Osama bin Laden brings back to the headlines our ten years of war, complicated emotions, and a distinct era in American life and remembrance

I made a special effort to listen to yesterday's broadcast of The World, my favorite radio program, as I wanted to listen to as much commentary and reflection on the death of Osama bin Laden as I could. Sunday night became a sweeping stretch: hours of news broadcasts, Twitter basically exploding with records numbers of tweets over a sustained period, and I was far too alert to go to sleep. But as I sped across some of my favorite blogs and news sites, there wasn't enough being said yet, enough valuable perspective to help digest all of what his death means for the world and our country and the wars we are fighting, so I headed to bed. But we are fighting two wars that began after al Queda sent two planes speeding into the World Trade Center towers back in September of 2001, as well as one into the Pentagon, and one that failed to make it to the White House, but still claimed the lives of its passengers. So this is a significant war-time event, as well as a reminder of the sadness and shock, and the anger, that arose from American people and the families of victims in the wake of the attacked ten years ago. It merits continued reflection now.

The most important reflection to make is that this is another, a continued, act of war, and bin Laden is another body added to the count. He was a man with extreme views, and who inflicted an immense amount of pain upon others during his lifetime, and that is never acceptable. As a wanted enemy of the United States during wartime, he has been in hiding for nearly a decade, because he knew his fate, and he has received it. But he is another dead, and it is more important, to me, to think about the American lives that have been lost in waging this war against the extremists that bin Laden represented--as he was indeed the personification, the face, of the enemy we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for ten years.

So on The World's broadcast, the first show to air after the news of his death, several things brought about the kind of sentiment that best reflects what I am feeling at this time, only part of a wide spectrum of emotions across the United States. The first addresses the issue of killing bin Laden, rather than bringing him to trial. Who better to ask than a lawyer, and one who has stood as a top legal figure for the United States.

Show anchor Lisa Mullins interviewed Ted Olson, former solicitor general under President Bush, whose wife Barbara died on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Lisa Mullins: You're a former solicitor general, under President George W. Bush, a man who respects the rule of law and justice. Do you think it would have been better to apprehend and bring to trial bin Laden, versus killing him outright?

Olson: No I don't think so at all. I think that the courageous individuals that went in there in this operation, they had to move quickly and execute quickly. Secondly, this isn't a matter of a criminal trial, this was a matter of a declaration of war against the United States and United States citizens, and you bring that war to a conclusion as quickly as you possibly can. And there wasn't any doubt about what Osama bin Laden had done, there was never any doubt about his goals for continuing to inflict that kind of devastation and misery upon, not just the American people, but people all over the world. It had to be brought to and end.

His answer echoes sentiments I have, as in high-stakes war situations, I want our military men to do what they need to carry out their mission and protect themselves to the extent each case allows. This does not mean sacrifice is absent, but I trust the training they have received to respond with their best judgement in extreme and critical situations.

The same feeling comes from later remarks from former army captain Matt Thompson, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, when he spoke to Lisa Mullins. It has been a long war for our men, in the desert, searching for an enemy and trying to bring resolve, and no matter your thoughts on our intentions, our motives, our involvement, or invasion in the Mid-East, you have to think of our military operatives doing their job--staking out complicated nations, that comes down to spending a lot of time in the hot desert with sand permanently in all crevices. And for those who have served there, I imagine this is exactly how they reacted to the news that Target Number 1 has been apprehended and taken down.

Lisa Mullins: I wonder if there is a part of you, when you heard the news about bin Laden, that thought, well, you know, why couldn't that have happened when I was in Afghanistan?

Thompson: Right, no, absolutely, I mean, I think all of us wish we were on that mission. I think everyone that puts on the uniform wishes that they were on that mission, and had a chance to take the shot, especially people like me, that have been, you know, spent countless hours searching him out in the mountains of Afghanistan.

A death is a death, and it is no small measure to remember that every life is a human soul, one that harbored potential for good and evil both. I am barely able to look at photos of bin Laden now, as they flash all over the news prints and websites and televisions, because I see into his eyes and despair over the evil and hatred that exists in this world, and that pervaded his mind and lead him to commit terrible acts against others. I have complicated emotions about his death. But it is, as Olson said, "a matter of a declaration of war," and so I am happy that we have moved forward, closer to resolution, as a nation who has been battling in, and over, the events of September 11 for ten remarkably tricky, confusing, complex years. My own ambivalence towards our battles continues to grow more gnarly and fills with greater inherent contradiction.

