Archive | August, 2007

Notes on America

31 Aug

I’ve returned from vacation in America, where my wife (on her second trip now to the States) and I visited the Capitol area of Washington, DC, central Maryland, Williamsburg and Richmond, Viriginia, and Orlando, Florida (my parents live nearby in Sanford). We rented a car on the third day to visit places, like all my old homes, schools, and memorable sites, as well as to buy steamed blue crabs at . We then traveled by train the rest of the way, including a 16-hour trip in a second-class sleeper from Richmond to Orlando. It was a great trip, and there are pictures on the second sidebar, but only a fraction of the almost 250 I snapped. I will add captions and titles later. For now, let me sum up some of my conclusions from the trip.

1. Two Washington, DC museums, the Holocaust and the American Indian, stand out.

is amazing, if in a somber sense. I’ve never visited a museum where the environment acted on me. Unfortunately, my wife and I were not able because of a lack of time, to complete the tasks. Once visitors receive an ID card with information about a Jewish victim, they are supposed to research at a later stage whether that person survived. I knew most of the basic historical facts offered throughout the exhibits. It was the temperature and odors in the building that affected me. One exhibit, which extended for two floors, particularly overwhelmed me. Hidden between walls covered with photographs of town-dwellers was a photograph of the town itself in 1945 completely incinerated. The realization, that no one in these photographs had lived, is very moving.

affected me for one negative reason. There are some photographs of Plains Indian dancing, and we arrived in town unknowingly on the last night of a national powwow. But, amidst all the exhibits, there was only one small cubicle devoted to my family’s nation, the Seminoles, and that exhibit was very incomplete. There was little mention of the three Seminole wars fought, ones in which my family survived to reside in Florida. There was very little mention at all of the so-called “Five Civilized Nations” and none of “The Trail of Tears”. I asked my mother, a quarter-blood Seminole, who had been in contact with the Smithsonian about the exhibits, and she reinforced my concerns. Indeed, the museum is almost a Plains nation-only place, and there was a conscious prejudice against depicting certain aspects of American-Indian interaction, such as wars, although some mention is made of intermarriage. The overall theme seems to be to reconstruct an American Indian culture that no longer exists. I was very disappointed.

2. I was struck by how little had changed in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, Maryland. I’ve not visited my hometown in almost ten years. Still, most buildings still exist, even with the same businesses. I guess change occurs slower than I presumed.

Steamed blue crabs, Maryland-style, are awesome!

3. In Williamsburg, actually at Jamestown, I had this epiphany. None of my family members are English! In 1607, at the founding of the Jamestown colony, my father’s (and maternal great-grandfather’s) family was still toiling in Germany, and the Seminole half was not yet existent. The actual settlement became very foreign to me, even though as a child I had absolutely been entranced by Williamsburg and Jamestown. Actually, I was most affected in the reconstructed church, where I realized, that I had no stake in the Christianizing mission of the early colonists. The accounts of English-Powhatan conflict began to assume greater dimensions.

4. Although I really wanted to visit in Richmond, Virginia (he’s my favorite “founder”), I have to recommend the . The tour is wonderful! The Marshall House curator gave us a good tour, too.

5. America really needs to spend more money on trains. My wife and i could have visited more places between Richmond and Orlando, if not for the crazy way the trains run in the Southeast. I wanted to visit Cowpens Battlefield in South Carolina, but the train would have had to return to DC just head southward again. The food was marginal, and the service was lousy. But, we would do it again, just for the solicitude and comfort of a sleeper car gliding down the tracks.

6. America needs a consumption holiday, in food and housing.

Alright, so it would have been better to convey my opinions in a timelier fashion, but that’s the gist!

The Massengill Report on the VT Massacre

31 Aug

Perhaps, I was a little harsh about the Massengill Commission back in May. Virginia’s Governor Tim Kaine (D.) convened the Massengill Commission following the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings, in which Seung Hui Cho murdered 32 of his fellow students before committing suicide, and it has delivered its . Virginia Tech’s president, Charles W. Steger, has . One one hand, university employees, some of whom implicated within the report, support him, but parents’ groups do not. It’s unfair for one man to be the fall guy when so many others erred, but he can in no way claim innocence.

The report offers over 90 recommendations, of which the most notable are:

1. “During Cho’s junior year at Virginia Tech, numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability. Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots.”

2. “University officials in the office of Judicial Affairs, Cook Counseling Center, campus police, the Dean of Students, and others explained their failures to communicate with one another or with Cho’s parents by noting their belief that such communications are prohibited by the federal laws governing the privacy of health and education records. In reality, federal laws and their state counterparts afford ample leeway to share information in potentially dangerous situations.”

3. “Virginia’s mental health laws are flawed and services for mental health users are
inadequate. Lack of sufficient resources results in gaps in the mental health system
including short term crisis stabilization and comprehensive outpatient services. The involuntary commitment process is challenged by unrealistic time constraints, lack of critical psychiatric data and collateral information, and barriers (perceived or real) to open communications among key professionals.”

