Medical Supply Chain Documentary Wins Investigative Reporting Award

A reporter is given a tour of Northwell Health’s 85,000 square foot procurement warehouse in New York
Reporter Juliet Linderman is given a tour of Northwell Health’s 85,000 square foot procurement warehouse in New York on June 3, 2020. Paul Spodek oversees medical supply procurement and says having this facility helped them avoid the kinds of critical shortages that were seen elsewhere in the U.S. (Photo by Timothy Grucza)
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The Global Reporting Centre’s most recent documentary, America’s Medical Supply Crisis, has been recognized with the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the top investigative journalism prize in North America.

This joint project with the PBS series FRONTLINE and the Associated Press grew out of a longterm GRC collaboration between media organizations and scholars, to look at the hidden costs of supply chains. Just as the pandemic was starting in the U.S., the team looked into the causes and impacts of the collapse of global medical supply chains — tracing products like masks, ventilators and syringes. They discovered a widespread trade in counterfeit N95 masks, a strategic national stockpile that was left depleted after the swine flu pandemic, and failed ventilator contracts that left the country unprepared.

“During some of the darkest days of the pandemic, this investigative team revealed the fragility of our medical supply chain, shining light on an important issue that has had dire consequences,” FRONTLINE’s executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath said in a statement. “We are grateful to the Associated Press and the Global Reporting Centre for their partnership in telling this story, and we share this honor with them.”

Associated Press investigative team members Juliet Linderman and Martha Mendoza interviewed nurses, policymakers and medical supply procurement officials, to understand the complexities of the system and why it failed, leaving thousands of frontline healthcare workers vulnerable. “The devastating and tragic pandemic was exacerbated by deadly shortages of basic medical supplies. We were very grateful to be part of a collaborative team holding those in power accountable for failing to adequately respond to this crisis,” said Linderman and Mendoza, who are also members of the GRC supply chain team. “We are honored and humbled by this IRE recognition, which goes to a broad team of colleagues.”

The director of the documentary, Peter Klein, runs the supply chain research team, and recruited his colleague Dr. Jane Lister, as well as students and scholars across the globe, who contributed valuable research. “This project would not have been possible without the extensive team of knowledge we pulled together, very quickly, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Klein. “We learned on-the-fly how to make a film under lockdown, and everyone rose to the challenge.”

The documentary was recognized in the Video (Division 1) category, the largest circulation category for network or syndicated TV. The IRE judges praised the project for “expos[ing] the shocking vulnerability we all face based on the country’s truly flawed medical supply system and inadequate preparation for large public health crises. The journalists exposed and tracked down the myriad people trying to sound the alarm and used data to underscore their point. And their work met the moment when the stakes could not be higher as the world faces an unprecedented pandemic.”

The hour-long film is accompanied by a multimedia project that looks at four key medical supplies, as well as teaching modules developed by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Additional project funding came from Humanity United and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Coronavirus by the Numbers

Hand-drawn illustration from Info We Trust, a creative studio focusing on telling stories through data. (Illustration by RJ Andrews)
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One of the most memorable TV commercials from the 1980s showed actress Heather Locklear extolling the virtues of Faberge Organics Shampoo. “It was so good,” she says, holding up a towel as she just got out of the shower, “I told two friends about it.” Then the screen splits to show two images of her. “And they told two friends.” Split to 4 images. “And so on, and so on, and so on.”

This commercial, spoofed by Mike Myers in the film “Wayne’s World,” was perhaps the first popular visualization of R0, a mathematical concept that, until now, had been relegated to stats classes and epidemiology papers. Put simply, the so-called “R-naught” measures how widely something contagious could spread in a susceptible population. For Locklear, the R0 (of 2, in this case) was for the marketing of over-priced soap to adoring, susceptible fans. For COVID-19, the impact is the spread of a potentially-fatal novel coronavirus in 8 billion people without any immunity.

A January report on the transmissibility of the virus estimated that the R0 is 2.6, but that number has been tough for both the public to grasp, and for data visualizers to convey. Harry Stevens, a newly-hired data visualization specialist at The Washington Post, seems to have done the best job so far. Since the actual simulation of the spread of coronavirus is exceedingly complicated – by one estimate, it would take a computer running overnight to model it – Stevens came up with a hypothetical virus called “simulitis,” working its way through a small town, and represented by bouncing dots. His goal was to show how quickly highly-communicable viruses can spread in populations without immunity, and what “social distancing” could do to help stop its spread.

Washington Post GIF of pandemic spreading over time
Screen capture of data visualization from “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’,” The Washington Post

“It actually mimicked reality so closely that people started to confuse these crude simulations of ‘simulitis’ with COVID-19,” Stevens said.

The article, entitled “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’,” has gone viral itself, making this article reportedly the most popular piece in the newspaper’s history. It has since been translated into several languages, and has been shown and tweeted by heads of state and celebrities.

The “curve” referenced in the Post article refers to a crude line graph that shows two fates for humanity. The CDC, the Economist, and individuals have created simple visualizations based on data and charts from a 2017 paper on pandemic flu, that shows how reducing transmission of a highly-contagious virus can mean the difference between a steep rise of sick people flooding unequipped hospitals, and a more gradual spread of a virus that could, then, ultimately be contained. Fast Company has a good backstory to how the most popular of the images, by New Zealand microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles and drawn by illustrator Toby Morris, came about.

Graphic by Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, adapted from visualization work by Drew Harris, Thomas Splettstößer and the CDC.

On the heels of these visualizations came stories of Italian physicians and nurses being inundated with so many COVID-19 patients, with not enough respirators, that they had to make the tough calls on who ultimately lives or dies. Reality sometimes mimics data.

The math behind R-naught is pretty complex, utilizing so-called “compartmental models” to estimate the spread, given a number of conditions. Researchers in China have estimated the effective reproduction number of SARS-CoV-2 with the following differential equation, with the number of exposed individuals nE representing the number of people exposed and nI the number of latent infectious people:

Yeah, complicated stuff, but if you want to challenge your home-schooled highschooler, Khan Academy has a lesson on R-naught that’s pretty straightforward. And if you want to challenge yourself, check out this blog post by Christian Hubbs that models the COVID-19 curves in Python.

For those wanting to build visualizations related to COVID-19, the data viz software Tableau has a central resource for tips and tools. But it’s worth noting that no one has built a comprehensive interactive tool for real-time modeling of the pandemic – given the complexities and moving parts. The New York Times has an intriguing interactive that allows users to “play God” by moving a slider for rates of infection and fatality, and compare the projected number of American COVID-19 deaths to other fatal diseases. Ashleigh Tuite and David Fishman, epidemiology professors at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, created an even more involved interactive, that allows users to adjust things like the R-naught, initial number of cases, and the first date of outbreak.

