By Lina AbiRafeh
I sit like the rest of the world, watching events unfold in America with awe. I am shocked, but I am not surprised. Can we even fix this?!
As a DC-native, a NY-resident, a Lebanese-Palestinian, an Arab-American, a humanitarian aid worker, and — most of all — as a feminist activist, I find that ALL of my disparate identities are (unusually) in agreement and collectively enraged.
I was raised on the narrative of American superiority. As a child of two warzones — and as a woman anywhere in the world — I understand all too well the need for safety, how hard it is to find, and how important it is to have, above all else how much it should be protected and preserved.
We came to the US when I was nearly 10, Green Cards in hand and Lebanese passports tucked away. We knew we were lucky to have them — and besides, who else would have us? We boarded a plane and did not look back, counting on America as our future, a place where we would be safe.
A life free from violence — isn’t that what we all want?!
But nowhere is safe. Nowhere is free from violence, it just takes the right conditions to bring violent responses out. No country is immune. We see this in our homes — and today we see it on the Hill.
I’m glued to the news, as we all are. This is history happening. There’s nothing normal about the events we’re witnessing, but there’s one common thread, the number of times journalists, pundits, commentators have used language like “But this doesn’t happen in AMERICA” as if the country is immune to violence.
But — does this happen here? I argue that yes, it does. A more constructive question would be to ask why this happens here?
Worst is the rhetoric that such violence is viewed as expected — or, worse acceptable — in so-called “third world countries”, but not in this one. Such commentary continues to position “us” vs “them” and employ language that is, at best, delusional and at worst, discriminatory.
The term “third world” refers to so-called “developing countries”. There is actually no agreement on these labels, but crudely put, “developed countries” are independent and with functioning economies and infrastructure, while “developing countries” are lacking, or lower, in these aspects. Such divisions are broad, outdated, and not useful. Moreover, these definitions are not static. Countries move from “developed” to “developing” and vice versa. In times of insecurity, such fluctuations are normal.
I come from so-called “third world” countries, and I have lived and worked in over twenty of these countries, most of them in conflict. There is nothing distinctly different about these countries and the American experience today. Conflict happens as a result of breakdowns in a country’s political, economic or security structures.
In humanitarian aid, we use early warning indictors and indices on “fragile states” to prepare our responses, measuring social cohesion alongside economic, social, and political indicators.
Signs of oncoming conflict include tensions due to economic decline, discriminations in development and access to opportunities, government corruption, grievances of certain social groups, perspectives on state legitimacy, access to social support and public services, human rights and rule of law, integration of diverse populations, and so on.
According to the 2020 Fragile States Index, the US ranks 149th out of 178, with Yemen in the first position (meaning the most fragile) and Finland as 178th. This doesn’t make us immune to conflict, particularly as we continue to expose fissures in “America” — the country cannot be referred to as a monolith, given the divisions and diversity in this vast land.
No, the US is not “Afghanistan” or “Iraq” or “Yemen” — but these distinctions are not helpful. Further, they are offensive. Afghanistan and Iraq did not spring forth on their own, there is global guilt for creating what one might call “an Afghanistan”. Under similar conditions, any country can experience the same.
What’s more, commentary that our “adversaries” are “cheering” are also sweeping generalizations, feeding a fire rather than bridging a gap. These countries are watching events unfold in America, surely, and are likely feeling vindicated as they have long felt the heat of American rhetoric that “these things” only happen to “other countries over there”.
Today we know: these things happen everywhere. Including here.
I write as a woman in America, an American woman, a voter, a committed citizen. We have work to do. Delusions of superiority are not going to give us the country we need.
I also write as a woman from those “other” cultures and countries and colors. I’ve lived and worked in warzones to end violence against women. Just like violence in the home happens everywhere, violence in society is inevitable under the right conditions — from our homes to the Hill.
The time has come to fix this.