Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Now What?

My New York Times was at the door this morning. Above the fold was the huge face of someone who had a remarkable resemblance to the Unibomber. A gigantic photo as large as I've seen on that page and tucked in the right hand corner, a dwarf sized image of George W. Bush. Is there a message in that? And it looks like Saddam, unlike those hundreds in Guantanamo, hasn't been taken to such a bad place. An undisclosed location, isn't that where our Vice President lives a lot of the time? I have been a little worried whether Paul Bremer is really in tune with his boss, but when I heard his eloquent words of announcement "we got him," I knew he was right in there.  A message for the moment.

Now don't get me wrong, this is the capture of a really horrible monster who rightly belongs in the pantheon of the most despotic murderers, but his arrest really doesn't change the basic facts one iota. This war, in which thousands have died, and are dying, was still launched on bent truths, and the aftermath continues to be a colossal mess. Yesterday's Times carried a blistering column by Tom Friedman (one of the War's boosters) contending that our government still has no plan all these months after. Perhaps Saddam had symbolic value for those still resisting the occupation, but don't put too much stake in it. The fact is that dictatorships function in the British system, "The King is Dead, Long Live the King." We shouldn't be fooled by our own infatuation with stars and the cult of the personality. Conditions make for unrest not any individual leader.  Conditions remain poor.

The noise will quiet down. You can count on the media to move on as soon as the story gets a little tired and ratings slide. And then we will be back to reality. Nothing has really changed over the weekend. We've made a mess out of the world, we've alienated our friends, and we've taken an ominous turn toward repression of liberties and, as Bill Moyers' Now pointed out, pervasive secrecy at home justified by that unassailable catchall excuse, The War on Terrorism.

So the pundits are now in aircraft carrier mode – mission accomplished. They are telling us unpatriotic naysayers that it's all over. I fully expect to see a life size photo of Howard Dean on the front page of The Weekly Standard – he is the real enemy isn't that right?. Hell, why wait till New Hampshire, why delay until November. This thing is all over and, if not, there always those five crucial votes. Perhaps it is over. I don't think so. For our sakes, I hope it's not. I continue to worry for my children.

At Year's End: The Statistics of Death

How can we bring this year to an end without thinking of how many of our fellow human beings lost their lives through the violence of conflict and, in the closing days, a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions.  We'll probably never know the final count of either since the casualties of powerful bombs and earthquakes are often vaporized into nothingness; off the statistical radar.  And what of those statistics?  Statistics shelter us from any kind of personal feeling or involvement — great neutralizers of information.  The fact is, that we can't begin to fathom thousands of dead. 

When someone we know dies, the impact is felt personally.  We understand an individual who was part of our life is gone, forever.  Funerals of loved ones provide closure, the first step toward healing.  But impersonal death, statistical death, provides neither a sense of individual loss nor, absent some public effort, closure.  Statistical death is someone else's problem.  In our scheme of things, it doesn't have much impact.  That kind of dispassion in a society is dangerous, especially if one is concerned about stopping the unending cycle of violence that marks our contemporary scene.  To bring about change, the community has to individualize the loss and has to grieve.  The Italians understood that when their country stood still to honor their brave young soldiers who died in Iraq.  Japan did the same and so did our principal partner "of the willing", Great Britain.  Not so in this great democracy.

We have had no national grieving.  Any grieving has been limited to the families of the fallen and a few moving tributes of isolated media like The News Hour (PBS) which ends many evening broadcasts with the photos, names and, most poignantly, ages of those recently killed.  We can't grieve publicly because the Administration has forbidden coverage of the bodies being brought back home.  Somehow it thinks "out of site will be out of mind," a crass cover-up of the real price of war in which most of the media is a willing and culpable co-conspirator.  So we ask these young people to go off to war, volunteers and conscripted Reservists, and we don't have the decency to say a public thank you to them and their families when their lives are cut short.  We wear flags on our lapels that brag patriotism and we dishonor the greatest patriots of all by hiding their individuality from the public.  Speak about dehumanizing acts.

So I enter 2004 with a great deal of sadness about our losses, about the lives cut short in a War of questionable origin.  I enter with a feeling of frustration.  It's been a horrendous time for the world and for the country which I love deeply.  Thousands of individuals are gone and each of their families will never be the same without them.  I've known parents who lost children from disease.  None of them ever recovered.  I think of them when the statistics flash across the screen.  Perhaps we can find a way out.  Being an essentially optimistic person, I know we can.  I also know it's ultimately up to us and I ask myself (and you) what are we going to do about it?  Time is running out.