There have been understandable and, in some cases, justifiable alarm bells rung by some data visualization specialists, highlighting the pitfalls of representing this complex pandemic. Evan Peck, an assistant professor of computer science at Bucknell University, has a popular Twitter thread that lays out his concern that the public is sometimes confused “because designers aren’t externalizing the tradeoffs of their visual representations.” Among his concerns is that charts and graphs circulating now are based on confirmed cases, which is likely a small fraction of actual people with the virus – potentially giving the public false-confidence about the limits of this virus. Furthermore, any static visualization represents a moment in time, and with numbers changing as fast as they are, a chart could be outdated by the time it’s published. One of the perennial challenges with visualization is that audiences can see these hard-number diagrams as objective, but how one represents numbers is a matter of perspective.

Kenneth Field, a cartographer in the UK, has called for responsible mapping, and presents a few problematic examples, including this bar graph of Chinese cases, which presents Hubei province, where the outbreak started, as a significant outlier:

By comparison, the other regions of China look under control, and one might be misled to think they were – which, of course, they were not.

Then there’s heat maps, which are colorful and relatively easy to make, but, as Field puts it, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” As the vomit-emoji below suggests, he’s concerned that geometrically-focusing such a map in a country with large provinces misrepresents the location and spread of the virus.

Amanda Makulec, a health-data visualization specialist, takes the critique one step further, suggesting that many data visualizations should be kept for public health audiences only, and not shared with the general public, given the risk of misinterpretation. She helped start the trending hashtag #vizresponsibly.

When it comes to COVID-19, we all have major responsibilities: washing hands, social distancing, self-quarantining. For those with the power of Excel, Python and Tableau at their fingertips, there’s an added burden – to help the public and policymakers understand the scope and scale of this crisis responsibly.

Front-line health-care workers are heroes. We should celebrate them as such.

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This piece was originally published in The Globe & Mail.

The Forever War draws to a close just as a struggle far more lethal and existential begins to unfold. Now might be the right time to reflect on the distorting effect that two decades of militarism have had on the idea of courage – and what a more useful version of it might look like.

Heroism once meant courageous self-sacrifice; for a long time now, it has been code for homicidal. I served as a civilian physician at Kandahar Airfield in 2007 and when the nights were long, we watched the drones, the tactical bombers and the helicopters take off to deal death at great distances. Coming in to land on that same airstrip, though, were the medical assistants and the navy corpsmen, rushing their wounded – sometimes the enemy wounded – to the Role 3 hospital, having extracted them from the battlefield, not having killing top-of-mind, but rather rescue. The medics died, too, by the hundreds, making up almost 10 per cent of the fatalities sustained by military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it was rarely the medics who were discussed. The popular imagination instead was captured by the idea of lethality – and something about the ability to kill from a distance, immune to danger oneself, appealed to people.

American Sniper made half a billion dollars in 2015, making it the most successful war movie ever based on box-office earnings. It earned an Academy Award Best Picture nomination and featured Bradley Cooper, executing brown men of fighting age at great distances and presaging Navy Seal Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who was recently pardoned by U.S. President Donald Trump after being convicted for war crimes. Mr. Gallagher’s targets were not confined to men, nor to fighting age, nor to anything except human beings, wanting, in his eyes, killing. Although there is no reason to be confident that house pets and songbirds entirely escaped his attentions, either.

That sniping became a kind of fetish subject during the height of the Afghanistan/Iraq wars is repugnant and counterhistorical: the original response of traditional infanteers was that, in the safety and secrecy they enjoyed while killing, snipers were anathema to one idea of soldiering, not so much fighting as assassinating. In the Franco-Prussian and the First World War, snipers were often summarily executed.

The medics, and health-care workers more generally, present a different idea of heroism. A few years before I was in Kandahar, in Toronto in 2003, during the SARS outbreak, nurses cared for hundreds of infected patients and many became infected themselves – representing 43 per cent of the 438 who fell ill. During this time, the risk of an ICU nurse being infected was calculated to be 6 per cent for each shift worked. Three died.

In 2009, in the ICU where I work as a critical care physician on Vancouver Island, we were hit hard, as ICUs around the world were, by H1N1 influenza. Although the overall mortality that year from influenza was low, that virus was capricious, hitting some patients extraordinarily hard. Our ICU was over capacity for months, beginning in January, until well into April. The nurses worked preposterous amounts of overtime and, by the time the crisis eased nearly four months later, were just spent. You could see it in their posture, in the way people stopped bantering. Around their eyes. But they all kept coming to work. And would have, I believe, for as long as they were able and needed.

And now, in Wuhan, there are 3,300 health-care workers, almost all nurses, who have developed COVID-19. Thousands of nurses have travelled to Hubei province from parts of China less seriously affected by the outbreak, not knowing precisely what they were coming to, but surely knowing that this was contagion, and dangerous, and that the hospitals were strained and short of resources. Which is the sort of circumstance that leads to nurses falling ill, which is the sort of circumstance that has made for a 5-per-cent mortality rate in Wuhan, among the confirmed cases. Presently, 14.8 per cent of health-care workers – mostly nurses – in Wuhan have been infected.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, has emphasized, since Feb. 6, that nurses face a global shortage of personal protective equipment. Factories that manufacture this equipment are now back-ordered by six months. In a recent report in JAMA, in one hospital in Hubei almost 30 per cent of their COVID-19 patients were health-care workers who had themselves become infected. It seems reasonable to anticipate a Toronto experience enacted on a scale many orders of magnitude larger.

And still, they rush into battle. Under-armoured and unarmed, in Italy and Iran and China, mostly women, mostly poorly paid, not respected nearly enough. In full knowledge of the risk they run.

When this is over, there had better be a parade.

COVID-19: Contextualizing the Scientific, Political, Societal and Economic Impact

This image is a CG representation of a COVID-19 under electron microscope. Wikimedia Commons
Putin and Trump meet at G20
A meeting between Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump took place on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Office of the Russian President

Putin’s Century

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On the last day of the 20th century, Boris Yeltsin stepped down as first president of post-Soviet Russia, and handed the reigns of the country to a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin had been a reckless alcoholic who ran a chaotic administration that opened the doors for the most brutal members of his society to take over Russia’s industry and government. Robert Mueller’s newly-released 488-page report found insufficient evidence to bring conspiracy charge again President Donald Trump and his campaign officials, but it does confirm just how corrupt and expansive Putin’s kleptocracy has become.

