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Warren faced sexism, shed a husband and found her voice teaching law in Houston

By Holly Bailey
Warren faced sexism, shed a husband and found her voice teaching law in Houston
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mass.,at the Capitol in 2017. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken.

HOUSTON - Elizabeth Warren hadn't stepped foot on the University of Houston Law Center campus in nearly 15 years, not since she'd left her first full-time teaching job there.

But on a mid-September morning in 1997, Warren, by then a celebrated professor at Harvard University's law school, returned to memorialize a man who had played a small but not insignificant role in her teaching career.

The five years Warren spent in this sprawling Texas city were among the most transformative of her life. She split with a husband who struggled with her ambition. She started dabbling in the research that would establish her as one of the nation's foremost experts on consumer bankruptcy law. And she found her voice, developing the speaking style that has made the senator from Massachusetts a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Houston is where Liz Warren became Elizabeth Warren.

She had been asked to eulogize longtime UH law professor Eugene Smith, who, as head of the faculty hiring committee in 1978, had been an early Warren champion, urging colleagues to look past her limited teaching experience and what some perceived as her second-rate Rutgers University law school degree.

Smith, who died of complications from the polio he contracted as a child, had specifically requested that Warren speak at his funeral. But what she said inside a small campus chapel stunned her former colleagues.

With a smile on her face and humor in her voice, Warren described how Smith had invited her to his office one day just a few months after she had been hired. He shut the door and lunged for her, she said, and as she protested, he chased her around his desk before she was able to escape out the door.

"Everyone was slack-jawed," recalled John Mixon, a retired UH professor who had been close friends with Smith and Warren. Among those listening: Smith's ex-wife and his three adult sons.

In the pews, people exchanged glances. Some at UH disliked Smith - he'd kept a bottle of Scotch in his desk and often told dirty jokes, one colleague remembered later - but "Mean Gene," as he was known, was generally regarded as harmless. Diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, Smith walked hunched over, his arms increasingly useless as he aged. Some wondered whether it was physically possible for Smith to have done what Warren described.

"To have this image of him chasing her around the desk, it was just comical, and she told the story without rancor," Mixon recalled.

Her account wasn't entirely new to him. While Warren had not shared all the specifics, she had gone to Mixon looking for help when she said Smith came on to her that day in early 1979.

Four decades later, Mixon recalls with mixed feelings what he told her: Say nothing. "My advice was that she was brand new in the business," Mixon said. "He was an established old-guard professor with a lot of power. And if she tried to get him, she would be the one in the long term to suffer because she would become known as a troublemaker."

Warren nodded, and as he advised, she said nothing. Not when Smith continued to flirt with her. Not when he commented on her appearance. Not when she packed up her office in the spring of 1983 to move on to bigger and more renowned schools.

Warren said nothing until she returned to UH to eulogize a man who had been both a promoter and tormentor, a man who, as she put it in an interview, "no longer had any power over me."

At Smith's funeral, Warren told the story in an entertaining way. Two decades later, she would recount it again in a 2017 interview on "Meet the Press," presenting it as her own sobering #MeToo experience with sexual harassment.

By then, the times had changed, and so had she.

- - -

The University of Houston Law Center was in a period of transition when Warren interviewed there in 1978.

At the time, the law school had just one full-time tenured female professor, but the number of female students was soaring. The faculty was trying to inject the place with new blood - younger, fresher faces.

Warren was almost 29, and she knew the campus. A decade earlier, she had dropped out of college to marry her high school sweetheart, Jim Warren. She followed him to Houston, where he had been hired to work as a computer engineer for IBM. She took undergraduate classes at UH - tuition was just $50 a semester - until they moved to New Jersey.

Warren earned her law degree from Rutgers just before giving birth to her second child. She got her foot in the door at UH by offering to teach legal writing, classes viewed by most law professors as grunt work.

Gene Smith, who had talked to Warren by phone, met her at the airport, picking her up in his white 1966 Lincoln Continental. His post-polio syndrome was getting worse, and the damaged muscles in his arms were making it harder to drive, but Smith stubbornly refused to give up the car.

He took her out to dinner with a few others on the hiring committee. They went to his favorite restaurant, a steakhouse called The Stables.

In a story that quickly made the rounds among the faculty - and that Warren later retold at his funeral - Smith ordered a steak, even though his arms were so weak he had trouble cutting it into smaller pieces. The waitress usually helped, but this time, when the steak arrived, Smith pushed the plate over to Warren and ordered her to cut it up for him.

"I guess it was his way of testing her to see how easily she would be manipulated," Mixon recalled.

Warren just stared at Smith.

"Can't you tell I'm crippled?" Smith told her.

"I thought you knew that when you ordered the steak," she coolly replied.

Everyone at the table laughed, including Smith, who advocated for Warren to be hired.

Sitting at that table full of men who smiled as Smith pushed the steak her way, she knew what she would have to endure to teach. "I knew it from the first minute," Warren said.

She also knew that as a woman who had graduated from a lower-tier law school, with limited teaching experience and two young children at home, she was not a top prospect.

"I had no other options," she said.

As Warren had anticipated, some questioned her academic background. "Rutgers isn't a top law school, and for your first job, it really matters where you went to law school," said Richard Alderman, a UH professor emeritus who was on the hiring committee that year. "But when you met her, she had this personality, this energy. . . . You knew, just by talking to her, she was going to be successful."

Warren was hired as an assistant professor, a full-time tenure-track position that included not only legal writing courses but also contracts and commercial law. Warren said she could not remember whether her status as a wife and mother came up in her interviews for the job, but she specifically requested to teach complex financial courses because she thought it might help her be taken more seriously by her colleagues. "I figured if I could manage this, no one would question whether a young woman with two little children belonged," she said.

According to personnel records released by the Warren campaign, her pay that first year was $20,500 - not much more than the $8,000 a semester she had been paid to teach legal writing one night a week at Rutgers. Strangely, the UH faculty candidate profile also asked for her height and weight: 5-foot-7 and 115 pounds.

With her chin-length pageboy, similar to the hairstyle she wears now, she looked younger than 29.

"I was constantly reminded that I didn't look like a real law professor," Warren said.

Her colleagues frequently mistook her that first year for a secretary, the school nurse or even a lost student when they saw a woman wandering through the faculty office suites.

If Warren saw herself as a trailblazer for women in law, she has never acknowledged it. Her mother had long warned her, she has said, about becoming "one of those crazy women's-libbers." And according to those who knew her at the time, Warren, then a Republican, did not espouse feminist beliefs.

But in an interview, Warren recalled being acutely aware of her status as one of the few women on the staff.

"The faculty members themselves, often the men, treated me as if I were a second-class citizen," she said. "It was a lonely experience."

- - -

For UH law students, Warren was one of their first instructors, teaching contracts, a fundamental course that tends to determine whether a student has a mind for the law.

She was a practitioner of the Socratic method, cold-calling on students and asking them to discuss the particulars of a case or a legal opinion. She believed it forced students to pay attention, encouraging them to think, engage and analyze ideas.

Warren taught in a large lecture hall that resembled an amphitheater. She had about 60 students in her contracts class. And Warren knew by looking at their faces that she wasn't connecting with them in the way she wanted.

"She came in thinking that students were at a higher level of preparation than they were, and she would teach as if they automatically read the cases and knew what she was talking about," Mixon said.

Mixon had won multiple teaching awards, and Warren went to him for advice.

Three days a week, after Warren's contracts class, they would go to lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Over chips and guacamole, she told him about exchanges with students in which she felt she had struggled, and Mixon would analyze and offer help.

He suggested she try to read her class better and present ideas in a more approachable way - not to dumb it down but to use scenarios that would encourage someone who did not yet have the expertise to grasp and engage.

Some people, especially those cowering in the back, "were scared sh--less of her," recalled Tracey Conwell, a Houston litigation attorney who took contracts and several other classes with Warren.

She knew all their names and had no obvious method for how she called on them.

At one point in the semester, Conwell recalled, a group of her classmates drew up bingo cards with students' names as they sought to game out Warren's strategy. "They tried to see if they could guess who would be called on to speak that day," she said.

One day, Conwell remembered, she and Warren sparred over the philosophical meaning of the word "intent" in contract law, and Warren abruptly cut her off. Conwell was so mad she went to the dean to complain. But the next class, Warren gave Conwell a book: "The Death of Contract," a controversial 1974 publication that questioned the basis of modern contract law. After that, she said, she and Warren "were buddies."

"It made clear to me that she was an obviously insightful thinker who had read more than the standard books to arrive at her own concepts about how the law works," Conwell said. "She didn't accept things at face value. She did her own looking to understand how we got to this system we had. . . . And that approach, I think, helped her take this really complicated and dreadfully boring stuff and make it really interesting."

Michael Olivas, a longtime UH law professor who was hired after Warren, recalled sitting in on her classes and being stunned by how good she was. "She was not Elizabeth Warren yet, but she was Elizabeth Warren in the making," Olivas said.

Many of her students recognize the same techniques and speaking style at work on the campaign trail. Even her raised arms are familiar.

"It just feels the same when you see her on television and she's trying to explain something and she says, 'Look, it's like this,' or she gets very animated and says, 'Here's the thing,' " said Rita Lucido, a Houston family-law attorney who took classes with Warren. "I don't look back and think of contracts as this dry subject, because she made such an effort to keep us engaged with her and to make sure it made sense to us not only from a legal perspective but a real-world perspective."

Warren was younger and less stuffy than the men on the faculty. She painted a wall in her office a bright green and hung a large wicker porch swing, inherited from her grandmother, where she would sit and prepare for classes and talk to anyone who came by.

Warren also seemed human. Dona Bolding, who was in Warren's 1979 contracts class, recounted the time she was shopping at Loehmann's, the discount department store known for its marked-down designer clothing, and ran into Warren standing in her underwear in the store's communal dressing room.

Bolding said she was "mortified." But Warren instantly made light of the situation. "Oh Miss Bolding," Warren called out. "I see you love a bargain! "

- - -

Warren loved her job. To keep it, she realized she would have to maintain a good relationship with Smith, while also deflecting what she described as increasingly inappropriate behavior from him.

He regularly sat in on her classes, evaluating her talent as a professor. He wrote memos to the law school dean and others as part of the process to determine whether she would be promoted from associate professor to tenured faculty member. He was, in many ways, the gatekeeper to her future.

But, according to Warren, he was also increasingly a harasser: He commented on her clothes and appearance in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. He told dirty jokes and invited her out for drinks, which she declined. She had to get home to her family, she reminded him, hoping he would get the hint.

Warren thought she was managing him until that day in early 1979 when she said he lunged for her in his office.

She considered punching him in the face, she said in an interview. But she thought of his evaluations, his sway with the dean and how the school still had not decided whether her contract would be renewed.

