responsibility if there were signs of impending violence and nothing was done to get him help. However, Adam wasn’t a monster, and the fault isn’t entirely his. Some portion of the blame falls on us, the society in which he lived.

The United States is a country whose society is based on a system of competition between individuals that can be profoundly unfair and brutal.  We love a winner, and we determine winners in terms of the competition, not in how much value a person adds to the overall wellbeing of society. We are told our society is this way because the world and its natural laws of survival are brutal, and therefore it makes sense that our society is patterned after the same laws of competition and survival. We have somehow forgotten that human beings built inclusive societies such as cities and nations because we have a better chance to survive and prosper together as opposed to on our own. Instead, our system tells us a man is responsible for his own fate, and if he isn’t successful, it is his fault, regardless of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Our system repeatedly tears down the individual as he begins to believe there is no hope and no help. This leaves many of us to live lives of quiet despair. Sometimes, the most vulnerable turn their despair into violence against targets that represent their pain and suffering. To the majority of us it is lunacy; to the individual committing the atrocity it makes perfect sense.

For the most part, Americans love violence in its many forms. In myriad ways, violence defines our culture. The games we play, the movies we watch, and the art we create all reflect this love. We judge some acts of violence as acceptable and other acts of violence as “bad” or “evil,” but it is subjective. A man who kills in the name of his country is a hero while a man who kills in the name of despair is a monster. A problem arises when someone who is mentally unstable and in despair comes to believe that the use of violence is rational and acceptable behavior. How does a society as schizophrenic as ours make clear when violence is acceptable and when it is not, especially to those who are not rational?

The media glorifies violence because it sells. Media ratings go up every time there is a national tragedy such as the Sandy Hook shooting. Therefore, the media has a financial incentive to play up the violence and cover it as long as the ratings are sustained. In a soccer match in Spain when someone runs on the field and acts a fool, they don’t show the replay in order to not bring attention to the act. Obviously, if something as tragic as a school shooting results in the death of 20 children, people have the right to know the facts and how to protect themselves from such violence. However, we must ask ourselves exactly how much attention this type of event deserves, and whether or not the media is perpetrating the violence toward their own end. The talking heads on television should do less cheerleading on issues such as gun control and concentrate on the many studies whose findings state most perpetrators of this sort of violence are looking for notoriety. The more the act and the actor are given attention, the closer other potential attackers come to perpetrating violence themselves.

The reaction and coverage of such a horrific event such as the Sandy Hook shooting has become repetitive. We do not focus on what is important: the deeper reasons for such atrocities, why these atrocities really continue to occur, and how we perpetrate the violence with our own behavior. Even on the other end of the spectrum, tactical details are not discussed openly, and so the educational value of the attack is lost. Instead, we focus on body counts and blame. We have emotional reactions that lead to knee jerk policy adjustments that do little to reduce violence and make the country, and our schools, safer. Yes, it is easier to kill someone with a gun, just as it is easier to kill more people with a semi-automatic. However, taking away the tools for violence does nothing to solve the larger issues at hand. Issues such as gun control and mental health should absolutely be debated, but others, including the ones I mentioned above, need as much time in the national spotlight.

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I just watched an interview of Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.  She was giving the interview in order to push immigration reform, stating she believed it was the next major issue on President Obama’s agenda after saving us from going over the fiscal cliff.  In the interview, she mentioned that illegal immigration rates were down 40% (I didn’t hear her say from what) to levels not seen for 40 years.  She seemed to allude to her official line that border enforcement was the cause of such a drastic dip.  When asked if an improved U.S. economy would increase the number of illegal immigrants coming across the border every year, Secretary Napolitano stated, after a few seconds of nonsense, that it was “all related,” without specifically answering the question.  Although she supports immigration reform, and states the border can never be closed completely, she is unwilling to admit the truth; illegal immigration is almost entirely explained with the theory of supply and demand.  Border enforcement has little if any effect on the total number of migrants illegally crossing U.S. borders.  If there are jobs, workers will come to fill them, regardless of the risks of the journey.  Those jobs represent more than money; they also represent hope.  Right now, the American economy is depressed (in a technical sense), making jobs harder to come by.  Therefore, immigration numbers are down.  When the economy begins to improve, the numbers of migrants looking for work will improve along with it.

The risks migrants face on the journey north only mirrors the reality they face every day when they step out of their homes.  If they meet a horrible end on the road north, they will perish knowing it was in the service of making a better life for themselves and, in many cases, their families.  The risks of coming to the United States will never outweigh the risks of doing nothing.  I have visited communities in Guatemala that have over 70% of the male population away in the United States for work.  If they hadn’t left, the majority of them would have few options.  Many would be forced into subsistence farming, a move to a find work in a factory where pay can be as low as 5 dollars a day, or increasingly, work with criminal organizations.  Of course, horror stories abound about the journey north, yet the stories do little to dissuade people that the trip no vale la pena (is not worth the sorrow).

Last year, I spoke with a group of Hondurans at a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico.  They had just been deported back to Mexico.  I was volunteering at the soup kitchen where recently deported migrants are able to get a bite to eat before going on their way.  For most, this means heading back to the border for another attempt.  I asked them why they were attempting to enter the United States in Arizona, considering how strict Arizona immigration laws had become.  They informed me that it was better than crossing into Texas, because the Zetas now controlled most of the border and the chances of being kidnapped, or worse, were much higher there.  This told me two things. One, the Zetas Cartel is whom they are most afraid of, not the U.S. Border Patrol or the laws they enforce.  Second, although the Zetas’ presence affected their decision, these Hondurans could not be deterred from crossing into the U.S.  They had options, and so they took the path of least resistance.

