Sally Kohn

David Beats Goliath!: How the Little Guy Beat A Mega-Corporation

With all the Republican obstructionism and Democratic spinelessness in Washington, not to mention the distractions of the Obamacare website, it can be hard to feel good about politics at all — let alone tap into the sort of optimism that inspires and motivates many of us in the first place. Here, then, is a story of a small statewide organization that brought a multi-billion-dollar, multinational corporation to heel.

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White People’s Racial Discomfort

Mark Zuckerberg spoke out yesterday in support of immigration reform, along with other leaders in the tech and business industries. The day before, a major evangelical Christian association reaffirmed its support for a path to citizenship. And a majority of Republican voters — even GOP primary voters — support immigration reform. Yet House Republicans have stalled comprehensive immigration reform legislation because they are playing to a small base of extremist right-wingers who respond to racialized divisiveness.

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Activists Use Love and Empathy to Create New Alliances and Possibilities with the 'Enemy'

Saul Alinsky is called the father of modern community organizing. His 1971 Rules for Radicals is like a political version of The Art of War merged with street fighting tips from a boxing coach—the tone is gruff, aggressive, and blunt. For Alinsky, the ends justify pretty much any means. But a new crop of activists is forging a different path—and turning organizing orthodoxy on its head.

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Will the Immigration Bill Meet Same Fate as Shameful Gun Control Bill Debacle?

The road to citizenship isn’t exactly shovel ready. In fact, even calling it a road might be a stretch.  It’s more like a long on-ramp. With a toll booth. And potholes. And a guard station. And a giant electrified fence.

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Far Right: Our Speech is Freer!

This story was originally published at Salon.

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Ryan Family Fortune Built on Public Works Projects That Romney Campaign Mocks

When Paul Ryan took to the stage in Mooresville, North Carolina, as Mitt Romney’s running mate, he attacked President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark about the role of government in supporting private innovation. But while Republicans have been clamoring to make this election a false dichotomy between the private sector and the public sector, Paul Ryan — heir to a private fortune made by building public highways — is a gaping pothole in that plan. Paul Ryan is a living, breathing GOP example of how public infrastructure and private entrepreneurship work hand-in-hand.

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The 17th Amendment is Good for America

There’s a movement afoot to repeal the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution which allows for the two US Senators from each state to be “elected by the people thereof.” As proof that the Tea Party wants to infringe on your democracy and make it easier for elite corporate interests to control Washington, they want to take away our vote and allow state legislators to secretly appoint Senators through back-room deals.

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Why Ethnic Studies Are Good for America

There’s a proverb that says, "Until the lion tells his own story of being hunted, history will always glorify the hunter." This, in essence, is the reason for ethnic studies.

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Why an 81-Year-Old Widow from Iowa is Marching to Bring the Banks Under Heel

An 81-year-old widow from Des Moines, Iowa, Ferol Wegner wasn’t the type of person who would normally go to a protest against the banking industry. But that was before she lost 30 percent of her pension in the economic downturn. Without mincing her words, Ms. Wegner blames the big banks. “Fraud, corruption and greed,” she says. “These folks must be held accountable.”

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Will Obama or McCain Halt our Growing Immigration Police State?

To: Our Next President
From: Postville, Iowa
Date: June 17, 2008
Re: Do Something!

Postville, Iowa, is as American as it gets. Originally inhabited by American Indians, like most of the nation, Postville became a town in the mid-1800s when a half-way house was established for soldiers traveling between army forts in northeastern Iowa. The small town has been a home for travelers ever sense -- including the more than 300 immigrant workers at the Agriprocessor meatpacking plant who were detained by federal agents one month ago today. In a sense, Postville is still a half-way house for the American dream, a dream deferred for many. And it's a microcosm of the issues facing our next President.

Postville is emblematic of America's pluralistic melting pot. German and Norwegian immigrants moved in toward the late 1800s. A century later, in 1987s, Hassidic Jews from New York moved to Postville to establish Agriprocessor, a kosher meatpacking plant. Soon after, immigrants from Guatemala, Russia, Bosnia, Nigeria and elsewhere arrived, seeking jobs the new factory had created for them. Today, Postville's residents can trace their lineage to some 27 countries.