"If Gene wanted to sink me, he could," she said. "If he had said, 'She's not very good. Let's push her out the door,' I would have been gone. And so, when he chased me around his office, I wasn't afraid of him physically so much as I was afraid of what I knew he could take away from me."

Warren already instinctively knew silence was her only real option, even before Mixon told her. "That kind of thing was in the air," she said. "Keep your head down and move on. And that's what I did."

As Warren was trying to hang on to her job at UH that first year, her life at home was falling apart. She was trying to balance the pressures of being a new professor, under intense scrutiny, with being a wife and mother. And she was failing.

"My world was stretched to the breaking point," she said.

She would cook breakfast for Jim and her two kids, Alex and Amelia, and then head to school, where she was balancing classes, research and everything else. She would get home around 5, sometimes get dinner on the table around 7 or 8 and stay up past midnight, preparing for classes the next day. And then she would do it all over again.

"Child care nearly brought me down," Warren often says, until her mother's sister, Bess Reed Veneck, came to Houston from Oklahoma to help out with the kids.

But Aunt Bee, as the senator calls her, couldn't fix what was wrong with Warren's marriage. By Warren's telling, she and Jim never really fought. He just gave her looks - when dinner was late or when she was up all night grading exams.

When they were on their high school debate team together, Jim had been drawn to her because she was smart and driven, Warren remembered. Now he seemed to yearn for a more traditional wife. But she had become a different person than she was at 19, when they married.

"I think we were both shocked by who I turned out to be 10 years later," Warren said. "He thought I would be someone else, and truthfully, I kind of assumed that, too. I kept changing and growing almost despite myself."

Teaching law, Warren said, "was when the whole world opened up for me." It was impossible to put her ambitions back into a box and close it away, not even to save her marriage. "I wanted so much to do the work," she said. "I wanted to do the work, I wanted to be a good mom, I wanted to be a good wife but didn't manage all of that."

One night, Warren recounted in her memoir, "A Fighting Chance," she asked Jim whether he wanted a divorce. She was shocked she said it. But he didn't appear to be. "Yes," he replied.

Jim moved out and into an apartment in southwestern Houston, according to public records. She and the kids stayed in the family's suburban home. The couple separated sometime in early 1979. Warren has never said exactly when, though she later wrote in her memoir that "there were reconsiderations and some attempts at one-more-try-to-make-it-work."

Her family watched the kids that summer as Warren traveled to Florida to attend a conservative law and economics retreat. One of the other attendees was Bruce Mann, a professor and legal historian at the University of Connecticut.

Both have described a moment of instant attraction. It's unclear when the two officially became a couple, but Warren has said she visited him that fall in Connecticut. And he came to see her in Houston.

Warren filed for divorce from Jim on Nov. 5, 1979. The divorce was finalized on Jan. 16, 1980. Jim agreed to pay child support that increased by 5 percent a year, as well as contributing to their kids' college educations, an unusual detail even now, according to Susan Myres, a former Warren student at UH who is now a top divorce attorney in Houston. The agreement, Myres said, reads as if it were written by "a future consumer advocate in the making."

While Warren has been careful to call her ex-husband "a good man," she has occasionally hinted at bitterness. After their divorce, Jim quit smoking, took dance lessons and got remarried, she wrote in her memoir.

"We didn't see him much," she said. He died of lung cancer in 2003 at 58.

While Jim had struggled with Warren's ambition, Mann embraced it. The two were married in July 1980, shortly after Warren's 31st birthday, and Mann gave up his tenure-track job and moved to Houston, where UH gave him a one-year teaching contract. Warren was awarded tenure and named assistant dean of the law center. But by 1983, she was packing up her office and taking down her porch swing. Warren, her second husband and her two children were heading to the University of Texas law school in Austin, leaving Houston behind.

- - -

On a hot summer day this past July, Warren walked back through the hallways of UH, the place where it all began for her. She pointed out her old office, the classrooms where she taught.

"This is a homecoming for me," she later told a crowd of more than 2,000 people who had lined up for hours to hear her speak. This was where she had gotten her first real job. "Full time, tenure track," she said. "It still sounds so good to say it."

Forty-one years earlier, she had turned heads for looking so out of place. But this time, people knew her instantly. They ran up to shake her hand. She was Elizabeth Warren, the woman running for president.

Meet the historian who's asking America to rethink the very nature of bigotry and how to fight it

By David Montgomery
Meet the historian who's asking America to rethink the very nature of bigotry and how to fight it
Ibram Kendi is a leading voice among a new generation of American scholars who are reinvestigating - and redefining - racism. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Michael A. McCoy

Ibram H. Rogers, 17, hadn't even told his parents that he was entering a Martin Luther King Jr. Day oratorical contest. They found out after he won one of the early rounds and they got a videotape of his performance. "We'll never forget that Saturday morning we put the tape in and watched him," Larry Rogers, Ibram's father, told me recently. "We were really surprised."

Ibram was a bright but underachieving senior at his northern Virginia high school. His GPA was below 3.0; his SAT scores were just above 1000. He thought he wasn't smart enough for college, even though he had been admitted to historically black Florida A&M University.

The Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, sponsor of the competition, saw to it that the finale, in January 2000, was filled with pride. The MLK Community Choir serenaded the mostly African American audience of 3,000 that filled a local chapel.

"It was a very proud moment," recalls Carol Rogers, Ibram's mother. "An awesome event." Six students out of more than 100 contestants made it to the final round to deliver 10-minute speeches on "Dr. King's Message for the Millennium."

The contestants dressed like young business people - except Ibram, who wore a loud golden-brown blazer, black shirt, bright tie and baggy pants. (The fact that the public school he represented, Stonewall Jackson High School, was named for a Confederate general was one of those ironies that, in the moment, was too deep to dwell on.) For his speech, Ibram adopted the persona of an angry King come back to life to scold black youth for thinking "that the cultural revolution that began on the day of my dream's birth is over. ... How can it be over when kids know more about Puff Daddy than they know about me? ... How can it be over when many times we are unsuccessful because we lack intestinal fortitude?"

The speech swelled into a jeremiad of disappointment. Ibram paced around the pulpit as he reeled off more supposed failings of young black people: "They think it's OK to be those who are most feared in our society! ... They think it's OK not to think! ... They think it's OK to confine their dreams to sports and music!"

The audience loved the message, reacting with "whoops of agreement," according to a Washington Post account at the time. Ibram didn't win the top prize, but, two days after the big night, a picture of him speaking was spread over three columns in The Washington Post, with the headline: "Students Give New Voice to King's Dream."

Ibram H. Rogers has grown up to be Ibram X. Kendi, 37, a leading voice among a new generation of American scholars who are reinvestigating - and redefining - racism. In 2016, at 34, he became one of the youngest authors to win the National Book Award for nonfiction, for "Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" - which, gushed the award judges, "turns our ideas of the term 'racism' upside-down."

The following year, American University recruited him from the University of Florida to join the faculty and create the Antiracist Research & Policy Center. (The very evening in September 2017 when Kendi introduced the center at a gathering of students, faculty and administrators, someone stuck cotton balls to flyers depicting Confederate flags and posted them around campus.) More recently, the crowds turning out to hear Kendi discuss his new bestseller, "How to Be an Antiracist," have been so large that bookstores have resorted to holding readings in churches, synagogues and school auditoriums.

Kendi's ideas - that few, if any, are free of racism; that we should confess to our own racism as a first step toward becoming anti-racist; that racism begins not with the prejudice of individuals but with the policies of political and economic power - are bracing and challenging. They also constitute a very different take on race from the speech he gave at 17. For years afterward, he had vague memories of his MLK oration, and they were troubling. The competition, he told me, had been "a pivotal moment in my life" - one that gave him the confidence to believe that he was college material after all and that his future would involve communicating ideas to a larger public. Yet he also recalled how, a couple of years ago, when he took the time to watch his performance on a DVD that his father had made, "I cringed and was completely ashamed."

The speech, he saw, had been a litany of blame, implying that there was something wrong with young African Americans as a group and that they could conquer white racism by behaving differently. How did these perspectives get lodged in the young orator's brain? Why did the African American crowd respond with such enthusiasm? To his chagrin, Kendi realized his own experience was a prime example of how racist ideas quietly worm their way through the culture. It also showed all too clearly how one can be anti-racist in some contexts yet sick with racism in others.

Reflecting on the shame he felt at his words, he realized that the best way to communicate his newest message would be to hold out his journey as an example. Whereas his previous book, "Stamped From the Beginning," had been built around five historical characters - Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis - he reluctantly concluded that his next book, "How to Be an Antiracist," must be based on the errors and evolution of Ibram X. Kendi.

"Initially, I was like, that central character will not be me," he told me. "I'm too private. I don't want to show all of my bones and all of my baggage and all those shameful moments that I'm still ashamed of. I don't know - I don't want to do that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: How can I ask other people to share those shameful moments, to free themselves of their baggage, to confess the most racist moments of their lives, if I'm not willing to do that, too?"

And so his work and his life have built to this moment of invitation to his readers, his audiences, America. After a precocious scholarly career spent demonstrating the depressing pervasiveness of racism, he stands uncommonly hopeful, inviting us onto a path forward. "We know how to be racist," he writes. "We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let's know how to be antiracist."

Recently, Kendi's life and work have fused in another way, too - this one potentially tragic. In January 2018, after having drafted about five chapters of "How to Be an Antiracist," he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer. About 88% of people in that condition die within five years, he was told.

Kendi was devastated but still detached enough to fold his illness into his work. He began to make sense of racism through cancer, and to make sense of cancer through racism - essentially seeing both as diseases that can be systematically fought. He wrote through months of chemotherapy and recovery from surgery, taking naps when he was too weak to remain at his keyboard, then awakening to write some more. "I was like, you know what, I want to finish this book before I die," he told me.

Sadiqa Kendi, his wife, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., kept watch to see that at least he didn't work himself to death. "I think even the book got better after his diagnosis," she says. "I think he was writing for his life."

- - -

Have you noticed that almost everyone self-identifies as "not racist"? Consider: In June, responding to backlash over his fond recollections of working with segregationists in the Senate in the 1970s, Joe Biden insisted, "There's not a racist bone in my body." The following month, in response to backlash over his attacks on four women of color in Congress, President Donald Trump tweeted, "I don't have a Racist bone in my body!"

Kendi has little use for such protestations, for two reasons. First, he thinks "racist" should be treated as a plain, descriptive term for policies and ideas that create or justify racial inequities, not a personal attack. Someone is being racist when he or she endorses a racist idea or policy. Second, he doesn't acknowledge "not racist" as a category. At all times, people are being either racist or anti-racist; in Kendi's view, "there is no in-between safe space of 'not racist.' " Through his scholarship, Kendi has traced nearly six centuries of racist and anti-racist ideas. He could not do the same for "not racist." It's an identity without content.

