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Editor’s Notebook: A local town hall for the world

The fortune cookie told the story of my life: “You will step on the soil of many countries.”

After cracking open the after-dinner cookie, I slipped the piece of paper bearing my fortune into my wallet and forgot about it.

My life has been made from the clay of many countries, but little did I know that those foretelling words would come true again the following evening, Oct. 28. And I didn’t have to travel far. I attended an event at the Laguna Art Museum hosted by a fellow global-minded citizen, Doug Wilson, who was a stranger to me.

About 140 people showed up to hear an informal talk by two human rights experts and to take part in a question-and-answer session.

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The issues discussed centered on human rights abuses in Albania, Liberia, South Africa and other countries. One of the speakers, Paul Van Zyl, was an Afrikaaner — or white South African — who had served as executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, the process that began that country’s inter-racial healing as it emerged from the dark decades of Apartheid rule.

Those chain of events that unfolded half a globe away had a local connection that is alive and well today. The name of Amy Biehl was evoked.

Back in August 1993, Biehl, a Newport Beach resident, was a victim of inter-racial violence in South Africa. The young white woman was slain by a group of blacks as she worked to register South Africans to vote. Her surviving relatives became the only Americans to take part in the reconciliation process, with the cases numbering in the thousands. Biehl’s family supported the South African process of granting amnesty to her killers. Two of the convicted killers now work for a foundation named after her that runs social outreach programs in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Oct. 28 discussion about human rights was the first public event put on by the Townhall Foundation, whose chairman, Wilson, lives in Laguna Beach. He is a businessman with a social and moral conscience who started his foundation three years ago as a way to spur non-partisan discussion about important current issues.

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The 61-year-old is chief executive of Next Solutions, a company specializing in investment and advisory services for home builders. He also sits on the board of directors of Human Rights USA in Washington D.C., whose executive director spoke at the event.

Wilson, who emceed the evening’s program and asked one of its most probing questions — about post-9/11 American governmental policies on torture, which he opposes — says he plans to host another local town hall event sometime within the next six months.

“We live in a very inter-connected world,” he told me. “What happens in other countries is going to impact us some day.”

Wilson was alluding to the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan that sowed the seeds of anger and resentment that erupted on 9/11.

Wilson’s words sounded as though they were uttered by a true liberal like me. But we liberals can be narrow-minded. My preconceived notions about Wilson crumbled like a fortune cookie in my hand when I found out that this engaged and open-minded citizen is a moderate Republican.


IMRAN VITTACHI is the city editor for the Daily Pilot and may be reached at imran.vittachi@latimes.com or at (714) 966-4633.


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