Without question, there was friction. Postville is a small town, about 2,300 hundred residents according to the 2000 Census -- and "that's counting everyone and their dog", locals quip. So any changes in town were certain to be noticed. "You'd see them, and you wouldn't really know how to talk to them, how to act around them," Wade Schutte, a high school student, said of the new immigrants in 1999 Los Angeles Times article. "It took a while to adjust."

And certainly, like elsewhere, not every long-time resident of Postville was able to adjust and friction often teetered on resentment or even backlash. But most of Postville adapted with and even came to appreciate change. At a gift shop in Postville that now sells Mexican-style painted crosses along side Jewish-inspired glass figurines, owner Nina Taylor told National Geographic in 2005 that there are some who want to "go back to the 50s. But if we go back there, we'd be a dead town." Thanks to all of the changes, Postville's once-stagnant economy has been steadily growing for the last 15 years.

At the same time, if Postville represents America's potential -- as an historically welcoming promise land for newcomers that builds on the strength of diversity to achieve our shared dreams -- Postville also represents a warning. The Agriprocessor meatpacking plant was issued 39 citations in March 2008 for violating workplace safety and health violations. The workers at the plant, most of whom were undocumented immigrants, slaved away doing dangerous jobs in unsafe conditions for pittance wages with little or no recourse. Postville's economic gains came at the expense of these immigrants, driven by a lack of opportunity in their home countries to seek out marginal opportunities here, quickly learning that the American dream was an exploitative trap. While slowly but surely integrating into the larger community, Postville's immigrants were clearly still an underclass.

Rather than raise the minimum wage for all workers in Postville, guarantee quality public schools and affordable healthcare for all, establish a new unionized job training program bringing fresh opportunity to the town, and guaranteeing a path to citizenship and integration programs for all the town's immigrants -- the sort of help Postville really needs -- on May 12, 2008, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raided the meatpacking plant. Federal agents arrested more than 380 immigrants, ripping apart their lives, ripping apart their families and ripping apart Postville.

Now hundreds of immigrants are being held in converted animal pens at a nearby fairground without access to their families or to lawyers. And the town of Postville is no longer a postcard for the land of community and opportunity America has always strived to be but a reminder of the ugly scapegoating and oppression from which we too often suffer. Rather than improving conditions at Agriprocessor and fixing Postville's problems, the raid made matters worse.

The culture and values of small town America demand that inclusion and community triumph over a go-it-alone individualism that fears anyone or anything different. White residents of Postville have joined demonstration rallies to protest the raids and continue to serve food to immigrants seeking refuge in local churches.

"This is a little town that's some 20-miles from even a McDonald's," Postville resident Doug All told the Los Angeles Times reporter. "So we have to get along." The challenge facing our nation is how to do just that, working together toward the American dream we share.

A good start would be our current president making good on his message that "we've got to be humane about the nearly 11 or 12 million people who are already here." Raids like the one in Postville are anything but, and President Bush could finally show the moral leadership he once claimed as the mantle of his presidency and declare and end to all ICE raids. Meanwhile, Senator McCain and Senator Obama should both condemn these raids and declare that, their first day in office, they will put an end to them. Because Postville, like America, has bigger problems to deal with that require all of us working together -- not immigration raids tearing us apart.

The War On Immigrants

When I hear the word “raid� these days, the first thing I think of us the war in Iraq. Something like, “US Forces Raid Shi’ite Stronghold of Sadr City.� I have images of American forces going home by home, banging down the doors, threatening anyone they find and taking away the supposed evil-doers.

But then sometimes I hear the word “raid� mentioned in my own backyard and the frightening thing is, the scenario isn’t all that different.

On Wednesday, federal agents backed by our precious tax dollars, banged down the doors of poultry plants in New York, Texas, Florida, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia, threatening anyone they could find, dragging away parents without notifying their families and, all told, arresting more than 300 undocumented immigrants.