All policies, even the most trivial, are either racist or anti-racist, he argues - they support equity or they don't. A do-nothing approach to climate change is racist because climate change overwhelmingly affects people of color on the planet. Forgiving student debt and offering universal health care would be anti-racist policies because people of color are more likely to have student debt or lack health care, so those policies would lessen if not erase those inequities.

In Kendi's analysis, everyone, every day, through action or inaction, speech or silence, is choosing in the moment to be racist or anti-racist. It follows, then, that those identities are fluid, and racism is not a fixed character flaw. "What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what - not who - we are," he writes.

In studying the history of racist ideas, Kendi has found the same person saying racist and anti-racist things in the same speech. "We change, and we're deeply complex, and our definitions of 'racist' and 'anti-racist' must reflect that," he told me. Those who aspire to anti-racism will, when accused of racism, seriously consider the charge and take corrective action. They will not claim to lack any racist bones. "The heartbeat of racism is denial," he writes in his new book. "The heartbeat of antiracism is confession. ... Only racists shy away from the R-word."

As for where racism comes from: A popular explanation for the genesis of racism assumes that people's ignorance and hatred harden into racist ideas, which lead to racist policies. "But that gets the chain of events exactly wrong," Kendi writes. From slavery to Jim Crow, from redlining to mass incarceration to the unequal distribution of government largesse, power has been the first link in the chain. Power, he argues, devises racist policies for economic self-interest and then justifies the racist policies with racist ideas of hierarchy, inferiority, necessity, greater good and otherness. These racist ideas are consumed and reproduced at large, giving rise to ignorance and hate. Stop focusing on people, Kendi advises: The smart anti-racist identifies racist policy and attacks the racist ideas justifying it.

Contemporary thinkers on race say Kendi's approach represents a bold extension of previous work on the subject. Molefi Kete Asante, who in 1988 created the nation's first PhD program in African American studies at Temple University (where Kendi got his doctorate in 2010), told me he recalls when Kendi returned to campus in February and presented his idea that racism begins with policies.

"I remember how shocked we were when we first heard him lecture on that, and people, you know, had to go back and reread [his argument] to figure out how he does this work," Asante says. "I think it's a wonderful innovation. ... There were questions, and he defended himself quite well." Kendi, he adds, "is really the ascendant African American intellectual of his time. ... He has attempted something that is in the Afrocentric tradition ... and that is: Let's redo almost everything. Let's look at everything and ask ourselves the question, What if we turned it upside down?"

Kendi's contention that racist policies spur the creation of racist ideas, not the other way around, is not fully embraced by all scholars, including his doctoral adviser at Temple, Ama Mazama, professor of Africology. "I don't think that the power of ideas can necessarily be minimized," she says. "It would be great, like he suggests, if we want to do away with racism, we could have anti-racist policies. ... I'm not sure if it would work. ... Maybe too much damage has already been done, too much ignorance that would be very difficult to eradicate through anti-racist policies."

Still, she is proud of her "brilliant" former student: "His work is important. ... He's also looking for solutions. It's not just an intellectual exercise, it's something much more than that."

- - -

Members of Kendi's own generation of scholars praise his ability to break through to a wider audience. It certainly helps that his writing is lyrically accessible. "I think it's just astonishing that someone is able to have an intellectual history like 'Stamped From the Beginning' influence so many people's thinking about understanding the undercurrents of white supremacy in the United States and its durability over such a long period of time, and then pivot to actually spending time with people to rethink the strategies of their own choices in their own life," says Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, who, after the 2014 police shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, organized scholars to develop the Ferguson Syllabus, a curriculum aimed at digging into the marginalization of black and brown communities.

"Ibram represents a generation that I see myself as part of where we take our ideas in a number of places and we take the feedback from a number of audiences, and we really struggle and grapple with how our work isn't just confined by the traditions of academia, but is really defined by its ability to resonate in people's lives and help them to move closer to the types of worlds that people have long imagined but never realized," she said.

One of Kendi's early racial memories is from when he was 7 and his parents brought him to check out a private school on Long Island where he might attend third grade. The family, including Kendi's older brother, Akil, lived in Queens at the time, but Carol and Larry Rogers were looking to send their children to a school outside the neighborhood. It was after school hours and the third-grade teacher, an African American woman, met them at the door. Are you the only black teacher? Ibram asked with uncomfortable directness. She was. Why are you the only black teacher?

"The beauty about being 7 years old is that chances are we're not hypocritical, chances are we're not filled with contradictions, and chances are we see the world for what is in the world," Kendi told me, recalling the moment, which he also describes in "How to Be an Antiracist." He credits his parents with anchoring him at an early age with enough pride in being black to make such an observation. Both rose from poverty to the new black middle class and had been inspired by the Black Power movement of the 1960s. His mother became a business analyst for a health-care organization, and his father became a tax accountant and later a hospital chaplain. As committed Christians, they were steeped in black liberation theology. They gave Ibram piles of books from a junior series on black achievers, which he devoured.

Kendi's mother tried to explain all this about her son to the taken-aback teacher at the school, but they ended up not sending him there anyway. Instead, Kendi went to another school, where his third-grade teacher was white, and he engaged in his first anti-racist protest: After the teacher ignored the raised hand of one of his black classmates, and called on a white student yet again, Ibram sat in the school's chapel and refused to return to class. The principal was summoned, and his parents were called.

"We tried to raise both of our sons, Akil and Ibram, to think for themselves, and if they want to challenge authority, then they have to be willing to suffer the consequences," Carol Rogers told me. (Akil is now an event specialist for Sam's Club in Florida, where Carol and Larry Rogers are retired.) Such was the anti-racist path his parents set Ibram on from an early age, but it's a deceptively hard one on which to keep your footing.

"How to Be an Antiracist" takes the form of a memoir, with Kendi interspersing his experiences with analyses of types of racism that he has found in himself: ethnic racism, bodily racism, behavioral racism, cultural racism, color racism, class racism, gender racism and queer racism. It's hard to believe one person - let alone a scholar of racism - could have encompassed so much bigotry, but that's Kendi's point: Anyone can.

In college at Florida A&M, he wore honey-colored contact lenses for a time, until he realized this was a form of racism, privileging a look associated with another race. He dated a light-skinned woman, until he realized what a warped sensation this was causing among some of his friends, who wished they were dating light-skinned women, too. He dropped her and vowed to date only dark-skinned women - until he realized this was an equally twisted obsession, driven by racist colorism. During another phase in college, he determined that the problem with white people was that if they were not devils, maybe they were just plain destructive by nature - until he realized judging white people as a group is as racist as judging black people as a group.

He came to see in retrospect that even his parents had sometimes strayed from the anti-racist path. Like others in the black middle class, he writes, "My parents - even from within their racial consciousness - were susceptible to the racist idea that it was laziness that kept Black people down, so they paid more attention to Black people than to [President] Reagan's policies, which were chopping the ladder they climbed up and then punishing people for falling. ... Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy."

I asked Kendi's parents how they felt about their son's loving chiding. "You know, a lot of times, parents don't want to be challenged by their children, but that's a sign that we've done our job, when they start challenging us to be better human beings," Carol Rogers says. She thought back to the sentiments Ibram had expressed in the oratorical contest. "He was basically feeding the crowd," she notes. "And he's no longer about feeding the crowd but feeding the truth."

Kendi is harder on no one than himself. "I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe," he writes of the dawn of his graduate school career. His most important mentors in shedding those views - in learning how racism, sexism and homophobia intersect - were fellow graduate students Yaba Blay and Kaila Adia Story. "I learned from them that I am not a defender of Black people if I am not sharply defending Black women, if I am not sharply defending queer Blacks," he writes. They held court in one of the common areas during study breaks and sent him scurrying to bookshelves for works by Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

"What's so wonderful about Ibram is that even though he talks about his journey, and here he is meeting me and Yaba and he's some kind of black male patriarch homophobe, he never gave us that reception," says Story, an associate professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. "He said, 'OK, these women, if I say how I'm feeling or how I'm thinking about freedom, they're going to challenge me. ... So let me be open enough to actually listen to what they're saying.' And I'm grateful for that. ... Ideological vulnerability is so important when it comes to dealing with ideas of anti-racism and intersectionality."

In 2011, Kendi was doing postdoctoral work at Rutgers University - turning his dissertation into his first book, "The Black Campus Movement" - when he met Sadiqa, who was doing a fellowship in pediatric emergency medicine in Philadelphia. He had reached out to her on

"We both kind of ended up in online dating in the same way," she recalls. "We just didn't have time but still wanted to pursue meeting people. ... I saw he was younger than me and said, 'Well, there's no way I'm going to date this dude. But I'm a nice person, so I'll respond at least.' So I responded and we ended up going back and forth on Match and communicating there for a little while. After a few back-and-forth messages on Match, I thought, 'Well, gosh, this guy actually seems really cool, pretty mature.' So I gave him a chance."

After they had been dating for a few months, Sadiqa and Ibram had dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant in Philadelphia. There was a big statue of the Buddha against a wall, and a drunk white man climbed up and began fondling the statue, to the amusement of his friends. At least he's not black, Sadiqa recalls saying of the white man. Why? Ibram asked. We don't need anyone making us look bad, Sadiqa replied.

So began an extended conversation about "uplift suasion," another racist concept Kendi realized he needed to shed - the assumption that black conduct is to blame for white racist ideas, thus legitimizing white racist ideas about black conduct. "I realized early on that if I'm going to be with Ibram, we're going to have some discussions on some stuff that is deep," Sadiqa told me.

By 2013, they were ready to make plans for a spring wedding on a beach in Jamaica, which Essence would photograph for a "Bridal Bliss" feature. There was one more detail to take care of, another case of life and work merging: During his painstaking hunt for the origin and effect of every racist idea he could find, Kendi had discovered that perhaps the first racist idea - grouping all Africans as a single, inferior people - is contained in the 1453 biography of arguably the first racist, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, who was the first European to orchestrate a slave-trade that exclusively targeted Africans. The moment is also significant because, Kendi would argue later, it marked the original case of a racist policy, created out of economic self-interest, being justified by a racist idea: that captive Africans were being civilized and saved by slavery.

The budding historian and evolving anti-racist - still known then as Ibram H. Rogers - became uncomfortable with his middle name: Henry, after his enslaved great-great-great-grandfather. He reasoned that the fate of his ancestor Henry had been set in motion by the original racist, Prince Henry. So as part of the wedding ceremony, with Carol and Larry Rogers officiating, Ibram adopted the middle name Xolani, meaning "peace" in Zulu. At the same time, he and Sadiqa took the last name Kendi, which means "loved one" in the Meru language eastern Africa.