A betrayal of identity: the dramatic unveiling of baby-stealing in Spain, and the lives that have been forever scarred

I have been thinking a lot about adoption lately. It is a subject that really fascinates me. I like the idea of scrambling things we think we know--like biology and genetics and "family"--and giving them far greater parameters. Over Christmas break, I read a book about the diaspora of Chinese daughters over the past twenty to thirty years, and the kinds of stunning stories they will have to tell, as many of them will come of age in the next decade. (You can read my post about that book and my thoughts on a "fluid sense of family" here.) Since then, I have been doing some groundwork on dreaming up my own historical project on that very subject. I am preparing the proposal documents for what I hope will become my capstone project for my master's degree, which I will complete in the next thirteen months in order to graduate next May--in 2012. It will be a podcast series, historical in nature but founded in interviews and oral histories, on Adoption.

This has been especially tricky for me because the broad term encompasses several issues surrounding identity that are enormously complex and enigmatic. First, as I have said, the whole notion of a family based on things even deeper than biology is an enthralling break from the regular. When you are adopted into a family and those connections are lost--sometimes permanently, that can lead to even more interesting questions than the ones inherent in the searching for genealogical roots, and the holding on to ethnic or cultural traditions. None of my family is from the South; I have ancestors that died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, yet I am a southerner. How can this be? I identify with just as many cultural oddities from either side of the Mason-Dixon line. I have lived in the South for thirteen years (a majority), and consider it my home. But if you want to inquire about my roots, they are no where around here.

People certainly get worked up about the "roots," and their ancestry. They are significant factors in helping people understand themselves, their positions in the world. I am not dismissing that at all. Plenty of people who are adopted take to researching their own biological families in order to make sense of their own lives. But as a person whose place in between where my family is from and where I myself am "from" now, I think scrambling those ideas is truly intriguing, and plain fun to explore.

This leads me to the second component within the word "adoption"-- the embracing of a new place, or a new culture, or even a new language. Here you have moved, perhaps across international borders, to adopt a new position in this wide world. The adaptation that you go through to create your own, meshed identity is entirely distinct from the notion of digging into your roots to see how your ancestors lived. It does not mean relinquishing the value of your customs, your culture, your language or your foodways; it means creating a living combining all the best things from your roots and your family with the new space and communities you find yourself within.

So when it came to composing this into a specific topic, well, I am honestly still working that out. But the fact is, the whole fluidity of identity, of biology and adoption and roots, of "nationality"--that tricky word I have dissected many times on this blog--they have been on my mind constantly for the past few weeks. So when I heard a shocking story by The World's Gerry Hadden, about an entire industry of babies sold illegally into adoption in Spain--whole lives being changed and identities being scrambled--I had a dream about it.

In the dream, I was the one whose birth certificate came under question, when my brother investigated my birth and discovered that long ago my document had been flagged as invalid, for some undetermined reason. I shall spare you the details. But I woke up feeling betrayed, feeling lost in my own skin. I realized that if I was going to jump into this very sensitive and emotional topic, I needed to understand that I was not immune to feeling rejected, or confused, or lost in my own identity. People had lived their whole lives in Spain not knowing they were not biologically related to their parents. Sisters who had twins who had "died at birth" turned out to be living lives away from each other. Grieving mothers' lives were changed forever, as they grow older pining for their dead child, who in fact is still alive, and is connected to a different mother altogether. In a very philosophical way, it made me take one step back and consider, as I have many times before, the whole concept of your family, who you love, and who cares about you on the planet. It puts into even greater question the theory that your genetics matter in the large scheme. They don't.

The story about the stolen Spanish babies is stunning. Heart-breaking. Absolutely tragic and fascinating at once. Adults are confronting their parents, finding out they were in fact purchased. Investigators and public prosecutors have said that this has been going on from about the 1950s to as recently as 2000(!). It has been due in large part to a high level of trust of doctors and priests, and a targeting of young mothers who appeared poor or vulnerable. They would determine immediately after birth that the child had died, and that the hospital must take care of the funeral and body since the infant was under 24 hours old. That rule was made up. Mothers who protested were threatened to be put into a mental facility. Read the whole thing, or listen to the radio story, here. Estimates range from 3,000 to 300,000 cases of kidnapped and illegally sold babies over the years. Lawsuits are being filed now, after Antonio Barroso--himself a victim of this, who had to confront his parents as an adult--founded the organization ANADIR, so people whose lives were changed forever by this practice can find some restitution, or at least resolve in their own lives.

As I said, I was shocked into having identity-crisis dreams about this.