The first time I visited Moscow was a couple months before Putin took office, and I was struck by what I saw: Western chain stores, clean roads, well-dressed people, and a semblance of peace and civility on the street. I grew up raised by my uncle Joe, who had spent five years in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia during and after World War II. He painted a picture of Russia as a grim country that fed him soup made from rotten cabbage, caused him to lose several toes from frostbite, and let his brother Rudy to die in his arms as he wasted away from tuberculosis. As a small child, I knew the few Russian words and phrases my uncle learned in prison, like golovorez, gavno, mudak, yob tvoyu mat. You can look them up, but trust me that Russians – who heard me as a pre-schooler utter these words – used to blanch. Needless to say, from an early age, I had developed an unflattering impression of Russia.

So in 1999, I was surprised by the country Russia had become in the years after the crumbling of the Soviet empire. At the time I was working on a 60 Minutes investigation about how the Russian mafia, colluding with authorities, had kidnapped a young Moscow businessman named Alexander Konanykhin, who was threatening the power grab of the new oligarchs. Konanykhin escaped and fled to the United States, and shortly after settling down in Washington, he began warning U.S. and Russian officials about the emerging “mafiocracy” in Russia. Then, a knock at the door – U.S. agents showed up at his Watergate apartment and took him into custody. It turned out the FBI had issued a memo to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (precursor to ICE), asking them to find an excuse to deport Konanykhin back to Russia. The FBI had just opened a bureau in Moscow, and Russian authorities presented them with a quid pro quo – get us Konanykhin back, or the bureau closes.

How far we have come from those early days when our own government felt comfortable colluding with Russia to repatriate – and presumably execute – a whistleblower of Russian corruption.

As soon as Putin took over, he ushered in a new era, and he has quietly pushed the envelope of what the world would accept from him and his country.

When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, U.S. and European leaders stood by impotently. Putin went from drawing a civil servant’s salary to amassing billions in wealth. If prominent Putin critic, Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder, was right in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Putin could be worth as much as $200 billion, which would make him the richest man on earth – and yet, Russia rarely makes the list of most corrupt countries in the world. And when – as U.S. intelligence agencies and the Mueller report make exceedingly clear – Russia manipulated the U.S. election to get Donald Trump elected, the most that came out of it was indictments of a couple dozen Russians who will never end up arrested or in prison.

While the 20th century was one dominated by the United States, the common wisdom is that this century is China’s. It is, after all, the most populous country in the world, an economic powerhouse that is exerting more political influence by the day. But Russia is a bad boy behind the curtains, powerless to make a real difference at centre stage, so it makes trouble from the sidelines. In addition to the now-well-established role Russia took in helping Trump get elected, it ran similar phishing campaigns against politicians in Germany and Norway. Russia funded far-right parties in the run-up to France’s last election, and it played a role in pushing England towards Brexit.

There is little doubt Putin has been behind these guerrilla political tactics, fostering chaos in many of the world’s most stable democracies. Like a punk kid making trouble in at the back of the classroom, he is quietly manipulating things and occasionally launching a spitball. Putin is the ultimate golovorez.

UPDATE: This story was originally written prior to the release of the redacted “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.” It has since been modified to correctly reflect the report’s finding of insufficient evidence to charge conspiracy, as opposed to no evidence of collusion, as Attorney General Barr had originally stated.

Hot Trump. Cool @aoc.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dances into her new Congressional office. Screenshot from video, courtesy of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez
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I’ve been rereading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately and I’m as confounded as ever by his conception of hot vs. cool media. And so I decided to try to test my thinking by comparing the phenomena of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at this millennial media wendepunkt, as text and television give way to the net and whatever it becomes. I’ll also try to address the question: Why is @aoc driving the GOP mad?

McLuhan said that text and radio were hot media in that they were high-definition; they monopolized a sense (text the eye, radio the ear); they filled in all the blanks for the reader/listener and required or brooked no real interaction; they created — as we see with newspapers and journalism — a separation of creator from consumer. Television, he said, was a cool medium for it was low-definition across multiple senses, requiring the viewer to interact by filling in the blanks, starting quite literally with the blanks between the raster lines on the cathode-ray screen. “Low-definition invites participation,” explains McLuhan’s recently departed son Eric. (Thanks to Eric’s son, Andrew McLuhan, for sending me to this delightful video:)

Given that McLuhan formulated his theory at the fuzzy, black-and-white, rabbit-ears genesis of television, I wonder how much the label would be readjusted with 4K video and huge, wrap-around screens and surround sound. Eric McLuhan answers that hot v. cool is a continuum. I also wonder — as does every McLuhan follower — what the master would say about the internet. That presumes we can yet call the internet a thing unto itself and define it, which we can’t; it’s too early. So I’ll narrow the question to social media today.

And that brings us to Trump v. Ocasio-Cortez. Recall that McLuhan said that Richard Nixon lost his debate with John F. Kennedy because Nixon was too hot for the cool medium of TV. He told Playboy:

Kennedy was the first TV president because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I’ve explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low-definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television — as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony — the “Tricky Dicky” syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. “Would you buy a used car from this man?” the political cartoon asked — and the answer was no, because he didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

As TV became hotter — as it became high-definition — it found its man in Trump, who is as hot and unsubtle as a thermonuclear blast. Trump burns himself out with every appearance before crowds and cameras, never able to go far enough past his last performance — and it is a performance — to find a destination. He is destruction personified and that’s why he won, because his voters and believers yearn to destroy the institutions they do not trust, which is every institution we have today. Trump then represents the destruction of television itself. He’s so hot, he blew it up, ruining it for any candidate to follow, who cannot possibly top him on it. Kennedy was the first cool television politician. Obama was the last cool TV politician. Trump is the hot politician, the one who then took the medium’s every weakness and nuked it. TV amused itself to death.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not a candidate of television or radio or text because media — that is, journalists — completely missed her presence and success, didn’t cover her, and had to trip over each other to discover her long after voters had. How did voters discover her? How did she succeed? Social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube….

I think McLuhan’s analysis here would be straightforward: Social media are cool. Twitter in particular is cool because it provides such low-fidelity and requires the world to fill in so much, not only in interpretation and empathy but also in distribution (sharing). And Ocasio-Cortez herself is cool in every definition.

She handles her opponents brilliantly on social media, always flying above, never taking flack from them. Some people say she’s trolling the Republicans but I disagree. Trolling’s sole purpose is to get a rise out of an opponent, to make them angry and force them to react. She does not do that. She consistently states her positions and policies with confidence; let the haters hate. Yes, she shoots at her opponents, but like a sniper, always from her position, her platform:

She uses the net not only to make pronouncements but to build a community, a constituency that is larger than her district:

And her constituents respond:

Now I know some of you will argue that Trump is also a genius at Twitter because, after all, he governs by it. But I disagree. Trump’s tweets get the impact they get only because they are amplified by big, old media making stories in print and TV every single time he hits the big, blue button. Trump treats cool Twitter like he treats cool TV: with a flamethrower. On Twitter, he doesn’t win anything he hasn’t already won. Indeed, in his desperation to outdo himself, I think (or hope), it is by Twitter that he destroys himself through revealing too much of his ignorance and hate. That’s not cool.