On a Tuesday evening in mid-August, Kendi brought his ideas to a packed crowd of 575 people invited by a local bookstore to Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. It was the first stop on his marathon tour for "How to Be an Antiracist," with dates scheduled through March. It also happened to be his 37th birthday, and his parents, wife and 3-year-old daughter, Imani, were in the audience. Activist and writer Shaun King was seated beside Kendi at the front of the sanctuary to lead the conversation. "Who needs this book?" King began. "Who is this book for?"

Anti-racism, Kendi said, "is recognizing how we've been trained, nurtured and educated in ways to be racists. How hard it is to grow up in a racist society, where racist ideas are constantly being rained on your head, and never get wet." That's why, he concluded, the book is "for people who think somebody else could use it instead of them. Because I know I needed this book when I was 30, when I was 25 ... and I could even still use this book today."

He started his answers to King's questions low and slow. As he got swept up in his argument, his voice picked up speed and gained about an octave in outrage. At one point, Imani emerged from the audience and climbed into his lap. She listened quietly until Kendi wheeled into a riff about how there are only two explanations for a racial inequity such as black unemployment being significantly higher than white unemployment: "Either there's something wrong with black workers - [which is a] racist idea - or there's something happening to black workers as they move into the job market" - i.e., racist policies. "Relax, Daddy!" Imani said.

The audience on this night was predominantly white, as it was on the other two occasions I watched Kendi discuss his work and sign hundreds of books: at a church in Lower Manhattan and at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. Kendi has a lot to say to the types of white people who flock to book events about racism.

"I can talk all day about how endemic racism is within American conservatism," he said in Brooklyn. "But when you look at radical thought, when you look at progressive thought, when you look at liberal thought, there are prevailing racist ideas that people are not confronting. Liberals have long made the case there's something behaviorally or culturally wrong with black people - progressives and radicals have long made the case there's something behaviorally wrong with black people - but that those inferior behaviors come about as a result of their oppression, their poverty, slavery. 'Yes, they are inferior, but [it's] because of what they're experiencing, the racism they're experiencing, so that's why you need to fight racism!' "

Kendi calls this the "oppression-inferiority thesis" - the often well-meaning but always destructive idea that mass oppression must manifest itself somehow in defective group behavior, hence the pitiable group must be championed. In "Antiracist," Kendi quotes abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison's preface to Frederick Douglass' slave narrative of 1845: Slavery degraded black people "in the scale of humanity. ... Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind."

Then there is Barack Obama's campaign speech on race in 2008: "For all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future."

On the contrary, Kendi told any progressives in Brooklyn who might think that way, "you assume that since the system is dehumanizing, that it is literally making the people subhuman. No. The beauty of humanity is we have the capacity and the ability to strive and thrive in the most horrible, oppressive and dehumanizing conditions. And certainly black people did that during slavery, and they've been doing that ever since."

The white audience members I spoke with after the events were looking for a way to describe what they were seeing in the America of 2019. "There's a lot of categories of awfulness going on," said Miles Seligman, a medical coder in Brooklyn. "There's nothing - from the message and the language and the vocabulary of this kind of book - that can't help me understand that better."

Moreover, the example of a black man going first in a prospective communal racial confessional - and this black man's conception of racism as a curable condition rather than a damnation for all time - seemed to encourage white listeners to look inward.

"Racism doesn't necessarily make you a bad person," said Jimmy Dabrowski, who took three trains from New Jersey to hear Kendi at the church in Lower Manhattan. "You have to be willing to accept it and then face the reality that anti-racism is the only way forward." Dabrowski is a health and phys-ed teacher at an elementary school in Perth Amboy. "I'm not an activist," he said, "but I would hope that maybe by initiating a policy change where we have anti-racism in schools - that's the kind of activism in my field I want to push for."

The black audience members I met were already familiar with Kendi's work. They came clutching well-thumbed copies of "Stamped From the Beginning." In other words, they did not need to be taught the language. Rather, they were here to heed Kendi's call for everyone to aspire to more-perfect anti-racism.

"What led me to his work was the belief that what I offered to my students had to be more than what I was giving them now," said Tamika Golden, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn who uses "Stamped From the Beginning" in her classes. "I needed to figure out what it meant for me to be an anti-racist and to truly work against the socialization and the feelings and thoughts I had about my own people as a group. ... I think a lot of times we think about this as the work for other people, specifically white people, and I recognize that this work is for all people."

Anwar Abdul-Rahman, principal at a charter middle school in Brooklyn where the majority of students are black or Latino, told me Kendi's work offered "a framework for looking at racist ideas in America. You have your segregationists, you have assimilationists, and then you have your racist ideas and then counteracting that with anti-racism and what does that look like - I thought that was just a real profound idea that even as a black man was something that I could use in my life." He, too, finds ways to work Kendi into the curriculum.

To his publics of all races, Kendi offers the same redemptive promise. In Brooklyn, King had asked him to read a couple of pages aloud. Kendi's voice, now sonorous and incantatory, transformed the passages into a prose poem, ending with this paragraph: "But there is a way to get free. To be antiracist is to emancipate oneself from the dueling consciousness. To be antiracist is to conquer the assimilationist consciousness and the segregationist consciousness. The White body no longer presents itself as the American body; the Black body no longer strives to be the American body, knowing there is no such thing as the American body, only American bodies, racialized by power."

Kendi received his cancer diagnosis just as he was focusing his writing on the role of denial in the persistence of racism - all those folks who say they are "not racist." At the time, he was a seemingly healthy, relatively young man with no apparent risk factors. Denial was an option for him, too.

"If I would have denied that I had cancer, then the cancer would have just continued to spread and eventually would have killed me," he told me. "I had also been thinking about, even before the diagnosis, about how important it is for Americans to stop denying the existence of racism itself. ... The fact that in order for America to survive racism, they had to stop denying racism. Then, in that moment - in that same week - I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer."

When he felt better, he began to write new sentences - hopeful sentences - that found their way into the last chapter of the new book: "We can survive metastatic racism. Forgive me. I cannot separate the two, and no longer try. ... What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer? ... Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells."

Sadiqa told me she and Ibram had a deal during his treatment regimen. He could continue to write, lecture, run the Antiracist Center, as long as he would listen to her on the occasions she detected he was pushing himself too hard. "People heal differently, and for him, he needed to have some semblance of his life, of his work, in order to mentally have the fight that I knew he would need for healing," she said. "Pushing and making that will-to-live larger than giving up and succumbing to something that, if you just look at the numbers, was likely to take his life."

At least once, when he had a bad fever during chemo, she ordered him to cancel a speaking trip. "He was upset, but he listened," she said.

After six months of chemotherapy, at the end of summer 2018, surgeons removed tissue in which pathologists found no cancer cells. This past summer, his body was scanned and all looked clear. "I can't necessarily call myself a survivor as much as I'm surviving it," Kendi told me. "But I think I'm headed in a good direction."

And the rest of us? What direction are we headed in? The popularity of his books and the size of his lecture crowds are signs that more and more people are willing to look inside themselves to consider their own racism. At the talk in Brooklyn, King asked Kendi where he finds hope. Kendi went through the history of anti-racist progress, then added, "In order to bring about change, you literally have to believe in the possibility of change" - just as you have to believe in the possibility of a cure. "Here I am," he told the audience, "cancer-free."

But for America, it's touch and go. Racist ideas continue to kill - that's no metaphor - as the El Paso, Texas, shooter recently demonstrated. At times, Kendi sounds like an oncologist who has seen the worst. "It's the same case with racism," he told me. "You have people who do not want to take America, or even themselves, through the pain of healing because they're convinced that it's not going to work. Which makes sense if they're convinced it's not going to work. But once we convince ourselves that America can never heal itself from racism, then racism will persist and, I suspect, eventually destroy this country."

A British actor left Hollywood to fight ISIS - now he's marooned in Belize

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
A British actor left Hollywood to fight ISIS - now he's marooned in Belize
Actor Michael Enright, who vowed he was willing to die when he joined the Kurdish militia to fight ISIS, is shown in Belize this summer. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jeffery Salter

SAN IGNACIO, Belize - It sounded like death made airborne in those brutal days in Raqqa.

Bullets screamed across the ruined streets in swarms thicker than flies on roadkill. Machine guns rattled.

And the rocket-propelled grenades. Those were the worst. They hammered down with awful concussive thuds, smashing cinder block into choking clouds of powder

For days in that sweltering October of 2017, Michael Enright crouched in an apartment building turned battle station, staring into the maw of the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria. Enright was the most unlikely of soldiers, pinned down there alongside his Kurdish and expat militia brothers, dodging bullets, blasting away with his Kalashnikov rifle, wondering whether these might be his last moments on earth.

"It felt like the devil himself was breathing fire on me," Enright says.

Less than two years earlier, Enright - a Hollywood actor by way of Britain - had been tooling around Los Angeles in an aging black Porsche 911 and hobnobbing with movie stars at awards ceremony after-parties. Enright, who bears a passing resemblance to actor Russell Crowe, had appeared with Tom Cruise in the movie "Knight and Day." He was guest starring as a bad guy on the television series "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Since the 1980s he had been living the working actor's dream life in the entertainment capital of the world.

Yet, one day in 2015, in defiance of common sense and the tearful urgings of his friends, he decided to leave all that behind. Never having fired a gun at another human being, he embarked on an odyssey at the age of 51 that could have sprung straight from the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

His strange, sinuous meanderings have taken him on two harrowing tours of battle in Syria as a volunteer with the formerly U.S.-backed Kurdish militia. They also have thrust him into the byzantine pathways and switchbacks of the U.S. immigration system and, by his account, the wilds of international spy networks. His decision to overstay a U.S. tourist visa three decades ago and start a new life as an American has now made him unwelcome to come back to the only nation he considers home. So far, it hasn't mattered that he risked his life fighting an American enemy.

Because he fears returning to the United Kingdom, where some British volunteers with the Kurdish militia have been arrested and accused of consorting with terrorists, he finds himself, essentially, a man without a country. Unable to work, his money dwindling, he wanders, flopping for the past two years in slum apartments or couch-surfing in Belize and elsewhere in Latin America in the homes of people he meets in the streets or online. He hauls a thin pad to sleep on, a backpack, a handful of tank tops and shorts, and a clunky old laptop, hoping against hope that someone, anyone, will help him get back to Los Angeles.

Through more than two dozen interviews with his friends, fellow soldiers and others, as well as video and other documentation of Enright's battlefield exploits, The Washington Post has been able to confirm nearly every aspect of the actor's account. His saga has now captured the attention of Washington power players and veterans advocates who have been agitating to end Enright's exile and bring him home.

