Denver and Damascus – A Brief Thought on Memorial Day

Today, in Egypt, a friend and political ally of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak vies for the presidency against a representative of an organization that has long advocated and exercised violence as a means of maintaining a firm religious grip on its constituents.

Today, Syria reels in the wake of a crackdown in the close-knit community of Houla – carried out by armed civilian militias with major government support – which left ninety dead after the militants traveled house to house eliminating entire families.

Even in Russia, through which the waters of democracy have flowed for over two decades, three opposition leaders were arrested at the dawn of Putin’s third term.

But in the United States – even forty years ago – when a president was involved in carrying out and concealing legal and political corruption, that leader voluntarily left office, without the pointing of a pistol or the collapse of a government, and his nation moved forward.

Sometimes soldiers are pawns. Sometimes politicians are thugs. But there exists, in this fervent national discourse of ours, more than defense budgets and political efficacy. Democratic principle is, by no means, a given. When the map goes red, and when it goes blue, or when it lands anywhere in between, servicemen and servicewomen will maintain that principle. They are what sets the rights of a citizen of Denver apart from those of a citizen of Damascus.

In every language, in every faith, we pray for the day we can stop producing camouflage uniforms and M-16s. Today, we thank the people who wear those uniforms and carry those guns for waiting with us, cautiously, warily, patiently for that day.

Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps

As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.

Scattered Thoughts on a Scattered Day – September 11, In Memoriam


My dad, a journalist, had left for his daily jog in the wee hours of the morning. As he finished running and stood, stretching, on the sidewalk outside our one-story house, Stu, a neighbor, shouted out to him.

“You missed a big news story!”

My dad, tired from his run and hardly in the mood to talk, wiped the sweat from his brow and he gave Stu a courteous wave. He meandered inside to turn on the television.

When JFK was killed, my grandfather was in the basement of the business his family owned. When FDR died, my grandmother was at a ballet, and a man at the theater had stopped the show to make the announcement to the crowd. When Saddam Hussein began launching scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War, my mom was in a bomb-shelter in Jerusalem. I woke up on 9/11 when I heard the television turn on in the den, and I watched.

Few remember where they were the night before. Few forget where they were that morning.


I wrote a lot in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. I wrote more than four pages over the past three days, just sort of verbally meandering, jotting down whatever I could think of. I wrote about fear, about a different kind of darkness, and about waning faith. I thought about posting some of the transcripts of “last calls” made from the planes.

When I woke up this morning, though, I changed my mind.

We can be bogged down by fear. We can lose our faith. We can be enveloped by darkness – and that’s fine.

But we can also extol what the towers stood for, even in their vanished shadow; we can believe in the tenacity of the American spirit, even in its instability; we can celebrate life, especially in the wake of death.

I decided to research a few of their lives. The following are the profiles of four 9/11 victims.


Antonio Javier Alvarez immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the late 90s. He met his wife, Filiberta, while working at a garment factory in Queens. They worked together to collect pieces of cloth and repackage them, and were eventually married and had a son.

Antonio believed in working hard for the American dream. His wife described him as “very serious, but always in a happy mood.” When he lost his job at the factory, a friend helped him find work as a grill chef at the Windows on the World restaurant.

On September 11, he went to work at 6:30 am – earlier than usual – to cater a special event. He loved playing soccer, pickup basketball, and his young son. Antonio was 23.

Judy Larocque founded a market research firm in Framingham, Massachusetts called Market Perspectives. She was said to have had two children, in addition to her two daughters: her company and her golden retriever, Naboo.

In the months that preceded the attacks, Judy had been revisiting her youthful side; she began doing yoga – something she had loved in her adolescence – and walked a sixty-mile fundraiser for breast cancer.

On September 11, 2001, Judy’s daughter Carie drove to the Farmingham office to tell her the employees that her mothers’ plane, American Flight 11, had crashed into the World Trade Center. Judy was 50.

Tommy Gardner grew up in New York City. He worked in the FDNY’s Engine Co. 59 for twelve years. Five years before the attacks on Manhattan, he joined a specialized Haz-mat squad in the FDNY, specializing in toxic operation under extreme conditions.

