Conversation About War

Conversation About War

Me  "Where are you from?"
Me "I'm sorry"
Me: "How do you sleep?"
"I couldn't for a while, but then I got my family out.  Actually, it was a colleague from Sarajevo who said 'you won't see it coming; get them out now.'  So we moved even though Aleppo was believed to be safe at the time, nowhere near the fighting. They are in Dubai now.  We watched my mother's house be destroyed on youtube. It was all full of soldiers, six stories, and the rebels had dug a tunnel under it and wanted to show it being demolished so filmed it with a drone.  And we watched it just collapse and they were all cheering and we said 'but that's my mother's house.'  But I know I did something, I did what I could, I made a change, and so I can sleep.'"
Me:  "Sometimes I can't sleep."

I had that conversation some time ago and had expected to post it here without further comment, but I checked with my conversant first given some of the details, and they asked that I embargo the post until a little more water was under the bridge.  So I set a note to myself to release this post in early December, and that note scrolled up my todo list 1 Dec.  I then reread the above with horror, because now the conversation between the Syrian and a Bosnian it reported, I'd just had numerous of exactly that kind of conversation myself for the first time.  Here in the US, about the US.  It had actually been a few weeks earlier, immediately after the US election.  Mostly those conversations were with colleagues from predominantly Muslim countries, or about to marry Muslims, who were afraid they or their relatives wouldn't be able to cross the US border anymore (a disaster for academics).  But I'd also had that conversation with pro-reproductive-choice activists, with ethnic minorities born and raised in America, and just people who have another passport instead of or in addition to an American one – like me.

No one expects to be immediately at risk.  Well, some of my colleagues were calculating the exact number of weeks it would take to enact existing legislation to ban their freedom of movement.  But any of us can look at countries like Turkey, Hungary, the UK, and Poland that have had very similar recent elections and ask – will that day come, when our president elect does what he says he will do and we will be out of a job, or even enemies of the state?

You may think that doesn't sound like America, that America is different from the rest of the world.  It is, or at least it is in that it has been.  At the end of WWII, the USA had a larger GDP than the rest of the world combined.  We were exceptional.  But assuming economies are denominated by currencies not nations, the euro zone passed the dollar zone in 2007, and China passed the Euro zone in 2015, putting the US in third.  Now the three zones combined are half the world's GDP.  Further, Europe now has at least as good, probably better social mobility than the USA. That is, if you are poor you no longer necessarily want to leave Europe to come to the USA and seek your fortune, you might want to do it the other way around.  America is getting less exceptional, which is probably a good thing, because it means the world is getting fairer.

But still I never expected to be reading an article like this essay by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder of 20 suggestions for how to defend Democracy in America.  I know it may seem difficult to see the difference between this kind of article and the kind of perverse alarmism that media propagated about the threat of having an African-American academic for a president. But we're not really in a post-fact world, you can read the evidence supporting all of Snyder's recommendations in recent history. Both the words and post-election actions of our president elect indicate our democracy is under threat. This isn't just about one man or one year.  North Carolina hit the headlines for having a democracy as weak as Cuba's or Iran's, but then it came out that many other American states' democracies were worse.

The last line of Snyder's 16th suggestion (learn from other countries) is "Make sure you and your family have passports."  In other words, "you won't see it coming; [be ready to] get them out now."

Taree' al Bab "Aleppo" where the SKUD bombed, 3 March 2013. Credit: Basma, license OGL
Vedran Smailović playing on top of the ruins of the Bosnian National library (in 1992) Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev license CC BY-SA 3.0