Drought threatens millions with starvation and disease while al-Shabaab—the heavily-armed radical Islamic group known as 'The Youth'—threaten and kill aid workers and steal the food and medicine for themselves and for resale. It is a story as old as the schoolyard bully. The only crime worse than what is being inflicted upon the Somali people is our tragic lack of concern and compassion for them.
Things not on our prayer list:
Things not being discussed during Sunday worship, when the pastor has the ear of the community, include Mogadishu. Haiti. The Sudan. The Congo. Kenya. Zimbabwe. Places filled to bursting with desperate black faces. Faces just like ours, hands just like ours. The other common link is ignorance. These are places of crippling ignorance, places where the strong dictate the fate of the weak. Sending help to these places feels futile because, for these people, there is no end to help. They are fighting disasters both natural and cultural. Drought has plague much of Africa for decades, and a deeply embedded tribalism leads these people to, time and again, select a bullying demagogue for their leader who inevitably loots the treasury and slaughters the people. Both climatically and politically we are spending time, money and treasure trying to teach people to grow vegetables in sand. There is no end to help. The very moment U.S. troops pull out, violently oppressive warlords move in. The moment we stop sending money over there, most of which is stuffed into these bullies’ pockets, their fragile economy collapses. The industrialized world economy is teetering on the brink of collapse as unprecedented debt oppresses the governments of most of Europe, the U.S. and Japan. There simply is no spare change. And, if there were, our compassion has been sorely taxed. There is no happy ending. There is only an unending demand for more.
Somalia, made infamous by President Clinton’s efforts to restore order to Mogadishu (dramatized by the film Black Hawk Down), has existed in its lawless chaos well beneath our radar for two decades. President Barack Obama is now similarly forced to confront the human tragedy of Mogadishu as crisis reasserts itself at a time of crisis for the United Sates. Sending troops into a place of tribal ignorance proved disastrous for Clinton. There is no reason to believe Obama would fare any better, although one might hope the U.S. military has learned the lessons of Mogadishu and that a 2011 incursion would have better results. However, congressional Republicans, focuses exclusively on politics, clearly disinterested in governing and anxious for any opportunity to bring Washington to a standstill, would use any such relief in Somalia as a political stick with which to beat the president. Somalia would be the Republicans’ latest excuse for not getting any actual legislation done.
It’s an old story,
Drought or other natural disaster threatens millions with
starvation and disease while heavily-armed thugs threaten and
kill aid workers and steal the food and medicine for themselves
and for resale. It is a story as old as the schoolyard bully.
There have been many days when, knowing what I do now—that most
bullies are simple cowards when you stand up to them—I wished I
could travel back in time and fix some things back in junior
high. It would seem to go without saying that al-Shabaab—the
radical Islamic group known as The Youth—would pull out long
before American boots hit the ground. This is also what
President Clinton believed, mainly because it was true. The
Black Hawk Down tragedy was not due to any military parity on
the part of Somali warlords but was caused by Washington
politics. The president denied AC130 gunship air cover to U.S.
troops on their incursion into Bakaara Market—the most
dangerous square feet on the African continent (see sidebar).
Trying to fend off criticism of the U.S.’s humanitarian mission
to Somalia, the president ordered the mission to be low key and
thus sent the men in with inadequate protection for vulnerable
targets like hovering aircraft. This is not a scenario likely to
be repeated twice, but President Obama, already strung up for
his incursion into Libya, has allowed his presidency to become
boxed in from all sides [LINK] and is thus unlikely to come to
the assistance of the thousands of Somalis perishing every day.
He is also unlikely to intercede because, like Iraq, like Afghanistan, there simply is no happy ending. Regardless of what America’s military commanders say, Afghanistan will collapse in on itself when America leaves. Everyone knows that. Iraq, once hostile toward us and anxious for us to leave, is now petitioning the United States to further extend its military mission there. Why? Because Iraq’s government knows they are dead men the moment the last U.S. forces withdraw. There is no fixing of these places. There is only wasted America lives and wasted money—unimaginable sums of it. Going into Somalia may stabilize the situation and feed a lot of people, but what long-term good would it actually do? We get a bunch of American soldiers killed, spend five billion—a lot of which will et stuffed into the pockets of American and multinational corporate interests and, inevitably, some Somali dictator—and what? The minute we leave, Al-Shabaab or worse will inevitably return, oppress, rape, kill.