4. “Virginia is one of only 22 states that report any information about mental health to a federal database used to conduct background checks on would-be gun purchasers. But Virginia law did not clearly require that persons such as Cho?who had been ordered into out-patient treatment but not committed to an institution?be reported to the database. Governor Kaine?s executive order to report all persons involuntarily committed for outpatient treatment has temporarily addressed this ambiguity in state law. But a change is needed in the Code of Virginia as well.”

5. “The Virginia Tech police may have erred in prematurely concluding that their initial lead in the double homicide was a good one, or at least in conveying that impression to university officials while continuing their investigation. They did not take sufficient action to deal with what might happen if the initial lead proved erroneous. The police reported to the university emergency Policy Group that the “person of interest” probably was no longer on campus.”

6. “Senior university administrators, acting as the emergency Policy Group, failed to issue an all-campus notification about the WAJ killings until almost 2 hours had elapsed. University practice may have conflicted with written policies.”

One of the most compelling parts of the Massengill Report is , the subject of much speculation in both South Korea and the US. The most unsettling part of this section is the realization, that Cho was a very normal person. Contrary to speculation, he did not exhibit mental health problems before his family emigrated to the US from South Korea. He was shy, a characterization almost every person whom Cho came into contact used to describe him. His family was not poor, but financial problems did affect Cho’s upbringing. However, Cho was traumatized by early physical health problems, and his reticence to discuss these feelings was an early sign of his later mental health problems.

The only other way Cho’s mental health history is at all unique is, that he had difficulties adjusting to American life as an immigrant. The information presented places blame, not on Cho or his family, but on countless professional omissions and administrative oversights by American organizations. For example, his parents did not receive adequate translation services during school conferences. In short, Cho was a monster made by bureaucratic red tape and casual indifference typical of a modern society. But Cho was not a force of evil or a cultural “Other”. Aside from his acculturation problems as an immigrant, any child could have become Cho. WaPo reinforces this argument when it subtitled its editorial, “An information breakdown in an information society.”

The fault here lies both in laws that limit the ability of educational institutions to share pertinent information regarding mental health and the misunderstanding of those laws by university officials. The review panel’s report makes clear that while the laws are restrictive in some instances, they would not have prevented much greater sharing of information than took place in Cho’s case. Here was a student whose writing and behavior in class alarmed several professors; whose inappropriate actions toward female students led to complaints to campus police; whose inability to interact socially or even to speak in class had been known and treated in high school; and whose suicidal statements triggered a psychiatric examination and a judge’s order that he receive outpatient care. And yet the university did not act.

In the aftermath of such a devastating tragedy, it’s easy to say, but nonetheless true, that public safety must trump privacy rights, particularly in a university setting where the population is young and vulnerable. Cho’s dysfunction had been noted and treated by his high school counselors in Fairfax County, but they never communicated his condition to Virginia Tech. That makes no sense. As his problems intensified in his junior and senior years of college, his parents were never alerted. That makes no sense. Cho spoke with employees of the campus counseling center three times in 15 days in late 2005 and early 2006, but they failed to follow up and in fact treated his case lackadaisically. That makes no sense. Even when it came to sharing information with the review panel, university officials and state police failed to provide all relevant information. That makes no sense either.

What also makes little sense is the quasi-libertarian sentiments expressed by one blogger. interprets the report’s findings as advocating an ” ’emergency grab ankles and find a desk to hide under’ plan”. The system MK disparages already exists. What the report advocates is making that system work better, not creating a lesser system where “…we cannot protect you, go and get yourself a gun, learn to use it, watch your back, grow a pair, make a stand, learn to draw fast, be prepared to fight for your freedom, it’s hard but that’s life.” That would be an overreaction worse than transforming Virginia Tech into a fortress.

takes a tack closer to my own.

What I am really afraid of here, in both cases, is overreaction. If this report is seen as credible, the next time there is a shooting on a campus, it will mean the whole place will shut down. I live near the University of Pennsylvania, an urban campus. Shootings here are not an infrequent event. And disturbed, even disturbing, behavior by students is an unworkable grounds for kicking people out of programs. Some writer will get too creative one day and the next find herself kicked out of school with a restraining order not to enter campus again ever. In both cases, I don’t think it’s wise or effective.

I’m worried about this, too. Mithras’ first argument about the uncertainties surrounding the actual chronology of events on April 16 is well put. But, the events in Cho’s mental health history reveal a pattern, not of overreaction, as Mithras argues, but of inaction. Seung Hui Cho is the product of this ineptitude. How could anyone fear some purposeful action by some earnest administrator, when that attitude was missing all along?

How many other immigrants are trapped, like Cho and his family, within the pretensions and the realities of the American Dream?

