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.

A Spicy Situation – Obama’s Libya Wisdom

When I was two years old, and my parents and I had been living in Manhattan for about a year, we had a visit from some out-of-town relatives. Because it was a special occasion, my mom and dad dressed me up and took me out to a fancy sushi restaurant with our visitors. I probably ate some pasta or soy beans while my parents and their guests ordered the more sophisticated yellowtail rolls and tempura.

Late into the evening, I – situated in my highchair – spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Resting on my dad’s empty plate was a tiny cup of what I assumed could only be a bit green play-dough. Of course, being the ambitious toddler I was, I took the mysterious green goo, rolled it into a ball with my fingers, and stuck it in my mouth. Several hours of screaming ensued and ample tears were shed as a result of the inhuman amount of wasabi that I’d just consumed.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me quell your “what the hell is this kid talking about?”-esque concerns. The moral of the story is that, needless to say, I stayed away from wasabi for a long time after that. To this day, I still avoid spicy food in almost every form.

Imposed regime change is America’s wasabi. Assessing the extent of this country’s military responsibility in Libya is no more complicated than a toddler’s unfortunate run-in with spicy food. The lesson is evident: nine years ago, a dictator was oppressing his people, our military became heavily involved, and we never really left. The President is making use of his hindsight. He is at odds with the idea of being an accomplice to history’s repetitions.

Blanketing the world with democracy is not the prerogative of the United States. It is not our job – nor should it be – to paint the Middle East red, white, and blue. Our forefathers came here as an extension of an empire and proceeded to break the imperial grip. The President is historically and analytically correct in believing that regime change comes not out of the the bombshells of a fighter jet, but from the power of human organization and assembly.

When I’m slumped on my bed, clicking the “refresh” button on my MacBook’s internet browser time and again, I see the horrific images: I watch the bodies pile in Tripoli, terrified children hide under houses in Benghazi. I watch the flames emanate from a Tunisian twenty-something’s t-shirt, and see the smudged tears trickle down the bloody face of a would-be martyr in Tehran. But strength is derived from meticulous consistency. The lead-up to this conflict has been eerily similar to that of Iraq’s, so it is wise to weigh our actions based on past mistakes rather than to foolishly cross our fingers and hope that this time is different.

Our responsibility to the people of Libya is to be their watchdog, to shield them from imminent death, and to remain vigilant and attentive until their anxieties have faded. “But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” said Obama tonight. He’s right. Because he knows that America has tried the wasabi – and he knows that we didn’t like it the first time around.

A Watchful Eye, Not a Loaded Gun – America’s Role in Libya

Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that military action in Libya is still on the table.

It shouldn’t be.

America need not and must not act as an imperialist regime. It must be a global humanitarian guardian. Mothers and sons alike are being shot dead in the streets. Children are afraid to go to sleep for fear that they will not wake up. Men who try to document the terror are being discreetly disposed of. And it is painful and irrational to try to put a price on human life.

But when George W. Bush brought us into Iraq, I was seven years old. Now I’m sixteen, and we still haven’t left. If that is not a frightening and persuasive factor in the fight against fighting, then I don’t know what is. Time will kill Ghadafi – but the ever reverberating impact of international military action will kill many, many more.

We are responsible for keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the world. We are responsible for cutting off Ghadafi’s cash flow and crippling his iron grip. We are responsible for setting in motion international humanitarian efforts. We are responsible for helping Libyans end the violence. But the United States simply cannot impede militarily upon sovereign Libyan land.

In 2006, when Barack Obama was a United States senator, he delivered a speech. During the speech, he spoke about precisely this issue – but took a drastically different stance than the one he seems to be mulling over now. If I had a direct line to the oval office, I’d implore him to take some advice from – ironically – himself.

“We should be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy on a country through military force. In the past, it has been movements for freedom from within tyrannical regimes that have led to flourishing democracies; movements that continue today. This doesn’t mean abandoning our values and ideals; wherever we can, it’s in our interest to help foster democracy through the diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal. But even as we provide such help, we should be clear that the institutions of democracy – free markets, a free press, a strong civil society – cannot be built overnight, and they cannot be built at the end of a barrel of a gun.”

When a man set himself on fire in Tunisia a few months ago, sparks flew across a continent. From those sparks came flames, and from those flames, an inextinguishable wildfire of deliverance.

We no longer live on playground where the world’s most powerful can kick their legs up and watch in amusement as their ‘children’ run amok – flailing their arms in a bustle of absolute mayhem. The powder keg has exploded. This is the age of human empowerment.

In order to sustain and prolong the streak of emancipation that has swept the globe over the past few months, we must not act on impulse, or even out of empathetic rage. It is, admittedly, a challenging balance to maintain, but the United States must remain both an ally of democracy and a staunch opponent of force.

The Stars and the Stripes

I’d like to share a speech that I gave today at my school’s 9/11 memorial assembly. It is an introduction to the National Anthem.


When I woke up on September 10th, 2001, there were a lot of things that I could do that a second grader in North Korea, Iran, Venezuela couldn’t do. I could get angry at my teacher for making me do math. I could write a letter to my president and tell him what I thought he’d done wrong that day. I could find two different prices for a new pair of shoes, and buy the cheaper ones.

Freedom is what differentiates this society from much of the world. It is a quality that captures the essence of what it is to be an American, a concept that’s summed up by two basic symbols that are also uniquely ours: the stars and stripes.

Without the stars and the stripes, it wouldn’t be Obama and McCain, Democrat and Republican. There would be no voting. There would be no question. There would be no choice.

Without the stars and the stripes, there would be no Fox News, just as there would be no MSNBC.

Without the stars and the stripes, there would have been no Woodstock.

Without the stars and the stripes, the Black Eyed Peas couldn’t say that “A war’s goin’ on but the reason’s undercover.”

Without the stars and the stripes I couldn’t stand up here and say, in a strong, confident, hopeful voice, “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad (Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one).

It’s the stars and the stripes — and the moral compass that they embody – that keep us grounded, that keep us who we are, and allow us to invent and reinvent, modify, and interpret the world.

And when evil flew two planes into the real-life representation of all that America stood for, when our two pillars of faith and optimism crumbled into a heartbroken mountain of ash, it was those gleaming white stars and those scarlet red stripes that gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. That America was still there. That our values had not collapsed with the towers. That our freedom was sill there

When I woke up on September 12th, 2001, I could still do all of those things.

Our determination is unbreakable. Our freedom will always outshine catastrophe. The stars and stripes are eternal, and that Star Spangled Banner will never cease to wave.