In April 30 IssueBy John Thompson, Columnist
This is a reprint of a column I wrote over two years ago. At the time there had just been some killings of U.S. citizens in Juarez, Mexico, and public outrage was high.
I reprint it here because, as I was looking over a few of my old columns, it reminded me of a lesson that occasionally deserves reinforcement. I hope you enjoy it:
I used to walk the streets of Juarez, Mexico. It was a really good time. Every week or two I'd make the trek to shop the main drag, eat good, cheap food, and have a drink. Sometimes a few. It was a good time. I'd see poor people left and right of me, little children coming up to me trying to sell me chiclets. Smiling and dirty they'd say "chiclet, chiclet."
Not really wanting any chiclets my normal reaction was to just pass them by. But I had a good time. Oblivious.
An older guy I worked with at the U.S. Army in-patient drug and alcohol facility never passed a beggar by; he always gave something. Made him feel good. He had a good time also. That was 1987.
I wouldn't even recognize Juarez today. Now it's the murder capital of the world. At least that's what I've heard it called. There are many places in the world vying for the title, but I know it owns this one, "the capital of murdered women."
Hard to believe I've actually walked the back streets of the barrio in the middle of the night by myself; even then considered foolhardy.
Abject poverty surrounded me and my army pay made me feel like I really had money in that place.
Buy a meal for fifty cents here, shots of tequila for a quarter there... blind to the fact these were humans just surviving. But I knew a few of them, and there was a solid sense of community about them.
Sunday three people connected to the U.S. consulate were murdered in Juarez. No random killing this; a well orchestrated hit, and I wonder what has happened. What happened to Juarez, Mexico?
I read the news stories on the internet, then I read the comments by my fellow citizens that follow those stories. As usual, it makes me want to literally weep to hear the ignorant responses and disregard for humans. The same disregard I guess I once felt.
But I know what happened. NAFTA happened. We like to think NAFTA only destroyed our manufacturing base, but it also destroyed a way of life in Mexico. In a way reminiscent of our own journey toward industrialization that pulled people off the land and into factories to make automobiles.
Not that people needed to be pushed here, back then, jobs on the land were disappearing as machinery replaced humans.
Soon, here, machinery would replace humans in factories also. And there, my friends, is your inner city problem in a nutshell. But I digress.
When "free trade" opened up Mexico, oh what a boon to international industry, like General Electric, Alcoa, and DuPont. But in order to build those plants they needed to make sure there would be enough labor. What people weren't drawn off the land with the promise of good work and pay, were soon, shall we say, convinced, through rising prices and tax on the land, designed to force them to move to the cities to work the factories. This should sound at least somewhat familiar with our history.
In addition, the "free trade" agreement meant that the Mexican market had to open their doors to produce from the U.S. Produce that was highly subsidized, so that the peasant farmers could no longer grow vegetables for a profit, as corn, wheat and other life staples of major American corporations undercut even the low price the farmers there demanded.
This little change worked in unison with the new factory work there to peacefully move people off the land and into the factories.
In Juarez, they say about 60 percent of the maquiladora workers (maquiladora is the name for the assembly plants) are women. They earn about $55 a week. They are as young as 13. But you don't want to hear about all that. We never do.
There is still industry there, but much has headed to China, where labor laws are even more relaxed, and workers are paid even less. But the people of Mexico who had once scratched out a living on the land, find that the land to farm is no longer to be had. It's been bought up, often consolidated into huge factory farms, or as recreation for the wealthy. This should sound familiar, again in our history.
Stuck in ramshackle cities, with no hope of making a living, many have turned to face their brutish world with violence in the form of the drug trade and prostitution.
But many, many more have not. Like anywhere, there's untold numbers who would just like to live in peace, and while not content, it isn't in their personal constitution to fight. But you know, people suffer in silence only so long.
The incident of the shootings in Juarez made me think about other places I've been that have gone through turmoil.
I traveled in Yugoslavia in 1989. Sadly, I can't even remember where it was I traveled, but it was along the Adriatic Sea, mostly to camp and take in the small towns. Little did I know the ethnic tensions that ran deep in that country.
The country is no more. It broke up into, I don't know, half a dozen? or more (or less) countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Maybe you remember our own involvement in Serbia and Croatia. We helped in arresting Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia.
Eventually he would make his way to the International Criminal Court, also known as The Hague, for trial on charges of genocide. He died during the long procedure.
Serbia was once a part of Yugoslavia. It's hard to believe it's no longer a country. But I had a good time there, not knowing what was underneath.
I want to ask a favor. Seeing these murders of the American citizens this morning in Juarez brought back memories of my experiences, and made me realize something I often forget. I have experienced quite a bit but I come before you and tell you, I am ignorant. I am so ignorant of so much that goes on. And it bothers me to see so many, who have been little out of the county, or state, think they can know so much from what they glean from television.
Television is an illusion. And I am not talking about the "reality shows," I'm talking about the news. CNN, MSNBC, FOX, how close to reality are they? Unless you are experiencing "it", the event, your knowledge, my knowledge, is filtered. Purposefully or not.
But mainly purposefully. It is packaged for your consumption. Or, as Noam Chomsky put it, in a book dealing with media propaganda, the news is mainly for one purpose….. Manufacturing Consent. Anyone who comes to my office will see a bumper sticker I have on my bulletin board. It says, "Reality Will Not Be Televised."
Overall, my point is this; when making snap judgements and forming opinions based on the thinnest of knowledge and understanding, why not attempt to error on the side of compassion and empathy? Why assume the worst, perpetuating our own fears?
I'd like to ask you a favor. It's something I will ask of myself, and sometimes I have to remind myself of it.
When I happened upon this column, which I wrote over two years ago, it again reminded me of this lesson: Please have some humility when dealing with fellow humanity, and remember that for every story we hear in the news, there are actual people behind the story, dealing with real conditions.
Today we're seeing hundreds have died in a tornado; country's all over the middle east are in turmoil, Texas is burning and millions are dealing with the uncertainty in the economy. Yet mainly what we feel seems to be exasperation and anger toward each other.
Hey, let's make a deal; I'll try harder if you will.