That Will Not Live in Infamy
December 10, 2003
By The Plaid Adder
Sunday, 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 voice:
"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 as...
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 still bombing?
Is it ethically, morally, or even practically defensible to kill nine people in order to take out a single human "target"?
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 for us.
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 each other?
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 means.
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 to achieve.
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 can be found at the Adder's Lair.
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