Home Alone (Not the Christmas Comedy)

As the Norwegian Gem departed the port of San Juan, I leaned against the rails on the aft deck and marveled at the beauty of the Puerto Rican coastline. The shoreline and the mountainous rainforest beyond were dramatically lit by the setting sun. The sight put me in a reflective mood. And not just me. I had an enjoyable and lengthy conversation with Edwin, a middle-aged Puerto Rican man who has lived for the past seven years in New York City. He told me about his native land and some of its struggles. But, perhaps because of the setting, he turned to larger issues – particularly his personal struggle with faith.

In the presence of such humbling beauty, it was difficult for him to deny God. There was pain in his reflection – regrets, loss, and loneliness. His cruise, one he was on alone, was very different from mine.

He shared that, just this year, three people in his building were found dead. They were discovered not by friends or relatives, but by passersby who noticed the smell coming from their apartments. Edwin was shaken by this, and he shuddered when he noted that the same thing happened all over the city in all cities. I suspect that he fears that this may someday be his fate.

The Christmas season is often tough for people. I suppose those who have no loved ones also have no need of seasonal movies like Home Alone to underscore the value of family. No, that message is for those who lack patience for their crazy cousins, wacky aunts, or neurotic in-laws. Being annoyed is one thing. Missing people is another.

Being alone not only hurts. It can be dangerous, not for only the infirm (or 10-year-olds fighting off burglars), but for anyone. I had a recent discussion about the dynamics of the medical industry in a business meeting. My clients pointed out that one of the major challenges in healthcare is patient adherence with regard to properly taking meds. Here are some of the ill effects of non-compliance (for more, here is the source blog):

My clients reported that a primary reason for non-adherence is that patients often have nobody to help them stay on track. Health care providers are actually developing nursing services to address this need, but they are no substitute for a loved one who lives with the patient.

Of course, many who live alone are just fine. They may even prefer it. I know people like this, and I don’t worry about them. Last week I heard a friend invite another friend who lives alone for Christmas Eve dinner. I’m sure that he appreciates that, and I also suspect that this Christmas will be a little brighter for both of them.

Generally speaking, we are not meant to be alone. What is the worst punishment in our penal system? It isn’t death, but solitary confinement. I haven’t researched it, but it’s not hard to imagine that people find themselves alone for a variety of reasons. I don’t wish to be critical or judgmental about those who find themselves on that path. I have lived alone before, but I’ve never been without family and friends. So I don’t pretend to know what it’s like.

I do believe that the two major success habits, 1) continually add value to those around us, and 2) continually learn and grow, produce many benefits. A reduction of our chances of ending up alone is one of them.

My thoughts and prayers are with Edwin and others who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone for the holidays. Though I believe we are all blessed beyond imagining, it must be difficult to feel it in isolation, while all around you so many others seemingly live Norman Rockwell Christmases. My prayer is that they find peace and joy – that they recognize their gifts and find ways to give them to others.

Advertisements

Chasing the Security Ghost

Fear has always dominated the nation’s political discourse, perhaps never so more than today. In fact, the #1 issue of most concern to primary voters is “Terror,” meaning fear of domestic violence perpetrated by Islamist jihadists. You don’t get more on the nose than that. But fear permeates the remaining slate of issues as well.

Fear is both servant and master. It serves us as an alert to danger and provides an impetus to respond. Properly managed and channeled it can spare us harm. But it is also a volatile tyrant. Unchecked, it rules us and goads us into compromised thoughts and actions that limit choice and rob us of our freedom.

In order to formulate policy and make decisions that minimize these ill effects, we have to think things through a bit. Most people fail to do this. (Perhaps that explains Donald Trump’s frontrunner status in the 2016 GOP presidential primary race.) You and I aren’t like most people in this respect, so we’ll have a closer look.