A database has been set up for children and mothers to find each other again. There have been many people who long-suspected they may have been adopted, so they are finally able to act on those suspicions. Even more, modern technologies like DNA testing has helped prove where there was and was not biological relation; this is something Spanish doctors had not predicted thirty years ago as being scientific proof that could be used against them. This is the lead story from the PRI broadcast:

Estefania Anguita was born in Barcelona in1986, along with a twin sister. But minutes after their birth, she says, doctors told her mother that Estefania’s sister had died.

“My parents weren’t allowed to see my sister’s body,” Anguita said. “The hospital staff wouldn’t let them. My grandmother wanted to bury my sister in the family plot but the hospital said that was impossible too. It was the hospital’s responsibility, they said, since the baby didn’t live more than 24 hours. They just made that rule up."

Anguita always knew about her deceased twin, but says she grew suspicious last year, when her parents admitted they didn’t actually know where her sister was buried. So she went to the hospital where they were born.

“There wasn’t even a record that my mother had given birth to us,” Anguita said. “There was no family file at all. I said it must be here, especially because there was a death involved. Death records are kept forever. And yet there was no trace at all.

Antonio Barroso, who founded the ANADIR organization mentioned above, has an amazing story of his own. Read it here, in Gerry Hadden's blog post on the topic. There's also a story about the uproar by Time magazine, here.

Needless to say, it only increases my own resolve in recording some stories on my own home front, in the unwieldy and curious story of human connections, biology, adoption, roots, and the effects they have on real people's lives. Here's hoping I can somehow make that into a compelling historical narrative. Jury's still out on that one.

Turks in Germany, calling nationalilty into question again

It is a complicates issue, as I wrote recently, identifying oneself in the hyphenation-happy categorization rampant in within the notion of modern American nationality. But as has long been touted, this is not an all bad phenomenon. Yes, it puts people in oftentimes artificial categories, Chinese-Americans born here still caught awkwardly between a culture they have grown up in and the culture of their ancestors, which collide in their homes and schools and jobs. Japanese-Americans taking desperate measures in WWII to ensure to their neighbors that they, too, are Americans in this--and Arab-Americans who have spent the last decade being reminded of that 1940s episode. Hispanic Americans who today get stuck in the middle of an immigration battle and animosity towards an ever-larger Spanish speaking minority and the threat of linguistic heterogeneity.

Yet there is enough of a belief among Americans to have ensured that through everything, we have made ourselves more multicultural today, even if it surely provides plenty of demons for us to face in our public lives (battles over where to build a mosque, for instance, or absurdly, the President's ethnic origins).

The United States is not alone, for certain. Consider the xenophobia that just as often plagues European nations, like Germany's fifty-year troubled relationship with its Turkish immigrants, beginning with the Recruitment Treaty of 1961, when Turkish people moved to Germany as workers in building West Germany's "economic miracle"--its massive growth at this time. Many stayed, much to the chagrin of Germany nationals. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel came out and said recently that multiculturalism in Germany had "utterly failed." This clash of nationals against immigrants was the subject of a recent story on The World, where correspondent Matthew Brunwasser quotes a gentleman named Cerel, who says the problem at the core of the relationship today is that "Germans expect Turks in assimilate, not integrate. In other words, to be indistinguishable from Germans."

Says Cerel: "There was always xenophobia in Germany, but right now it's mainstream, it's uttered in a situation where Turks are so integrated as they have never been before. That's not a good sign." Turks have been deemed a scapegoat for German woes, but Turks are beginning to look back towards their native Turkey, as their homeland is booming, while Germany is not looking nearly as rosy. The economy of Turkey is expected to grow 7 percent this year, more than twice that of Germany's, according to the news story.

Yet Brunwasser goes on to say, such a tormented relationship has created the feeling among some Turks of being an outcast in both countries--being in one long enough to no longer identify as strongly with your native culture, but clearly still looking like a foreigner in your adopted land. This is a very nearly universal phenomenon in immigrant groups (indeed, very often even if you are relocating within your own country, but far enough removed from your cultural roots). What often happens as well, is that the citizens of the adopted country often know little about their immigrant populations' cultures and traditions for quite some time, engendering misunderstandings and racial prejudices based on stereotypes for far too long.

Brunwasser concludes: "The mono-ethnic countries of Europe don't have hyphenated identities, like America. You're either a German, or a foreigner. Though if today's demographic and economic trends continue, Germany, and Europe as a whole, could be forced to change."