Trump and his allies don’t know how to tweet but Ocasio-Cortez does — and that’s what so disturbs and confounds the GOP about @aoc. They think it should be so simple: just tweet your press releases — your “social media statements,” as their leader recently said — plus your best lines from speeches that get the loudest, hottest applause and rack up the most followers like the highest TV ratings and you will win. No. Twitter, Facebook, et al are not means to make a mass, like TV was. They are means to develop relationships and trust and to gather people around not just a person but also an idea, a cause, a common goal. That’s how Ocasio-Cortez uses them.

I want to be careful not to diminish Ocasio-Cortez as merely a social-media phenom, nor to build her up into some omniscient political demigod who will not stumble; she will. She is a talented, insightful politician who has the courage of her progressive and socialist convictions. Even when old media tries to goad a fight — because old media feed on the fight — over Ocasio-Cortez’ college dancing video, she still manages to bring the discussion back to her stands, her agenda. That is what drives them nuts:

And then:

Everyone ends up dancing to her tune. But they don’t talk about the dancing. They talk about the policy — her foes and her allies alike. She suggests a 70% tax rate for the richest and here come her enemies and then some experts, who have her back:

So what lessons do we learn from the early days of @aoc as possibly the first true, native politician of social media, not old media?

I think the GOP will eventually learn that anger is a flame that runs out of fuel. Anger stands against everything, for nothing. Anger builds nothing, not even a wall. Oh, anger is easy to exploit and media will help you exploit it, but that takes you nowhere. Lots of people might want to scream with the screamy guy, but who wants to invite him home for dinner? Trump is the angry celebrity and you end up knowing everything you want to know about him by watching him; there is nothing to fill in because he is so hot. “If somebody starts screaming at you, you don’t move in closer, you back up a little. And if they get a little rowdy and scream a little louder, you back up a little more. You don’t move in closer and start hugging,” Eric McLuhan explains in the video above. “A really hot situation like that… doesn’t require or even invite involvement.”

@aoc is a little mysterious, someone you want to know better; she is cool. The GOP has no cool politicians. The Democrats do not need their Trump, their celebrity, their hot personality. They should be grateful they have someone like Ocasio-Cortez to teach them how to be cool, if they are smart enough to watch and learn.

Media, too, have much to learn. We in journalism must see that our old, hot media — text and TV — are of the past. They won’t go away but they probably won’t be trusted again. If we journalists have any hope of meeting our mission of informing the public, we have to use our new tools of the net to build relationships of authenticity and trust as humans, not institutions. We need to measure our success not based on mass but instead based on value and trust. Then we have to find a place to stand — on the platform of facts would be a lovely spot — and stay there, relying on principle and not on a mushy foundation built of fake balance or fleeting popularity or our own savvy. This is social journalism.

Oh, and we also need to learn that the next politician worth paying attention to won’t come to us with press releases and press people trying to get them on TV as that won’t matter to them. They are already out there building relationships with their constituents on social media and we need new means to listen to what is happening there.

There is one more confounding McLuhan lesson to grapple with here: that the medium is the message, that content is meaningless but it’s the medium itself that models a way to see the world. McLuhan argued that linear, bounded text by its very form taught us to how to think. The line, he said — and this sentence is an example — became our organizing principle. Books have borders and so do nations. This, I’ll argue, is why Trump wants to build his wall: a last, desperate border as all borders crumble.

McLuhan said electricity broke that linearity and he saw the beginnings of what could happen to our worldviews with the impact of television upon us. But that was only the beginning. Imagine what he would say about Twitter, Facebook, et al. I think he would tell us to pay attention not to the content — see: fake news! — but instead to learn from the form. What does social media teach us to do? What does the net itself teach us to do? To connect.

This piece was originally published in BuzzMachine.

Photo by Felton Davis. At least 15 people, including children, where killed when a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a home in the southwestern city of Taiz in April 2018, Yemeni tribal officials said. Photo used under Creative Commons

Yemen and the Responsibility to Protect

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Just over 15 years ago, when the world was a very different place, all member states of the United Nations came together to endorse a new doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.

The aim? To prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The Responsibility to Protect was based upon the underlying premise that sovereignty entails a responsibility to protect all populations from mass atrocity, crimes and human rights violations.

But that was then. If ever there were a responsibility to protect, Yemen would certainly qualify. So where is the moral and political leadership necessary to do so? As all of us are aware, the geopolitical landscape has changed greatly since 2005.

I first met Hannah in 2012 outside of a coffee shop just as the sun was setting behind the splendor of Sana’a’s Old City. She didn’t know how old she was but looked around 8 years of age.

Hannah was the second youngest of nine siblings and had been sent out into the streets to beg from the few foreigners who were still working in Yemen. The Arab Spring, which had begun with so much promise, had already shifted to something far darker.

In Yemen, where the protests were initially far more peaceful and inclusive than elsewhere in the Arab world, foreign counter-revolutionaries began funding armed factions as Abdullah Saleh sought every means possible to hang onto power. As with almost all revolutions, the Arab ‘spring’ was to hearken in a winter of unrest, oppression and armed conflict, which was to prove even worse than the dictatorship that preceded it.

From my perch in the all-but-empty Movenpick Hotel, I would fall asleep lulled by the sound of gunfire, shelling, and wedding fireworks.

It was a strange juxtaposition. After work I would swim in the hotel’s empty infinity pool and gaze down at the city as it was quite literally being torn apart. It was a peculiar time and one that I will never forget.

It was little Hannah though, who brought home to me the dire situation of most Yemenis: the hunger, the want, the lack of basic services and of simple reproductive health care; The fertility rates that guaranteed an exploding population even as the country slipped further into famine.

Hannah’s father had been killed during the demonstrations. He wasn’t a protestor, but had been caught in the crossfire. My friend Thea, who spoke fluent Arabic, explained that Hannah’s mother had begun beating her since her father had died; that the stresses of the revolution; her husband’s death and ensuing deep poverty had left Hannah’s mother unhinged and unable to cope.

When I gave Hannah whatever money I had, she folded her tiny body into mine and wept.

I left Yemen a few weeks later. Many years have gone by but I am still unable to erase the memory of the little girl from my consciousness.