Consider these condensed results from a recent Gallup Poll:

#1 Issue Gallup Poll Result

(12/2-6/15)

Stakes/Fear
Terrorism 16% Physical security
Dissatisfaction with Leadership 13% Loss of domestic tranquility
Economy in general 9% Financial security
Guns/Gun control 7% Physical security
Moral decline 6% Loss of domestic tranquility
Crime/violence 6% Physical security
Situation in Iraq/ISIS 6% Physical security
Unemployment/Jobs 6% Financial security
Immigration/Illegal Aliens 5% Financial and physical security
National Security 5% Financial and physical security
Poverty/Homelessness 4% Financial and physical security
Racism/Race relations 4% Loss of domestic tranquility

 

Respondents answered the following question: What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today? The results represent a significant shift from just the previous month, where Terrorism rated a 3% response and the Economy in General rated a 17%. Gun Control more than doubled from the more typical 3% level it rated in November. Race Relations have calmed from a high of 9% this past summer.

The Stakes/Fear section is my added analysis. I realize that each issue may not fit exactly into each category, but it seems evident that we now have three main fears. They are, in order of stated priority, fear of violence, fear of financial struggle, and fear of losing a society that has a bright future for generations to come.

These top three fears are instructive. They are like a job review for President Obama and the Congress. Based upon these results, their grades are failing. In considering a new policy direction, we must first look at the principles that guide us.

Politicians, both today and throughout history, promise safety and security. This is proper because, especially in the case of the President, it is a primary responsibility. But it is not their ultimate responsibility.

The President swears, above all else, to uphold the Constitution. That is because the Founders knew where fear takes people. (Hint: it’s not a good place.) So our Executive must provide security, but do so within Constitutional restrictions. There have been breeches – Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, FDR rounded up Japanese and German Americans without cause, etc. Today, we are in danger of again veering into extra-Constitutional territory. For instance, an important element of the ongoing national security debate is the degree to which government should be empowered to spy on its citizens.

In discussions like this, I have not heard much mention of the nature of security. Security is, in actuality, a phantasm. It never really exists, at least not completely. Life is a risky proposition. No government can change that. What we think of as security is actually a relative value. We feel safe relative to expectations that we have developed.

Sometimes those expectations are inflated and we feel unrealistically safe. Other times dangers are overstated and our fears are relatively unfounded. To be fully responsible citizens we must educate ourselves so that our fears are properly proportioned and directed. Ideally, elections would help us do that. In many ways they don’t.

Those vested in the current leadership structure exaggerate their performance and make false claims about the effectiveness of their policies. Those on the outside who seek the reigns exaggerate both the dangers and the effectiveness of their alternative approach. A free press is supposed to help us sort through the morass to see the issues with greater clarity. This does happen, but it takes work on our part to hear through the cacophony of partisanship.

With a clear eye towards the actual dimensions of threats, we face another decision. What is the proper ratio between risk reduction and sacrifice in lifestyle? After all, each dollar spent on security, each policy that diverts resources from a creative avenue to something else, and each restriction upon personal liberty is a sacrifice. We make these sacrifices in the belief that there is a commensurate return. If the return is negligible, the sacrifices are unjust.

The focus of Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate was national security. The discussion was detailed and the differences among the candidates were stark. Some, like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie, talk tough and draw hard lines against threats. Others, like Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina, suggest nuance and care. Both approaches have advantages and drawbacks.

A government can keep us safe from other governments. We can maintain a powerful military that deters large-scale threat. Government can also make it difficult for criminals to be successful with a robust justice system and effective policing operations. But what government can never do, at least in a free society, is ensure that we will never be personally attacked and never face financial hardship.

But to a significant extent, security comes from within.

Despite erosion from the political left, we have the Second Amendment to the Constitution to keep us safe from tyranny and to empower us to protect ourselves against those who might want to physically harm us. The gun, though it gets a bad name in today’s media, is a great friend to the law abiding. It empowers those who lack physical strength or martial skill. An armed populace presents great risk and deterrence to invaders and criminals, be they conventional or terrorist.

For financial security, government can and does provide assistance programs. Sometimes these provide significant benefit, but they also cause unintentional harm. I believe that true financial security comes from two simple disciplines: a) adding value to others each and every day, and b) continual learning and development so that tomorrow you’re more capable than you are today.

Facing fear is a necessary part of life. It is an essential part of the maturation process. We either rise above our fears to make them serve us or we become the slaves. When we are subservient to our fears, we accept more restrictions upon our freedoms and lifestyle. We more readily give our power over to government. We’re quicker to hate and slower to love those who may be different from us. We more readily accept limitations and are less likely to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles.

Whether you live this way or not is a personal choice. It’s perhaps the most important one of your life.

