I landed at JFK after a short trip out of the country, eager to get my bags and go home. But one of the video monitors caught my eye... a presenter from the BBC was announcing the breaking news that journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee of the Current Network (founded by former VP & Nobel laureate Al Gore) were convicted of "committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry." (It is in dispute if they even crossed the North Korean border.) Their sentence: twelve years of hard labor.
I tweeted a garbled version of the breaking news, and then many voices chimed in online, most voicing outrage and some demanding military action.
Outrage is more than justified.
But the calls for military action seemed to come out of a void... a void where the only response to provocation and injustice is to start what we have no clear vision of finishing: that is, another war, on another front. Twenty years ago Afghanistan handed the Soviet forces their rear ends on a platter, in a conflict that is often equated to Vietnam. If a nation is willing to expend countless people to win a war; willing to accept mass casualties; then it is almost impossible to crush that nation militarily. North Korea is a very different military and government model than Afghanistan, but it too has already shown a willingness to let families die of famine (well over a million in recent years) rather than play ball with other nations.
The New York Times points out that both the US and the UN are considering sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear tests. But it also runs this telling quote:
"Our response would be to consider sanctions against us as a declaration of war and answer it with extreme hard-line measures," the North Korea's state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in a commentary.
In other words, North Korea is spoiling for a fight. The sentencing of Lee and Ling may not be an attempt to guard against conflict, but rather to provoke it. (Note that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, already tried to apologize and broker a release... before the sentence came down.)
Why look for battle? To be seen as a "big man" in international affairs is no small thing. Many have defied the U.S. with fewer means to more than scattered applause from some quarters. Yes, some people were rooting for the Somali pirates who captured the U.S. vessel.
So: a nuclear equipped nation is spoiling for a fight with the world's only superpower, a superpower which finds itself overextended militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two journalists are held in breach. Two young women are away from their families and lives, potentially for years, for doing their jobs.
It's rare that Americans are put in this position, directly in the line of fire. Journalist Chauncey Bailey was killed in Oakland, California, in 2007 while investigating a possible murder cover up. Some American reporters have been wounded and died in Iraq. (I think of the moving writing of Michael Weisskopf of Time magazine, who tossed a grenade thrown into the vehicle he was riding in in Iraq out... saving his life and others' but losing his arm.) But the people imprisoned or killed for "committing" journalism are usually not American or even Western. Countless Iraqi translators and reporters have been killed, often working as stringers for Western media. Latin America has seen journalists killed covering narcotrafficking, government corruption, and crime.
Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists work on these issues every day. (Their website, linked above, runs the headlines "Tiananmen anniversary, obscured" and "Fifth Somali Journalist Killed this Year.") Few people outside of the media industry even know that groups like the CPJ exist.
Of all the questions that come to mind when looking at the case of Lee, Ling, and North Korea, the one troubling most people I know (personally or in the Twitter-verse) is: What do I do? What do we do? What can we do?
The first thing we can do is to inform ourselves, to get to know more about North Korea than its name. We need to learn more about the possible regime change in North Korea and how it could hinder diplomacy; what recent and past North Korean actions (from the nuclear tests to famines to the 1953 armistice with South Korea, which the North says it now will not honor) say about this government and its desires; who is negotiating on behalf of the U.S.; and how movements like the call for action in Darfur have or have not worked in addressing human rights issues.
On that last score, two more phrases come to mind: celebrity and social networking. Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk), perhaps the most followed person in the Twitter-verse, chimed in to say, among several things, that he was exploring ways to network a coalition of supporters. I do believe it matters than Laura comes from an already well-network family. (Her sister Lisa Ling does or has worked for outlets including Oprah and ABC; Lisa and I briefly overlapped at ABC). I do believe it is critical for celebrities and other people who connect the media to the masses (i.e., most of us) get their talking points ready. And those talking points must include an actual depth of knowledge about the situation.
So: what do we do? We listen, we learn. Let me repeat that: we learn. We learn about the situation; the diplomatic interventions; and who can help. Whether we are journalists, celebrities, news consumers, even diplomats, we can constantly refresh our knowledge of the situation and strive to help from a position of educated power and compassion.
To the speedy freedom of these two journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee; to a renewal of our interest in and championing of brave journalism as well as brave journalists.
Farai Chideya is the author of the new novel "Kiss the Sky" and runs PopandPolitics.com