Everyone says I look like Rachel Corrie now.
For the first time since elementary school I’ve chopped off my long locks and opted for a short hairstyle, and arrived in the office on Thursday morning with my brand new do. And for all the shorthaired celebrities I can think of in the world, I was at a loss in my co-workers’ association game.
“Rachel Corrie?” I inquired, “Who is that?”
Though it’s normally my role to pop-quiz on international relations in the office, the guys of Rumah Cemara looked at my quizzically, as if I had missed some major history lesson or newscast.
“She’s an American!” Acil said, as if asserting her nationality as one with my own would spark my failing memory. But I still pulled a blank.
We had been discussing the Gaza aid flotilla and Israel’s horrifically unacceptable behavior in killing 9 aboard, and Rachel Corrie seemed to have something to do with the topic at hand.
“I give up”, I said, and opened myself up to an equally horrific story of murder at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force.
Rachel was a shorthaired, American human rights activist, and the same age as me (23) in 2003 when she left college in Washington to volunteer in Gaza as an activist for defending the rights of Palestinians – without pay, without recognition. When an Israeli bulldozer attempted to destroy the home of an innocent Palestinian family, Rachel bravely stood in its way to prevent the demolition. Soullessly driving forth, the Israeli bulldozer plowed over Rachel in a brutal act of homicide, later blaming her for placing herself in the danger of a war-zone.
“Your country didn’t do anything then either”, Acil taunted, criticizing the United States’ failure to condemn Israel in this past week’s violation of human rights on peaceful international waters.
And I can understand if Indonesians have a tendency to taunt my nation this week, not only for our failure to defend international human rights treaties, but also for a second cancellation of the long await trip of Barack Obama to his childhood home of Indonesia.
Obama had promised a visit in March, canceled because of the impending Health Care bill, and even then his visit had been met as equally with excitement as with resentment. Many Indonesians are as proud as Obama-supporting Americans to see him take office, ecstatic that the roots of his education trace back to their own nation and culture. However many Indonesians, perhaps just as many, label him as they did President Bush before him, a “war President”, who continues to oversee violence and destruction across the world’s Muslim populations, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a predominantly Muslim nation, Indonesia seems as anti-Israel as they come, as evidenced by the mass protests in the past few days burning Israeli flags along with effigies of Israeli leadership and soldiers. No Obama effigies yet, though frustration is mounting at his latest cancellation, which seems to say to the 4th most populous nation in the world (behind China, India, and the U.S.) that they are not quite important enough for a Presidential visit.
I would assume the irony that, like most power-wielding people, President Obama’s schedule is largely made for him, and to blame him as a person for the latest cancellation would be a bit unfair. After living in Indonesia for an incredibly satisfying nine months, I imagine he is dying to get back as well, especially if it would involve any kind of downtime with Michelle and the girls.
Something I think is more in Obama’s control is his reaction to Israel’s defiance of human rights standards. There are surely millions of Israel-sympathizing Jews and non-Jews in America who would disagree with him for doing so, and plenty of politic strategists would tell him that speaking out against Israel would ruin decades of relationship-building, and risk losing the strongest ally America has in the tumultuous Middle East. Yet Obama has the privilege as President of vetoing that advice, of taking a bold stand to defend justice, and truly allow American values to flourish worldwide. Isn’t democracy building the entire point of our presence in the Mideast anyway? How can we allow an out of control killer like Israel continue this streak without a sanction?
Sometimes day-to-day with Rumah Cemara, it feels like words can be so meaningless compared to the huge volume of action that needs to be done. And indeed, at times spoken promises just feel political, and cheap.
However hearing Rachel Corrie’s story, and reflecting on the past week’s events, reminds me that in some cases, when tragic actions that have already happened that were out of one’s control at the time, responsible verbal responses can actually be a powerful way to evoke some semblance of logic, reason, and establishment of priorities and values that can prevent future atrocities – and prevent exceptionalism that inevitably comes back to haunt the pardoner.
Rachel Corrie, in her martyrdom (intentional or not) defended American ideals of individual freedoms more than any U.S. President in history. So are people in the highest positions of power simply, and forgivably, limited in their actions, and even their words?
Perhaps, but what about Gandhi, who put himself and his family through physical turmoil to prove his point of non-violent resistance, which has become an international movement that keeps the world from warring itself to pieces. Or Martin Luther King, Jr., who risked and endured assassination to stand up for a controversial promotion of justice and human rights, and has inspired generations to do the same? Or the modern-day morally courageous, like Irshad Manji, who receives regular death threats from her own Islamic community as she devotes herself to the pursuit of justice for all Muslims worldwide?
Alternatively, it may just be that those who take action to defend what is right, no matter the sacrifice, are truly in the highest positions of power.
So which came first, inherited power that enables one to take bold action, or the independently bold action that brings power to any individual with the right idea? Or are these both equally meaningful routes to setting a standard and making a difference, for better or worse?