The details of his trajectory offer an unusually intimate glimpse into the forces that motivate men and women from around the world to throw themselves into conflicts not their own. Unlike mercenaries who flood into war zones for profit, Enright joined the fight for no pay, a throwback to the storied dramas of yore when the famed British writer George Orwell and others fought in the Spanish Civil War.

As Enright tells it, his war experiences were all about balancing an account. The ledger he holds in his head is particular to that of some successful immigrants - he says he wanted to repay America by helping to vanquish one of its terrorist enemies.

On screen, he'd often played the bad guy, leveraging his ability to shoot a menacing stare at the camera. In real-life, he yearned to be a good guy.

Enright envisions a final scene yet to be shot, one in which this master of small character roles steals the show by unlocking the secrets of a murderous, fanatical cabal: He's gathered intelligence about the Islamic State on the battlefields of Syria - computer memory cards, IDs, letters - that he hopes will unlock clues about the movements of the group in the Middle East and in the United States, he says. The improbable warrior/spy just needs the U.S. government to validate and value what he's found - enough to look past his immigration-law transgressions.

Despite his frustration, Enright, now 56, his hair cropped short and graying, has repeated the same phrase over and over in hours of interviews with The Post: "I don't regret a thing, mate. I'd do it all over again."

- - -

He'd grown up hard in a hard section of Manchester, where he says his father, a roughneck with a temper, committed suicide while battling cancer. Enright was 18.

He scraped together a living driving a taxi, he says, and a Pakistani immigrant taxi man named Mustafa became a kind of surrogate father. Mustafa - he'd never forget that man or that man's name.

All Enright wanted to do was go to America. He wanted to make American money. He wanted to kiss American girls. He wanted to be an American, for it was here that he thought he could not just reinvent himself - but also invent himself.

When he was 19, he says, he boarded a plane and went to New York, entering the country on the first of several tourist visas that he would overstay for his entire adult life.

Arriving in New York, he got a job as a busboy at a restaurant near the World Trade Center. The actor Kirk Douglas came in once, and one of the famed actor's companions gave Enright a $5 tip.

He'd gotten the acting bug as a teenager in England, and perhaps it was inevitable that he would find his way to Hollywood. His Manchester accent had marked him as a member of the lower classes in Britain, cutting off possibilities, but in Los Angeles it was the opposite. It opened doors, especially in auditions.

While trying to get himself established, he ran a youth hostel in Venice Beach. Carefree tourist girls came and went, looking for fun. There were plenty of girls to kiss.

"I was living this very hedonistic life," Enright says during an interview in the remote town of San Ignacio in Belize, where he's lived for months.

His first break as an actor came when he auditioned for the role of a boxer in a soft drink commercial. His competition couldn't punch; Enright, who had been pounding a speed bag at a boxing gym in Watts, got the part. The residuals paid his rent for months.

Television roles trickled in. He played an Irish Republican Army soldier on the television series "JAG." He picked up more commercials.

Enright always has been impulsive, his friends say. In the 1990s, he flew to Rwanda after the genocide there, volunteering at an orphanage. The work appealed to his Christian notion of obligation, that human beings are commanded to alleviate suffering. He slipped back into the United States, once again, on a tourist visa.

A few years later, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, set him on a course that eventually took him to Syria. For days, Enright and his friends say, he couldn't stop watching the news.

"I cried every day," Enright says.

He told his friends that he wanted to join the U.S. Army and fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Here, he reasoned, was a chance to make a payment toward the debt he felt he owed to the United States. His friends talked him out of it.

It became the biggest regret of his life.

- - -

In Hollywood, Enright wasn't getting rich, but made a modest living. He got a gig as a Russian mobster on the television series "Kitchen Confidential." He played a deckhand in the film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," appearing in a scene with Orlando Bloom.

"On 'Law & Order,' I was once dissolved in a vat of acid!" he says, his eyes twinkling.

For Russian roles, his résumé said he was Mikael Enrightski. For French roles, he was Michel Henright. His accents were so convincing that casting directors wouldn't figure out he wasn't French or Russian or German until his scenes were already in the can.

"Well," Enright deadpans, "I speak 32 languages. Only a few words in most of them. But 32 nonetheless."

He lived in a part of West Los Angeles known for gang violence. He had his own brush with the law in 2003 when he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after the car he was driving struck and injured a man who Enright says threatened him during a traffic incident. Enright was acquitted and exonerated, according to court records.

People have a tendency to want to adopt Enright. Mike Chapman, who met him while working with a spirituality group for Hollywood professionals, started taking him home to spend time with his family.

"He was kind of like an uncle to our small children," Chapman says in a recent interview.

Orna Cohen, one of Enright's workout clients, folded Enright into her family, as well. At a Passover dinner at her house one year, she looked up and saw Enright, whom friends describe as a non-demoninational spiritual seeker, in tears. She walked outside with him.

"He was sobbing like a baby," Cohen recalls. "He looked at me and said, 'Orna, I feel God.' "

- - -

In August 2014, Islamic State troops swept into the Sinjar district in northern Iraq, an area that was home to the Yazidi, an ethnic Kurdish minority. Hundreds of men were killed in a genocidal massacre. Women were taken captive and subjected to rape and forced marriages.

Half a world away, Enright once again found himself obsessed with news: "I sort of became an ISIS junkie."

That same month an Islamic State terrorist beheaded the American freelance journalist James Foley, boasting of the killing in a gruesome video. The killer was later identified as a British man of Arab descent who became known as "Jihadi John."

Enright sought out a British friend in Los Angeles, a dashing, globe-trotting sort who goes by the professional name Rob Lancaster, who has worked as operative in the shadows of international conflicts and danger zones.

At a Santa Monica bar where their favorite football team, Manchester City, was playing, Enright told Lancaster that he couldn't stop thinking about the atrocities at Sinjar and the beheading of Foley.

"I'm going to right that wrong," Enright declared.

Lancaster had heard this sort of thing from Enright before, but he'd always dismissed it as a transitory emotional reaction. He'd tell him, "Don't go, you silly sot."

But Enright was insistent, and Lancaster concluded there was nothing he could do - except help.

Soon thereafter, Lancaster pointed his friend to a Facebook page.

- - -

At his Los Angeles apartment, Enright signed on to a Facebook page associated with the YPG, the initials used for the People's Protection Units, a mainly Kurdish militia.

He sent a straightforward message: "I'd like to go fight for you in Syria."

He waited four days before message notification popped onto his screen.

"Are you willing to die for this fight?"

He did not know the real name of the person with whom he was communicating. But he knew how he would answer.

"Yes," he typed.

The person who was messaging him didn't want him to have any illusions. The militia had very little equipment. No helmets. No body armor. They were fighting an enemy that had tanks and armored personnel carriers. If he were injured, the only painkiller they could provide was aspirin.

Nothing could dissuade him.

"My feeling was that I was going to go there, I'm going to suffer, and I'm going to die," Enright says.

He sold his Porsche to pay for a one-way ticket to Iraq.

He told almost no one except Lancaster. Enright had no family obligations to hold him back - he'd been married briefly years ago but was now habitually single. He had no children.

Enright had once shot a prop AK-47 in a TV commercial for Norton anti-virus software. The only time he'd shot a real weapon was when he'd fired a couple of pistol rounds for fun in the woods during a long-ago Christian retreat.

The day before his departure, he went to a firing range in the L.A. area. It would be the sum total of his military training before leaving.

- - -

An odd calm settled over Enright. He felt no fear, he says. Knowing that he would probably perish in Syria gave him inner peace.

He flew to the United Kingdom, and there he began assembling gear. Boots. A jacket for the cold desert nights.

As his departure date approached, he sent a stream of messages to the person with whom he'd been communicating via Facebook. Days passed with no response.

He called his friend Lancaster, wondering whether he should fly to Iraq anyway.

"I wouldn't chance it," Lancaster said.

Instead, Enright headed for London's Heathrow Airport. He landed in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, around 3 in the morning. No one was there to pick him up. He checked into a low-cost hotel. He started sending more Facebook messages.

Finally someone responded.

"When do you arrive?" the message said, according to an image reviewed by The Post.

"I'm already here!" Enright wrote back.

That afternoon, a man called the hotel asking for him.

"You want to join the YPG?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.


Then, a familiar query: "Are you willing to die?"


- - -

A man arrived at the hotel the next day. Enright had no way of knowing whether he was walking into a trap: "I don't know if I'm shaking hands with YPG or ISIS."

Enright got into a car pointed toward the Iraqi-Syrian border. They drove deep into the mountains of Iraq, eventually hopping into an inflatable rubber dinghy and crossing into Syria via a narrow stretch of the Tigris River, its waters illuminated by a full moon.

There was no going back now.

In Syria, Enright says, he was led to a remote desert camp that the YPG fighters called "the academy." He'd spend six weeks there learning how to fire an AK-47 and other arts of war. Some of the expat volunteers he met at the academy and elsewhere were suspicious of his motives, Enright says, thinking he was out for publicity to generate better parts in the movies.

"Why would I risk my life for a role?" he would say.

Enright chose Mustafa as his nom de guerre to honor the Pakistani taxi driver who'd mentored him so long ago.

When Enright's new Kurdish colleagues found out he was an actor, they pressed a head-cam into his hand. They wanted him to collect footage that would document their struggle.

Enright resisted.

"I came to shoot, but not with a camera," Enright told them.

But he changed his mind when he found out that his camera would allow him to join up with any unit. The militia wanted "bang, bang" footage to promote its cause and demonstrate its commitment to eradicating the Islamic State. Enright wanted action.

He took the camera.

He got action fast. Within days, his unit was ordered to clear a village that had been bombed by U.S. forces supporting the YPG, he says.

"I was going to be coming face-to-face with a terrorist," Enright says.

He went charging into the town of Suluk. Heart pumping. Pure adrenaline.

Then he went flying. Not from a bullet, but from his own clumsiness and inexperience. Loaded down with gear, he face-planted, scraping long patches of skin from his leg and arm. His first foray as a soldier and he already felt like a klutz.

He'd get better at it. Head-cam footage shows Enright engaged in heavy fighting in the months to come. He took to fighting like a natural, say fellow soldiers interviewed by The Post. In the videos, machine-gun fire and explosions can be heard. Enright looks like a killer.

They tore a path through Syria, clearing villages where he'd sometimes encounter dozens of rotting corpses of Islamic State fighters in the streets. Stray dogs would eat the heads first. Enright had such contempt for his enemy that he watched with a sense of satisfaction.

"It's funny," he says, looking back. "In life they would take our heads off. In death the dogs would take their heads."