Their crime? Leaving their homes and everything they’ve ever known in search of opportunity for their families and crossing the treacherous desert boarder between the US and Mexico or overstaying their visas in order to work long hours for low pay at a poultry processing plant where, according to an expose from the Charlotte Observer worker protections are lax and severe injuries are common. The Charlotte Observer series is littered with stories and images of workers crippled by their duties, and stories of management cutting corners not only on safety but on appropriate medical treatments when problems do arise.

Remind me who the evil-doers are?

Why So Many Films About Going It Alone?

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

This year's most-honored films mostly are rather bleak. "If a movie-goer manages to see all the Oscar-nominated films, a generous dose of antidepressants will be in order," remarked Washington Post writer Robin Givhan.

With at least one survey finding 75 percent of Americans feeling that our country is on the wrong track, the trend toward gloomy movies may seem to be a case of art imitating life. Yet as the ideology of hyper-individualism runs its dangerous course through our politics and culture, the American public may be drawn to entertainment that depicts the future we're desperate to avoid.

In the 1932 film Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo uttered her most famous line, "I want to be alone!" Yet, despite her anguished pleas for solitude, in the end Garbo's once-suicidal misanthropic character seeks out love and companionship. The tragedy of the film is that the companion she now craves has been killed.

Many of this year's films follow an opposite path. When Best Picture nominee There Will Be Blood begins, Daniel Day-Lewis' character is part of a community -- trying to figure out together how to more efficiently extract oil from the earth. The film tells the dark tale of his descent into loneliness, as he pushes away -- or kills -- everyone around him. The tragedy is not that Day-Lewis' character ends up alone despite wanting community. The tragedy is that he chose isolation and then learned its consequence.

Films like No Country for Old Men, also up for Best Picture, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead similarly progress from being stories of community -- husband-wife, parent-child, sheriff-town -- to everyone being on his or her own, fighting in isolation, one against the other.

Thomas Hobbes' "war of all against all" leading to lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" is a popular story line in our culture today. From Survivor to American Idol, we enjoy watching people duke it out in mock struggles of life and death, or being voted off the show, which equals death in reality TV. But perhaps these films and shows are popular not because they reflect our lives but because they repulse us. For every Lone Ranger on the screen, there are thousands of families and communities pulling together and looking out for one another. Maybe we enjoy watching malnourished fashion models eliminate each other precisely because we can turn the TV off and turn to the people around us, safe in the knowledge that they help us when we're in need and help us achieve our dreams.

To be sure, individualism and community are not at odds. The Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" Individual autonomy and expression are essential to a democratic society. Yet our increasingly high-tech, low-touch consumerist society has force-fed us the idea that we're nothing more than individuals. This year's breakaway hit film was "Juno," in which a high school student who got pregnant by "connecting" with a schoolmate, decides to give her baby to a suburban mother longing for connection herself. Throughout the film, Juno's family and friends support her. It's the kind of movie that makes us feel good because it captures the world we crave, where the ideology of individualism succumbs to a deeper sense of interconnectedness. The same hunger for positive change and unity is clearly transforming political discourse as well.

In a moment of self-reflection in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis' character confesses, "I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people." But then, foreshadowing his descent into selfish isolation, he says, "I can't keep doing this on my own." None of us can. And the moral of this year's stories is that none of us want to.

Are Presidential Candidates Out of Touch With America?

Ironically, the things that matter most to our country are not the things that matter most in politics today. Politics has become a playground for the wealthy elite, with lobbyists, corporate CEOs and big donors holding more sway than regular people. Meanwhile, in towns and cities across the United States, community organizing groups work with regular folks to identify shared problems and work together for solutions. Even back in the 1800s, when de Tocqueville defined democracy in America, he said these local associations are the heart of our political tradition. But in the lifeless, corporate politics of our nation today, politicians can't seem to find America's pulse. During elections and in between, we hear more about the politics of elites than the politics of the people.

With their fingers in the wind instead of on the pulse of our democracy, politicians can't find our true values. Americans in every corner of the map believe we're all in it together and share community values of compassion and shared responsibility, knowing that we all do better when we all do better. Yet politicians and the media continue to represent fringe, right-wing ideas of isolation, hyperindividualism and us-versus-them competition as the only values in America. Politicians and media allow the phrase "values voter" to be defined by that fringe minority -- rather than the community values the vast majority of us share.

