Ambushed!

International work, medical or otherwise, is dangerous. Maybe only a little more dangerous than normal American life, maybe quite a lot. A long-term Christian missionary doing really, really good work was gunned down in Haiti just today.

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About as remote as it gets.

I myself have done relief work in Haiti. One of the places I worked is located in the hills of a village-esque area called Noyau. This place is about as remote from civilized life as I can recall being in my life.

After an hour of 4WD driving on extremely-rough dirt switchbacks up a mountainside, we pulled on packs and hiked for another hour+ to reach the area of our clinic. If something went wrong out there, the time required to receive aid would exceed 4 hours easily. Assuming emergency crews had access to a 4WD vehicle, which is doubtful.

I recall thinking, as well over 100 Hatians stared at us zipping ourselves into our expensive tents and sleeping bags at the end of a clinic day, how honorable they were as a people. They had hiked for many hours to find our clinic, and often the only thing we had to offer them upon their arrival was a few TUMS tablets. Frequently their medical problems were either too complex for us to help with, or, more commonly, we simply didn’t have the medicine or procedural ability they needed.

But they could have robbed us. Selling our nice North Face and Sierra Designs gear would have fetched an impressive price in Port au Prince. Furthermore, they could have kidnapped us and held us for ransom. Now we’re talking real money. Until they talked to my wife, who would probably say something like, “Take ‘im. Never does the dishes anyway.”

We were totally vulnerable in that village. But the reason, I believe, nothing bad happened was simply because most Hatians are good people. Honorable people. Honorable, even, by my wealthy American standards, where respect for property and life is alive and well. They let me keep my nice tent, even though they couldn’t be sure of their next meal.

Similarly, while working in the Galatsia camp on our 3rd day in Athens, I ended up in an extremely vulnerable position. Again, we came out unscathed largely because most people are, quite simply, good.

Prior to entering the camp, I asked one of my team members with military training to effectively serve as our “security.” He took his role seriously: identifying sight-lines, exits, areas of risk, areas of relative safety. He developed rudimentary emergency plans, identified key leaders in the facility and communicated escape plans to our team.

But for some reason, when I was asked to leave our clinic to go see a patient reportedly too sick to walk to us, I didn’t think to ask our security guy to come with us. In “medical mode,” it’s difficult to think in “safety mode” too. Our task is to meet needs, not protect ourselves, and the thinking between the two is often very different.

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See all the people? That lady in blue is an aide worker. Behind me was a large room, a courtyard, and a line of police. I thought we were going here.

I also believed we would be going to one of the large rooms with lots of people, located near the entrances, near the police, organizers, aides and managers.

That’s not where we went.

Led by the sick woman’s husband, we walked down corridor after corridor. Branching off from each of the primary hallways were other halls, down which I saw a half-dozen young Middle Eastern men, crouched against the wall, all looking at me. The halls were strewn with trash, cell phones hanging by cords from every available outlet. I heard yelling, some laughing, but mostly saw numerous drawn, emotionless, bored faces. There was no joy.

I went with our clinic organizer (a Persian woman who organized the whole medical clinic, speaks numerous languages, and knows what she’s doing) and, as luck would have it, the pastor of the local Calvary Chapel we’re working with who saw us wandering away and followed. So at least I wasn’t alone.

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This happened in the Philippines just last month. However improbable, we could have rounded the corner and found guns and flags, not a patient.

But after the 3rd corridor, and up a large flight of stairs, then outside the building and then back into it and around a corner, I knew that if someone wanted to do us harm, they would have succeeded. We’d followed this guy like ducklings.

But he didn’t harm us. All the man wanted was to know if his wife would be OK, and if it might be possible to get her on her feet by that evening, in hiking condition. He intended to continue his journey into Europe as soon as he could.

I diagnosed viral gastroenteritis and told him she may be ready to roll by that evening, but giving it another day or two would be better. He clearly intended to leave that night, despite what I’d said.

Later, of course, we laughed about this. Our team leader, Sahar, laughed at me for being so worried.

But the truth is that there is no way to do this work without incurring some amount of risk. Usually the risk is small, thanks largely to the fact that although there is terror and violence in the world, most humans on this planet are good, fairly honest people. Most are just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.

As are we all.

My Take On The Politics

There certainly isn’t universal agreement on the refugee crisis. In fact to some, the term “crisis” is itself questionable. Many have described this as an outright “Muslim Invasion” of Europe.

