The latest Clint Eastwood movie is a tribute to Chris Kyle, an American soldier who became a legend for killing 160 people who threatened U.S. troops during his several tours of duty in Iraq. He was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. The movie traces his career from extraordinary sharpshooter to defender of his colleagues in battle to his ironic death at the hands of a deranged veteran during shooting practice after his return to his family in Texas. The finale is a flag-waving memorial ceremony in the huge stadium of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
The words of Paul Simon’s 1964 song have always intrigued me. How can silence have sounds? How does one warmly welcome what one cannot see as he begins “Hello darkness my old friend”? I understood what he meant by “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/ And tenement halls;” I quoted that as an epigraph in my undergraduate thesis in religion. But I am most intrigued when Simon writes:
“People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening”.
During the demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1970’s, a favorite rallying moment for the marchers was to sing the Beatles’ John Lennon’s ballad, “Give Peace a Chance”. The song summarized protest against the war and the ethos of the times. Peace and love were in the air
The recent Geneva popular vote to overhaul the local police organization has drawn enormous attention. The vote was emotional, politically dividing and extremely close. Were the police a state within a state? Did the police union have too much power? Would the person responsible for the police, Conseil d’Etat Pierre Maudet who initiated the reform, lose influence if he lost the vote? Many questions were raised. But perhaps the most fundamental ones were not raised: What does it mean to be secure today? Who is responsible for our security?
On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms to defend his posting of the 95 theses criticizing the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences as a guarantee of going to Heaven. He refused to recant, risking excommunication. In his final declaration, in the face of the powers of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, Luther is supposed to have said, “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I can do no other".
The 13th Edition of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights has opened in Geneva. “A Film, A Subject, A Debate” is the heading of a most ambitious program that includes 40 documentaries, 11 feature films, 37 public debates, 160 international speakers, 8 workshops and 76 partners. Quite an achievement for the new director, Isabelle Gattiker, who is following in the large footsteps of the dynamic, innovative creator of the festival, Leo Kaneman.
Numerous lists try to establish who has power. Is Angela Merkel the most powerful person in the world? Is Barack Obama? What about multinational corporations? Apple? Microsoft? Terrorists like Al Qaida? The Islamic State? Emerging powers like China or India? On a recent trip to the United States to attend an academic conference in New Orleans, I followed panels which were about the above, but discussions in the corridors were all about another kind of power.
All eyes were fixed on the recent negotiations in Minsk. Would Vladmir shake hands with Petro? Would Angela and Francois be able to arrange a cease fire to end the brutal fighting in eastern Ukraine? Would Ukraine be able to join NATO and the EU in the future? Would the United States send weapons (with advisors?) to the Ukrainian army? Would the Ukrainian economy be given a shot in the arm?
The recent burning of the Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State and the revenge hanging of two prisoners by the Jordanian government harken to the principle of Hammurabi’s ancient Babylonian law code of 1754 B.C., “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. The terrorists reacted to the refusal of the Jordanian government to negotiate the release of jihadist prisoners; the Jordanians reacted to the brutal murder of their pilot. An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth indeed.
The recent negotiations in Geneva and Zurich on Iran’s nuclear program have focused attention on the role of Switzerland as a site for diplomacy. Going back to the famous Alabama Claims following the American Civil War (1861-1865), Switzerland, especially Geneva, has hosted numerous arbitrations and negotiations – some public, many off the record.
The announcement by the Swiss National Bank (SNB) that the Swiss Franc will no longer be pegged to the Euro sent shockwaves throughout Switzerland. One of the harshest criticisms was that the decision was taken by the Bank alone and that the general public was unprepared for the change. Instead of the Bank being praised for denying speculation, it was lambasted for the surprise.
The tragic events in Paris tug at our hearts and pose questions to our heads. Our deepest sympathies go to the families and friends of the victims. While we mourn the deaths of the cartoonists and police and are revolted by people being gunned down in premeditated murder, we are led to reflect on what freedom really means and the role of humor.
Just before the holiday season, the United States and Cuba announced that they were taking several steps to change their severed relations. After almost 50 years of boycotts and embargo, the two countries are ready to open discussions about reviving full diplomatic recognition. While it may seem obvious to most people that the United States’ demonization of Fidel Castro and his regime was counterproductive, the hemisphere’s dominant power is at long last reaching out.
