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Engaging in the issue

Yesterday I came home after a week in New York. My daughter came with me and I think we may have injected enough money into the U.S. economy to help Obama out a little. She snapped this surreal photo from Battery Park, and off to the right, you can see the Statue of Liberty. The inscription at its base was written by the Jewish-American poet, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887):The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

While in New York, I viewed a film about the torture going on in U.S.-ran prisons around the world, so-called “black sites” located in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The Washington Post broke this story in 2005, and it was confirmed by current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents. That was four years ago. Now films like the one I saw show footage of the torture involved, and include claims that 90 percent of the inmates are turned in by locals. I had been aware of this because of a British prisoner recently freed; I heard his lawyer in the UK at Greenbelt (a 4-day forum for issues of social injustice), describe his client’s ordeal. In this film, the interviews with U.S. military personnel repeatedly site orders from “higher-ups.” And yet the makers of this still ongoing policy have yet to be held responsible. It reflects poorly on the men and women who serve with courage in places of conflict.

Last week I spoke at the Harvard National Model United Nations (where 3,500 university students from 30 countries and all over the U.S. participated), and at West Point Military Academy. Two very different audiences: the one in suits and short skirts and heels, the other in uniform. But in crucial ways they resembled each other. Both groups engaged in the issue of child soldiers that I described for them. Both groups came up to me afterwards, voicing questions and concerns. Both groups impressed me no end with their integrity. Both groups contain America’s future leaders.

The students at West Point will graduate in the spring, and report for duty as officers in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I looked deep into their eyes, I saw respect and honor and a willingness to serve; I saw concern and compassion and quiet intelligence. And I saw humility.

Both groups of students asked me what it means to “engage in the issue.” We threw around ideas and settled on the answer, “doing the next right thing.” This might mean writing a check, or reading an article, or volunteering for a summer, or being willing, or changing a major, or babysitting for people we know who don’t speak English very well, or contacting our political representatives and urging them to take a stand. Or writing a book. Or making a film. Or fighting a war. Or watching a film. It is caring. To engage in the issue is to listen to our hearts.

The images of that film haunt me still.

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