Saturday, March 15, 2008

I work for the campus UNICEF chapter (UNICEF@USC), and while I have doubts about the amount of good UNICEF can achieve in the long haul (it acts as a stopgap measure most of the time, reacting to crises in ways that rarely touch upon deeper issues) I take seriously our chapter’s mission of educating students and spreading awareness of global issues on campus seriously. Recently I gave a talk on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq along with a screening of a few episodes of Hometown Baghdad, a series by Iraqi native Fady Hadid, a student at USC’s film school.

The crisis in Iraq is one of the most underreported crises in the world, especially because of its massive size- with 5 million displaced and anywhere between 100,000 and 600,000 dead, the crisis potentially dwarfs, for example, the crisis in Darfur. And yet, reportage of Iraq tends to focus on US troop deaths, which, at 4000, are comparatively unremarkable. For me this is not only a depressing reminder of how the world press (even Middle Eastern outlets fall into this trap) devalues non-Western life but also a crucial example of how American ignorance and indifference gets it into trouble. This was a theme I tried to stress in the talk- while Americans easily ignore or forget foreign casualties, the people and the countries affected never do, and there are serious repercussions for the rest of the world. “Where are the roots of terror?”, people ask, “Why do they hate us?” I asked the audience a few times, “where do you think terrorists come from?”… “This is where they come from! When someone bulldozes your house for no reason and kills your father at a checkpoint, who do you think they will get mad at? No one?”

It is very hard for people in this country to understand the roots of terror, or to understand that just because they forget something, the rest of the world will not. Over and over, Americans repeat the same mistakes- in 1979, instead of looking to the CIA-backed coup of the popular leader Mossadeq or US support for the royal dictator for some idea of why Iranians were angry, people blamed this anger on irrationality, Islam, or Khomeini. Similarly, people seem to forget that Iranian students took over the US embassy because the US allowed the recently-deposed Shah to be allowed into that country. People generally have a motivation when they risk their lives for something, and as long as people in the West forget this, or blame irrationality, relations will be sour with the Middle East, especially because of how salient history is for people in the Middle East.

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