Enright spent six months fighting alongside the YPG, completing a standard tour of duty for foreign volunteers. But his life was about to become as bizarre and baffling as anything he'd encountered in the deserts of Syria.

- - -

Enright had left Los Angeles for Syria in a tornado of emotion. He's not prone to sit and calculate risks and contingencies. But as he prepared to return to the United States, it weighed heavily on him that he had a problem.

His epic tourist visa overstays, 30 years of living in the United States without legal permission, were going to make things hard for him - to say the least. He developed a plan: attempt to cross from Mexico into California through the San Ysidro border crossing south of San Diego, the busiest in the United States. Maybe he'd blend in with the hordes and get across, he thought.

In November 2015, Enright was stopped at the border by U.S. immigration officials and sent to a detention center in Otay-Mesa, according to passport records and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement corroboration.

Enright's account of his six weeks of detention is similar to those of Central American migrants who have been detained during the recent surge of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border. Blasting air conditioning turned the cells into ice boxes. The lights were never turned off. He was stuffed into a cell where there was no room to lie down.

At this point, Enright's account becomes harder to pin down. While detained, he says, he met with officials whom he believes were working for the Department of Homeland Security. He describes one of them as "Laura, the Blond Lady."

In his mind's eye, the Blonde Lady became an all-powerful being capable of offering salvation from his immigration hell. He's forgotten her last name, but remembers that she was "quite pretty." Over the course of several meetings, Enright says, he reviewed maps of Syria with the officials and described his encounters with Islamic State fighters.

Enright asserts that Laura eventually made an extraordinary offer: If he were able to return to Syria and gather intelligence about the Islamic State that would be useful to the U.S. government, she would make his immigration problem disappear.

"I thought, 'OK, I'll get intelligence for you,'" Enright recalls.

Enright says he has no documentation of the offer and it was not witnessed by anyone. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said that the agency could not comment on investigative methods and that it could not confirm the accuracy of Enright's account.

The Post has interviewed four people who say Enright called them about the putative offer while he was detained and believe he was being truthful about his understanding of the arrangement. A fifth person - filmmaker Adam Wood, now working on a documentary about Enright - says he learned about it from Enright shortly after the actor was released.

Michael Hecht, a psychotherapist who'd befriended Enright in Los Angeles and also received a call from him while he was detained, said in an interview that Enright might have been coping with his dilemma by hearing what he wanted to hear.

"I think in that situation you grasp at straws," Hecht said.

Hecht referred Enright to a Los Angeles lawyer, James Kajtoch, who traveled to Otay-Mesa to meet the actor. Kajtoch would later send an email to Enright, saying: "If you want me to provide terrorist information from Syria to our government, I am NOT the person to assist you. As much as I am interested in contributing to the fight against terrorism, I do not have time to do this."

In mid-December, Enright says, he was deported to England, still believing he'd made a deal with the U.S. government. Three U.S. deportation officers flew with him to London based on the results of a threat assessment that an ICE spokeswoman declined to detail.

Enright knew where he needed to go next. He wanted to hold up his end of a deal that he believed would restore his life in the United States.

He packed, one more time, for war.

- - -

In June 2016, Enright landed again in Sulaymaniyah. He'd arrived there more than a year earlier as a neophyte soldier. Now he felt like a veteran.

Before plunging back into battle, he says, he traveled to the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, Iraq, and met with an FBI agent. Enright says he handed over a data card from an Islamic State soldier's computer that he'd seized during his first tour. He wanted to give the U.S. government a taste of what he might be able to offer.

That fall, Enright reached out to the consulate again, this time via a message he sent to the consulate's Facebook page. He explained that he no longer had the agent's contact information. The consulate responded by giving him the email of the agent he'd met.

As Enright fought his way across Syria, trudging slowly toward Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold, he kept thinking of Laura, the Blonde Lady, whom he saw as the key to his ticket back home.

Video from that time shows him riffling through the pockets of a dead Islamic State soldier, the man's right arm cocked in the air, stiff with rigor mortis. He filmed images of any documents he could find that might help ingratiate him with U.S. immigration authorities.

In late December that year, Enright says, a friend introduced him by email to a woman who is a well-connected political insider in Virginia. She connected him to a man he believed to be a U.S. intelligence official based in Texas, Enright says.

They exchanged text messages using code names: the presumptive officer was "Angelman" and Enright would go by the handle "Light Saber." (Screenshots of their communication include messages to Enright from someone identifying himself as "Angelman," but his identity and association could not be confirmed by The Post.)

Enright was determined to make Angelman happy. He stepped up his efforts to gather evidence. Video from that period shows him interrogating Islamic State fighters.

On one man's phone was a video of one of Enright's fellow militiamen being beheaded, Enright says.

Enright also gathered letters written by Islamic State soldiers, he says. They might offer clues, he thought. He sent what he'd found to Angelman.

Enright's zeal to gather intelligence placed him in constant danger. In January 2017 - the same day that Donald Trump was being inaugurated as president in Washington - his unit was ambushed by a large Islamic State force, Enright says. The enemy were howling "Kafir, Kafir" - an Arabic term that means "nonbeliever" - because they did not consider the militia soldiers to be true Muslims.

(On Sunday, Trump made the surprise decision to withdraw U.S. forces who had been stationed alongside Kurdish soldiers. Critics said it would leave the Kurds vulnerable to attacks by the more heavily armed Turkish government, which has condemned the militia groups for ties to a separatist party labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.)

Enright was trapped inside a building behind the Islamic State front, separated from his gun, which he'd dropped. For the next 19 hours, he says, he lay beneath a mattress while Islamic State fighters roamed the area, firing at his fellow militia soldiers. He didn't dare make a noise. He urinated where he lay so that they wouldn't detect movement. He clutched a grenade in his hand and a knife. He imagined being burned to death if he were captured or dragged through the streets until he died or was beheaded. He resolved to kill himself if Islamic State soldiers found him.

"I was ready to go to Jesus," he says.

To pass the tension-filled hours, Enright, says he kept thinking about what was happening in Washington. He had high hopes that Trump would step up U.S. support for the Kurdish militia. Now that Trump had taken the oath of office, Enright considered him his commander in chief.

After a restless night, Enright decided to make a run for it during a lull in the shooting. He disguised himself as an Arab villager using clothes he found in the house. But as he emerged, he was spotted. When he kept running, bullets whizzed past him. Something seemed strange. Suddenly he realized it was one of his fellow militiamen mistakenly firing at him.

Later, they had a laugh about it. Enright told the man he was a terrible shot - thankfully.

That spring, the war became even more personal. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for bombing the crowd at an Ariana Grande concert in Enright's hometown of Manchester, killing more than 20 people.

"Apart from being heartbroken, part of me is a little bit pissed," Enright, dressed in camouflage, says in a video he recorded from Syria, lamenting what he described as the apathetic attitudes about the Islamic State and Syria that he'd encountered in Manchester after his first tour of duty.

It would take months for Enright and his colleagues to make it to Raqqa, the final redoubt of the Islamic State. Videos and interviews with fellow soldiers confirm his presence there.

When Raqqa fell in October 2017, Enright pulled out his phone. He cranked a song as loudly as his device could go, and started dancing.

The tune was by Ariana Grande.

The title: "Bang Bang."

- - -

In November 2017, Enright was ready to cash in on the deal he thought he'd made with Laura, the Blonde Lady. For months, he says, he'd been sending material to Angelman and also sharing it with his YPG compatriots. Now he wanted Angelman to deliver; he just needed someplace to wait while his immigration problem disappeared.

The Kurds had paid for him to fly anywhere in the world, he says. He settled on Belize. They speak English there. It's very inexpensive. The perfect place, he thought.

From Belize, he started flinging text messages at Angelman, who eventually suggested Enright meet with the embassy there.

In early 2018, Enright reached a U.S. diplomat in Belize's capital, Belmopan, who insisted on talking with Angelman before meeting with him, according to Enright. Once they'd spoken, the staffer invited him for a meeting.

"Please bring anything that would be helpful to explain your situation," she wrote.

The staffer was encouraging, he says, but hasn't been able to get him home. (The embassy did not respond to emails requesting comment.)

Enright and his immigration attorney have been working on trying to get him an S visa, which is granted to people who assist law enforcement. Eventually, Enright says, he learned through diplomatic contacts that Angelman wasn't senior enough to request an S visa.

Now, Enright holds close the intelligence material he claims to have gathered: Identification cards for Islamic State fighters. A letter written by an English-speaking Islamic State soldier to his superiors. Video images of rental car receipts with photos of men who identified themselves as Islamic State soldiers.

Stuck in Belize, Enright was ever in desperate need of a place to stay. For a time, he says, he lived in the dormitory of a Christian organization that counseled prisoners, then rented floor space in a new acquaintance's home. Another offer led him to San Ignacio, a dusty town in western Belize.

A recent evening found Enright strolling down a sleepy street lined with restaurants in the center of San Ignacio. Settling into an outdoor table, Enright's conversation is constantly interrupted. No one, it seems, doesn't know him.

A woman in a full-length red gown enters the restaurant, her attire standing out among the casually dressed locals and backpacking tourists.

"Oh, my!" Enright calls out. "The Oscar goes to ... !"

The woman, a former neighbor who'd dressed up for a night out with her husband, smiles and rushes over the table. Like his friends in Los Angeles, they'd folded him into their family. The woman and her husband were so happy to see him that they sent a soda over to Enright's table - he doesn't drink alcohol.

His days and nights spool out this way, one bleeding into the next. His U.S. friends have taken to pleading for help bringing him back. On a website they've created,, an eclectic mix of film professionals and a retired U.S. Army Reserves major general offer testimonials.

Greg Martin, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who filmed a testimonial, told The Post that his longtime friend "not only should be given a pass but should be celebrated for what he's done."

In Washington, influential power players have taken up Enright's cause, including Jim Dornan, a political consultant and distant cousin of former Republican congressman Robert Dornan of California. William Scott, who heads the group Veterans in Defense of Liberty, spoke to his senator, Roy Blunt, R-Mo., about Enright, Scott said in an interview. Blunt has sought to help untangle Enright's immigration quandary, Scott said, but has yet to get results. (Blunt did not respond to an interview request.)

And so, Enright waits with no sign that his purgatory will end. Baffled about why he can't come home, holding close materials he gathered in Syria that he has yet to turn over to U.S. authorities.

Wondering whatever happened to a blond lady named Laura.

- - -

The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Americans' opinion of identity politics changes with the seasons

By ruben navarrette jr.
Americans' opinion of identity politics changes with the seasons


(Advance for Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Navarrette clients only)


SAN DIEGO -- October must be a confusing month for critics of so-called identity politics. It has to be difficult to separate those things that promote "tribalism" from harmless celebrations of culture and heritage.