I wonder if she is still alive. Her family was already barely hanging on even back then. But the intervening years have brought nothing but catastrophe for the people of Yemen.

For me, Hannah is the embodiment of that other Yemen that never makes it into the headlines: the one that is made up of real people, of the real suffering of real individuals to whom we owe the responsibility to protect.

Needless to say, we are failing miserably.

Forced to live under despots, religious fanatics and constant war waged by foreign powers, they are the forgotten ones. They don’t care about ideology. They care about survival. More than anything, the war in Yemen is a war on the poor.

According to the UN, eight million Yemenis already depend on emergency food aid. The organization says that could soon rise to 14 million—exactly one half of Yemen’s population. The United Nations has declared only two famines during the last 30 years—one in Sudan and the other in Somalia. According to officials, Yemen is set to become the third.

And as with all proxy wars, the conflict in Yemen is incredibly complex and is characterized by multiple actors all intent on pursuing their own agendas. Generally speaking, the more complex a conflict, the less likely a resolution and the more likely that all of those involved will perpetrate gross human rights abuses.

In this, Yemen is no different than the conflicts in Darfur, the DR Congo, Afghanistan and other wars than have grinded on for many, many years. To quote an old Afghan proverb, “ There are no good men among the living.”

All are guilty.

According to the New York Times, aid workers say that in Houthi-held areas, commanders “level illegal taxes at checkpoints and frequently try to divert international relief aid to the families of soldiers, or to line their own pockets.”

The United Nations maintains that delayed visas, retracted work permits and interference in their work stymie aid workers in the Houthi held areas.

Nevertheless it is the Saudi-led coalition that have imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undercutting the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen.

But these actions — including blockades, import restrictions and the withholding of the salaries of more than a million civil servants — have laid to waste to an already tottering economy. They are driving millions into outright starvation.

Reporters tell of supermarkets stuffed with goods. Nevertheless, a huge proportion of Yemenis can’t afford to purchase anything.

The end result? Famine and cholera. Both are entirely preventable, but no one will claim the responsibility to protectt. And why would they?

We now live in an era where the strongman—the autocrat and the despot—is once more on the ascendant. All over the world, in the United States, Brazil, the Balkans, The Philippines, India and Africa, nations are jettisoning the dream of a pluralistic democracy in favour of a hyper-masculine populism, nationalism, and hate.

The world’s only superpower is on the wane and now favours the very types of government it used to condemn—at least publicly. In many respects the America that we are now seeing is in fact the real deal. The foreign policy that propped up dictators from Duarte to Pinochet and that resulted in the illegal invasion of Iraq is now exposed for what it really is: What once festered in the shadows is out in the open.

When Donald Trump cited the 110 billion dollar Saudi arms deal as the reason his government would not take action following the sadistic murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he was essentially admitting that the corruption of America’s foreign policy by the arms trade with the Saudis was not only okay, but completely acceptable.

The US has always ignored Saudi Arabia as the epicenter and source of Islamic extremism worldwide—even when it discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers that slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudis.

Nevertheless, the Bush family’s cozy relationship with the royal family is exceeded only by that of the Trumps and the Kushners. Both families enjoy considerable Saudi patronage, which all but guarantee that the Kingdom and its proxy wars will be met only with silence.

The scrapping of the Iran agreement flies in the face of what an engaged super-power should be doing: bringing belligerents together to work out their issues instead of allowing them to destroy defenseless and impoverished third countries.

The very security of our planet depends on it.

Elsewhere, middle powers such as France and the UK have also opted for mildly-embarrassed protests in the face of Saudi power and influence. They two are held hostage by an arms trade worth billions—the very same arms and munitions that are now wreaking havoc on a defenseless Yemeni population.

In the UK, military sales to Saudi Arabia leapt by two thirds from 2016 to 2017— an increase of more than 450 million pounds.

The real figure however, could be much higher. According to Department of International Trade, the number of so-called “secret” open licenses doubled during the same 12 months, from 21 to 44. In 2017, the UK issued 126 licenses relating to military goods from 679 million pounds in 2016 to 1.129 billion in 2017.

So far as my own country is concerned, and despite an otherwise enlightened foreign policy, Canada’s 15 billion deal to sell light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia is likely to go ahead—even though Canada’s feminist foreign policy should preclude trade with what some have described as the “world’s largest prison for women.”

Our [Canadian] Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, cited the $1 billion price tag to rescind the deal as the reason why.
A recent survey showed that most Canadians agree, but overwhelmingly want to end such deals in the future. They recognize that the very integrity of our own democracy lies at stake, if not the very stability of the entire world.

Bottom line? The corrupting influence of Saudi Arabia is to be felt in all countries. This all but sequesters it from global condemnation for everything from the disappearances, incarceration and murders of dissidents, to the man-made famine that is now starving one half of Yemen’s population.

The Kingdom’s investments in Silicon valley and high tech should likewise elicit real concern. Information is the new oil, and its influence even more insidious.

Is there hope for Yemen? Based on what we’ve seen so far and the cruelty, greed and fanaticism of the main players it isn’t looking good. The Houthis are essentially a jihadist outfit; the Saudis bent on regional domination.

My prediction is that, despite tentative talk of sanctions, this war will rumble on: that waves of famine will continue to engulf the population—even as atrocities will become more common as the Saudis, Iran, the UAE and other players continue to recruit mercenaries to do their dirty work.

We need to impose economic sanctions on all belligerents to force them to the table; we need to ensure that any peace talks include a SUBSTANTIAL proportion of women; we need to freeze all arms sales to all aggressors AND we need to suspend all Saudi royal family travel visas.

And we need to pressure the US to jettison its warmly congenial relationship to the Crown Prince, who is revealing himself to be little more than a straw man ‘reformer’ in the mold of former Libya dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Clearly, peace talks must be convened along with a ceasefire, which needs to be implemented to permit the delivery of humanitarian supplies. Should the Saudi blockade prevent aid to be delivered via the port city of Hudaydah, then we will need to consider a UN-sponsored international airlift

All wishful thinking, I know.

This is because the West is paralyzed by its own corruption while the Responsibility to Protect—hearkened in with so much hope in 2005—is all but dead. It is a revenant of another time, when member states seemed to believe that civilian lives actually meant something.

I believe that the War in Yemen is a significator of more to come. That while Yemenis suffer, the world will continue to stand by—fiddling.

And what of Hannah? I can’t even imagine. One starving child bereft of love and hope. Her story is simply one of among millions. We need to do more than care. We need to act.

But what is the likelihood? Who among this corrupted and complicit gaggle of special interests once known as nation states is brave enough and capable of leading?

The International Community is no longer international — and it is certainly no longer a community.

No war lasts forever.

Let us hope that the next spring will be a lasting one.

