Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Open the Gates

Today, I wrote to my dear friend Joe about being horribly shaken by the news of the beheading of the young guy from Pennsylvania. I don't know if the fact of his origins (PA) have anything to do with that shock, or what. Obviously, sadly, we've had another beheading in the news not long ago. (Obviously, sadly, it may be my racism and/or parochialism that causes me to be most upset by the murder of a white kid with two siblings from suburban Philadelphia.) It's not that this suffering outstrips that of the injured/killed troops—or the some 30,000+ Iraqis reported dead. But the brutality of it, and the thought of how it happened, is more haunting to me than even the violence that happened in Fallujah or that which is depicted in Abu Ghraib. (Although, again, the question of degree becomes absurd and no comparison of these cases in really possible.) Seeing the family from West Chester, and particularly the face of the anti-war father made me just sick with despair over what is happening in the world and what (for a long time now) has been happening to this country. I keep thinking about the rage and/or destruction that is most often borne of suffering imposed on those one loves. You don't saw off one living person's head, or sodomize and beat to death one person, or burn one person alive. To commit such acts is to "open the gates of hell," as Adam said last night. Those acts exert unspeakable physical suffering on human bodies—suffering that I can't even contemplate being applied to the lowliest of animals. But those acts also rip impossible wounds into the bodies and minds of those who cared about the victims. Here, I think, is where we approach what many of those who write about genocide call the "unspeakable." These things are unspeakable. Also unthinkable. I'll speak for myself, but I can't fully wrap my mind around them—mostly because my imagination won't let me.

And yet there are people on the news chattering about them all day. And you can flip a channel on the TV or radio and find other people chattering about makeovers and characters of silly sitcoms. The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming at these moments. (Makes me better understand W.H. Auden's poem, "Funeral Blues: Stop All the Clocks," although even that seems inadequate in the face of atrocity.) I have an inkling, then, of why Western culture can appear to patently absurd. And everything seems an affront to the families of those who do not have the luxury of tuning out and forgetting; they can no longer choose to insulate themselves against the news for self-protection. Certainly, the insulation, apparent frivolity, or callousness of one's government or fellow citizens must make any hope for redemption very, very difficult. And, if it stokes a rage, who could fully rebuke the person who acts on it?

I really used to believe in this country and what it stood for. Even if I eventually came to see that our country is obnoxious for its selfishness and its swagger, I did still admire the principles on which it operated, at least in theory. But now I do fear that the Bush administration (and the choices of most of those who've led in the late 20th and early 21st centuries) have pissed away any noble legacy. So it is with empires, says the voice in my head. Still, it didn't have to be like this.

I've read a lot about 1970s groups such as the Weather Underground and the SLA. And even though I do abhor their (violent) tactics, I think I understand know, better than I ever have before, the sort of nihilistic distrust that motivated their actions. Is this what people felt during the barbarous slog of Vietnam? If so, no wonder the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 felt so hollow to so many.

I agree with critics who charge that most people in the West are so privileged as to have experienced most of what they deem "despair" through bad romances...or maybe individual tragedies, such as losing a family member to accident or disease. However, I am cautious in ascribing such privilege—maybe because I think it is exactly that accusation of "you haven't ever really lived or suffered" that enables civic complacency. I have a theory that it is this attitude of "you're-so-insulated-and-you've-always-been-insulated-and-you're-heading-for-a-fall" that makes my students feel hopeless and immobilized in the world they stand to inherit. And it permits them (and those older) to make selfish choices with their lives. I say this as someone who (as a kid) always felt vaguely ashamed of my own time, my own generation. I willingly swallowed some of my older relatives' assertions that the golden age (of music, of safety, of civility) was behind us, and I was only experiencing its traces. Now that I'm getting old enough, I feel a similar curmudgeonly impulse to judge my students' formative years negatively against my own. "The golden age is behind us...." But that's damaging and short-sighted because it kills future possibility. And it doesn't equip them to DO anything. It instructs them to despair. And to make selfish choices because that's the only pleasure they have left.

That is why politicians' words of promise can sound so stilted. They don't only sound suspicious because of our general distrust of the "sleazypoliticaltype." (Not such a new animal, it's important to note.) They also sound suspect because they go against the prevailing winds of complacency. And, counterintuitive as this sounds, violence is a form of complacency. It's giving up. It's an admission of impotence, of impossibility, of strangling conscience in favor of the quicker results achieved by force. Or maybe it's better to say that complacency is violence.


At 2:07 PM, Blogger Kingmob said...

The notion that these types of atrocities are being committed on, what seems like, a daily basis is troubling enough. Add to this the theory that without the pictures, or in this case video, the reaction would be muted to some extent, or at least tempered down considerably. This, to me, speaks volumes with regards to the true state of the world and how it's changing for the worse to accomodate horrendous actions. To think that outrage can only occur when hit bluntly right between the eyes with pictures of mutilation, executions, or torture is a proposterous notion, but it speaks volumes for how easy it is for us as a society to live in complacency.
When deeds as gruesome as these cannot be greeted with the apropriate outrage due to a lack of "hard" evidence, then we are becoming a nation that's allowing people in power to manipulate our emotions in ways that better serve them. Case in point, the ban on photos of flag-draped coffins arriving in the U.S. Can there really be any reason for this other than to make sure that we behave as if nothing is really happening over there? The names in print, apparently, don't convey the sense of loss for the families and doesn't allow a seedling of disgust to be planted within the minds of most of us. Also, to get a sense of just how much we're "liberating" these people, take a look at the pictures of civilian casualties.
This type of thinking transcends the war in Iraq. It's a troubling idea to consider that murders can be associated with tabloid fluff because they've been morphed into a kind of "unreality". We are in trouble in more ways than one.


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