QOTD: "History is little else than a picture of human crimes and misfortunes." - Voltaire
Reading: Leo Marks, Between SIlk and Cyanide
Listening to: Eric Bogle, Endangered Species
Decluttering accomplishments: hung up all my clothes, got through some of the stack of papers that's been on my nightstand for nearly three years, did a bunch more math puzzles :)
I thought long and hard about what to say in the aftermath of this week's tragic events. I will caution you that there are some unpleasant and graphic descriptions here. If you bear with me, I think I can say something sensible, but it will take some bearing with.
There's an incredibly powerful scene in The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. In the title section, Kingston recounts a Chinese legend of a woman seeking revenge against the people who have destroyed her village. The woman has the names of all of the victims carved into her back. (I may not be remembering the details precisely as, although I've read the book more than once, the last time was about ten years ago, and it isn't near to hand. Whether the names were carved with a knife, as I seem to recall, or branded is not particularly important; the point is that the writing of the names requires her to suffer incredible pain.) When she gets her revenge, she takes off her shirt, revealing the names and what her actions have been about.
That image is the basis of a revenge fantasy I've indulged in this week. I imagine reciting each name as it is seared into the flesh of the murderer. (I started out thinking of the knife image, but fire is more appropriate.) There's a ritualistic quality to this punishment. The point is that it is hard for me to think of anything short of public torture that would really feel like closure.
And, here's the dilemma. I'm a civilized person. I don't approve of torture. (I will admit to having mixed emotions about the death penalty. While I generally disapprove of it, largely because it's too hard to be sure of a person's guilt, I do think there are limited circumstances under which it is appropriate.) I believe firmly in the rule of law and that if we give into the sort of revenge fantasies I describe above, we sink to the level of the barbarians we saw in action this week.
There's a deeper problem, though. The woman warrior has the names carved into her own skin. The suffering is a way for her to take on the suffering of her people and remind herself of what she is doing. I think it's telling that I remember the names on her back, but I can't actually remember what action of vengeance she takes.
Where I'm going with this is that we need to make some tough decisions and it is all too easy to run into action and lose track of what we're trying to accomplish. This is not the sort of situation where one can fire a few missiles and accomplish anything. We will almost certainly have to fight on the ground in difficult terrain. It isn't a coincidence that the toughest battles of the "great game" (the 19th century conflict - largely diplomatic, but with some military elements - between Great Britain and Russia to gain influence in Asia) were played out in Afghanistan. We will have to decide how serious we are about civil liberties at home and how much privacy we are willing to give up, how much we are willing to restrict our freedom. We need to think hard about who we are willing to deal with and what we might need to do to gain the trust needed to deal with evil people. And we need to make these hard decsions without indulging our emotional wishes for revenge.
The rational part of my mind would like to see an answer involving the International Criminal Courts. (And, yes, I recognize that military action would be needed to capture Usama Bin Laden and bring him to trial. So that solution is hardly a pacifistic one.) I'd like to see a way for us to foster enough democracy and development in the world that we aren't plagued by young men turning to fanaticism out of economic frustration. I wish I believed that any of this was possible. If you need another reminder of the complexity of the forces at work, consider the Nigerian episode this week. In response to the terrorist attacks in the U.S., some Nigerian Moslems were celebrating and were then attacked by Nigerian Christians. The resulting clash resulted in over 500 deaths. The part that makes it complicated is that the Moslems in Nigeria are generally members of the Fulani tribe and the Christians there have long felt oppressed by the wealthy Fulani. The violence had its roots in these long-standing divisions and the U.S. attacks just provided an excuse. How can I believe that we can cure hundreds of years of economic and sectarian tensions?
I had a whole lot of other stuff to say, ranging from my Freudian analysis of Usama Bin Laden (in short, I find it significant that one of his biggest complaints against the U.S. is that the troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War included women) to my speculation on the potential for high investment returns by investing in flag manufacturers, but I'll spare you for now.
As for what has actually been going on here, we remained locked down on Wednesday, but returned to work on Thursday, with lots of additional security. I was across the street at a briefing when two buildings were evacuated because of a bomb threat. There was also a bomb threat at the San Diego Zoo on Thursday. I saw a freight train go by with a whole line of empty flatbed cars. Normally, they have containers stacked two high on almost every car, but the port was shut down and they are inspecting every cargo ship. The clerk at the local 7-11 has a name tag on saying he is "Peter" but I am reasonably sure he was "Mohammed" a week ago. My cousins in Israel called my mother to make sure all of us were safe.
In short, the world is topsy turvy.
Copyright 2001 Miriam H. Nadel