Leidl presented this speech on November 8, 2018, at “Between Challenges of War and Opportunities for Peace,” a conference in Istanbul sponsored by the Tawakkol Karman Foundation.

GRC Collaborator Melissa Chan on Press Freedom in US and China

Published
Published

“Either Erdoğan will continue to rule the country with more power in his hands, or Turks will give a chance for a change.”

June 24, 2018—Turkey’s snap election today, triggered by the country’s nationalist party, will not only name the 13th president of the country. It could herald an executive presidency with sweeping new powers.

Turkey’s constitution was changed with a narrowly-approved referendum in 2016, championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The new system abolishes the prime minister’s office and links the cabinet to the president.

Incumbent Erdoğan is fighting hard to be elected in the first round of the elections and fill the position that he created.

His opponents, however, are criticizing the existence of a super-powerful president. Muharrem İnce, the presidential candidate of the secularist People’s Republican party (CHP), said sweeping powers like this should not be given to anyone— including himself, if he were to win.

Opposition parties struggled to find a candidate who can go up against Erdoğan. who has been in power for the past 16 years.

Turkey is going to the elections under an emergency law that has been put in place since the coup attempt of 2016, as a crackdown on followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for the failed military coup.

The opposition has been criticizing the government for exploiting the emergency law as a means of  silencing the dissidents. Journalists, activists and even pastors have been put behind bars in Turkey, often with extended jail time. One hundred twenty journalists have been jailed since the coup attempt. The opposition has been heavily criticizing that “the atmosphere of fear” had been putting pressure on the electoral campaign.

In fact, one of Erdoğan’s rivals, Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) presidential candidate and former co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, is in jail on charges of links to Kurdish PKK militants, pending trial.

Demirtaş campaigns behind bars from a highly-secure prison in the western province of Edirne. He uses every opportunity to make himself heard to potential voters, including through social media. The Kurdish leader held his first and only ‘rally’ behind bars, a video published on social media showing Demirtaş’s family listening to his campaign promises during a weekly telephone call from prison.

Demirtaş’s HDP plays a key role in parliamentary elections. Turkey’s electoral threshold means that political parties must get at least 10 percent of the votes in order to be represented in parliament. If pro-Kurdish HDP, with their jailed candidate, manages to pass the threshold, Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party will lose the majority in parliament. A speech of Erdoğan that went viral on social media showed him urging his followers to do whatever is necessary in order to ensure HDP would not be able to pass the threshold.

If Kurds do not pass the threshold in parliamentary elections, his AK Party will have a landslide of 600 seats in the parliament. And if Erdoğan manages to get the majority of the votes in the first round of presidential elections, he will want a parliament that will not cause him any trouble.

In his public speeches, Erdoğan frequently slams HDP and calls Demirtaş “the terrorist in Edirne.” He also uses heavy rhetoric against western countries. At an Istanbul rally, he told tens of thousands of supporters “the west is closely observing the elections,” implying Western nations want to get rid of himself.

He had been trading barbs with many European leaders, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump. A strong ally of NATO, Erdoğan has been playing knife-edge politics by buying missile systems from Russia, raising alarm bells.

It is also worth mentioning that Turkish media is heavily dominated by Erdoğan’s campaign. Opposition candidates complain that the state broadcaster TRT and private news channels do not allocate equal air time to them and their campaigns.

Turkey will soon decide its fate. The electoral battle will determine the path that the country will take. In any scenario, nothing will be the same for Turkey — either Erdoğan will continue to rule the country with more power in his hands, or Turks will give a chance for a change.

Prominent Trump Critic David Frum at GRC

Photo by Michael Bennett Kress
Published

David Frum spoke at a GRC-sponsored event at the Vancouver Institute on June 11, 2018. The former George W. Bush speechwriter famous for coining the term “Axis of Evil,” is the author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, a scathing critique of the Trump presidency.

He explained that his book did not intend to focus on Trump’s character, but on how a Trump-like person became president and why Trump isn’t being contained.

“I wanted to move our camera lens to widen it away from the personality of Donald Trump – dysfunctional and fascinating as it is – to the broader question of his power.”

The public discussion, moderated by GRC executive director Peter Klein, took place as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were meeting for the first time. Frum argued that Trump is giving North Koreans exactly what they want – pictures of the North Korean and U.S. flags together. “Just think of the propaganda value of that inside North Korea. And he’s giving it to them in exchange for really nothing at all.”

Topics also included Trump’s criticism of Canada’s trade practices, Russian interference in the election, the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S.’s involvement in Israel, and Trump’s suppression of the free press.

Frum argued that Russian meddling in the election was evident, but that the real question is whether or not the Trump campaign was involved in the meddling.

“The Trump presidency is a story of many secrets, very few mysteries.”

On the topic of Trump’s relationship with media and Trump’s use of the term fake news, Frum argues that, “He took this phrase that describes something that he was doing… and turned it around to being truthful reporting that Donald Trump finds inconvenient.”

Published

The Singapore Summit

The Korean War is not yet over – and it’s not likely to end this week. Fighting between North Korea, supported by its Chinese ally on one side, and South Korea, supported by the U.S. on the opposing side, ended with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953. Almost 65 years later that ceasefire has yet to be upgraded to a formal peace treaty. That may change however, after the U.S. President Donald Trump and the supreme leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un meet at the 2018 Singapore Summit

The official purpose of this meeting between the leaders of two countries – which have been adversaries for well over half a century – is to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, since the two countries disagree over what denuclearization means, we should not expect much progress toward that goal.

The U.S. wants North Korea to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear bomb and ICBM program, while the U.S. continues to maintain its own nuclear war potential in Northeast Asia. North Korea wants to keep its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a possible U.S. attack until the U.S. withdraws the nuclear umbrella it has provided South Korea. The gap between the two is too wide to be significantly narrowed in just one summit meeting.

That does not mean, however, that nothing good will come out of this unprecedented meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and the DPRK. Kim may insist that it would be unreasonable to expect him to abandon his nukes when his country is still officially in a state of war with a nuclear-armed adversary. Donald Trump might then counter with an offer of a peace treaty.

Even if President Trump makes such a proposal, we cannot expect a peace treaty to be signed this week. It took two years to finalize the details of the armistice. A workable peace treaty may take even longer to negotiate, since such a treaty will have to include provisions dealing with, not only North Korean nuclear bombs and ICBMs, but also with the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

A particularly difficult issue in a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War will be the relationship between the South and the North. South Korea did not sign the armistice agreement, so it would not be a signatory to a peace treaty. But it would have to be included in the negotiations. A peace treaty between the U.S. and North Korea which does not lead to improved relations between the two Koreas will be worthless.