Barbarians in the Gates

We left New York harbor on the Norwegian Gem cruise ship on November 23. It was a clear crisp evening and the view of the NYC skyline and points of interest was riveting. We were escorted down the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty, and beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by two gunboats and two armed helicopters. I don’t know if there was a particular threat to which the authorities were responding or whether this has become standard procedure for large passenger ships traversing the port of New York City. But it stood out to us as evidence that our world is not as it was just a short time ago. For me it underscored the importance of defeating terrorism.

The week before we left, Paris had been shot up by Islamic jihadists. The day before we were to arrive back home, a jihadist couple killed 14 people and injured many more in San Bernardino, California. Jihadist violence is and will continue to be on the march. Radical Islamists around the world rejoice as the rest of the world mourns the deaths, injuries, and suffering of the innocent. Our leaders, along with many media commentators, show their myopia about the nature of the challenge – none more starkly than President Obama and presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Critics of Obama claim that he fundamentally underestimates and/or misunderstands the threat and persists with policy that helps the jihadist cause. This is evidenced by:

  1. His refusal to name the threat as Islamist
  2. His premature removal of American forces in Iraq, which led directly to the creation of ISIL and the establishment of a new caliphate (territory controlled by Islamists)
  3. The release of hundreds of dangerous jihadists from our military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, many of whom have returned to their cause and have killed and injured American soldiers
  4. His challenge and subsequent backing down to the Assad government in Syria which harmed our credibility, aided in jihadist recruitment, and opened the door for the expansion of Russian and Iranian aggression in the region
  5. His generous stance toward Iran, especially in freeing personal assets for known bad actors and clearing a path for their development of nuclear weaponry
  6. His antipathy towards Israel, the only true ally America has in the region
  7. A half-hearted prosecution of air attacks against ISIS targets, wherein American sorties run a meager 12-30 missions per day and release munitions fewer than 25% of the time
  8. His insistence upon bringing Syrian refugees to the United States despite CIA warnings that they cannot be properly vetted
  9. His refusal to tighten security along the Mexican border despite its use by jihadists to enter the U.S.
  10. His rhetorical response to terrorist actions whereby he constantly: a) downplays the scope of the threat, b) admonishes against discrimination toward moderate Muslims, c) uses the opportunity to push the politics of gun control , and perhaps most significantly, d) refuses to admit that policy changes may be prudent.

Those who see things the same way as does Obama look upon Donald Trump’s recent remarks, along with his overall political approach, with a mix of revulsion, incredulity, and amusement. Just this week Trump issued a statement calling for a moratorium on all Muslims entering America. In the resulting hailstorm of criticism from Democrat and Republican political rivals, he clarified that this only applied to non-citizen Muslims who do not currently live in the U.S. But he hedged that stance, citing a Real Clear Politics poll suggesting that as many as 25% of Muslims in America are sympathetic to jihadist goals.

Those familiar with Trump’s methods see what he’s doing here. He uses inflammatory statements such as this to: a) control the media cycle (he’s received more than double the coverage of his nearest competitor for airtime – Hillary Clinton), b) establish an extreme initial position as a negotiation tactic, and c) distance himself from rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, in this case claiming the ground that he is the candidate most serious about protecting American lives.

Critics of Trump (and others in the Republican presidential race) claim that their approach is inflammatory, would lead toward widespread war, promotes racial and religious discord, and violates the constitutional rights of many Americans. This is evidenced by:

  1. Their calls for screening and/or profiling American and non-American Muslims
  2. Costly, both in blood and treasure, policy proposals that would ramp up military efforts in ISIL- controlled Syria and Iraq
  3. Their alienating non-radical Muslims with harsh rhetoric
  4. Aiding jihadist recruiting efforts by increasing the profile of America as a natural enemy
  5. Their willingness to turn our backs to Muslims who are suffering the ravages of war in Syria by denying refugees sanctuary in America
  6. Their blind backing of Israel despite its aggression towards Palestinians
  7. Their seeming not to care about the plight of illegal immigrants in America and their U.S. –born citizen children
  8. Their vilification of natural rivals such as Russia and China which increases the risks of conflict

