Letting Go

There is an iconic episode in the 1974 documentary Animals Are Beautiful People. It involves a Makgadikgadi tribesman who is searching for water in the hot, dry plain of the Kalahari. Unlike his Khoisan neighbor, the Makgadikgadi does not drink from roots or melons; he must rely on cunning. Knowing that baboons always have a secret source of water, the tribesman drills a hole in an ant heap just large enough for the baboon’s arm. Then, while the baboon watches, he places some seeds inside the hole. The baboon is naturally inquisitive. Although it does not trust the human, it will eventually be overcome with curiosity and investigate. Yet once it grasps the seeds, its fist becomes too large for the hole. The baboon is stuck. Letting go of the seeds does no occur to it, even when it is captured by the tribesman. Then it is too late. After being plied with salt, the captive baboon is so thirsty, it is only too happy to lead the Makgadikgadi to its secret underground pool.

The story is often used by motivational speakers of all stripes to illustrate the folly of holding onto anything from sin to alcohol and drugs. Yet it is a useful analogy and so thoroughly human, a baboon can easily illustrate it.

Over the past few weeks, since Edward Snowden leaked his first leak, the world has watched in consternation the psychodrama that is American politics. Those U.S. citizens for whom major transgressions against the Fourth Amendment seem a small price to pay for a little temporary safety justify it with the question, “But what else will make us safe?” Those, too, for whom such invasions of privacy are intolerable want to know, “Isn’t there a better way?”

Our government would have us believe that they have left no stone unturned in attempting to balance our national security interests and our jealously guarded constitutional liberties. Even a few progressives and activists on the left claim that software does (or ought to) exist that will enable government to do its job of protecting us from terrorism while preserving the right to privacy of law-abiding citizens. Alcoholics in recovery call these “half-measures.”

Is there a more biblical solution? Yes. It’s called rigorous honesty. Those who have studied the Middle East or worked in the diplomatic field realize that the U.S. had few problems with Muslim nations before it started meddling in the region. With our never-ending addiction to ever dwindling oil supplies (there’s another problem to which we could apply the baboon analogy), we are more than willing to become entangled in Middle Eastern affairs and to apply our boot to the necks of those who resist our “benevolent” hegemony.

Want to stop terrorism? Easy. Quit feeding it. Terrorism breeds in the context of injustice and oppression. So if we really wish to stop the threat of terrorism from reaching our shores, we should only have to change our foreign policy.

Back in 2004 former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld commissioned his own Science Board Task Force to study the impact of Bush administration policies (specifically the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism and Islamic radicalism. The report found exactly what any logical person would expect: that “Negative attitudes and the conditions that create them are the underlying sources of threats to America’s national security and reduced ability to leverage diplomatic opportunities.”

What are the conditions that aggravate these threats? According to the report,

 America’s direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights and the long-standing and even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States…. Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be…deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.

Change our policies? What could be more simple? Might as well ask the poor beast in the documentary why he cannot let go of the seeds. He would probably reply, “Because I want them.”

Ironically, the government claims it has “American interests” at heart. Few Americans, however, bother to ask themselves what interests these are. Economic interests, of course. Corporate interests. That’s right. All our lives are being put at risk so that cheap foreign oil can continue to flow into our refineries and gargantuan profits into the coffers of oil companies.

Meanwhile, the administration is working its knickers into a twist over all these leaks. Why are there so many leaks? Any plumber worth his $100 hourly rate can tell you that the more pressure you put on a line, the more likely it is to spring a leak. The problem, Mr. President, is not these “un-American” leakers; the problem is the un-American surveillance policies and culture of secrecy that are causing such a crisis of conscience within the security establishment. If the administration is serious about stopping the whistleblowing, they must stop the government infringements of constitutional rights that encourage whistleblowing. Whenever government crosses a line, there will be courageous individuals who love their country enough to risk everything to inform the public. Get over it.

You mean, all this federal prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers, designed to strike fear into the heart of every government employee (and journalist), is actually having the opposite effect? No. People are genuinely afraid, in general. But the new tyranny, coupled with the easy digitalization of documents, is producing a new kind of rock-star whistleblower and on a grand scale not seen since the Pentagon Papers. Even Daniel Ellsberg stands in awe.

And in Washington, the administration has been pressing for tighter guidelines for federal employees, to scare not only potential leakers but also the co-workers who fail to report them. The unprecedented crackdown makes it a crime of espionage to leak to the press (something the administration does on a daily basis!). You think Big Brother is watching you?  Your office buddies might be, too.

There is, of course, one difference between us humans and the poor creature in the documentary. At least, it did eventually let go when it was caught.

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