Small World: Where hope becomes desperation

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Katmandu, Baltimore, the Mediterranean Sea, Yemen, Syria — it has been a grim week of news from around the globe. If we looked a bit further back for the same kind of dark headlines, we could add the migration of Latinos toward our southwest states and violent demonstrations against police treatment of Blacks in a variety of American cities.

Is there a common thread to this series of events — some of them acts of nature, all made worse by the actions of men? Katmandu was the scene of a devastating earthquake. Predicted for 80 years by geologists, the disaster caught the nation of Nepal unprepared with buildings that could not stand up to the strain or adequate infrastructure that might have facilitated aid to the stricken. A corrupt and less than democratic government failed to meet the needs of its citizens.

That was the case in other disasters where governments have proved unable to understand, much less respond effectively to the needs of its citizens. Poverty and its product, senseless violence, are common themes in today’s world. Worst yet, at home and abroad we find societies gripped by a paralyzing hopelessness.

It is that void of expectations for a better life that drives young people — mostly men — to make their way across the Sahara to Libya where they pay outrageous fees to smugglers who promise to haul them across the Mediterranean to a new beginning in Europe. That those promises lead instead to death on the high seas does not discourage desperate others from making the attempt.

A similar lack of hope describes the condition of African-Americans who inhabit our inner cities. Tragically, they burn and loot — adding to the miseries of their communities. Race, of course, is a huge factor. But there’s an economic class aspect as well. The sociologist Robert Putnam in his new book, Our Kids, depicts societies here that once considered the wellbeing of all their members their responsibility. Now, they have become separated into divisions where the rich take care of themselves behind high walls and in private schools, leaving the lower orders to fend for themselves. Rather than lend a helping hand to alleviate these problems, Congress cuts food stamps in order to cut taxes for those who hardly need a benefit.

Meanwhile, hawks in and out of Congress urge the United States to prolong its combat engagements in the Middle East and to support and lead proxies where we can: Ukraine, Yemen, Syria. Their memories are short. They forget that Washington has relied on proxies who later turned on the United States. Think of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, whose army we assisted while they were gassing Kurds and Iranians in the 1980s and whom we were to fight some 20 years later.

Think of our support and manipulation of Islamic groups to fight the USSR in Afghanistan only to find we had to battle our creation, the Taliban, a decade or so later. Think of our support for the enemies of Syria’s Assad, who became the Islamic State dedicated to our destruction. We took the easy road of destroying the dictatorship of Libya’s Qaddafi, heedless of what might follow him. The resulting chaos of the fragmented successor regimes now running/ruining Libya make the country the natural departure point for African migrants embarking for Europe. Their deaths at sea are a direct consequence of our ignorant intervention. A more thoughtful Washington should learn from these lessons before deciding to support Saudi Arabia’s vendetta against Yemen and its unknowable outcome.

A wiser — a more conservative — approach would be to shift energies and resources from distant zones of conflict (which usually we can only aggravate) to the home front which has been badly neglected for too many years. Rather than fussing over how schools and student tests are administered, we ought to assure that abundant resources are devoted to education for those who most need help.

Similarly, we ought to be seeking to improve and extend health care, rather than trying to roll back the legislative clock. And our masters should construct a tax system that is fair and promotes a more equitable society. A nation that is badly sundered between rich and the rest will lose hope and can never achieve the greatness of its potential.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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