Our Lesser Evil

Reviled by some for supporting the Iraq War, Michael Ignatieff (who now teaches at the University of Toronto) wrote an often overlooked book during the mid-oughts, called The Lesser Evil. Tackling an ambitious question –how can a state address the threat of terrorism– the book outlines the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of asymmetric (and illegal) wars.

Ignatieff argues that democracies are liable to tear themselves apart by destroying their own systems of justice, curtailing their prized liberties, eroding their support for transparency, and morphing questions of criminality into forever wars against ideology –all in an effort to fight the ghostly others. Long story short, in responding to terrorists eager to harm their country, democratic leaders begin to do the terrorist’s work themselves.

This week, The Atlantic published the latest “recap” on some of the liberties the United States has lost in the fight against Al Qaeda (or other enemies unknown). While few will be shocked by the claims made, or the nefarious future that appears ever-closer, Ignatieff’s initial book is notable for its prescience, even if the man wasn’t with respect to Iraq. Today, The Lesser Evil might be worth a second (or first) look.

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In the field: Mefou National Park, Cameroon

A female gorilla stands her ground in an inclosure at a sanctuary operated by an NGO, Ape Action Africa. While the organization has pledged to rehabilitate and release the more than 300 animals currently under their care, operators say they have delayed because of the security conditions in Cameroonian parks.

“The government claims that the national parks are protected,” one operator said, while leading us between the chimpanzee and the young gorilla cages. “But there isn’t a single one we’d be comfortable re-introducing one of our animals into.”

Most of the animals saved by the sanctuary were orphaned after their parents were killed by poachers for sale and/or consumption. Their flesh, or bushmeat, is still considered a delicacy by many.

Is “branding” the answer?

Today, I’ll be speaking on a media panel discussing tourism in Africa. While broad in scope, the intention of the event is to understand not only how journalists cover the continent and shape the stereotypes/conceptions of the region (I.e. Dramatic headlines citing death and disaster, how the media’s appetite for stories from the continent often starts and stops with crisis)  but also to suggest ways to showcase some of these regions as a valuable destination for international visitors.

While compiling a short-list of topics I might discuss, I found it difficult –read: impossible– to distance myself from the crowd I like to criticize. I argue, likely too often for those around me, that the editorial appetite for stories with an Africa theme is small. That there is a cyclical and self-defeating argument made in editor’s offices: the stories aren’t popular enough to warrant the higher costs of their reporting, but failure invest in them confirms the audience will remain small.

That might be true, but it isn’t a sufficient response to the charges of editorial selectivity.

On this platform, and others like it, I tackle “under-reported” Africa in the same manner major networks do: the first sign of a storm creates an opportunity to capture that “illusive reader”. But if I feed that reader conflict and collapse, is that truly appropriate?

Admittedly, there are more questions on this topic than there are answers; with a continent of 54 countries I would hope that’s the case. But I’m eager to follow through with this experiment; to force myself to reflect in the same way I have (and continue to demand) that editors re-think their own positions.

But if the practice of “covering Africa” has to be updated, how do we do it? Thoughts?

In the field: Kribi, Cameroon

I had rented a car to complete reporting in and around the town of Kribi, Cameroon. As I jumped out of the car for what I believed to be the final interview of the day, a four-hour drive from where we started that morning, I could hear an unsettling high-pitched hissing.

Having driven quickly over uncertain dirt, gravel and well-worn cement roads, we (myself and my priceless driver/assistant) shouldn’t have been surprised by the punctured front tire.

But as we worked on the car (thankfully there was a spare) men from a nearby village came out to help. Without any prompting, they had the old tire off, new one on, and were insisting we stay for something to eat and drink.

They didn’t have to help.
But I know we’re both grateful they did.

In the field: Douala, Cameroon

Along a snaking, pot-holed, mud road that leads away from Douala’s international airport, motorists pass road-side food carts, motor repair stores and —more recently— Chinese-operated boutiques selling everything from food stuffs to beauty products. As a young boy struggles with the rusty chain on his bicycle, the afternoon’s traffic hurries past.

