Several years ago when I was detained by officials while trying to pass through immigration on the way out of a certain “rogue nation,” and kept in a holding cell while the officials tried to determine what to do with me, I alternatively freaked out, tried to reflect on the lessons I could learn from the event, and crafted a loose proposal that might enable me to exploit it. Gradually though as the hours passed, I started to think through anything that I could do to facilitate my own release. I recalled a formula my father had taught me which he claimed was the solution to any problem: intention, attention, action. I got to work. Alas, after several hours I was let go, provided I wrote and signed a confession which I did (with a false name that no one bothered to verify) and was on my merry way home.
No such luck for American journalists Roxana Saberi, now convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for spying, as well as two other reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling (the latter of whom I count amongst my closest friends) charged with similar crimes in North Korea and facing just as difficult and veiled judicial process to determine their immediate fates.
Before getting back to the formula, here are a few of the issues we’re all afraid to talk about too much because there are no clear solutions to them and they involve far larger geopolitical gamesmanship and the like that not may help Ms. Saberi, Lee, and Ling’s respective plights. Iran and North Korea are both former members of the infamous “axis of evil,” a brand that has not exactly left a pleasant legacy for either of them as they attempt to force the new Obama administration to deal with them in his newly declared era of reconciliation. Both countries are also in the midst of vague nuclear buildups, the proliferation of which has not made them any friends amongst the global community as seemingly everyone else trends toward disarmament. Then there are the human rights issues of which both Iran and North Korea have very blemished track records (not that our own is so hot right now). And there are their own respective economic woes, which make much of the rest of the world’s problems appear pale in comparison, and make their own domestic situations enormously volatile.
But here’s the thing: none of the above should preclude a constructive dialogue between all the involved nations on the release and repatriation of Ms.’s Saberi, Lee, and Ling. Resolving Ms.’s Saberi, Lee, and Ling’s languishing travails would be the first step in illustrating that Iran, North Korea, and the US have the capability of resolving their differences, a critical process as we inch toward a brave new world where our economies, ecologies, and basic survival is inexorably tangled together. We have to solve these problems or we will soon have a single problem of planetary extinction, be it by nuclear detonation or some other unleashed fanaticism.
To answer the immediate critics, yes it does involve the US extending itself beyond just finding middle ground. It does mean making concessions and inevitably planting karmic seeds that run the risk of producing even more problems down the line. But that’s the role and risk a parent sometimes has to play with a child that acts out in an effort to get attention. It’s not stooping to their level. It’s just bending down to look them in the eye and let them know you’re taking them seriously. It’s the end that matters most, so let’s get creative with the means.
But rather than playing policy, here’s what you really need to do. Start paying attention. The American news media’s getting tea-bagged by Somalian teenage pirates is the result of the public’s basic laziness toward larger, more complicated issues that require critical thinking and careful diplomacy. That’s not to advocate the traditional populist barnstorming of the Iranian or North Korean regimes, outcry on human rights issues, and self-righteous calls for social justice – all types of pressure that often fail to get the desired result. Nope – this is where the formula comes in:
Attention: Spread the word. Give these women’s plights some attention every day, if only for a few moments. A prayer, a thought, a tweet to a friend, a status update - whatever fits your bill.
Action: Action is the inevitable culmination of the prior two. It results spontaneously when intention and attention are mobilized. Ironically you don’t have to do much because it will happen through you.
I’m a firm believer in the process outlined above. Not just because it got me out of an underground airport prison years ago but because there is an actual documented science that underlies critical mass theory and what happens when enough people unite and mobilize intention and attention. But rather than get obsessed with the mechanics of the means, let’s stay focused on the end.
Because of my friendship with Laura Ling specifically, I have spent hours at a time over the last month of her captivity agonizing over her predicament. In doing so, however, I have also found my heart aching for Ms. Saberi and Ms. Lee, neither of whom I have ever met, though I hope to someday very soon. In thinking back to my own anxiety filled situation many years ago which only lasted a comparatively few short hours, I can only imagine the fear, doubt, confusion, and hopelessness that these three women are feeling right now at this moment in their confinement. Sadly, they cannot be relied upon to do much to secure their own release.
They are relying on you.
Don’t let them down.
Gotham Chopra regularly blogs at www.intent.com