Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Silence = Death

Thirty years ago, on April 23rd, 1984, the word went forth that AIDS had a viral cause and we knew what it was. What had once been called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) had spiraled out of control in America since it first surfaced in 1981. Three years later, as Dr. James O. Mason of the C.D.C. announced the identity of the viral agent, more than 4,000 people carried it within their bodies or had already left their bodies at its direction. In those three years, over 1,800 Americans were destroyed by AIDS. Their President would publicly speak the name of their killer only in 1985 and would not hold a press conference on the issue until 1987.

Silence in the face of HIV is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it was Americans who helped shatter that silence and inspire others to do so around the world. The excellent 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague, follows ACT UP and TAG as they found their voice in a world that wanted to ignore the suffering of so-called deviants--gay men and IV drug users--while the rest of America still felt safe. While not all the movement's voices rang in chorus at all times, their cry for help, for respect, for action resounded beyond protest sites and into the world's most powerful halls.

Others survived the epidemic as the world fell away around them--neighborhoods lost as neighbors collapsed into wheelchairs and caskets. We Were Here, a 2013 Emmy nominee, connects with five witnesses to the horror of the Castro's disintegration in San Francisco and shares their memories of the communities and friends that were lost in the desperate years before the miraculous triple cocktail. Nurses, flower sellers, and political organizers all shared a nightmare that most turned away from in disgust or despair.

Of course, HIV and AIDS didn't start or stop in the United States. Frontline created a record of the pandemic for the 25th anniversary of the disease that enveloped the world and traces its path from the Congo to the Castro and beyond. The Age of AIDS is no less virulent for the passing of a few years. It starkly yet sympathetically examines the responses to the crisis at home and abroad that all too often fell short but occasionally inspire tears of pride for the courage of leaders in office and out.

61,816 people reportedly died of AIDS in the year of my birth, 1988. By then, the syndrome had become the third-leading cause of death for American men between 25 and 44 years of age. Today, more than 35 million people around the world live with the virus, almost as many as the 36 million who are estimated to have died from AIDS-related causes.

On that day in 1984, H.H.S. Secretary Margaret Heckler declared that a vaccine was expected within two years. We have yet to find a cure, in spite of all the protests, the declarations, the speeches. That said, silence was worse. Far worse.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

For the Fulbright, For the Future

I received a Fulbright to study public nutrition in Germany in 2011. That experience allowed me to learn another language, explore another culture, and share my slice of America with another continent. I was one of roughly 1,600 American scholars who receive funding each year.

I know several friends in other countries who hope to receive Fulbright grants to study in the US and join 4,000 students from around the world who aspire to benefit from our universities and develop skills that can support their homelands and enrich the United States as well.

Foreign aid and diplomatic outreach are among the most effective and worthy projects undertaken by our national government. It’s easy to cut a bridge that doesn’t land in a constituent’s back yard, but those bridges are what ennoble America and tie it to the aspirations of people around the world.

If we become a guns and butter country, unwilling to lift people towards their dreams because they weren’t born American, then we will have failed the vision that we hold dear. Our city on a hill will loom, not welcome; fester, not flourish.

We owe it to future generations to support a positive American presence in the world. 8,000 people each year are brighter, wiser, and stronger thanks to the support of the American government and a world’s worth of partners.

The world isn’t ready for our light to go softly behind walls of ignorance and insouciance. In this age of doubt, distrust, and despair, connections made between different peoples are among the beacons of light that keep our world aglow in possibilities for a better tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Secrecy and Trust in Surveilled Times

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, former Secretary of State, Henry Stimson declared "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail," when asked about his decision to close the State Department's code-breaking office in 1929. The US was at peace until 1941, but active intelligence gathering before that December 7th might have thwarted Japan's infamous surprise attack.

Espionage is a preventative measure, seeking to catch those who would do us harm before triggers are pulled and civilians or their nation's interests are hurt. As such, spying should remain secret so as to make it effective. Snowden, whatever his intent, is exposing and wounding the very agencies that seek out threats from those who target our embassies overseas and our public spaces at home.

We live in a Republic governed by a constitution written to preserve essential liberties, such as freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. We are still discovering how that 18th century language applies to 21st century methods and the unprecedented surveillance made possible by modern technology. Our Republic places that exploration in the hands of our elected representatives, the courts, and the bureaucracy of the executive branch.

Abuses of power, corruption, individual or systemic abuses deserve to be exposed, but it should be done in a manner to minimize the damage to legitimate practices—approved by Congress, overseen by courts, and carefully calibrated by cadres of intelligent intelligence lawyers. I don't think Snowden’s leaks meet that standard—for all the good that some of his revelations may do.

We as citizens shouldn’t expect or hope to know all that is done in our name. Some element of trust is involved in governance, and when that trust is violated through illegal behavior it needs to be curtailed and the government must hold itself and its agents accountable. In turn, voters in a functioning republic hold their representatives accountable for impropriety or failure. The United States doesn’t use public referenda and breaking-news popular opinion to run its intelligence agencies—one hopes.

It is clear that the NSA stretched its authority, made errors, and didn’t always appropriately manage the power that it accrued. Questions must be asked: about NSA’s relationship with the FISA court, about the merits and value of metadata collection, about the security clearance system and contractors’ participation in our intelligence bureaucracy, about Director of National Intelligence  James Clapper’s congressional testimony (his general counsel’s perspective illustrates how context matters in considering allegations). The investigations to answer these questions don’t require or excuse the exposure of the methods and sources of our intelligence successes.

We don’t live in a world of gentlemen, and Snowden’s leaks don’t show America at its purest. But his disclosures haven’t revealed the kind of lawbreaking uncovered in Hoover’s FBI; they haven’t matched the illegal executive actions of Iran-Contra; they haven’t threatened President Obama with impeachment or the courts with a constitutional crisis. Unless or until abuses of that caliber emerge from Snowden’s well-stocked laptops, our government should focus on cleaning up intelligence practices to protect against breaches of conduct where they exist and begin restoring secrecy to our nation’s antennae.