But we, the people, know better. We know that the politics of our hearts, our homes and our communities are more important than corporate lobbyists. We know that the community values that we all share are the real values of our nation. But are the candidates listening?

On Dec. 1 in Des Moines, Iowa, over 5,000 grass-roots leaders from community organizing groups across the United States will join five of the leading presidential candidates for a conversation about real issues and real values with real people. At the Heartland Presidential Forum, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd will take turns sharing the stage with everyday Americans dealing with the consequences of inadequate healthcare, immigration raids, subprime mortgages and the loss of family farms. Organized by the Center for Community Change, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the national Campaign for Community Values -- supported by over 300 grass-roots organizations from Maine to Hawaii and everywhere in between -- the Heartland Presidential Forum is a historic, one-of-its-kind event this election season to finally hold the candidates accountable to the people.

At the Heartland Presidential Forum, real people will ask real questions, not just about nitty gritty policy proposals but the broader moral vision each candidate would bring to the Oval Office. Does our future president believe we're all in it together? If so, what is the role of government in meeting our shared needs? How do we value communities on both sides of the border? How do we create economic opportunity for all of us? How do we put people back in charge of our democracy?

This is no dog-and-pony show. And the real people in this presidential forum won't be pumped in through the internet. They'll be standing live, next to the candidates and asking them the hard questions we all want to hear about the values we all share.

This election, we can change the conversation. Already, all across the United States, people are joining together in local community organizations because they share a vision for a nation and a world that values all of us. The politics of division are finished. The politics of the people are the politics of connection. Are the candidates listening? On Dec. 1, join us to find out!

Corporate Agribusiness Is Behind Our Deadly Food Supply

First it was spinach. Now it's green onions at the Taco Bell. What's next? The growing anxiety over our nation's food supply is enough to make you chew your nails -- unless of course they're contaminated with E. coli as well. Is nothing safe?

In the United States today, 80 percent of beef is slaughtered by four companies, 75 percent of pre-cut salad mixes are processed by two companies and 30 percent of milk is processed by just one company. Most of our fresh produce comes from the same region of California where the contaminated spinach and now green onions were grown. During off seasons, up to 70 percent of the produce sold in the United States comes from other countries.

Globalization has meant that, with the click of a button, we can connect with people and places halfway across the country or the world. But rather than just exchanging ideas and cultures, we've increasingly come to depend on the rest of the world for our consumption of goods, services, energy -- and food. With the speed of clicking a button, an E. coli outbreak in California or China can threaten our entire food supply and risk a widespread pandemic.

Gone are the days of family farms, which would produce sustainable, healthy food that also fed the local economy. Today, a staggering 330 farmers abandon farming each week. In the 1930s, there were over seven million family farms in our country. Today, roughly two million remain.

In their place, large, corporate-run farms have driven down the price of food, thanks largely to massive subsidies from the federal government but also "economies of scale." Yet cutting costs comes at a price. When you buy an apple at your local farmer's market from a farmer's in your region, there's no packaging involved and the only energy the farmer spent to get you that apple was a few miles worth of gas.

When you buy an apple grown all the way across the country -- or on the other side of the globe -- that apple is wrapped in paper and cardboard and shipped over boats and planes and then trucks to your store, a considerably greater cost to the environment.

The money you spend on the apple, after the grocery store takes its cut, goes into the mega-profits of some distant agribusiness, a considerable cost to your local economy.

But also, aggregating farming means aggregating risk. In the case of the E. coli contaminated spinach outbreak this past September, the spinach was grown at massive, industrial farms in southern California and shipped around the United States.

The E. coli came from an industrial cattle ranch nearby. Tightly packed cows were over fed with unhealthy grain and produced E. coli in their feces. The contaminated feces washed downstream into the water supply, infecting the spinach fields.

There is much talk right now about "energy independence" -- the idea that the United States should rely on sustainable, renewable energy sources rather military conflict and political instability in the pursuit of oil. Food must be no different. Given the recent E. coli scares, we can no longer ignore the warning signs. Long-distance food of corporate agribusiness threatens our environment, our economy and our health. If we're feeling insecure, it's no wonder. We are what we eat.