He loved hockey, and – according to his friends – was hilarious. Before joining the fire department, he briefly worked at NBC where he wrote jokes for Phyllis Diler, Henny Youngman, and Joan Rivers, among others.

On September 11th, his unit (whose station had a clear view of the World Trade Center) was dispatched to deal with the fuel leakage into the South Tower. All eighteen people in his unit died. Tommy was 39.

Helen Crossin-Kittle knew her future husband as a kid. While she had always liked him, he never picked up on those feelings until she asked him out on a date.

Her husband notes that he was “just dumb” and would still be single if she hadn’t made the first move. They were married on April, 7, 2001, and went on their honeymoon in St. Lucia shorty afterward.

Helen specialized in computers and was working on the 103rd floor of the North Tower on September 11, 2001. She was five months pregnant, and had gone in for amniocentesis nine days earlier and expected the test results the next Monday. Helen was 34.


There were –

343 firefighters and paramedics killed,

23 NYPD officers killed,

37 Port Authority officers killed,

1,402 employees who were killed in the North Tower,

614 employees who were killed in the South Tower,

289 bodies found intact,

and 1,717 families who received no remains.


Two days after 9/11, my dad brought me to a flag and banner shop on a main street in West Los Angeles. The store was on our route to my elementary school, so until then, we had driven past the store at least twice every day. Neither of us had never been inside, nor had we even seen anyone going into the store or, leaving it.

He parked his minivan and we started walking toward the store. But it wasn’t like the other days that we had driven past. Flowing out of the store and snaking around the block were a crowd of probably thirty or forty people; they all wanted a flag.

It is the most advantageous of ironies. The brightest light, the most palpable warmth, comes out of cavernous darkness.

When our fixations abate, when the world goes dark, we are forced to move our eyes – to look up, at each other. When the world goes dark, the blur of perpetual commotion around us and inside us suddenly stops. Out of silence, out of standing still, comes a lens of ephemeral clarity.

Let our response after 9/11 influence us now. When night falls before the sun sets – when tragedy strikes, or when we’re blanketed by premature darkness – human nature compels us to realize our commonalities.

Let us relinquish competition and hostility; let us embrace each other.

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts – Why Memorial Day is Personal, Even When it’s Not

I’ve never fought in a war and I probably never will. I’m not brave enough. I could write about tragedy (and I often do), and perhaps my words would be resonant – but to me, they’d ring hollow, because I really don’t know what tragedy is. I’ve never seen it firsthand and I’ve never felt it coursing through my veins, nor out of them.

There are days when I wake up and just can’t get out of bed. My alarm clock goes off and I hit the ‘snooze’ button. It goes off again and I hit ‘snooze’ again. On those days, I wish someone would drop me in the middle of a US Army base in Afghanistan.

Unless I wake up every morning, hold an M-16 in the palms of my hands, and stare into the eyes of a desolate desert, how am I expected to feel anything – sadness, honor, hubris, anger, any sort of emotional entrenchment? How does one pay homage to something that he cannot begin to understand? On days like today, I push myself to feel a sense of tangible pride; but instead, I feel it vicariously.

Aristotle theorized that in metaphysics, and in all expressions of life and humanity, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One book is more influential than three hundred individual pages. One army is more powerful than three-thousand warriors. On this Memorial Day, so too is one nation greater than three-hundred million people.

On days like this – days when it is difficult for me to become passionately attached to individual stories or grasp the sheer courage of American fighters of generations past – I find solace in the notion that the frailty of the human condition will always be eclipsed by the might of the American resolve.

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the suspicion that you are part of something greater than yourself? That is what I do see firsthand – what courses though my veins – in place of any void I feel in the area of personal sadness on Memorial Day.

May the blessing of their memories shine as the stars and stripes wave.

Camaraderie Out of Extremity – Gratitude in the Wake of the bin Laden Assassination

Last night, I was flying with my family back from Portland to Los Angeles. As we strapped ourselves into our seats and powered down our cell phones, a muffled voice came over the plane’s speaker system.