In their constitutions, both Korean governments claim to be the only legitimate government on the peninsula. North Korea claims its territory reaches all the way to the southern tip of the peninsula, and South Korea claims its territory reaches all the way to the border with China. Such unrealistic claims obviously have to be dropped.

Moreover, the two Koreas will have to agree to pull their troops back from the current point of confrontation along the Demilitarized Zone that splits the peninsula in half. Such an agreement will require a level of trust which will take quite some time to build, yet such an agreement needs to be part of a comprehensive peace treaty.

Another barrier to a rapid agreement on a peace treaty is that the other countries who signed the cease-fire agreement will not be in Singapore. China will not be part of the negotiations between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, the U.S. fought against North Korea and China in that war under the banner of the United Nations. But the United Nations will not be joining this two-man summit meeting, either. All those involved in the war need to sign a peace treaty if the war is going to finally come to a formal end.

The best outcome we can hope for from the Singapore summit is an agreement to continue discussions, with a focus on a peace treaty first and denuclearization later. Such an agreement will be a good start, since talking about peace is always better than threatening nuclear war.

Published

As protests and resignations grip Slovakia in the wake of the murder of an investigative journalist and the crackdown on a reporter looking into the murder, Peter Klein writes this open letter to the Prime Minister of Slovakia.


Honourable Peter Pellegrini
Prime Minister
Slovak Republic

May 29, 2018

Dear Prime Minister Pellegrini:

I write to you during a week of great upheaval in your country. Several prominent politicians, including your predecessor, have recently resigned. Tens of thousands of people have protested in the streets. And there has been a disturbing crackdown on press freedom. All because of an article that never got finished.

Reporter Ján Kuciak had been working on a story about alleged links to organized crime in Slovakia’s government, and in the winter a first draft of his reporting ran in Aktuality.SK, laying out evidence of an alleged relationship between Italian criminal gangs and members of Prime Minister Robert Fico’s now-defunct government. The article ends with these chilling words: Záver článku chýba, autor ho už nestihol dokončiť: The conclusion of the article is missing, since the author was unable to complete it.

That is, of course, because Kuciak, along with his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, were murdered at their home in Veľká Mača – an apparent hit as a result of his reporting.

Now, there’s a disturbing new development, with a respected reporter looking into the Kuciak case being harassed by your country’s National Crime Agency. Last week Pavla Holcova, who runs the Czech Centre for Investigative Reporting, was summoned by the Slovak police to discuss her investigation of the murder. She voluntarily travelled from Prague to Bratislava to meet with officers, and according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), with which she works, Holcova was interrogated for eight hours, with questions well beyond the scope of the murder case. Police asked for access to her phone, threatening her with a €1,650 fine, and then called in a mobile forensic unit to try to download data. She was released, but not before her phone was confiscated.

This is not the Slovakia I got to know at midnight on New Years Eve, 1992. I was in Czechoslovakia at the last moment of the country’s existence, as the two sides split peacefully, marking an important moment in the post-Communist era. There was cheering and so much hope for both new countries – a bright future with liberty and democracy for the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Now, we are seeing the largest protests since the Fall of Communism.

Protest at SNP Square on March 9, 2018, in response to the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. Photo by Slavomír Frešo. Used under Creative Commons.

After the Kuciak murder, then-Prime Minister Fico held a news conference in Bratislava, with €1 million laid out as a reward for information leading of the capture of the killer. To many outside observers, the event felt like a publicity stunt, meant to draw attention from an embarrassing set of disclosures by Kuciak that included links between Viliam Jasan, the secretary of the state security council, and a man affiliated with the Italian crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta, as well as questions about how a former topless model ended up as the assistant to Prime Minister Fico.

Kuciak had also been looking into business dealings between the Slovak government and a private security firm owned by relatives of national police chief Tibor Gašpar. You wisely announced that Gašpar was stepping down, “to calm the tensions and free the police from media pressure.”

By many accounts, the police have made a number of critical mistakes in the Kuciak murder investigation. Kuciak’s family has alleged that the police did not have a qualified forensic examiner perform the post-mortem exam, and that the first search of the crime scene was “botched.”

Slovak police deny these allegations, but their behaviour with Holcova does not do much to redeem their reputation. “This is another case where police investigate the journalists and not the murderers,” said OCCRP editor Drew Sullivan in a statement on their website, calling on the Slovak authorities to return Holcova’s phone. “They are more interested in politics than crime.” Tom Gibson, the European Union Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, also called for the return of Holcova’s phone, and warned, “The investigation into Jan Kuciak’s murder should aim to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.”

I am encouraged by the actions of Marek Maďarič, the Culture Minister who resigned a week after Kuciak’s murder, disturbed that “a journalist was killed during my tenure.” His support of a vibrant media, free from harassment and murder, is what should be expected of a politician in a free society.

What I saw 25 years ago was the birth of a hopeful democratic country. I urge you to call on your police force to respect the rights of Pavla Holcova and all journalists to do their work. As you know, a vibrant press is critical to a vibrant democracy.

S pozdravom,
Peter W. Klein


Official Response from the Special Prosecution Office

JUNE 6, 2018 – The law enforcement authorities have proceeded in compliance with the Slovak Criminal Procedure Code. According to the Code a person, having on him or her a thing or data relevant to the criminal proceedings, is obliged, upon request, to present it to a police officer or a prosecutor. If the person does not relinquish the thing or data upon request, the thing or data can be, pursuant to the Code, seized by an order of a police officer or a prosecutor. The Code also imposes an obligation to caution the witness that should he or she fail to comply with the request, the thing or data can be seized. The witness must also be cautioned about the consequence of the failure to comply – an imposition of a fine.

For the purpose of the criminal proceedings for premeditated (first degree)  murder (a felony) of the journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnír, it was necessary to secure the information concerning the communication between the witness and the murdered journalist pertaining to the upcoming article about Italian mafia in Slovakia, which could have constituted the perpetrator´s motive for the crime.

We emphasise that the witness voluntarily relinquished her mobile phone and it was not seized by the police, as it was incorrectly publicised.

The witness provided a copy of the communication for the purpose of the criminal proceedings in electronic form, therefore two days ago, on 4 June 2018, the investigator of the National Criminal Agency returned her mobile phone secured in the criminal proceedings. We particularly underline, that the mobile phone or its contents had not been manipulated with in any way. The law enforcement authorities had not manipulated with it in any way and thus its protection had not been broken and the data, stored in it, copied.

We emphasise that the sole purpose of obtaining this communication has been to retrieve objective evidence, which can help in the criminal investigation and not to infringe upon the rights of the journalist. Information, stored in the witness´ mobile phone, unrelated to the murder and concerning other things has never been a subject of scrutiny.”