As Hispanic Heritage Month was being ushered out -- having run from mid-September to mid-October -- here came Columbus Day on Oct. 14. The national holiday was proclaimed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937, largely to appease Italian-Americans after five decades of discrimination and violence.

Suddenly, folks are reassessing how they feel about cultural festivals, ethnic holidays and having certain dates on the calendar set aside to honor the contributions of a specific group of Americans.

For the last few weeks, I heard the usual griping and sniping from fellow Americans who were angry that Hispanics -- a group that numbers nearly 60 million with an annual GDP of $2.3 trillion -- merited a whole month to acknowledge their achievements.

Blame demographics. Hispanics account for 18% of the U.S. population and are on pace to make up a quarter by 2030. Mexicans and Mexican Americans alone account for 10% of the population. Many white people feel culturally displaced, and they don't appreciate a yearly reminder. They rail against "identity politics" and insist the country is being destroyed as people retreat into tribes instead of just being "Americans."

Responding to a column on President Trump's private war against Hispanics, a reader lamented: "The first chance we get, we run to our respective racial and ethnic corners. ... Congratulations, you are now one of the groups who think that racial and ethnic identity is more important than the one that actually should unify us: being human."

That's a nice sentiment, but it's also dishonest. Identity politics date back to the founding of this country, and the concept was invented by white men. All these years later, as white identity politics is trumpeted by conservative talk radio, the GOP, Fox News and Trump himself, the rest of us are just trying to catch up.

Americans' take on identity politics varies based on whose "identity" is at issue. If it's mine, no worries. If it's yours, we have a problem.

For decades, Columbus Day didn't need defending. Because, for the most part, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus wasn't being attacked. As more information has come to light about the atrocities committed against indigenous people by Columbus and his men -- who sailed under the Spanish flag and brought white Christianity to the Americas -- public outrage grew. And Columbus became a target.

In San Francisco, someone threw red paint on a statue of the explorer just days before the holiday. The culprit also crawled the message: "Destroy all monuments to genocide and kill all colonizers." Never mind that the city already marks Columbus Day as "Indigenous Peoples' Day."

This politically correct pushback has led Italian Americans to defend Columbus, rally around Columbus Day and assert their ethnic pride. It has also provided an opportunity to share their historical contributions to the United States.

There is a lot to share. From 1880 to 1930, about 6 million Italian immigrants found their way to America. They were hard workers, and so they helped provide the labor for American factories, mills and mines. If it was built in the early 20th century -- from roads and bridges, to dams and tunnels -- chances are that an Italian American had a hand in building it.

In return for all that hard work, Italian Americans were -- see if this sounds familiar -- demonized, attacked, discriminated against and scapegoated for every societal ill. They were told their families were too big, their accents too thick, and their natural abilities too limited. Their prospects for white-collar work were slim.

Today, according to the Census Bureau, Italian Americans account for 6% of the U.S. population. More than 15 million people in the United States identity themselves as Italian Americans. You can bet that a few million more prefer the euphemism "Americans of Italian descent." Whatever we call them, they're the fifth largest ethnic group in the U.S.

Once again, Americans are arguing over identity politics. And, once again, it's the wrong argument. Instead of debating whom we should honor or what we should name a particular day, we should confront our inconsistencies. We can't just flip the script when convenient.

Calm down, folks. There is nothing wrong -- and a lot right -- with honoring our many different ethnicities, cultures and languages. In fact, the concept is as American as strudel, cannoli, baklava and flan.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group

When family and friends in your social network lack good financial judgment, do you butt in or butt out?

By michelle singletary
When family and friends in your social network lack good financial judgment, do you butt in or butt out?


(Advance for Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Singletary clients only)


WASHINGTON -- On any given Sunday after church services, fellow parishioners seek me out to ask personal-finance questions. I will, when I have time, try to help on the spot.

But I've always found it frustrating that strangers often see the value of my financial wisdom more than the people closest to me.

So, what's a financially astute person to do when watching co-workers, friends or relatives make monumentally bad money decisions? Such a quandary was the subject of a question I received from a reader during a recent online chat.

"What advice do you have for someone with a longtime friend (mid-40s) who doesn't have the best finances and lacks reserves? I don't want to 'finance shame' this person, but how do you address these issues and start a meaningful and well-intended dialogue with someone about getting them headed in the right direction?"

As much as you care, you can't make grown folks do right. And often your advice -- no matter how well intentioned -- can seem smug.

In my younger years, I was the self-righteous, butt-in friend and relative who tried to steer people to better decisions. I'm a natural-born penny pincher, so it just seemed crazy to me that folks would go on vacation without having an emergency fund. Or, I would question why someone was buying a new car when they could repair the one they had.

I would -- without success -- discourage people from buying homes that I knew would stretch them to their financial breaking point.

After I had children, my social circle increased to include a wide network of other parents. I was dismayed at how many overindulged their children. When I'd ask if they had established a college fund, they would admit that they were saving very little or nothing at all. Yet many of these same parents complained that their children were being deprived of need-based financial aid for college because they made too much money. Their resentment was ridiculous to me when they had the means to save -- at least something.

And don't get me started on the ill-advised decisions to send their children to colleges they couldn't afford without decades of student loan debt. Too many times to count, I lost this battle to bring them to their senses.

I became increasingly exasperated that the people who know I meant well just wouldn't act on my advice. Their financial struggles weighed heavy on my heart, as if I had failed them. I write about personal finance for a living, so no one in my sphere of influence should be financially reckless, right?

However, with age comes the wisdom that I cannot always be my brother's -- or substitute any close relationship -- keeper. Sometimes people have to fall flat financially before they get up and make better choices.

Or maybe they are living paycheck to paycheck, and all your advice does little to address the core issue, which is that they need more income.

So when should you butt in when your friends, family and colleagues lack good financial judgment? Here's when.

-- (BEG ITAL)After being asked(END ITAL). You have an increased chance that your advice will be taken if your opinion has been solicited. Once the door is open, provide guidance. But don't be a bully about it.

-- (BEG ITAL)You suspect a scam(END ITAL). Step in immediately if you think someone is about to be scammed. This becomes your business. This is definitely the time that if you see something, you should say something.

-- (BEG ITAL)Any fallout may impact your finances(END ITAL). Let's say your mother is a bad money manager and you know that if she doesn't become a better financial steward, you'll have to rescue her when she retires. And you will, because she's your mother.

It's OK to step in with advice if it's likely that it will cost you more to help down the road. Share your concerns. Be candid about your fear of not having enough money to bail someone out if that's the case. Also, communicate clearly what you'll be able to afford should your family member or friend fail to change. Then don't cave if you know the person didn't take your advice. You don't want to facilitate irresponsible behavior. If you do, you become an impediment to their growth.

If you're the financial guru in your social network, make it known you're willing to help, and do so without being judgmental. However, if folks exercise their free will to mess things up after you've given them good advice, don't blame yourself for their fall.

--0-- --0-- --0--

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Is Trump's tail wagging Erdogan?

By kathleen parker
Is Trump's tail wagging Erdogan?


(Advance for Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)


WASHINGTON -- So let me get this straight: President Trump ordered the removal of American troops from northern Syria, knowing that Turkey would invade, seize and occupy Kurd-occupied land.

But now, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did just that, killing Kurds who had been U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State, Trump is throwing a tariff tantrum and siccing sanctions on Turkey.

On Monday, Trump signed an executive order that raised tariffs on Turkish steel imports to 50% and halted negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with the country.

If this weird little do-si-do with Erdogan was the result of sober consideration, then the president of the United States isn't only a morally corrupt sycophant to murderous dictators, he's bat-guano crazy. But you knew that.

There's no point pretending that Trump didn't know what Erdogan intended toward Syria. The two men spoke on the phone on Oct. 6, and Trump soon after ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria and, what do you know, Turkey invaded.

The State Department said Trump doesn't support the incursion, which may or may not be true. In any case, saying you don't support it doesn't mean you didn't deliberately create circumstances that made such an incursion possible.

How credulous must one be to accept that these events were coincidental?

But Trump is a wheeler-dealer. He wouldn't cut such a deal without something in return. He already has two towers in Istanbul, so that's probably not on his to-do list. What does Erdogan have that Trump wants?

It's anyone's guess at this point. But Trump has blood on his hands, which means America has blood on hers. Whatever motivated our moody president, the consequences were obvious. The immediate effects are well-known, but the longer-term ripple effects could plague the region, not to mention America's standing in the world, for years to come.

Thanks to Trump and Erdogan, it is now more likely the Islamic State will begin reorganizing. The American pullout also strengthens the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and, by extension, Russia and Iran.

Naturally, the willfully ignorant and impulsive Trump issued his order to withdraw troops despite repeated of warnings from his military and foreign policy advisers. It seems plain enough that he didn't heed their advice because he didn't want to hear it.

Bottom line: Trump appears to have wanted to please Erdogan. The sanctions and tariff hike may be merely part of the setup. Thus, while tensions rise in the Middle East -- and America's foes jockey for position to benefit from the aftermath -- Trump has created cause for plausible deniability. (BEG ITAL)Hey, I thought it was the right thing to do. We can't be involved in endless wars.(END ITAL)

As we've learned the past three years, Trump does what Trump wants. He's the CEO of America, after all. Then, once he unleashes havoc, he delegates to others the burden of his consequences: "Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out," he tweeted.

For starters, on Sunday, around 785 people connected to the Islamic State escaped from a detention camp.

The impetus behind all this chaos and carnage apparently was Erdogan's wish to rid himself of some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees languishing in Turkey. He and Trump surely could find common cause in that sentiment. Under Erdogan's plan, Turkey would resettle and oversee about one million refugees along the newly confiscated border area. From his perspective, the Kurds living there are terrorists, though they fought alongside American and European troops against the Islamic State. Thus, Erdogan is solving two problems, thanks, it seems, to Trump's generous acquiescence.

From Trump's point of view, what's the big deal? American troops leave the badlands and let the others fight amongst themselves. The bigger picture reveals that Trump has further alienated our allies, made America less trustworthy, surrendered American leverage in the area, and enabled what is essentially a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Trump, apparently, feels empowered while directing geopolitics by the seat of his pants, feeding his rapacious ego with the admiration of totalitarians from Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and the Saudi royals. But, Erdogan, what's he got?

One shudders to think: Either Trump is wagging the dog to create a distraction. Or, not to state the obvious, he is not the "extremely stable genius" he claims to be.

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Is this Barr's cry for help?

By catherine rampell
Is this Barr's cry for help?



(For Rampell clients only)


On Friday, in a closed-door speech at the University of Notre Dame, Attorney General William Barr talked at length about a "campaign to destroy the traditional moral order."

The alleged perpetrator of this campaign?

