The American Effect
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
It's been a while since I've blogged. To be honest, I've struggled to find the time to do a lot of things that I should be doing to nourish myself and posting on this blog is something that's been meaningful to me, so I'm back with a resolution to post at least once per month.
I've been traveling over winter break in Gabon (personally to visit family) and in Kenya (professionally). While in Kenya meeting with potential partners I don't think a day has gone by that someone hasn't mentioned Trump to me, most often with a grimace or disapproving comment, sometimes with a pitied laugh. But always with an awareness that his actions, and more broadly the actions of the United States, impact their lives deeply every day.
From very young ages, before I think most of us can remember where we originally heard the idea, we are taught that the US is the greatest country on Earth. We are indoctrinated in such a way as to view other parts of the world as "third world" or "developing," putting the people from those nations into a box ranked below us in intelligence, ability, worthiness, and overall goodness. I find myself reflecting on my own biases and the ways in which I look at others as others, as not quite the same as me, so I write this not from the position that I am post-America is great, but I lump myself right in with everyone else raised in the US.
On Sunday, January 5th, 2020, al-Shabab attacked a Kenyan airstrip in Lamu County, Kenya used by US and Kenyan forces. A US service member and two American defense contract workers were killed. By the time the news hit international media it was Sunday night in Kenya. I went to bed and woke up Monday morning to a series of text messages from friends and family wanting to make sure I was okay. I assured all of them that Lamu County was hours from where I was in Nairobi and that I was safe.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was in response to our assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 in Baghdad, Iraq. Three days. It took three days for extremists to put together an attack, supposedly against Americans, but on Kenyan soil. Travel alerts soon followed.
Then, on Wednesday, a Ukranian passenger jet was shot down by Iranian military who mistook the plane on radar for American jets, which they feared may be retaliating for missiles fired the previous evening at Iraqi bases housing American military personnel. One hundred and seventy six people were killed, including 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three British nationals.
Today marks the one year anniversary of the Dusit D2 attack in Nairobi that left twenty-one people dead. I'm sure that I saw it on the news because I have friends here, but very honestly I don't even remember the name of the attack, so I'm certain that most Americans are fully unfamiliar with it. Yet, it was an attack meant to target Americans for their decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Sixteen of the dead were Kenyans. Only one was American.
Yesterday, I visited the
on the site of the US Embassy in 1998 when it was bombed by al-Qaeda. The embassy in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania was bombed on the same day. I was sixteen when the bombings happened. I'm certain I saw them on the news. Maybe even talked about them during current events in social studies. But to be honest, I didn't even remember they'd happened until it was suggested that we visit the site.
The park is now a beautiful green space that houses benches, meeting tents, a fountain, and a beautiful wall with the names of the 213 people killed in the Nairobi bombing. A bombing meant to target Americans, kill a female US ambassador (she survived), and divide US-Kenyan relations. Do you know how many Americans died? Twelve. The vast majority of deaths that day were average Kenyans on their way to work and school, who happened to be passing by the embassy or working in the Ufundi Building next door. An additional 5,000 people sustained serious injuries, many resulting in blindness from shards of glass thrown from surrounding buildings and other disabilities.
Reading the names of the victims and stories of survivors, looking at pictures of the aftermath, seeing the folded flags that represented each victim...it was like looking at the footage from 9/11, except three years earlier in another country. A plaque on the wall, one of many telling the story from that day, read "For every American killed in Osama bin Laden's Jihad, over 20 Kenyans and Tanzanians were also killed. This united the world in sympathy for the victims and a near-universal condemnation of the bombing. The world was stunned and united in support of the East Africans who were killed in a war that was not their own."
More than one Kenyan person on this trip has expressed concern to me regarding the actions of our current administration. They say every time the US makes a decision, it has ramifications for us. Today, the Kenyan people mark the one-year anniversary of the latest major terrorist attack to happen in their country and they remain on edge after what's happened over the last two weeks between the US and Iran that al-Shabab will strike again to commemorate the date.
There are a lot of wonderful things about living in America and being American. We have freedom of speech and religion, opportunities for education and entrepreneurship, but we are not perfect. We are often bullies on the international stage and the actions we take not only affect the lives of millions of people around the world, but far worse, often result in innocent deaths.
As Americans we are very happy to talk about the things we do that help to advance the world and move it forward. But there is a very different kind of American effect. It is the kind that increases threat around the world and we should be just as concerned about this, even when Americans are not the prime victims. First, because humanity, but secondly because we are eroding relationships and trust that are essential to our continuation as the nation we believe we are.
It is so likely that this blog would not have existed were I not in Kenya when Soleimani was assassinated. All of these ideas came from an initial place of fear. I was definitely concerned in the days after he was killed, particularly after the attack in Lamu County, that more violence was imminent. But now, having researched Kenya's history with terrorism, particularly the US Embassy bombing in 1998, I am stunned by how many fully innocent Kenyans (and others around the world) have lost their lives, as the plaque said, in a war that is not their own. We must do better and we must be better, in how we act, how we are informed, and how we analyze the world. This is not as black and white as we like to make it.