Day That Will Not Live in Infamy
By The Plaid Adder
December 7, 2003. 7:30 a.m.
The alarm goes off earlier than we are used to on a weekend
morning. Because it's a weekend, we have the alarm set to
the radio, and not the buzzer. We have the radio permanently
tuned to NPR, because bad as it is it is better than most
of what's out there. So the first thing I hear is Liane Hansen's
"In Afghanistan, American forces this weekend found the
bodies of nine children, after U.S. air attacks on a location
where a suspected terrorist was hiding. A U.S. military spokesman
in Afghanistan says the terrorist was also killed in Saturday's
raid. NPR's Emily Harris joins us on the line from Kabul..."
And so the first words out of my mouth on December 7, 2003,
are "Oh, Jesus."
We lie there in bed for a while listening to the story.
Details, says Emily Harris, are sketchy, although the military
insists that they did get their man when they bombed a location
he was "thought to be at." Harris goes on to report that the
U.N. has expressed concern that this incident will "add to
the sensation of insecurity" in Afghanistan, and that the
U.N. folks had expressed to her that "this was not helping
create a feeling of stability in Afghanistan."
And so the next thing out of my mouth is, "Well OF COURSE
it doesn't help!!"
Not a way to start a Sunday morning, ranting about what
passes for 'media coverage' and foreign 'policy' in the world
we live in. But of course we are used to this now. A day,
two days from now, who in America will care what happened
in that raid? For that matter, who cares today? It only came
to anyone's attention at NPR because the victims were children.
And eventually, I too will forget what happened Sunday morning
in the coming weeks as some other cluster of deaths pushes
it out of my mind. Reports of American casualties come out
punctually once a day with a nightmarish sameness; it's as
if the same two American soldiers keep getting blown up over
and over and over again. Meanwhile we all know the story of
the Afghan raid that went awry; we've heard it many, many
times before. We have heard it so often that we have stopped
asking what you might think would be sensible questions, such
Was it really necessary to use air power to
apprehend a single individual?
Isn't the war in supposed to be over? So why are we
Is it ethically, morally, or even practically
defensible to kill nine people in order to take out a single
Does anyone in America still care whether anything
we are doing with our military is ethically or morally defensible?
And what can you think, when you listen to the news these
days, except that the answer to the last question has to be
a resounding "no"?
Now you can make the policy argument about why this is wrong
- and I do, all the time. I'll do it now: as those unnamed
U.N. officials Emily Harris spoke to astutely perceived, this
kind of thing is "not helping" Afghanistan recover; in fact,
it is undoubtedly the best recruitment tool that the Taliban
operatives have right now. Because no matter how bad the other
guys are, you cannot expect a population to support you if
you are going to go around killing their children because
they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and thinking
you can make it all OK by expressing "regret." And there is
the question of what incidents like this really say about
how effective the Afghanistan campaign really is. We thought
he was alone? Well, we were wrong. Exactly how certain do
we have to be about our information before we unleash death
from the sky?
But you know what, I am sick of the policy argument. I am
sick of the fact that as far as you can tell from listening
to the pundits, the talking heads, the reporters and the governmental
mouthpieces, once you get outside America, human life is not
worth a thing - unless you can somehow make the case that
protecting that human life will ultimately benefit Americans.
I am sick of the fact that our government has simply assumed
- and my fellow Americans by and large have simply accepted
- that we have a permanent and unrestricted license to kill.
Anyone, anywhere, any number of people, any time it's convenient
This attitude is the logical result of the doctrine of "preventive
war," which posits that we are allowed to strike anyone we
identify as a potential threat to us - whether or not
that presumption is reasonable. If the self-defense
standard in American courtrooms was that lax there would never
be another homicide conviction. All the defendant would have
to do would be to say that he perceived that the victim
was threatening him. Whether that perception derived purely
from self-interest, or was so divorced from common sense as
to be insane, would not matter. As, indeed, it doesn't matter
now, when we're talking about Afghanistan or Iraq. Evidently
they felt that this guy was such a serious threat that only
air power would do. Evidently they felt that if they had to
take out a few uninvolved civilians along the way, that was
a small price to pay. According to the Bush doctrine, we can't
question that; we just have to smile and be glad that we have
such a strong President so willing to look out for American
interests at the expense of everyone and everything else.