It is often said that those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it. Two recent events in the United States – the killings of Michael Brown/Earl Garner and the revelations of torture techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have shocked the world. But should we really be surprised?
The 2014 Swiss Presidency of the OSCE has been universally praised. At the final ministerial meeting in Basel last week, there was a record participation with 53 ministers and 1,300 delegates attending. Particular accolades for Switzerland’s chairmanship came from United States Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, not a negligible feat considering that the meeting ended with no consensus statement on the simmering conflict in Ukraine.
The recent nomination of Patrick Aebischer, President of the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL), to be president of the Novartis Venture Fund (NVF) has caused quite a stir. Critics are claiming he has a flagrant conflict of interest. Beyond that criticism is the deeper question of the private-public relationship between universities and academia.
It would be enjoyable to write about the victorious Swiss Davis Cup team or a fascinating recent visit to Armenia, but the riots in Missouri dominate the news and once again the world is reminded that racial equality remains problematic in the United States. For someone who worked in the African-American enclave of Harlem in New York City from 1968-1972 there is only dismay that after the many victories of the civil rights movement and the election of the first African-American president, deep-seated animosities remain.
Membership in the European Union is sometimes referred to as a “géométrie variable,” member countries have different obligations; the United Kingdom is a full member but retains its own currency, the Pound and not the Euro. On a recent visit to Kiev, I was impressed by how my comments on the need for international cooperation in the context of today’s global, complex interdependence were met with emphatic calls for sovereign autonomy in a language of emotional nationalism.
President Barack Obama was defiant at his news conference after the recent midterm elections. Rather than admitting to a “shellacking,” as he did following the Democrats poor showing in November 2010 (“A pensive and introspective President Obama said Wednesday the election was a ‘shellacking’ and took responsibility for his party’s disastrous showing,” the press reported at the time), this time the President expressed no remorse. He laid out his plans for the next two years, even threatening to issue an executive order on immigration if the Congress did not pass a bill to his liking. Although the Democrats lost control of the Senate and the Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and several governorships, Obama was far from contrite.
After Nov. 4, we should know if the Republican Party will control both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the next two years. As President Obama will be entering the last two years of his second mandate beginning in 2015, the lameness of the lame duck President will be intensified if the Republicans control both houses of Congress.
When I visit Kiev, I often ask my hosts: “What is Ukraine? What does it mean to be Ukrainian?” Watching Roger Federer play in Bâle this weekend, it was not difficult to understand what it meant to be Swiss; there were flags waving all over St. Jacques Arena as well as cow bells ringing. People had the Swiss cross painted on their cheeks. To be Swiss was to be behind Federer: to be behind Federer was to be Swiss. There was no doubt that Roger personified Swiss identity to the roaring crowd.
Why do we have governments? Libertarians tell us that the best governments are those which govern least. But in times of crisis, such as a natural disasters or wars, citizens depend on their governments to protect them. That is why we pay taxes. In the recent Ebola outbreak, both in the countries of origin in Africa and the countries where those infected have been treated, there has been clear incompetence by public authorities.
The media is telling us that the battle for Kobani is crucial in the war against the Islamic State. Upon reflection, there are many, many questions about the battle. We know that there is fighting taking place around and within the Syrian city on the border with Turkey. While the media’s job is to keep the public informed about major events around the world, the many questions raised indicate a worrying pattern of sensationalism and lack of in-depth reporting in addition to the complexities of the larger geopolitical maneuvering.
As mornings turn darker and darker, leaves start changing colors and the summer heat becomes the nip of autumn, many bemoan the end of summer. I don’t. Yes, vacation time is over; outdoor pools are closed and tennis goes indoors. We are all back to the routines of the regular year. But the riotous colors of the flora and the invigoration of the cool weather make it all worthwhile.
On September 27, the citizens of Geneva rejected an initiative for the construction of a short tunnel to join the two banks of Lac Leman. While several explanations have been given for the resounding defeat of the proposal – too expensive during a period of economic belt tightening or more enthusiasm for an ambitious, larger construction away from the center of town – no one with a fleeting knowledge of Geneva history should have been surprised at the result. Since the construction of the Mont Blanc bridge in 1862, there have been numerous attempts to build another crossing, but all have failed.