Another Crossroads Seoul Leaves Behind

31 Aug

South Korean Events The remaining seven of 23 South Korean hostages kidnapped by the Taliban in Ghazni province, Afghanistan on July 19 have been . The Joong-ang Daily is as optimistic about the consequences of the Afghan hostage crisis as is possible: “It will be the beginning of debates and a look back at what went wrong. This crisis raised grave questions about the divide between the country?s responsibility and the responsibility of individuals.” The Roh administration stared down its choices, between supporting international law and Afghanistan’s sovereignty and what appears to be dependence on domestic progressive parties, Beijing, Muslim states, and energy needs, and it took the second course. It’s yet another indication Seoul’s alliance with the US is all but dead except in name only.

On the issue that sparked the Taliban’s kidnapping, followed by the executions of two men, including the mission’s pastor, there is a consensus that South Korean Christian churches, principally the Saemmul Presbyterian Church, are fully culpable. According to the Chosun Daily, Seoul and Saemmul have agreed, that the Bundang church will reimburse the government for certain expenses, such as transportation for the hostages returning to South Korea, but there’s no mention of legal action. Hankyoreh also highlights the “” in protestant churches in South Korea. The CSM has a good article on . On one level, the hostage crisis begins and ends here.South Korean Hostages Released

But then, there’s the Roh administration’s role in this disquieting affair. From an incompetent blunder, created by the lack of proper regulation of foreign travel, the Roh administration created diplomatic blunders far more destructive than the Saemmul 23’s arrogance. Instead of heeding advice not to negotiate with the Taliban, a decision rightly , the Roh administration dispatched an entire diplomatic team, replete with Foreign Ministry officials and a presidential aide, to Kabul. This is where blunder turns into responsibility.

Firstly, according to Al-Jazeera, there are :

Alan Fisher said there had been rumours in the capital that up to $20 million had been paid to secure the release.

“I spoke to one senior Afghan authority who, while not confirming the figure, did say that money was paid – that the South Koreans had paid cash to the Taliban.”

But Qari Mohammad Bashir, a Taliban commander, denied that a ransom had been paid.

“I strongly deny this. It’s not true that money was involved,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley, reporting from South Korea, said: “Most people here [in Seoul] think that South Korea has probably paid a ransom, but that will be debated later when the hostages have returned home safely.”

Secondly, .

“This release under these conditions will make our difficulties in Afghanistan even bigger,” Farhand said German radio station, Bayerischer Rundfunk.

“We fear that this decision could become a precedent. The Taliban will continue trying to take hostages to attain their aims in Afghanistan.”

South Korea also said it had promised to send no more “Christian missionaries” into the Muslim country. For its part, the Taliban dropped its demands for the release of prisoners.

Female South Korean Hostages Escorted by Red Cross In the deadly battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, Seoul gave the Taliban exactly what it needed, .

While there was no sign that they extracted any other concessions, analysts say the Taliban emerged from the crisis with renewed political legitimacy because for the first time since their 2001 ouster they negotiated with a foreign government.

“Taliban now have diplomacy, they have got spokesmen, they value cameras, they have a political dimension for their movement, and their aim is to be recognized as legitimate,” said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

South Korea has denied doing anything wrong, saying it was normal practice to negotiate with hostage takers.

In a WaPo report, .

Abdullah, a top Taliban commander who helped orchestrate the kidnapping, said in a telephone interview that the episode had been a strategic victory. “We showed to the world that the United States is not taking care of its allies in the so-called war on terror,” he said. “We will continue such a strategy to isolate the U.S. and its installed government in Kabul.”

He called kidnapping “a good and cost-effective strategy for putting pressure on the enemy.”

In other words, Seoul’s urgent need to cover up its incompetence trumps all principles. But, then again, aside from its previous support for the Karzai government, as expressed by the deployment of 200 ROK troops in Afghanistan, .

The kidnapping incident has also required that Seoul learn better diplomacy toward Islamic countries located in the Middle East. Despite heightened tension after the Taliban killed two of the captives, the government sought face-to-face meetings with the insurgents, dismissing pressure from the international community not to negotiate with terrorists. In the process, Seoul officials strove to gain support from Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia.

?It must have been a tough decision for the government to seek face-to-face meetings with the Taliban, considering past diplomatic practices,? said Lee Dae-hoon, a member of People?s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy who is working on arms reduction for peace. ?We could give high scores for efforts designed to secure the safe release of its people,? he said, adding that they could be remembered as an important turning point in the nation?s diplomacy with Middle Eastern countries down the road.

This is just an incredible way to spin the .

Lastly, how can Seoul claim the results of the negotiations as anything other than capitulation? The Taliban gains the pledges to withdraw South Korean troops and never to allow Christian missionary work. Seoul receives two less hostages, angers Kabul (and, just about every other government in the world), possibly loses some cash, and picks up an IOU for Saudi Arabia’s and Pakistan’s help. The only positive developments would be the impetus to join some sort of vague Sino-Pakistani alliance in Central Asia and deploying the hedge against Washington’s support for Israel Tokyo so skillfully performs in Muslim Western Asia.

Has Seoul become nothing more than a bit player in yet another alliance its diplomatic incompetence has nothing to offer?

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