Well, I'm sick of it. That is all I have right now; no insightful
commentary or witty little turns of phrase, just a bellyful
of utter revulsion. What have we come to? How did we get here?
Where did we learn that our lives are the only lives that
matter? Who taught us that the rest of the world needs to
die for us? When did we finally and definitively give up on
the idea that all human lives are equally valuable? When was
it decided that self-interest isn't everything, but the only
thing? Why do I have to wake up on the 62nd anniversary of
the attack on Pearl Harbor and look around at my country to
find that ethically speaking, it is as poisonous and blasted
a wasteland as Hiroshima after the bomb?
Was that where we went wrong?
I don't know. I don't think there is an answer; at least
not one that I can find before I have to end this column.
All I'm trying to do is to keep the question alive: why don't
these things matter to us any more? Why have we accepted the
fact that we drink the blood of our kindred with our morning
coffee, and taste the ashes of our neighbors' burning homes
when we sit down to dinner with the 6:00 news? Why have we
forgotten that national boundaries are imaginary, that as
human beings we are all part of the same extended family,
and that when all this is over we will all have to live with
In Tony Kushner's recent play Homebody/Kabul, the
Homebody - a hyperliterate English housewife who has developed
an obsession with world history - exclaims ecstatically at
one point during her long opening monologue, "I love the world!"
An instant later, she has brought herself back to earth and
is apologizing for that moment of extravagance, saying that
of course she knows how that sounds, naive presumptuous idiotic
and everything else... but still, all the same, she wants
to say it, and she desperately wants everyone else in the
audience to understand why she says it, and what it really
Between the end of her monologue and the beginning of the
next act, her love of the world leads her to Afghanistan,
where she disappears. The play never finally decides whether
she was brutally murdered by the Taliban, or converted to
Islam to marry an Afghan man, or simply completed the withdrawal
from her home and family life that she had already started
in London. As much as this play obviously sympathizes with
the Homebody, Kushner ultimately can't imagine a future for
someone who loves the world; he can't come up with a credible
way for her to make that love matter. Modernity does not,
apparently, allow for that. In the end, the best you can hope
for is to love the members of your immediate family, and even
that seems to be too much for most of the play's characters
I want to believe that's wrong. I would go so far as to
say that I need to believe that's wrong. And I would
like to be able to confidently state that it's wrong; but
really, what have I got to work with?
When I finally have time to start the annual holiday shopping
marathon, I will walk into a bewildering and absurd universe
of tinsel and animatronic Santas, trees made of metal and
plastic, garlands of fake ribbon strung from the rafters of
unnecessarily monumental mall atria, carefully secularized
'holiday' tunes blaring out of a thousand concealed speakers.
I will be exhorted to feel the Christmas spirit by spending
till it hurts. I will look at boxes of cards and try to find
a message that says "peace on earth," or words to that effect.
Because that is what the angel said, isn't it? Is it crazy,
is it naive, is it actually insane now to try to interrupt
the clamor of the retailers and point out that until we understand
that the lives of people on the rest of this "earth" matter
as much as ours do, this national frenzy for everything Christmasy
will always and only be an empty falsehood and a sick joke?
I suppose it is.
December 7, 2003 will not live in infamy. It will pass from
the collective memory and the historical record. It will be
remembered only by the survivors of those nine children, who
will mark it as the anniversary when they lost their son,
daughter, niece, cousin. We, those of us who are too removed
and too blinded and too scared to understand that they were
members of our family too, will just lurch on to the next
day, and swallow its load of death just as we have swallowed
today's and yesterday's and the day's before that.
This is going to be my last column for 2003. I don't want
it to end in despair. I want to keep writing until I can get
back to hope. For so many of us, 2004 has been a magic number,
the name of a brighter future, the address of a home we have
been exiled from. 2004 is the year we will get our country
back, get democracy back, get the White House back. I hope
it will be. I am hoping, I guess, for something more unreasonable.
I would like for 2004 to be the year that we get the world
back. I would like for 2004 to bring us the humility, the
compassion, and the imagination it will take to undo the damage
done by the doctrine of "preventive war," and restore the
value of human life at least to where it was before the beginning
of the Bush recession.
It could happen. Anything's possible. The past three years
have proved that much.
Happy holidays, everybody. 2004 will be here before we know
it. Let's try and make it a good one.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an
equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same
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