Broken CAR: The slow erosion of a state

Refugees in CAR. Photo credit: Nicolas Rost
Refugees in CAR. Photo credit: Nicolas Rost

Things are getting worse. That’s the message on CAR in a piece reported by Tristan McConnell for GlobalPost. Presaging the story for War is Boringback in August, I wrote:

In a state where political leadership has been subject to cyclical coups, where power is expressed primarily through the financial means to arm, train and sustain violence, stability will only be found through tortured battle.

That battle, however, was quick to impact nearly all of the country’s 4.4 million people. When I asked the local U.N. representative, Babacar Gaye, about the current state of affairs, his response was dire:

We are in a situation of lawlessness. You have the appearance of power, you have the appearance of a country, but the government has no authority.

Soon, some international actors were calling for action. France, specifically, noted that the CAR was on the brink of “Somalization”, an ode to same condition of lawlessness McConnell alludes to with the title of his new piece. And yet, after the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August and September, Hollande seemed to walk-back a previous claim that French troops were at the ready. McConnell writes today (my emphasis):

France, which has about 400 soldiers in CAR, is pushing most strongly for moves to stabilize its former colony. But France says it has no intention of deploying thousands of its own troops there, as it did in Mali at the start of the year when it was feared Al Qaeda aligned militant groups were poised to overrun the country.

Finally, McConnell’s notes that CAR’s disintegration has led to further instability, and perhaps a new safe haven, for extremist forces from Chad and Sudan to the east and Mali and northern Nigeria to the west.

Long-term, however, the fractured nature of the rebels should be a warning. In the closing moments of my interview with Mr. Gaye last month, I asked his opinion of Séléka, the coalition group now working to dethrone the CAR’s new government.

“There is always risk of implosion of a coalition,” Mr. Gaye said.  “A revolution always eats its own babies like that.”

The question now is how many lives will be eaten in the process.

Transitions: Where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Silence can be a confusing thing. For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a series of projects —both short and long term— that have divided (i.e. devoured) my time. For those who follow this blog, though, I thought a short update was long overdue.

In July, I began work on a stand-alone Tumblr page (sacrilege, I know —vis a vis WordPress) featuring the latest and most interesting material on PTSD. As a theme, topic, condition, and quiet threat to the American medical system, PTSD  continues to interest me. I can only hope that through the incredible work and reporting being done on this topic it will soon interest a far greater audience, too. While the site is still in its infancy (and not yet public), I hope it will serve as a repository for interesting revelations, stories and —over time— commentary.

In August, I started writing about foreign affairs / international politics for a group called “War is Boring.” The project, originally a standalone site covering all manner of war and peace, is now an experimental collection on Medium, a new publishing platform brought to you by the brains that created Twitter. My posts —ranging from the UN’s responsibility in Syria to the brewing crisis in the Central African Republic— are very much in keeping with previous work posted on this blog.

In September, I traveled to the American south to begin a long-form investigation for Al Jazeera America. While the details of this project are best kept vague (I expect publication soon) an interesting series of events may make this story worthy of continued focus. While I’m not sure what form that will take, there are many more rocks to overturn. Just how and when, however, is still unknown.

This month, I signed on as a contributor for Offiziere, a Switzerland-based foreign affairs website. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be contributing English-language reporting on the situation in Afghanistan as well the so-called “Shadow Wars” currently underway across the globe. Those familiar with my background can expect a particular focus on the African continent —given the events in recent weeks, I believe this will be fertile ground for critical news and analysis.

Later this month, however, this blog will be on the move —with me— overseas. I’ll be (temporarily) relocating to West Africa to report on a number of stories from the littoral states. While many of the specifics are yet to be finalized, the trip will allow significant access to material chronically under-covered in traditional media circles. As these stories emerge, I’ll share them here.

Finally, for those who have subscribed (or those that simply stumbled across this page) I want to thank you for reading. The Internet is a busy place and the fact that you’re here makes what I do worthwhile. So please, check back, follow, and —please— leave questions and comments. After all, if we don’t talk about what matters, who will?