“This is your captain speaking,” said the voice. “Just wanted to let you all know that President Obama is speaking right now at the White House and they killed Osama bin Laden.” Cheers and applause erupted from the elated passengers – among them, a businessman dressed to the nines, a mom traveling with her young son and daughter, and an elderly bearded man dressed in traditional Sikh garb.

When I got home, I had several text messages and voice mail messages waiting on my phone. “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” said one. “Got ‘em!” said another. The social networks (Twitter and Facebook) flared up with similarly nationalistic sentiments: photos of American flags, videos of military marches, assertions of American exceptionalism. Then, at school today, students greeted the news with marked astonishment and awe and – though some were hesitant – many expressed euphoria at the assassination. The last time Americans acted in such patriotic accord was, in fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

On September 12, 2001, in the wake of national tragedy, I went with my father to buy an American flag at a local banner store. When we got to the store, we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a line that stretched around the block. Everyone wanted to buy a flag. Everyone wanted to prove that he or she was a piece of the American puzzle.

And today, as the dust finally settles, camaraderie has returned. Even in the heat of the most vitriolic and polarizing climate in modern political history, Americans seem to be united again around one cause – one ideal. It is evident to me that in times of extremity – and, all too often, only in such times – people collaborate. When two students feel helpless before their history test, they may come together to study. When two companies are faltering on the brink of collapse, they may merge. So too, when Americans feel overcome by mourning, or overjoyed with pride, something magnificent happens.

Tomorrow, of course, we’ll all return to our bickering; Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans, we will be we, and they will be they. But today, as we witness the power of mutual loyalty, I am grateful to live in a country whose citizens sometimes – everyone once in a while – find allies in one another.

This is Truth Be Told’s 100th post.

And Then He Rolled His Eyes – Dignifying the Next Generation

On a summer day in 1963, a young Bill Clinton shook hands with John Kennedy. Clinton – just seventeen years old – was a participant in Boys Nation and was given the opportunity to spend a day at the White House. That moment was a pivotal one for Clinton. It kindled his internal activist spirit and incited within him the desire to achieve. “It had a very profound impact on me,” Clinton said years later. “I think that it’s something that I carried with me always.”

Last week, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. He was visiting to deliver a brief autobiography and court a group of soon-to-be constituents. As kids were still shuffling into the gym, where the congressman was to give his talk, I spotted him and decided to approach him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said politely, putting out my hand to shake his. I began to tell him about a project that I’d helped to start; my “Global Response” team at school had designed and produced pins to sell as a fundraiser for disaster relief in Japan. I worried that what I was doing might seem somewhat trivial; still, I felt that it was important for me to reach out to the congressman and offer him a glimpse into our student activism. But when I began to tell him about our venture, his eyes glazed over in boredom.

As I handed him one of the pins – emblazoned with the slogan “Bring the light back to Japan” – the congressman rolled his eyes. He backed up and threw his hands in the air as though he was conceding something to me. “Uch,” he said, shaking his head, “I get so many of these kinds of things.”

What if the congressman had said “Fantastic!” or “May I have a few more pins for my colleagues?” What if he had told me that he’d done something similar in high school? What if he had even challenged me – asked me to prove to him why Japan needs our money more than Haiti or Chile?

The congressman’s remark was particularly troubling because of the setting he was in: a high school. In this era, rife with the distractions of “pings” from BlackBerrys and “pokes” from our Facebook profiles, it’s difficult enough to inspire young people to engage in the world’s pressing issues. What we need isn’t contempt and disinterest. It’s encouragement – or even just recognition.

Teenagers are – as our parents were, and as the next generation will be – inherently self-involved. That’s not an accusation; it’s an established physiological fact. Combine that egocentrism with pervasive technology – SparkNotes, Google, smartphones – and you’re witnessing a perfect storm of distraction and apathy. We’re not texting at the dinner table out of disdain for our families; we’re doing so because to us, in that moment, the most important thing in the world is whatever it is that we feel the need to text about.

