The end of terrorism chic?

George Weigel

I was standing in a lengthy airport security line when CNN ‘s Airport Channel broadcast the news of Yasser Arafat’s death in Paris. And I wondered how many of my fellow-passengers — who, simply to board an airplane, were being subjected to inconveniences and indignities they couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago — connected the dots. For whatever else he did or didn’t accomplish in his life, Yasser Arafat certainly changed the way the world travels.

For the worse.

It’s hard to observe the classic maxim, De mortuis nil nisi bonum (Speak nothing but good of the dead), in marking the death of Arafat, because the commentator might well be reduced to silence. Arafat was the first of the Arab world’s celebrity terrorists, the man who ostentatiously wore a holster to the rostrum of the U.N. General Assembly – a Che Guevara who swapped the beret for the checkered kafiyeh. Nothing he did seemed to diminish his celebrity: not the airplane hijackings; not the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics; not the murder of American diplomats in Sudan a year later; not the murder of some two dozen children at an Israeli school in Maalot a year after that.

Yasser Arafat remained a celebrity after his minions threw a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer, over the side of a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. He remained a celebrity when he called the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a “traitor” for making peace with Israel, and when he publicly applauded Sadat’s murder. He remained a celebrity after inventing the suicide bomber and paying families tens of thousands of dollars if their children strapped explosives to themselves and became “martyrs.”  He even remained a celebrity when, at Camp David in 2000, he refused the most generous peace settlement any Palestinian leader is likely to receive – and then launched the bloody second intifadah, to distract attention from his own responsibility for the failure of the Oslo accords.

There were some things at which he was skilled. He was a world-class kleptomaniac, who pocketed hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars intended for the economic development and humanitarian relief of his beleaguered people. He ran a comprehensive welfare agency but as a personal fiefdom, binding the poor and the suffering to him and his Fatah movement by cash payments for medicines, scholarships, and so forth. He was very good at poisoning the minds, hearts, and souls of the young, approving textbooks that taught them to add by computing the number of “dead Zionists” killed by “freedom fighters.” In all of this, Yasser Arafat embodied the tragedy once succinctly described to me on a moonlit Jerusalem night by the former (and very dovish) Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban: “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

In the wake of Arafat’s demise, speculation was rife as to whether his death created a new opening for Middle East peace. We must hope and pray that that’s the case. But Arafat’s short- and medium-term impact is likely to be found among the seething teenagers and young adults of the Palestinian Authority, to whom he taught the “nobility” of blowing the legs off grandmothers and shredding infants through nail-bombs and other crude terror weapons. Will these maddened young people soon forget the lessons taught them by the wicked man they had been told since childhood was the agent of their liberation? Perhaps only if a Palestinian leader emerges who has the courage to say that celebrity terrorists are just as bad as garden-variety terrorists, and that a law-governed state capable of making peace cannot be built on a foundation of rage, hate, and murderous violence.

Progress toward Middle East peace must also address the Christian exodus from the Holy Land. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was not Christian-friendly. Religious animus and economic pressure have created a situation in which the Christian holy places risk being reduced to religious theme parks, devoid of living Christian communities. One sign that we’re moving past Arafat and terrorist chic will be when religious freedom becomes a living reality in an emerging Palestinian state.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.