There's a movement afoot to restore the health and safety of our food supply and support the livelihood and culture of small, family farmers. "The Meatrix", an incredibly clever animated spoof that exposes the dangers of factory farming, was viewed online by over 4.2 million people in the first three months it was released.

And just this past October, hundreds of thousands of people from over 150 continents convened in Turin, Italy, at a gathering for the international Slow Food organization, which calls for food that is good, clean and fair.

On it's website, the organization Local Harvest lists almost 10,000 farmers' markets, cooperative grocery stores, restaurants and more that provide locally-grown, organic produce to consumers. From Pulaski, Tennessee, to Moline, Illinois, there are already opportunities in big cities and small towns across the entire country to buy safe and nutritious food right from our own backyards. As demand for local produce grows, these markets will grow too.

Those of us who can afford to buy local, organic food grown sustainably by family farmers should do so. From jams and breads to apples and nuts, if we lead with our taste buds and our wallets we will over time help bring down the cost of locally grown food by eliminating the unfair competition of subsidized, artificially cheap agribusiness.

We will also solve the food crisis worldwide, where U.S. agribusiness has similarly trampled family farms and local food production from Mexico to India. Our reward will be a better world -- and food on our table that is nutritious, delicious and safe to eat.

Abandoning the See-Saw of Centrism

A few months ago, I saw two little kids -- a boy and a girl -- playing on a see-saw at the park. I'd been pretty sure see-saws were obsolete, but not at this park. Here was a see-saw in high gear.

I watched the kids go up-and-down, up-and-down for at least five minutes until the little girl abruptly stopped. Her eyes brightened. Clearly, she had a brilliant idea -- or so she thought. Promptly, the little girl slid all the way from the far left of the see saw -- splinters be damned -- to the exact middle of the board.

Nothing happened. As the little girl's anticipation turned to disappointment, the board not only didn't move but was more firmly entrenched on the right side than ever. The little boy, for his part, erupted with the broad smile of a bragger across his face.

If you listen closely this election season, you can hear the sound of Democratic candidates scraping their bottoms in a hasty rush toward the center. But the reasoning is unclear. In a political climate where once-preposterous, archconservative ideas are now the status quo, shifting the political center of balance to the middle would only aid that Right-wing tilt. As the center of politics is masqueraded as the new left, the right becomes the new center.

If Democrats seem generally allergic to articulating moral convictions and standing up for what they believe, election season exacerbates this condition. Polls show that three-quarters of Americans support a balanced and humane approach to immigration reform. But neither principles nor polling have stopped Democratic candidates from running in the Right wing direction on this issue.

"I voted for the toughest anti-illegal immigration bill in Congress," bragged Democratic candidate for Senate in Tennessee Harold E. Ford, Jr. (Incidentally, asked why he voted against similar legislation the year before as a member of the House, Ford said something about this year's bill being "more comprehensive.")

In Arizona, Democratic candidate for Congress Bill Johnson has paid for campaign billboards with the tag line, "Stop the Invasion!" Senator Bill Nelson, incumbent Democrat from Nebraska, once opposed crackdowns on undocumented immigrants but, just in time for the election, has introduced his own harsh, anti-immigration measures. "Not a day goes by where one of my Nebraska neighbors doesn't ask me when we are going to get tough on immigration," Nelson said in his newsletter to voters. "My bill will provide tougher penalties and give law enforcement the tools they need to stop the flood of illegal immigration." In fact, Nelson was among the 80% of Democrats in the Senate who voted to support building a medieval, anti-immigrant fence along the border with Mexico. They voted for the bill, and dropped their push for more sensible immigration policies, as the election neared.

But trying to govern with your finger in the air, instead of true convictions and moral leadership, means that political winds can blow Democrats into dangerous waters. Upon appointment to the education committee in the House of Representatives, Right wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Co.) revealed his intention to ultimately eliminate public education for all. "It's a lot easier to kill the beast when you get in the cave," Tancredo said. Centrist Democrats might take note. It's far easier for the Right to "kill the beast" when its voluntarily delivered on a silver platter.

