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Keeping America safe?

By Kathleen Barry - posted Friday, 27 November 2009

President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, D.C.

November 24, 2009

Dear President Obama,


Thank you for being an empathetic model of manhood and further, for bringing that quality into the American Presidency. But how do you explain those dead Afghani and Pakistani daughters, mothers, sons and fathers, killed by US forces since you took office, to your own daughters who you want to develop the kind of empathy you have. You are teaching them how to understand the suffering of others. In Ghana you took them to the slave port and said that you wanted them to “engage in the imaginative act of what it would be like if they were snatched away from Mom and Dad and sent to some place they had never seen before.” You want them to identify with the suffering of others, “And get them to - to make sure that they are constantly asking themselves questions about whether they are treating people fairly and - and whether they are examining their own behaviour and how it affects others”.

You have shown how empathy does not conflict with strength, how it enhances rather than diminishes leadership. In this country, you have faced down the health insurance industry from the memory of how your mother suffered at their hands. At the same time, you bring your empathy together with the power of your leadership when a woman at one of your health care forums tells you through her tears of how her insurance company is denying her life-saving treatment. We saw you go to her as you asked her to come forward to you, and watched you embrace her telling her that she was not alone.

As you are making your decision on the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I ask you, are the people there any less deserving of your empathy? When you took office you escalated the US war in Afghanistan and allowed it to expand in Pakistan. By the end of June, more than a 1,000 Afghani civilians were killed, 261 alone in the month of May. In other words, more than one-third of the number of people killed in the al-Qaida attack on the US in 9-11-2001 are dead since January of this year in order to keep America safe, even though they had nothing to do with fighting then or when they died. And with the increase our bombings have caused in recruits to the Taliban, America is not safer.

While you were telling Americans that you wake up every morning and go to sleep every night thinking of how to keep America safe, you were denying that safety to the families of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr President, you know that the empathy that you so highly value cannot be selective. When you engage it for some, say Americans, and refuse it to others, like Afghanis and Pakistanis, you are telling the world that only Americans lives are of value and that everyone else’s lives can be put at risk to protect American lives.

Still you have not lost your empathy or respect for the lives of people in countries the US bombs and attacks. On May 9, in a rare gesture of an American President, you apologised to President Karzai when he met with you in Washington a few days after the US military killed an estimated 140 Afghanis in Farah, 94 of them girls under the age of 18 who had gathered in a compound to take shelter from the fighting. Some villagers said the strikes hit an area which the Taliban had already left and where there was no fighting. You apologised but you did not stop the bombing. In fact, drone strikes on Pakistani villages three days later in South Waziristan killed eight people. Four days after that, US forces killed 25 civilians in a village in North Waziristan. None were Taliban, none were al-Qaida. And the drone attacks continue, weekly, daily sometimes.

How will your decision on troop levels and military plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan reflect what you are teaching your daughters about the value of human life? Will you show them the petitions from the women of Afghanistan brought to you by Medea Benjamin from Code Pink? Will you explain to them that Afghan women have asked that you disarm the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Northern Alliance, none of whom have the support of the people?


In your April speech in Islamabad you said that you “have no sympathy and no patience for people who go around blowing up innocent people”. If you engage the same kind of empathy you are teaching your daughters with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, you will see that in their daily experiences of US bombings and drone attacks they see the US attacks in the same light that you see the terrorists who attacked the US.

Against a US force of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan before you make your announcement in a few days, Senator John Kerry, when he returned from Iraq last month, told us that there were not more than 1,000 hard-core Taliban in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan estimate that there are not more than 100. The rest are boys and men who cannot find work, who are angry over the US bombing and occupation of their country, who are driven to fight back against the US military who killed their parents or their children.

How difficult would it be to announce a plan to disarm those “reconcilables” as General Patraeus calls them? To disarm not rearm! Rather than negotiating with the Taliban to sell out women’s rights as Hamid Karzai has done, why not pay those fighters who are not hardcore terrorists to go home and restock their shops or rebuild their farms. Then withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan allowing them to protect their people and their country from the small number of hardcore terrorists remaining?

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About the Author

Sociologist and Professor Emerita of Penn State University and the author of Unmaking War, Remaking Men (Spinifex, 2010) Kathleen Barry first broke new ground with her landmark book Female Sexual Slavery which launched a new global movement against trafficking in human beings and led to the formation of the The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women which she co-founded. She is the author of The Prostitution of Sexuality: Global Exploitation of Women and Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist.

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