The space between these two polarities is quite an ideological gulf. Both have some rationale. But both omit important considerations. If we are to elect leaders with better developed worldviews and policies, we need to think things through ourselves. Among the things we all must consider are:

  • How prevalent is the jihadist view amongst the worldwide Muslim population?
  • What is the likelihood and scope of future attacks if we continue our current course?
  • What are the ramifications of a reduction of American influence and power in the Middle East?
  • What steps can we take to reduce the allure of the jihadist viewpoint?
  • Left as a viable entity, what threat does ISIL present to America over the long term?
  • Is there a way for Muslims, Arabs, and other non-American powers to address the jihadist threat without a major American commitment? If so, why isn’t it happening and what must be done to make it happen?
  • How much expense, in terms of resources and sacrifices in freedom and lifestyle, is appropriate to nullify the jihadist threat? If we decide to tolerate a small amount of threat, how much?
  • Can we afford a nuclear-armed Iran? If not, what are we willing to do to stop it?

These are not simple questions and there are no simple answers. As we established, smart people arrive at very different conclusions. In order to come to a more cohesive and effective policy stance, we must openly and honestly examine our values. Fortunately, elections are a perfect way to do this. Unfortunately, the Machine (the Democrat and Republican parties, media, and vested interests) are not interested in the discussion. It’s up to you and me.

In order to do so productively, we must understand the history and dynamics at play. Sadly, most Americans are not well equipped for this task, not because they are unable, but because they are unwilling or do not have the level of education needed to wrestle with the issue. This is okay. It’s why we’re a Republic, not a Democracy. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility as citizens is to know enough to choose our leaders wisely.

So we must familiarize ourselves with the basics. Here’s a quick rundown.

First, jihadist aggression is nothing new. Fundamentalist belief in the teachings of Mohammad means the intolerance of opposition and the call to bring sharia law to every corner of the globe. This worldview requires submission and is the near polar opposite of the values upon which America was founded. What is new is the means by which this goal may be accomplished.

We also must grasp the power dynamics in the Middle East. The nations that exist today were imposed upon the area in the wake of the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France in the wake of World War I. The Arabs longed for self-rule, and largely achieved it within the new nations. Complicating the picture is the enmity between the three major sects of Islam – Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd. These populations are not contained within the nations but are spread throughout the region. They represent the major factions that are fighting in Syria today.

Another irritant is the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. The area that Israel occupies was for centuries only important for religious reasons. The few Palestinians who lived there were nomadic and sparse and lived a hard-scrabble existence. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Jews began settling the region en masse throughout the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They lived a different lifestyle and held different values. Those values led to rapid economic development of the area, and the population exploded.

In the wake of the Holocaust, to protect the Jewish people from further aggression, the nations of the world recognized Israel as a legitimate nation of its own. This has never been tolerable to the Arab world, and has been a source of conflict over the past 70 years.

Another seminal event in the rise of modern jihadism was the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran under the feckless foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. Iran, despite inevitable abuse of power by the Shah, was well on its way to becoming a modern state ready to join the civilized world. Instead it became a terror-supporting Shi’a theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. That legacy plagues the western world to this day.

President Obama sees jihadists as a relatively minor threat. He believes that they are few in number and are not likely to amass significant destructive capability. Approximately 25% of Americans basically agree.

Donald Trump sees jihadists as a growing and significant threat. He believes that if they are not thwarted sooner rather than later, great harm will befall our country. Approximately 75% of Americans agree.

9/11 proved our vulnerability. It is much easier to destroy than create. If a perpetrator is willing to sacrifice him- or her-self, there is little a free society can do to completely prevent attacks. Some of these attacks are likely to be devastating, especially as chemical, biological, or radioactive weaponry becomes available. The reality is that a handful of people could possibly wipe out a city.

Whatever path we choose, we will not prevent all attacks. But it is the primary responsibility of the federal government to keep us as safe as possible.

There is no right for a non-American to enter America. They do so at our pleasure. Our values are such that we prefer to limit no one. We of course prefer peace to war. It’s unfathomable to us that there are people, both abroad and amongst us, who would like to cut off our heads, kill our children in front of our eyes, rape and torture – shoot, maim, and destroy – simply because we do not accept their worldview. But it is the truth.

The barbarians are in the gates. The question for all of is – what are we willing to do to stop them?