Centrism not only alienates the Democratic base but also plays into the Right wing's ultimate agenda. Charter schools are just one step to abolishing public education. Parental notification laws are just one step to banning abortion. And an anti-immigrant wall is just one step to banning all immigration. In supporting these measures, centrist Democrats don't seem conciliatory and strategic. They seem short-sighted and spineless.

Centrism is not a "third way", it's their way -- taking Right wing ideas and trying to pass them off as enlightened Democratic compromise. If centrists really think that plagiarizing conservative principles will somehow turn the country in a better direction, they need only study the science of see saws. Maybe centrism expediently wins a few elections, but in the long term, moving to the center only helps to cement our country's future on the Right, helping conservatives win in the longer-term contest of ideas and leaving the progressive coalition with nothing but splinters. What we need now is brave and visionary progressive leadership and ideas or the political debate will remain imbalanced and our country will remain stuck in the mud.

As a tactical strategy, moving to the middle didn't help the little girl on the see saw. What makes us think it will help the nation?

What the Amish Are Teaching America

On Oct. 2, Charles Carl Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Penn. He lined up 11 young girls from the class and shot them each at point blank range. The gruesome depths of this crime are hard for any community to grasp, but certainly for the Amish -- who live such a secluded and peaceful life, removed even from the everyday depictions of violence on TV. When the Amish were suddenly pierced by violence, how did they respond?

The evening of the shooting, Amish neighbors from the Nickel Mines community gathered to process their grief with each other and mental health counselors. As of that evening, three little girls were dead. Eight were hospitalized in critical condition. (One more girl has died since.) According to reports by counselors who attended the grief session, the Amish family members grappled with a number of questions: Do we send our kids to school tomorrow? What if they want to sleep in our beds tonight, is that OK? But one question they asked might surprise us outsiders. What, they wondered, can we do to help the family of the shooter? Plans were already underway for a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts' family with offers of food and condolences. The Amish, it seems, don't automatically translate their grieving into revenge. Rather, they believe in redemption.

Meanwhile, the United States culture from which the Amish are isolated is moving in the other direction -- increasingly exacting revenge for crimes and punishing violence with more violence. In 26 states and at the federal level, there are "three strikes" laws in place. Conviction for three felonies in a row now warrants a life sentence, even for the most minor crimes. For instance, Leandro Andrade is serving a life sentence, his final crime involving the theft of nine children's videos -- including "Cinderella" and "Free Willy" -- from a Kmart. Similarly, in many states and at the federal level, possession of even small amounts of drugs trigger mandatory minimum sentences of extreme duration. In New York, Elaine Bartlett was just released from prison, serving a 20-year sentence for possessing only four ounces of cocaine. This is in addition to the 60 people who were executed in the United States in 2005, among the more than a thousand killed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. And the president of the United States is still actively seeking authority to torture and abuse alleged terrorists, whom he consistently dehumanizes as rats to be "smoked from their holes," even without evidence of their guilt.

Our patterns of punishment and revenge are fundamentally at odds with the deeper values of common humanity that the tragic experience of the Amish are helping to reveal. Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done in life. Someone who cheats is not only a cheater. Someone who steals something is not only a thief. And someone who commits a murder is not only a murderer. The same is true of Charles Carl Roberts. We don't yet know the details of the episode in his past for which, in his suicide note, he said he was seeking revenge. It may be a sad and sympathetic tale. It may not. Either way, there's no excusing his actions. Whatever happened to Roberts in the past, taking the lives of others is never justified. But nothing Roberts has done changes the fact that he was a human being, like all of us. We all make mistakes. Roberts' were considerably and egregiously larger than most. But the Amish in Nickel Mines seem to have been able to see past Roberts' actions and recognize his humanity, sympathize with his family for their loss, and move forward with compassion, not vengeful hate.

We've come to think that "an eye for an eye" is a natural, human reaction to violence. The Amish, who live a truly natural life apart from the influences of our violence-infused culture, are proving otherwise. If, as Gandhi said, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," then the Amish are providing the rest of us with an eye-opening lesson.

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