As I attend a Calvary Chapel, where simplicity of thought reigns supreme, here is my super-simple take on the political side of this, using a bit of alphabet soup.

I recognize points in the following argument that lack nuance; I do not purport to know answers to this crisis. I can only say that the below line of thinking is viable enough to justify, to myself, the work we are doing here:

Say you come across a guy who has been walking, hiking, crawling from point A for the past year. He has lost half of his family and most of his money on the journey.

His intention is to reach point Z. But you meet him at point T. He is cold, wet, hungry, possibly sick and terrified especially of what awaits him should he return to points A-P(ish).

Given his determination to reach point Z, do you REALLY think ignoring him at point T will discourage him from reaching his goal? Furthermore, those of us comfortably sitting at point Z, do we want to receive multitudes of people who were ignored, possibly abused, at all points along the way?

Most of our larger endeavors in life are gambles. There is no way to know the outcome of our actions until we look back later and see how things turned out. We can’t know how the Western world will change as a result of these things happening today.

And so in this, one the greatest crises ever seen by the combined Western and Eastern worlds, bets need to be made.

As such I bet on love and kindness. Rarely, if ever, do these things result in loss.

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FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2013 file photo, a Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son, killed by the Syrian Army, near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Almost a quarter-century ago, a young American political scientist achieved global academic celebrity by proclaiming that the collapse of communism had ended the discussion on how to run societies, leaving "Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." In Egypt and around the Middle East, after a summer of violence and upheaval, the discussion, however, is still going strong. And almost three years into the Arab Spring revolts, profound uncertainties remain. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

Movie Review – Avatar

I enjoyed myself fully last night as I entered the world of ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic that already handily broke a 1 billion-dollar landmark record of some kind.  I’d watch the show again tonight if I could.  I’d probably watch it every night for a week like my high school buddies did for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” once upon a time.

You don’t have to care – or understand – the point of the movie to completely enjoy the stunning visual spectacle presented in wide-screen, 3D wonder.  In fact, I’d advise constraining yourself specifically to the visual effects and skip putting any real thought to the message of the movie.  In essence, just sing along with the song, but don’t think about what the words actually mean.

The story follows an ex-Marine named Jake as he becomes part of a mission to subjugate – or at least translocate – the natives on a strange new planet (a moon actually, but does it matter?).  On the n0t-so-subtly-named Pandora, the “aliens” congregate around an enormous tree set in the middle of a seemingly endless forest.  They stand about 11 feet tall, with blue skin and luminous yellow eyes and they all seem to carry bow and arrows and daggers.  These blue and tall but otherwise disappointingly human-shaped beings generally seem happiest when attending their frequent tribe-wide drum fests – with a terminally simplistic 2/4 beat rhythm that sounds like it might have been pounded out on cool Senegalese drums the Anglo orchestra bought in bulk.

These earthy aliens have a sacred, mystical, spiritual connection to the forest where they live; generally behaving like any nature-loving tribe the Europeans successfully decimated a little over a century ago in North America.  In a complete creative hiatus, at one point nature is even called a “mother”.  Why not a father, or brother, or just skip the nuclear family reference to nature entirely?  The descriptor ‘Mother Earth’ is so unoriginal, it ranks up there with Bless You and Dot Com.

Although 2 hours and something like 40 minutes, you can easily sum up the movie in one phrase: “Dances With Wolves”…but with pterodactyls you can ride.

Basically – Marine makes contact with natives through project financed by aggressive and ethics-challenged Big Business company.  Marine plans on helping his financiers destroy said natives.  Instead, he inadvertently falls in love with natives in general, and one curvaceous native in particular.  He then becomes the enemy of his former bosses, ultimately leading the meek, dumb, dark-skinned simpletons to victory over superior white man.

I haven’t decided if this REALLY tired theme of the White Male swooping down into a primitive race, seeing their genuine good, and then becoming their Great Savior is completely racist.  Some are saying it absolutely is.  I don’t really think that was the intent.  I just think it was lazy writing by a white male who deep-down believes that white men are still the best hope for the world.  That they still run it, ultimately.  But it is possible that white men really don’t have much to offer the world anymore – that we’ve had our time and made our mark.  Maybe it’s time for some non-white, non-men to run the countries, write the laws, own the companies and save fictional worlds.  Maybe the white boy has done about all he can.