"Militant secularists," who insist upon keeping government institutions free from the influence of any faith or creed.

To be clear: This was not merely an affirmation -- delivered by a devout Catholic, while visiting a Catholic university -- of how privately taught religious values can contribute to character development or stronger communities.

No. This appeared to be a tacit endorsement of theocracy.

Amid calling for greater freedom of religion, Barr also called for religion (his religion) to infiltrate government at all levels. He specifically decried the fact that "public agencies -- including public schools -- are becoming secularized."

Militant secularism, he said, is to blame for the country's greatest ills, including drug use, mental illness and "an increase in senseless violence." Given such crises, Barr urged his audience to fight back against "so-called 'progressives'" and others who insist upon respecting America's pesky, constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

"This is not decay," Barr said. "It is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the 'progressives,' have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values."

There are two ways to read these remarks, which were one of three speeches by administration officials in recent days on Christianity's role in U.S. governance.

One reaction: They're terrifying. This man who swore to uphold the Constitution has apparently forgotten its prohibition on state establishment of religion. Our nation's chief law enforcement officer -- the person ultimately responsible for ensuring equal treatment under the law -- appears to be demonizing anyone who does not share his religious and political values.

But there's also another, more encouraging way to interpret Barr's comments: Maybe it was all just one giant, coded subtweet of the boss.

Welcome to The Resistance, Bill Barr?

Barr decried the government's "attacks on religion." One could be forgiven for reading this as a passive-aggressive swipe at a president who, during the 2016 campaign, called for blocking immigrants based on their religious beliefs.

Donald Trump's originally proposed "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" got watered down after he took office. But even the final version was not exactly an endorsement of religious liberty.

Neither is the administration's recent push to allow greater religious discrimination by enabling federal contractors to hire and fire based on religious belief. This means allowing a for-profit private company to fire an employee for being gay or transgender -- but also for being Catholic rather than Protestant. Companies may "condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor."

Such policies are surely a greater threat to religious freedom than asking, say, cake bakers to respect public accommodation laws.

Barr bemoaned the "unremitting assault" not just on private exercise of faith but also "traditional values." It's hard to know exactly what was being invoked here. Maybe he was envisioning regressive traditions of days past, such as respect for the patriarchy.

But perhaps he was instead invoking traditional values such as: Always keep your word. Keep it in your private business dealings, but also when making promises to friends and allies who have put their lives on the line for you, whether at home or in northern Syria.

Or maybe: Don't boast about grabbing unsuspecting women by the genitals. Also, maybe don't grab them there in the first place.

Or: Don't commit adultery, with a porn star or anyone else, especially not a few months after your third wife gave birth.

Also: The only people who should be asked to participate in American elections are Americans. Not foreign powers, especially not adversarial foreign powers.

Don't lie, cheat or steal (including from Uncle Sam); don't blaspheme; welcome the stranger; have compassion for the poor and sick; and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, even when they don't have political oppo to offer in return.

Barr didn't specifically mention these values, many of which are enshrined in the Judeo-Christian traditions he celebrated in his talk. He did, however, lament the rise of "moral relativism," which he said public schools were "actively promoting." So, too, presumably, are members of his own party, who selectively condemn bad behavior only when committed by someone other than Trump.

So maybe this wasn't a battle cry against Barr's religious or political opponents. Maybe it was just a cry for help.

Catherine Rampell's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

For American soldiers, Trump's betrayal of the Kurds is sickening

By david ignatius
For American soldiers, Trump's betrayal of the Kurds is sickening


(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. Normally advance for Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, and thereafter.)

(For Ignatius clients only)


WASHINGTON -- At a gathering last Saturday night of military and intelligence veterans, one topic shrouded the room: President Trump's decision to abandon Kurdish fighters in Syria who had fought and died to help America destroy the Islamic State.

"It's a dagger to the heart to walk away from people who shed blood for us," one former top CIA official who attended the black-tie dinner told me later. A retired four-star general who was there said the same thing: Trump's retreat was an "unsound, morally indefensible act" and a "disgrace" to America and the soldiers who serve this country.

This sense of anguish was pervasive among those attending the event, several attendees said. It was an annual dinner honoring the Office of Strategic Services, the secret World War II commando group that was a forerunner of today's CIA and Special Operations Forces. The event celebrated the military alliances that have always been at the center of American power. It was a bitter anniversary this year.

It's probably impossible for Americans to fully grasp the sense of betrayal felt by the Syrian Kurds, who suffered 11,000 dead and 24,000 wounded in a war that we asked them to fight. But perhaps we can understand the shame and outrage of the Special Operations Forces who fought alongside them and now see the Kurds cast aside to face their Turkish enemies alone.

"It will go down in infamy," said one Army officer who served in the Syria campaign. "This will go down as a stain on the American reputation for decades." Those may sound like extreme sentiments, but they're widely shared by those who served in the Syria mission. For these soldiers, abandoning an ally on the battlefield is about the worst thing that can happen.

To explain what the war looked like to the Americans who served in Syria, I've gone back through my notes from four trips there with the U.S. military. I never encountered a soldier who doubted that the war made sense.

On my first trip in May 2016, I spent several hours talking with a tall, thick-bearded American officer, both arms decorated with sleeves of tattoos; he looked like a video-game action hero. He scoffed at Turkish claims that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by a Kurdish militia called the YPG, was a terrorist cult. "They stand their ground," he said. That seemed the highest compliment he could give.

The war moved quickly, as the SDF went house to house, clearing jihadis, and America rained bombs from the sky. In July 2017, rumbling down a dirt road near Tabqa that, in theory, had recently been de-mined, a sergeant major from Oklahoma is playing country music super-loud on the radio. He talks about home, but it's obvious, listening to him, that there's nowhere he and most of his colleagues would rather be than right here.

We sit for a meal on the floor with the Kurdish commanders who have just seized Tabqa in a costly assault. They tell us it's their duty, and they keep pushing more food at us. In the concrete tower where the Islamic State had hurled homosexual prisoners to their death, all that's left are trash heaps and jihadist slogans painted on the walls.

By February 2018, the Islamic State capital of Raqqa is just a pile of rubble. As we drive through the caverns of shattered concrete, children start waving to the soldiers, the way civilians do after any war, probably because they're so glad it's over. I meet an American doctor who's the only trauma surgeon in the area, who spends all day, every day, treating severely wounded Syrians. She says it's an "honor" to be in Syria.

And now, as we near the end of the story, it's July 2019, and I'm in Kobani meeting with Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the Syrian Kurdish commander. Trump has announced in December that he wants to withdraw all American troops. Mazloum is too polite and loyal to criticize the American president. "We respect any decision made by the U.S., whether they want to stay or leave," he says in a calm, flat, battle-hardened voice.

American officers tell me later that Mazloum has been criticized for being too trusting in America, but Mazloum keeps insisting that he has confidence in his allies. I ask one of the U.S. officers what it was like to tell Mazloum in December that the U.S. would be leaving. The answer isn't printable.

What do these American soldiers feel as they watch Trump retreat from the Syrian battlefield and leave their former comrades to die? They feel sick.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Racist attitudes lead to tragic outcomes

By eugene robinson
Racist attitudes lead to tragic outcomes


(Advance for Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Robinson clients only)


WASHINGTON -- This is a serious question: What can a black person do to keep from getting killed by police in this country?

Driving-while-black has long been potentially a capital offense, as witnessed by the case of Philando Castile, who was shot to death. Driving-while-black got Walter Scott tasered, but it was running-away-while-black that got him fatally shot in the back. Walking-while-black is what attracted police attention to Michael Brown, who was also shot to death. Standing-while-black was enough to get Eric Garner choked to death.

Now it appears that staying-home-while-black is also such a threatening activity that police might kill you for it.

That is what happened last year to Botham Jean, who was sitting in his Dallas apartment when off-duty police officer Amber Guyger burst in and killed him. And it's what apparently happened Saturday to Atatiana Jefferson, who was playing video games with her nephew in her Fort Worth home when a police officer fired through a window and shot her dead.

The officer who gunned down Jefferson is white, but the racism in these killings -- and it is racism, pure and simple -- has less to do with the color of the perpetrators than that of the victims. After all these high-profile incidents, after all the consciousness-raising and all the soul-searching, black lives still are simply not valued the way white lives are. In too many police departments, officers still are being enculturated to see persons of color as both threatening and disposable. From what we know at this point, the killing of Jefferson was unjustified by any imaginable standard.

It was around 2:30 a.m. A neighbor noticed that the lights were on in Jefferson's house and a door appeared to be open. Knowing that Jefferson and her nephew were there alone, according to news reports, the neighbor called a non-emergency police line to ask that someone check to make sure everything was all right.

The officers who responded parked their squad car around the corner and approached stealthily. Body-camera footage released by the Fort Worth police department shows the officers making their way to the backyard and approaching a closed first-floor window. One of them shines a flashlight through the window and yells, "Put your hands up! Show me your hands!" Then he fires through the window, immediately and without identifying himself as a police officer, and Jefferson is killed.

It is progress, I suppose, that police did not seek to suppress the video of the shooting and its aftermath -- and also that the officer has resigned and may face criminal charges. Images from inside the house show a firearm, which to me suggests a possible scenario: What if Jefferson heard noises outside, suspected a possible intruder and reached for a weapon to defend herself?

According to the National Rifle Association and pro-gun zealots such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, that's exactly what a law-abiding citizen should do, right? The main reason for making firearms so widely available is to allow us the means to defend ourselves and our families. If the police officer had been a prowler, according to the good-guy-with-a-gun philosophy, Jefferson had every right to shoot him.

Oh, but I forgot: Second Amendment rights don't apply to African Americans. You will recall that Castile was legally carrying a firearm when he was pulled over for a traffic violation, and that fact was enough to get him killed.

It happens that Jefferson, by all accounts, was an upstanding citizen -- a graduate of Xavier University, with a degree in biology, who sold pharmaceutical equipment for a living and was thinking about going to medical school. So was Jean, a promising young accountant. So was Castile, who worked in a school cafeteria.

But Jefferson's character is not relevant to whether she had the right to stay up late in her own home playing Xbox games with her nephew. It is not relevant to whether the young boy had to witness his aunt being brutally killed.

It will not do to write this off as just a horrible mistake -- not when such mistakes fit such a clear pattern. Far too often, police officers approach situations involving African Americans with racist assumptions. They see a deadly threat where none exists. They act in ways that escalate the situation rather than calm it down. They are too quick to draw their weapons and too quick to fire. They shoot first and ask questions later.

Racist attitudes lead to tragic outcomes. Until police departments banish those attitudes, until officers' default assumption is that black Americans are not suspects but citizens, more innocents like Atatiana Jefferson will die.

Eugene Robinson's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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