As with most extremists, including America’s conservative fringe, al-Shabaab, “Holy” Warriors who rape women and girls, appear to be fearsomely ignorant. At fist blush, these do not seem to be even modestly reasonable individuals. For instance, they banned samosas, a common African taco, because its design formed half of the sign of the cross. This is tribalism at its most tragic: allowing your people to starve because an enemy might feed them. The very little I know of these people suggest their assumption is education is intrinsically evil because it introduces new ideas which challenge their religious belief. So, rather than learn and grow, they violently oppose any teaching other than their own tribal, brutish take on Islam. This sounds a great deal like America’s Tea Party, and is, in many ways, what that extremist movement (many of whom come armed to rallies) would look like if they carried out their repeated threats about taking the country back by force. Combating ignorance so deeply embedded into a society is a daunting task. A friend of mine one told me, “It’s not about me doing the teaching, its about you doing the learning,” which suggests the student must be willing if not anxious to be taught. Educating people out of ignorance, whether they are Somali religious zealots or American political wing nuts requires the ignorant to want to learn. We learn by being curious. Curiosity, one might speculate, is repressed under strict tribalism, where there is only one reality and one truth. This is true of Somali tribalism and that of U.S. Christian fundamentalism: there is no dialogue. There is only a closed door.
So, then, what’s the answer?
Send money? We’re broke. And sending money seems futile because
we know it’s being diverted into the pockets of evil men. We
pray, certainly, we ask God why this misery, on so massive a
scale. And why the color of a peoples’ skin should have so much
meaning on this planet. Racism is utterly baffling to me. A
suffering human being is just that—no more and no less. But, we
all know, if this were England under siege, its people
brutalized, raped, murdered, starving, armed thugs roving the
streets—we’d already be there. White people have money A
collapse of the British economy would send the planet into
economic chaos. NATO would never stand idly by while England
suffered the fate of Somalia. But such a thing would never be
possible. The United Kingdom is an industrialized nation, with a
government, an army, a police force, a rule of law. Somalia has
none of those things. Like most African nations, Somalia has
only misery, an unending need for another handout, for more
relief, more compassion, more foreign soldiers to risk their
lives to feed people who will inevitably vote terrible despots
to power because terrible despots are
all they’ve known.
This is not, by any stretch, a cycle which can be broken in any
one generation. We’d need to go in and stay in. We’d need to be
prepared to invest not five billion but twenty *trillion* in
Somalia, as, inevitably, a stable Somalia will become a refuge
for the entire continent, much of which is suffering the same
way Somalia is suffering. A realistic view of intervention in
the region presents us with the confounding reality that there
is no mission to accomplish there. At least none that won’t
require fifty years and $20 trillion. That’s not a commitment
we’re willing to make to *Brooklyn,* let alone Somalia.
I once asked a Haitian friend how might problems in Haiti be fixed; I mean, what’s the solution? She gave it some deep thought and said, “Nuke it.” There is no solution. The enemy is not poverty or disease or the earthquake. It is not the armed thugs and the brutality and rape. The real enemy is the mindset, the orientation of the Haitian people themselves. It is tribalism. This is what they know. We can run over there, fend off the bullies, feed the people, invest blood and treasure stabilizing the nation. But, the minute we leave, they’ll go right back to doing what they’ve always done because this is all they know: tribal conflict and squabbles with the strongest, most violent, and most irredeemably brutal dictating the fate of all others.
Even knowing that, it’s difficult to sleep at night. I see all of these white evangelical missions to Haiti, missions to Nairobi, appeals for donations and other support. They are not wrong: this is what Jesus would do. Jesus would have compassion on the suffering, on the dying. There is no biblical account of His hesitating to consider the politics of it all, or worrying about whether or not His compassion was in vain. He would just help because helping is the right thing to do. Republicans, who love to campaign on the nonsense that the U.S. is a “Christian” nation, rarely behave in a Christlike manner. These people are willing if not anxious to allow the Somali people to starve and be butchered because they can blame President Obama for it. Or, if the president sends humanitarian or military help in, these same people will vigorously object and blame President Obama for it. These two-faced lying racist, homophobic, reactionary thugs are absolutely no better than al-Shabaab: ignorant, unwilling to learn or grow, and exploiting their alleged faith to achieve a selfish political objective.
As for the rest of us, knowing a fair amount of financial aid is siphoned off by the relief agencies themselves, by price-gouging fat government contactors, by corrupt foreign government lackeys, by brutal warlords, and, knowing that not one dime of the aid will actually do much long-term good, Somalia challenges us—as black people, as Americans, as Christians. There are no easy answers. Maybe that’s why so many of our pastors simply don’t mention it.
The church is not the movies. Sunday service is not intended as entertainment or escapism. The only crime worse than what is being inflicted upon the Somali people is our tragic lack of concern and compassion for them.