To combat that adolescent indifference, my English teacher says the same thing in one form or another almost every time we meet for class: If you’re not bothered, then you’re not paying enough attention. And he’s right. In this era, to be disheartened is to be enlightened, and to be angry is to be empowered. But when a United States congressman belittles the hopeful and inspired efforts of a group of motivated high school students, he promotes just the opposite. Instead of the “Thank you for the pin!” that would fan the flames of intellectual curiosity, he chooses the “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things” – a slight that extinguishes them.

The value of person-to-person validation is unquantifiable. No matter how high we rise or how low we sink, no matter what job we have or what job we wish we had, it must always be our priority to validate, engage, and elevate the company with whom we surround ourselves.

To the congressman: If you wish to extol the values of education from the height and might of the podium, please practice what you preach. Dignify each individual, young or old, seemingly worthy or seemingly not. Instead of “Uch,” how about giving a teenager what Bill Clinton got: something to carry through life. And to the rest of you: Want to buy a pin?

A Witch Hunt – Islamophobia in America

Last week, the Pope surprised the world when he exonerated Jews for the killing of Jesus. It was a nice gesture, though he was a little bit late to the party. Jews have endured thousands of years of turmoil as direct and indirect results of that accusation. In the Pope’s book, he outlines his rationale: though some Jews were to blame for elements of Jesus’ demise, the world cannot hold all Jews accountable for the sins of a few. It’s a logical realization that should have been recognized long ago.

Over the past few days, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) has been on a quest with an unclear purpose. He and his GOP colleagues have begun to hold hearings to, in essence, uncover all the things that make it wrong to be a Muslim in the United States. King – once a staunch proponent of Muslim rights and opportunities worldwide – has declared that his views changed in the aftermath of September 11th when America’s Islamic community was “not responding the way they should have.” In short, Muslims didn’t measure up to the Peter King protocol.

Peter King is a Catholic. Accordingly, his sanctioned spiritual leader – the supreme representative of his system of belief – is the Pope. Anyone who knows anything about textual interpretation can deduce that Peter King is out of line with his leader’s rational principles.

But if King is not inclined to heed papal counsel, he need look no further than my high school classroom. Can an entire grade be suspended for the academic dishonesty of one student? Absolutely not. In that vein, neither can an entire ethnic people be held responsible for the barbarous actions of a few.

Benito Mussolini was a Catholic. He was also white. When was the last time you heard someone call the whites or the Catholics out on “not responding the way they should have” to Mussolini’s tyrannical rule? The people who bombed Pearl Harbor were Japanese. Did the United States government become unwarrantably suspicious of Japanese Americans? Yes, and many Japanese Americans were wrongfully locked up in internment camps for the remainder of the war. A group cannot be blindly held responsible for the actions of individuals.

Islamophobia takes an extreme perspective and applies it to one of the largest religious populations in the world. But the laws surrounding Islamic tradition – the customs that are practiced by billions worldwide – are no more rational than those of Kashrut (Judaism), or communion (Christianity). The Hajj is no less holy than the trip I took to Israel last summer. There are, of course, extremists in every facet of cultural life: The orthodox Jews in Meiah She’arim, Israel who would consider me – someone who eats ‘unkosher’ cheese – a sinner, the priests who rail against love that is different from their own, or the Farrakhans who marginalize Islam and thus give it a bad name. Radicalized Islam is a problem, no doubt. But radicalized anything is a problem.

It’s not naiveté that has led me to this conclusion; it’s simply the acknowledgement that we’re all humans – legitimate, thoughtful, and very, very flawed humans. Perhaps Rep. King would like to investigate the “radicalization” of the Catholic church, or the “radicalization” of the Republican party, or even the “radicalization” of the people who stand up in town hall meetings and blatantly suggest the killing of prominent public officials. Peter King is in no position to be accusing others of “not responding the way they should have.” There is an explicit double standard here – hypocrisy beyond hypocrisy, jingoism beyond jingoism.

The Pope is right: we must prosecute those who have committed a crime, but their sentence must not extend to those who are innocent. For that reason, Muslims in America must be treated as equals and – like all law-abiding citizens – must not be subjected to Peter King’s McCarthyist tirades.