I say with confidence, that line "could be forced to change" most surely hides the larger truth: will be forced to change. Or even, simply, (hopefully,) will change. The U.S. has its own immense multicultural shortcomings and the hyphenated nationality is arguably one of them; but I appreciate and value it compared to the alternative.


The things we carry

Stuffed animals, out-grown shoes, hand-me-down mugs; aged television sets, dog-eared romance novels, and garish gold picture frames...

Secondhand stores can be a treasure trove or a purgatory between home and landfill, and quite often, it is both simultaneously. My mother is renowned for her ability to walk into a Goodwill and find the two designer items amongst the overwhelming array of clothing, which has been sorted by color into a rainbow of pinks, greens, blacks, creams. She finds great things far more often than I do. The secondhand hunt can sometimes seem like more work than its worth: picking through sweaters hoping to find a nice material in a size that may or may not fit, all the while hoping you'll be able to get the previous owners' smell out of it in the wash.

And that doesn't even include the millions of items, like the teddy bears and picture frames, that get passed over entirely (and usually for good reason; do we really need a section for hand-me-down underwear? Is anyone buying those?).

But the things we buy, keep, donate, throw away, and create tell one of the most interesting stories that exists. What do we think we need, and what makes us happy? What transcends our childhood, and what gets tossed out? What did they use one hundred years ago instead of a replacement product today, and what created the need for a different device? And when something is so foreign that we can't tell its use by looking at it, we get to use our best judgment to give it a context, a story, and a purpose; and we get to marvel in the fact that it has survived centuries past the expiration of its usefulness, which is a stunning fact in itself, the way we dispose of things in modern society.

I was supposed to be taking a class on material culture this fall as part of my graduate studies; I am still very excited to dig into this rich realm of human history, I'll just be doing it in the spring semester instead. Material things offer an entirely different form of historical evidence from documents like letters, diaries, and speeches, and give us perhaps a more nuanced glance into an era and a society than oral histories, which filter through the strange realms of memory, time, and maturation. Each person has a limited amount of money, and what they spend it on shapes the lives each person leads. Do they buy a car or a bicycle, a house in the city or the country, a collection of books or a collection of baseball cards? All are noble pursuits, neither better than the other at the surface, but something tips the scales towards one or the other for each individual. How amazing that we leave behind this trail of purchases and, over our lifetimes, determine what stays with us for decades and what was really never worth the money (and what falls somewhere in between).

As all this was in my head, I heard a story on The World recently that brought material culture history and the secondhand industry a bit closer together; after all, considering their essentially working with the same items, they are strangely separate entities. Most people will never know (or care to know) the stories behind the things they buy in secondhand stores, even if they always know there has been at least one previous owner and life before them.

Oxfam, a charity organization in the United Kingdom, raises money through stores across the country much like Goodwill or Salvation Army in the U.S. One of their stores recently took a brilliant step towards shrinking the disconnect between secondhand goods and the stories they silently carry through the world. Emma Cooney, who runs an Oxfam in Manchester, teamed up with Chris Speed, a digital artist, to begin recording brief stories told by the owners as they come in to donate their now-unwanted things. In thirty seconds, a woman can share the story of her old handbag, which she purchased on a cold Sunday morning in the middle of winter, in a "small, dark shop" owned by a women who gave the woman a hot cup of cocoa. As she donates the bag, she says she's always reminded of hot chocolate when she used the purse.

People who come into the shop to browse the items can listen to the stories on their cell phones by scanning a bar code, or they can broadcast it over the store's intercom so everyone else can listen as well.

In the interview, Chris Speed said, "It was a very public story as though suddenly someone touched an object and a whole store was woken up by this tale about where these objects had come from. What was amazing was that people wanted the damn objects. You could see them holding almost something as though it was in someone’s living room, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the shop. Everyone was fascinated, and they really didn’t want to let go of the stories, which meant they bought them. So as fast as we could get stories in, they were going out of the store like hotcakes."

Which meant that the items became more valuable to people upon hearing the little stories behind them, the tales--big or little--about their previous lives and owners. A simple, remarkable idea. In the immediate, it is a great way to market used goods and turn a bit of profit for their charity. And in the long-term, those items continue to collect new stories, this time never losing some of their earlier ones. It's a little like that dollar bill tracking thing, where people can find their bill online and see where it's "checked in" around the world. But on a smaller, more intimate scale, and with items that people cherish and build more meaningful relationships with--for however brief a time--before they move on.

(Several of the recorded stories are in sound-clip form at the story's main page.)