A Disappointing State of Affairs

While watching the news reports building up to the Super Bowl and the Olympics in Sochi Russia, I was struck by the fact that if one accounts for the difference in language, I was looking at the same picture.

That picture was one of police, soldiers, and others in flak jackets, carrying automatic weapons, with over head air support, on the water boat support, canine units, fences, high-resolution cameras and monitors, heat sensing devices, hazardous material detectors and on and on.  Russia and the United States were the same — a difficult pill to swallow for this former cold warrior.  It made me more than a little disappointed that the visuals were indistinguishable.  Turn off the sound to the television and I would be hard pressed to know which one was which.

Don’t misunderstand me and think that I am saying that our countries are the same.  Likewise it is obvious that events over the last fifteen to twenty years have caused many nations to institute a nearly universal effort to defend their citizens with an abundance of concern about security.  In this day and age, no one can be “against” security.  The common knowledge is that “soft” targets are more likely to be hit than “hard” targets and if nothing else, the appearance of strength may deter a terrorist (or criminal) act.  I suppose it is necessary and I understand it.

It still makes me a little sad.  In the halcyon days of the mid-1980s I taught a college course that included an examination of the roots and elements of terrorism.  One of the maxims is that terrorists are working to change society and that the use of terror as a weapon is the tool to do so.  In so many respects, our society has changed as a result of the threat of terrorism.  Compare our large public events from twenty or thirty years ago with those of today.  For that matter, compare almost any public gathering today compared with twenty years ago.  No longer do we go care-free to a large sporting event such as the Super Bowl.  Instead we undergo the kind of scrutiny once reserved for getting into the most secure of secret installations.  I am not entirely convinced that everything we do these days in the name of “security” is necessary or even effective.  In some respects certain measures are  more for the psychological impact they create in order to make people “feel” safer.  If I was a little more cynical I would suggest that some of the measures are only instituted to cover the authorities should something happen — they can then argue that they did everything possible — whether or not it actually makes any real difference to our degree of safety.

I know there is no turning back.  I still don’t have to like it.

Looking For The Greater Good

I really enjoy sports.   Every four years, or more accurately since 1994 every two years, I enjoy the Olympics.  Although the Summer Olympics are my favorite, there are many winter sports for which I have a high level of interest in the competition and I marvel at the determination of the athletes to press on through demanding conditions and tough competition.  I just have to watch.

The next Winter Olympic games will begin on 6 February 2014 in Sochi, Russia, a city of approximately 400,000 people on the Black Sea.  From the original announcement of the city’s selection as the host, controversy has surrounded the decision to have the games at that location.  In the beginning, there was significant skepticism that the appropriate infrastructure could be built to support the needs of the athletes, fans, media and countless others descending on the city for the games.  Of course, there was also a small matter of sufficiently winter-like conditions necessary to hold outdoor competitions such as the skiing and sliding events.  To many people’s satisfaction, these obstacles seem to have been overcome, although no one will know for certain until the games actually begin.

Recently, the Sochi Games have become the focus of political protest with significant pressure for the United States (and other countries) to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Some of the calls for boycotting these games in Russia come from concerns about the lack of Russian willingness to cooperate with the United States in curtailing the fighting in Syria (Russia is a main supplier of arms to the regime of Bashar-al-Assad), Iran (no help from Russia in curtailing their nuclear ambitions) and other trouble spots around the world.  More recently, President Putin’s decision to allow Edward Snowden, the individual that secretly stole highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA), to stay in Russia was clearly done to embarrass the United States.  However, the most pressure for a boycott is the result of a June 2013 law passed by the Russian Parliament and signed into law by Putin that makes it illegal to “promote” homosexuality to minors (whatever that means, and that’s part of the problem as it is not at all clear how the Russian authorities will enforce that law).  The Russians have provided mixed signals as to what the new law could mean to non-Russians traveling to/from/and in Sochi and the possible arrest or deportation of those expressing disagreement with the Russian law.  Understanding that the Olympics are non-political, the reality is that the games are often used to gain attention for a cause or to protest injustice — usually in subtle ways, but it still occurs.

Unfortunately, the anti-gay law is not a hold-over from the litany of restrictive legislation passed under the Soviet regimes.  It was just passed and approved this summer.  It does, however, reflect a long-standing Russian bias against gays and lesbians and a general lack of concern by the government over human rights in that country.  Even a cursory review of events in Russia over the last few years reveals a troubling pattern of abuse of its own citizens in a variety of ways.

Which brings us back around to calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics to protest Russian human rights abuses and specifically, their strident anti-gay laws.

To this writer, a boycott would be wrong.  The United States, and other western nations under pressure to boycott the games, should participate to the fullest.  Many commentators have likened the current situation to the 1980 boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow by the United States and a few other countries.  That protest was in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  The boycott did not change anything other than to crush the hopes and dreams of the US Olympians that had trained for years for this one opportunity and did not get to compete.

Am I saying that sports are more important than human rights, national security or other serious problems in the world?  No.  I just think that more can be accomplished by participating and sharing our way of life and respect for every individual than can be accomplished by staying home.

Other controversial venues for the Olympics were Beijing in 2008 and Berlin in 1936.  It was hoped that the need for Chinese authorities to clean up their own act regarding human rights in China while the world beat a path to their door would have a lasting impact.  The 1936 Olympics demonstrated the myth of the Aryan race as a master race embodied by the Nazi Party.  Most famously, Jesse Owens showed that Hitler’s propaganda was false.

There is a larger question that is continually debated in our national security circles as it regards various states around the world.  Is it better to isolate a nation or to engage it in order to change or shape their policies and actions?  While no single answer ever solved a foreign policy challenge, in general, engagement is superior to isolation.  I think that as the old saying goes, “it’s hard to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen the lights of the big city.”  Exposure to our way of life, values and the benefits that accrue from them is the best way to combat human rights abuses.  This is especially true where everyday American youth — our athletes — can interact with their counterparts and not incidentally circumvent the propaganda machines and an inhibited Russian  press.

Whether we go to the Olympics or not, there may be no short or medium term change in Russian policy or the outlook of the Russian people on homosexuality.  But it is still worth the effort.  This past Sunday the 2013 World Championship in Track and Field was completed in Moscow.  During that competition there were several subtle, but unmistakable, protests of the Russian stance on homosexuality.  People got the message.

I agree with the many people who support our participating ranging from President Obama to former Olympic champion Greg Louganis.  The greater good will be served through our athletes’ presence in Sochi.  The best way to debunk the myths and stereotypes is to demonstrate how false such beliefs actually are — and that can only be done in person and through our actions.

Go to the 2014 Winter Olympics.