Even the most draconian border policies won’t stop migrants looking for work from coming.  Even if it affects the decisions of the few, it wouldn’t have a net effect on the total number of migrants willing to make the journey.  On the Texas/Mexico Border the Zetas are in control of the black market.  The Zetas control the border with sheer terror and violence.  They are obviously not attempting to stop migrants from coming across the border; they just want to rape them for as much as they can first.   The migrants try to mitigate the risk in myriad ways, but at the end of the day they understand they may end up dead, or worse, if they attempt the crossing.  My Honduran friends routed away from Texas because of the Zetas, and so “border enforcement” by the Zetas did have an effect.  However, not every person has the option to decide where he or she crosses over.  Many migrants go where they have family.  Even more do not have the finances or connections to choose their route or their coyote.  The Hondurans had a serious network and experience crossing the border.  Not all migrants will have more than one option, especially the most poor or vulnerable, including women and children.

Aside from the fact that most, if not all, Americans would agree Zeta tactics would not be an option for controlling our borders, the Zeta presence obviously does not stop illegal migrants from passing into Texas.  The Texas border, especially the I-35 corridor, remains a hot zone for illegal migrants to cross into the United States. If fear of the Zetas can’t stop migrants from crossing over, how do we expect law enforcement, or even the military, to do the job?  What is more, when the entire 2000-mile border is taken as a whole, no organization could enforce complete control.  The fear of the Zetas creates a plug in certain areas, just as border enforcement does the same.  However, the border just springs a leak somewhere else as migrants move further into remote regions of the border in order to cross.

I am not sure what to make of the irony.  The United States is a shining beacon of capitalism in the world.  Americans are, for the most part, evangelical in their love of the economic system.  Yet, for some unknown reason they, by and large, cannot grasp how supply and demand applies to issues that are considered political; and therefore, fall apparently outside the bounds of common sense.  They extol the power of the capitalist system to create wealth and improve lives, but do not grasp that the supply of cheap labor and illegal commodities will always exist as long as demand exists, and vice versa.  A poor woman will always be willing to take a job no one else wants, and a poor man will always carry heroin in his stomach.  A farmer will always be willing to grow poppy, and a heroin addict will always need a fix.  The United States has many existential problems right now, and many of them are problems of its own making.  In the case of illegal immigration, it is simply a question of economics.  Until we can take politics out of equation, we will never have the sane immigration policy that Secretary Napolitano says she wants.

Life is war.  This is not a quote to be written on your mirror or a bumper sticker on a redneck’s car.  However, it is possibly the most important phrase to be remembered when attempting to understand the Middle Kingdom.  Competition is the driving force behind this internal war.  Of course, all humanity is at war for survival, but the Chinese have a very clear sense of it.  In their war, attributes such as intelligence, patience and cunning are considered more valuable than brute strength.  If they are able to make their adversary capitulate due to psychological pressure and illusion, then they have achieved the ultimate victory.  The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a philosophy of life, as the multitude of recent self-help books on the subject have made clear.  Geopolitical and social pressures helped shape this philosophy, just as they shape a nation and its people.

China is a country consisting of a massive population and limited resources, infrastructure or opportunities for them.  These factors help push China towards a more structured society where personal freedoms are less important than social control.  China believes it cannot have the majority of its citizens choosing the path less traveled.  They worry this sort of behavior could, and most likely would, lead to chaos.  Instead, social behavior is highly defined, and the path to success along with it.

It is simply a question of numbers.  In regards to resources, environmental scientists have spent the past decade or so attempting to explain the basic math.  If there is a finite resource (and lets face it, everything is finite on earth), then only a certain number of people can have access to the resource before it is gone.  In theory, resources can be shared equally among the global population (forgetting for a second who would pay to distribute it all), however, in the end, the resources will still eventually be depleted.  History has also shown this system to be untenable for a number of other reasons.  One reason is that people begin to take more than their fair share, usually by force.  Opportunities operate on the same basic principal of supply and demand.  When there is a finite number of opportunities and a massive supply of potentials to fulfill them, competition for those positions is typically fierce and brutal.  Fates can turn on the smallest advantage and the ability to separate from the pack is so limited that life becomes a game of dynamic chess, otherwise known as war.

The decades of exceptional economic growth has increased the number of Chinese who are now theoretically capable of upward mobility based on their level of education and professional skill sets.  This specific population growth has helped to create a bottleneck for access into higher social strata.  More Chinese have an expectation of success while a smaller percentage of them actually achieve it.  As China’s youth face ever more competition for fewer spots at the table, the pressure on the individual increases dramatically.  These pressures, and others, drive the war fought in the pursuit of success.    In China’s highly formalized society success is determined in very quantifiable terms.  The path, and the goals that must be achieved along it, is drilled into children from an early age.  They know what they must do, and they dread the ruin that could befall them, and their families, if they fail.  It remains to be seen if this pressure will finally boil over destroying a system that no longer offers them a measure of success.

In reality, almost anyone can recognize and appreciate the forces behind competition within their own society.  Every parent feels the pressure to provide for their children, just as most children want to make their parents proud.  We all fight everyday to succeed, however that is defined, and when we do succeed it is usually to the detriment of someone else.  The degree to which the Chinese must compete to succeed is exceptional.  There are many lessons to be learned from the Chinese about what life can be like when certain geopolitical, environmental and social realities are imposed on a large population of human beings living in a country with limited resources and too few opportunities.  The Chinese are a people forged through generations of competition and atypical warfare.  It would serve us well to learn from them as much as they learn from us.

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