Last week, like some low-grade movie, the image of a plane slamming into the World Trade Center sent the nation reeling. As those older than us gaped in horror, I can just imagine the collective balk from my MTV-raised generation: Bad special effects! CNN is obviously showing computer-generated promos for some poorly-executed fall blockbuster.
Then the nation grieved. Our campus came together in a symbolic show of unity. That very night, sitting in a sea of 15,000 silent, confused and normally-complacent students made national tragedy real. But national grief in my life was soon overshadowed by personal grief. As the week edged on, my silent weeping in the shower while listening to NPR gave way to news of my grandfather”s failing health. He died on Friday, just as I was coming around to a mindful response to these atrocities against the nation. Just as national grief was giving way to anger, my extended grieving period gave me time to reflect more consciously than the more politically-bent among us.
On Saturday, the minister asked my family what my grandfather had given us. The question did not sit well. A silence pervaded the scene.
I was the first to speak up, because no one else seemed able. We all had stories of his greed and anger directed at family members. It”s not an understatement to say that he died being despised by even his own son. Certainly that son, my uncle, who blames ten years of clinical depression on my grandfather, wasn”t going to say his father had given him anything. My great aunt, his only surviving sister and a good Christian, was searching in vain beyond good and mostly bad memories for something he had given her but couldn”t.
I, refusing hypocrisy as much as possible, said, “This probably isn”t what you are looking for, but what my grandfather gave to me was an example of a wasted life. I learned from him how I wanted not to live.” And I went on to explain how my grandfather was never honest with himself and never took responsibility for his actions or feelings. He never legitimized his own power. He lived by striking back irrationally at the ones he loved.
The minister looked me straight in the eyes and said it was clear to her how much this meant to me. Of course, I wasn”t saying anything unusual, because private familial conversations about the deceased were much more viscous than anything I said at this little meeting. I was just out of place, so, of course, none of my points were included in the minister”s memorial service the next day. I guess, just as during a national tragedy, one isn”t supposed to say anything that can be easily construed as anti-nationalist, one cannot say something bad about a person and expect to hear it repeated at their funeral. But I don”t care. Why are so many people afraid to stand on their own?
I say once you”re dead, you”re dead. That”s it. And that”s why I will never condone war. And that”s why, after turning my attention away from personal grief to national tragedy, I began to look for alternatives to the plotted nature of the course we”ve set out on. This last week and a half have been nothing but the predictable outcome of historical action. And it”s downright boring.
It”s clear that this war started long ago. A couple of downed buildings, no matter their national importance, are simply symptomatic of something greater, not completely causal.
We started this war when the United States assumed the role of empire. We caused this war by manufacturing and selling more weapons than any other country in the world. As if we had learned nothing from World War I, we blindly armed our allies as well as many of our future enemies, expecting mutual armaments to protect us, when instead, history has shown that having arms simply escalates violence. Mutual armaments beg to be used. Two world wars have shown us this.
And knocking on foreign doors brings together alliances. If we think the world is united in a fight of good against evil of democracy versus authoritarianism we are gravely mistaken. Our product-driven civilizing missions around the world has done little, if anything, to democratize the world. We have made enemies through hegemony. With our own greed, we are paying the price, though the dichotomy is never this simple.
If George W. Bush wants war (or, more accurately, if America wants war) then we will get one. But this war will be all against all. It will be the youth against the regimes that perpetuate historic violence. Because we”re too smart for nationalism. Nation-building, a relatively recent historical invention, is no longer something we can responsibly condone. It causes war. If we didn”t see it before last week, it is clear that the whole thinking behind the national security state does nothing but shield us poorly from those who would destroy our standard of living with force. It allows the United States to exploit the rest of the world.
Dubya obviously underestimates the resistance already swelling on this campus and elsewhere. But activism will only flourish if we turn off our televisions and stop listening to corporate media”s dichotomized version of history. Real results will only come if we stop waiting for our revelations to come from CNN and get lives.
Like my grandfather taught me in his own unique way, we have to accept responsibility for our actions. We cannot strike out at those we love. And if we love ourselves, if we have faith in what it means to be human, we cannot strike out against any members of the human race, no matter our species” atavistic penchant for retribution.
I”m not going to get sucked into the Shrub”s rhetoric about good and evil and the necessity of war. I”m not going to die for my country. I”m not going to kill for my country either. I am trying to leap from the wounds of my fear. It”s something we would all do well to try: To live without fear and, though I struggle to say it, fill our hearts with love.
Josh Wickerham can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.