Guest columnist Cynthia Loring MacBain: U.S. foreign policy not unlike incarcerated men


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Published: 01-15-2024 1:01 PM

For 32 years, I was a volunteer with the Alternatives to Violence Project in New York State maximum security prisons: Sing Sing, Elmira, and the last years in Auburn Correctional Facility.

A mantra among men incarcerated for violent crimes is “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” and that is hard to change. In our workshops, we use simulated situations to engender discussion, and one of those is called “Quick Decisions,” where groups of three have one minute to discuss and then respond as a unit to a situation the facilitator describes. I once presented the situation: Imagine you are in the yard on a hot afternoon where there are guys from opposing gangs. Someone shoves someone else and that person pushes back. A crowd circles, expecting a fight. Into this suddenly comes three or four toddlers, and they are stumbling and crying. What do you do?

There was a shocked silence, and then one man said, “There would be no fight — we’d all be picking up and comforting those babies.” The men then began to talk to one another as fathers, and whereas not one of them had flinched at the stabbing of an inmate by another inmate, not one of them wanted to see the baby’s father killed.

I am reminded of that mantra when I look at United States foreign policy. It seems to me that U.S. foreign policy, however it is represented as “peace through strength” or “deterrence,” is merely a more polished version of the mantra of incarcerated men. U.S., China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and the other countries with nuclear arsenals are all driven by the mantra “A country’s gotta do” what the others do in their blind race for power. They have incarcerated the rest of the world’s human beings in a slowly dying world, contaminated by the very processes by which they build their arsenals, and robbed of the collective investments which might save us all.

The Military Industrial Complex about which President Eisenhower warned us is the financial beneficiary of this policy and determinedly demeans and dismisses anyone who might object.

All these nations share the same globe and the same existential threat of climate change, yet all nations have their own military industrial complex who play the game of foreign relations as though it has no human effects.

It is time to bring in the toddlers — and the children and the teenagers — to wake up the world’s leaders to the existence of those whose future is being affected. It is time to hear the voices which are expressing the fear that they will have no future. A recent article in Education Week titled “Will there be World War III?” attests to the fact that our children are aware of the threat of nuclear war and are very, very worried. They are sharing those fears in classroom settings, buoyed by other children with the same fears. Isn’t it time to listen to our young people in the decisions that will affect, or deny, them their future?

Let us bring in the toddlers to show our leaders that they are frightened and unhappy and looking to their fathers and mothers to assure them — with confidence — that they are safe. Let us bring in the teenagers to ask the questions which challenge leaders who continue to be guided by a mantra that has brought the world to this dangerous place.

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Let us remind members of the press that the First Amendment protects freedom of the press because the writers of the Constitution believed that it was the press that had the greatest responsibility of educating the citizenry.

It is time for the press to engage our young people in discussions of their concerns about the future. It is time for the press to be the voice for the toddlers and children and young adults, in helping them to ask the questions that will expose the mantra of “gotta do” which, in the words of an old folktale, is as naked as the “emperor’s new clothes.”

It’s time to remind the policy makers that what they “gotta do” determines whether today’s toddlers have a future. It is time.

Cynthia Loring MacBain is a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother who lives in Southampton.