Big Business takes a major hit in this movie.  It gets portrayed as the denizen of all Evil in life.  That said, it’s Big Business that has paid for every iota of scientific discovery that has occurred on Pandora.  The science taking place on this moon (and taking place on our earth) is an elevated form of existence, no question, but in both worlds it mostly exists because of Big Business, either directly or through taxes.  Scientists – and artists – need to accept the fact that to live in that enlightened world of thought and wonder and possibility depends on their benefactor’s mundane ability to sell widgets.  Big Business is rarely genuinely evil.  True, figuring out when to inject some profit-endangering humanistic principles into a business plan does takes some skill and is occasionally gotten wrong. But for the most part, if business didn’t make the poet, at least it feeds him.

The actual “avatar” is a living being made to look like the aliens, but controlled by the mind of a human.  The human links to the avatar neurologically, so it can only be controlled by one specific human.  Thus, the human lies in a coffin-like body-pod that connects him/her to their specific avatar.  Upon falling into a coma in the pod, the avatar wakes up and the mind of the comatose human controls it.

Soohh...who gets to clean this thing?

The doc in me couldn’t help but get hung up on this part of the movie.  First, all humans need to sleep.  But since the avatar wakes up as soon as the human “sleeps”, and since controlling the avatar is a conscious process, the human never actually does sleep.  For some evolutionary reason I can’t fathom, REM sleep is the foundation of all life.  This inconvenient fact defies even the mighty pen of James Cameron.  By the end of the movie, after staying awake vicariously with the characters, I felt like I’d been on call in the hospital for days on end (felt like I was back in residency again).

Also, the human lays in this coffin thing for hours and hours.  At the least, he’s gotta pee himself on a regular basis, to say nothing of the inevitable bowel movement here and there.  Plus, the main character’s avatar hooks up with the sexy female alien.  Depicted as the first consummating night of an eternal love bond – thus likely a multicoital affair – envisioning the scene (and smell) inside the pod after this particular night left me a bit squeamish.

As mentioned, the power of this movie is in the visuals.  It is a “looker” many times over.  But the general message is tired, probably slightly racist, and denigrates the U.S. Military (or at least leads the audience to exult in the widespread slaughter of American soldiers/mercenaries).  That said, perhaps our culture really should take the main theme of the story to heart.  After all, we DID decimate the Native American culture, and based on my experiences on the Crow Reservation in Montana, I’d say we continue to.  We’re also strikingly obtuse in our dealings with tribal cultures in the Middle East today.  Listening to people from a different culture – rather than melting them with daisycutters and circling drones – has some merit.

But I do wish the movie had added a little post-modernism into the mix and eschewed the evil-good idea altogether.  It didn’t have to pit the American Axis of Evil (big business + U.S. Army) against a pristine tribal culture practically perfect in every way.  Historic Native American tribes were often duplicitous, aggressive, thieving and hateful (many still are today).  They rarely trusted each other from tribe to tribe and may have been just as irresponsible had one tribe attained the raw power that the U.S. Government currently has.  The Arab tribes we’re tangling with recently have a litany of faults and cobwebby dark corners too.  But they are also a just, priceless, sacred, honorable people.  This dichotomy exists in virtually every race in our world.  Americans seem to hate this complexity in our fiction – it’s easier to hate one thing and love another and then watch them duke it out.

Yeah, YEAH! Die lame-oh Americans! Wait, didn't an American make this movie?

Thus, the conflict in the movie could have been between two parties filled with faults and frailties but ultimately imbued with genuine honor, honesty and a respect for the rights of others.  Standing between them is something they both deeply need and want (trees, mineral ore…whatever).  In life, conflicts almost always boil down to two parties who both have blood on their hands, but both are essentially good, honorable…and in the right.  e.g., Palestine wants the land, Israel wants the land, both have been evil at times, both have been angelically good at times, and each have some form of legitimate claim to the exact space of real estate.  Stick that conundrum in your avatar’s virtual peace pipe and take a deep drag, nature-brother.

Depicting this nuanced world may have weakened the sense of righteous rage as the Army went Operation Flatten Everything.  It may have lessened the gloating release when the Ultimate Bad Guy finally met his ignominious end.  But it would have made a better movie.  It would have made the written story as complex as those fantastic visuals, and created a worthy counterpart to such a sparkling, wondrous vision.