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My Turn: Uncovering violence's roots

I traveled through Boston recently to revisit the neighborhoods I love, where I worked for many years on public health and environmental health issues, and to talk with family and friends about the Boston Marathon tragedy.

My sister and her family were a quarter-mile from the finish line watching for her son who was running, when the improvised cluster bomb exploded. So also was a close family friend, who was standing four blocks from the finish line when she heard the explosion. Her grandchildren had played with the 8-year-old boy who was killed and his severely injured sister in their Dorchester neighborhood. In the days following the marathon, my sister and my friend — like all the victims and witnesses — had felt frightened, chaotic and confused.

More than a week had passed since the bombing when I saw them, and both were very reflective. We talked about how much closer to home the violence of war has become, with military-style assault weapons and bombs being used so frequently and randomly in our country. Of all the industrialized countries, 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years have taken place in the United States. And, yet, just two days after the Boston tragedy, the Senate failed to pass a minimal gun control bill that would have expanded background checks to include online sales and gun show purchases.

Our reflections moved to places in the world in which our country is undertaking similar mass killings and injuries with drones and generating the same sense of random terror and mass insecurity felt in Boston, in hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. By coincidence of history, a young Yemeni, Farea Al-Muslimi, testified at a Senate hearing two days after the Boston marathon bombing, on the U.S. drone war in his country. Al-Muslimi had been a high school exchange student in the United States, for which he expressed immense gratitude, and later he had briefed congressional staffers on issues related to Yemen. In his words, “I became an ambassador for Americans to my country.”

Six days before coming to testify before the Senate committee, the U.S. war on terror in South Yemen struck his remote mountain village Wessab with a drone attack “that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers.” “Why” his villager neighbors asked, “was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when … he could have easily been captured and arrested?” The villagers’ first experience of America was not a school or hospital built with American aid, he told the committee, it was the terror of a drone strike. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village,” he concluded, “one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” What he essentially conveyed to the senators is that our military violence abroad will increase the likelihood of retaliation attacks at home.

The CIA’s term for unintended consequences of our government’s actions abroad, such as drone attacks resulting in anger, hatred and growing recruitment of terrorists, is blowback. On “Meet the Press” recently, TV journalist Tom Brokaw alluded to this in speaking about our violence abroad coming back to haunt us here: “I think we also have to examine (America’s) use of drones … there are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq … And there is enormous rage in what (young people) see in that part of the world as a presumptuousness of the United States.

While in Boston, I also met with friends from Boston’s public housing program and the Environmental Protection Agency with whom I had worked. One described the phenomenon of there being so few jobs for young people in public housing that they have no exit from poverty, and public housing units are increasingly intergenerational. The other, in speaking of the sequestration impact, told me work furloughs at EPA are beginning. Both conversations ended with the same question:

What’s wrong with this picture?

At a time when there are no existential challenges to U.S. military supremacy, more than 50 percent of U.S. discretionary spending goes to defense (Pentagon, Intelligence, Homeland Security, and nuclear weapons).

Less than 7 percent goes to health and human services; less than 6 percent, to education, and less than 3 percent, to housing and urban development.

The State Department, which is responsible for diplomacy and resolution to conflict, has less than 8 percent of the Pentagon budget.

The Pentagon has more than 60 times the budget of U.S. EPA — the agency charged with environmental health and regulating greenhouse gases to slow climate change, a real existential threat to our country and the world.

We must — as the U.S. mayors conference and tens of millions of American citizens have called for — re-order our priorities and bring the war dollars home back into our communities for health, education, living wage jobs, re-building infrastructure and environment protection. Otherwise, we face blowback from abroad and decline from within.

H. Patricia Hynes is a retired professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health. She directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts and lives in Montague.

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