Kind regards,

Jana Tökölyová
Spokeswoman
The Special Prosecution Office

Published

May 2018 — When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Israel in 1977, it was almost as though the Messiah had arrived. Old timers said they hadn’t seen such an eruption of happiness since the Six-Day War had ended. Sadat not only brought peace — he brought the prospect of no more war, because without Egypt, which countries would dare declare war?

Israel is much different today: oppressive, militaristic, a hi-tech paradise, but xenophobic. It’s led by men entirely unsympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians, men who surely are surprised that the Palestinians can still attract attention around the world — but only when they employ violence and are mowed down. Every newsroom in the country tries to make sure they have the latest, updated numbers on how many dead Palestinians there are. It’s all very sad. I cannot imagine the creation of a Palestinian state that Israel would agree to or that Palestinians would accept. So Israel will eventually become an apartheid state. Rest assured, Israelis can live with that.

It’s hard to imagine a country so small, yet so beautiful, with the sea and the desert, with fast cars on the highways and pushcarts on the streets, with kishke and hummus, with gunshots and violins, with passionate love and violent hatred, with gays and straights, Jews and Arabs. Did I say it’s small? You can walk on sand beside the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv and do the same an hour away in Gaza. When it’s peaceful, it’s paradise. When it’s war, it’s hell. You begin to think that maybe God made it that way on purpose because He wanted to see everything and its opposite in microcosm. And the thing is, everyone gets along, except when they don’t.

Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust, Jews who were pushed unwanted out of other places in other parts of the world, Jews who simply emigrated there to live among other Jews, all gathered together in the Holy Land where they ran up against people who were not Jews, who were Arabs. Inevitably they went to war. Surprisingly, the Jews, not thought of as a warrior people, won. What is strongest in their collective nature is a sense of survival. Against all odds, they have always survived.

I met a family once on a kibbutz in the middle of the country. I was doing a story on them. They were American Jews. They weren’t religious, but they liked the idea of Israel, and so they made aliyah, they and their two young sons, two years apart in age. These American kids grew up Israeli and happened to reach manhood at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Naturally, they joined the army. We interviewed their parents years later, after the war was long over. Their mom told us that one day she was sitting in front of their kitchen window and she saw a military car pull up to their house. An officer got out of the car and immediately mom knew why he was there. She called her husband over and they both waited nervously. As soon as the officer entered the house, mom blurted out, “Which one?” The officer hesitated, but then replied. “Both,” he said. Both her sons were killed on the same day, one fighting the Syrians on the Golan Heights, the other fighting in the Sinai against the Egyptians. That family didn’t have to be there, they were Americans, they weren’t Israelis, they could have stayed in Cleveland, their boys wouldn’t have had to fight in a war. They both knew that, but they insisted that there was never a moment when they doubted moving to Israel. They became Israelis and though they mourned the loss of their sons, they remained Israelis. They considered themselves survivors.

So, what’s the future going to bring? How will things resolve? I don’t think they will resolve. Jews will rule over Arabs in Israel. The country will not be a democracy, it will be a country in which one group of people exercises dominion over another group of people.

I truly loved Israel. I loved the excitement. But it was too much. I worked too hard and I was glad to leave. In fact, every time I left the country on vacation or on home leave I was happy to be out of there, to be away from the constant balagan. It’s a place with too much emotion, too much passion. But now that I’ve been away, I can’t wait to get back.

Published

January 12, 2018

US President Donald Trump is reported to have made disparaging comments about people from Africa and Haiti – referring to African nations as “shithole” countries, and suggesting US immigration rules keep out Haitians. The White House did not deny that the President made these statements, but Trump has tweeted a tepid denial, which has been countered by a confirmation by Senator Dick Durbin (D, Ill.) and others that the US leader did, indeed, repeatedly use language that was “hate-filled, vile and racist” during a negotiation of DACA, the Obama-era rule that allows children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.

Trump has a history with the island nation. Last fall the Trump Administration decided to end a humanitarian program that allowed 59,000 Haitians to remain in the United States since an earthquake devastated the country in 2010, forcing them to leave by 2019 or face deportation. The President was later overheard saying Haitians “all have AIDS.”

The outcry to Trump’s most recent comments has been overwhelming. One of the most powerful statements came from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who covered the Haiti earthquake and took a bold step for a journalist by directly calling out the US president for his “racist sentiment.” Below is a transcript of Cooper’s comments, along with a link to his emotional commentary.

Anderson Cooper:

I just want to take a moment to talk about Haiti, one of the places the President of the United States referred to today as a “shithole” country. I was taught math in high school by a Haitian immigrant named Yves Volel, who worked hard to dedicate himself to teaching kids in America. He ultimately returned to his country in Haiti and was assassinated while running for president. I spent a lot of time in Haiti. I first went there in the early 1990s as a young reporter. In 2010 my team from CNN was the first international team of journalists on the ground after the earthquake struck. I spent more than a month there and have returned many times on assignment and on vacation. Like all countries, Haiti is a collection of people with rich and poor well-educated, good and bad. But I’ve never met a Haitian who isn’t strong. You have to be to survive in a place where the government has often abandoned the people, where opportunities are few, and where Mother Nature has punished the people far more than anyone should ever be punished. But let me be clear tonight. The people of Haiti have been through more. They’ve been through more. They’ve withstood war. They fought back against more injustice than our President ever has. Tomorrow marks exactly eight years since the earthquake struck Haiti. A seven point one magnitude earthquake killed anywhere between 220,000 and 300,000 people. The actual numbers will never be known – because they were buried in unmarked pits. One and a half million people were displaced. For days and weeks without help from their own government or police, the people of Haiti dug through rubble with their bare and bloodied hands to see and complete strangers, guarded only by the cries of the wounded and the dying. I was there with a young girl named Bee, who had been trapped in rubble for nearly a day, was rescued by people who had no heavy equipment. They just had their God-given strength and their determination and their courage. I was there (pause) with a five-year-old boy named Monley was rescued after being buried for more than seven days. Do you know what strength it takes to survive on rainwater, buried under concrete? A five-year-old boy, buried for seven days. Haitians slap your hand hard when they shake it. They look you in the eye. They don’t blink. They stand tall and they have dignity. It’s a dignity many in this White House could learn from. Its a dignity the president, with all his money and all his power, could learn from as well. On the anniversary of the earthquake – on this day when this president has said what he has said about Haitians – we hope the people of Haiti who are listening tonight in Port au Prince and Jacmel and Bainet, in Miami and elsewhere – we hope they know that our thoughts are with them, and that our love is with them as well.

© CNN on January 11, 2018.