Pop!Tech: Swift justice

It’s a challenge to blog everyone who comes across the Pop!Tech stage. The pace isn’t quite as frenetic as at a conference like TED, but it’s pretty damned exhausting. I’ve been cheating by not mentioning most of the entertainers who’ve come across the stage. Two who I was really moved by were
Kelly Joe Phelps and Vanessa German.

Phelps followed the most recent session on Islam with a few sweet moments of fingerpicking and sweet, sad songs. He’s deeply rooted in the blues, but has a songwriter’s ear and an amazing, emotive, soft voice. I’ll be buying several of his albums when I get home.

Before lunch yesterday, Vanessa German brought the audience to its feet and some of us to tears with her poetry. She’s an astounding performer, animating her words with hand gestures so expressive they could be their own language. She projects energy as she talks about justice, freedom and race … and meeting her offstage, that energy and intensity is just as powerful as it is when she’s under the lights. (She also must be one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met.)


Lt. Commander Charles Swift, a lawyer for the US armed forces, is pretty inspiring as well. He was the defense attorney for Salim Hamdan, who was briefly Osama bin Laden’s driver, and who was held at Guantanamo.

It’s hard to imagine the pressure Swift was under. He says, “if we didn’t go along with the president, the next big attack would be our fault.” Counterbalancing this was what he learned in visiting Hamdan’s family in Yemen. He shows a photo of Hamdan’s two young daughters in the arms of his female colleague, Sarah. He tells us that Hamdan’s mother brought a group of children together and said, “This is Susan. Susan went to school She studied very, very hard. She’s a lawyer. If you go to school, if you study very, very hard, you can be anything.”

At that moment, Swift realized that “we were alienating the most powerful ally we could have,” the people in the Middle East who want their families and their children to have better lives.

In Swift’s previous career, he was “damage control assistant,” responsible for controlling fires on ships. He explains that fires require oxygen, heat and fuel. Remove one of the three and the fire goes out. There’s a new model these days, which suggests that you can also stop a fire by stopping the exchange of free radicals.

This may well be true in terrorism as well. For terror, you need a breakdown of social order, a radicalized population and training and materials. But you also might stop terrorism by eliminating the free radicals. That’s what we’re doing in fighting terror. We’re holding people
“not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do.” We are conducting, “cooercive interrogations, because we don’t have intel that works.” And we’re increasing surveillance on ourselves and the world.

The administration tells us “look how good it’s worked – there have been no major attacks since we started doing this.” No argument from Swift. But these methods have increased the fuel and the oxygen of the terrorism triangle. And the addiction to fossil fuel means money just keeps piling in for training and materials.

So we need to try an alternative approach. Terrorism comes from failed states. “Iraq, Iran, North Korea wouldn’t incubate terrorists – it’s against their national interest. Failed states don’t have national interests.” He reminds us that it’s very expensive to put a failed state back together – we need to prevent them from falling apart. We’ve got tons of potential failed states in Africa, and we need to prevent them from falling apart. We have to focus on health care, poverty and rule of law.

He tells us that the solutions we’ve been talking about here at Pop!Tech can address terror. “If you come out of here saysing ‘I’m for women’s rights, for lighting in poor communities,’ you’re also a frontline warrior in the struggle against international terrorism.” This struggle can’t be won by the military itself or by governments. “I really don’t care why you’re saving Kenya – just save it. It will make us safer.”

He tells us a story he heard from Osama bin Laden’s former security chief, a man named Nasser. Nasser left bin Laden because he disagreed on what was a legitimate target and didn’t want to target women and children. Nasser told him about being in Afghanistan, when saw a soldier appearing from the distance. As they watched the soldier under a heavy backpack, they noticed her odd gait. He walked up to her and discovered that she was a French nurse for Doctors without Borders. His comrades laughed at him for talking with her. He said to them, “She’ll convert twenty for everyone we will with her medicine.”

He tells us, “Once we figure it out, we’ll get twenty, they’ll get one and we can’t lose.”

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