Saturday, July 15, 2006

There's No Need To Escalate

Yesterday, Dad sent me the crankiest, most hilarious obituary I've read in ages. At first, I thought it was a joke. Nobody's this poised in death without a board up his shirt.
Frederic Arthur (Fred) Clark, who had tired of reading obituaries noting other's courageous battles with this or that disease, wanted it known that he lost his battle as a result of an automobile accident on June 18, 2006. True to Fred's personal style, his final hours were spent joking with medical personnel while he whimpered, cussed, begged for narcotics and bargained with God to look over his wife and kids.

Tata: Dad, is this real? His politics are all over the map!
Dad: He was a cantankerous far-righty. And yes, he's kicked the bucket.

So where's it land?
Always an interested observer of politics, particularly what the process does to its participants, he was amused by politician's outrage when we lie to them and amazed at what the voters would tolerate. His final wishes were "throw the bums out and don't elect lawyers" (though it seems to make little difference). During his life he excelled at mediocrity. He loved to hear and tell jokes, especially short ones due to his limited attention span. He had a life long love affair with bacon, butter, cigars and bourbon. You always knew what Fred was thinking much to the dismay of his friend and family. His sons said of Fred, "he was often wrong, but never in doubt".

I can't argue with butter-love and bourbon-amour, can you?
He died at MCV Hospital and sadly was deprived of his final wish which was to be run over by a beer truck on the way to the liquor store to buy booze for a double date to include his wife, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to crash an ACLU cocktail party. In lieu of flowers, Fred asks that you make a sizable purchase at your local ABC store or Virginia winery (please, nothing French - the censored) and get rip roaring drunk at home with someone you love or hope to make love to. Word of caution though, don't go out in public to drink because of the alcohol related laws our elected officials have passed due to their inexplicable terror at the sight of a MADD lobbyist and overwhelming compulsion to meddle in our lives.

The old coot wanted Rush to date Ann? Yecch. I have to go bleach my brain after that mental picture but - strangely - I'm with him on those goddamn MADD mothers and their mortal meddling.
Fred's ashes will be fired from his favorite cannon at a private party on the Great Wicomico River where he had a home for 25 years. Additionally, all of Fred's friend (sic) will be asked to gather in a phone booth, to be designated in the future, to have a drink and wonder, "Fred who?"

Awesome. I didn't know you could go out like this.

And speaking of things I didn't know: things in war zones are worse than my safe-in-Jersey mind can make sense of in any way. What's happening in Afghanistan was inevitable. Events in Iraq are not just violent, brutal and immoral - no, they are disgusting. The things human beings will do to one another for - as far as I can tell - no reason whatever make me wish I could go live on another planet. Alone. For the rest of my life. And now we have this latest testosterone-driven foolishness between Israel and Hezbollah that results in bombs dropped on the heads of innocent people. It's disgusting, all this power and so little responsibility.

Look, I'm not an idiot - mostly. At any given moment, there are wars and conflicts going on all over the globe. Someone is always killing thousands of someone else, and the world goes round and round. But something important is different now, and that something is knowledge.

One hundred years ago, we had newspapers and magazines. When something happened, the public in places where there was a press - that's key - might read accounts and see occasional photographs. In a public information sense, the public might read what amounts to a troubling bedtime story, while in a certain personal sense, people knew what war was like because sometimes it came to the front door with a rifle. In the United States, that doesn't happen anymore unless you have a tiff with ATF, so we are very much isolated from the reality of war, when we talk about war. No army comes to our front doors to kill us and rape our children so we can talk and talk and talk about war in the most sanitary or savage terms we can find and it's all meaningless talk. The problem is our meaningless talk kills people, and we bear responsibility for it.

Later in the twentieth century, reporters followed troops through the jungles of Vietnam and for the first time, through the magic of television the American public saw what war looked like. I don't have to write a history of war journalism for you. If you've been paying attention all your life you've noticed the little shocks and tremors, you saw the first George Bush say, "Let 'er rip," then retire to a back room and watch CNN's coverage of bombs falling on Baghdad. You noticed that after the bombing of Oklahoma City the American public was considered too fragile to observe its own unsanitized history. Perhaps you even noticed that when the Towers came down the written accounts were so different from the images we were shown that it was as if reporters covered two different disasters. On the one hand, we have the capacity now to see events from around the world as they are transpiring. We cannot pretend we don't understand what horror we visit on other human beings when we - or anyone, not just us - act thoughtlessly, brutally and without moral courage.

In high school, I was a drama fag with Daniel Drennan, whose book New York Stories made me laugh until I cried. Daniel went to the prom with one of my sisters. I am fond of him. Daniel was born in Lebanon and adopted by an American couple who later raised other children too in the town I grew up in. Daniel lived in Paris for years but living in NYC for many more and during 9/11 was for him as for many people a turning point in his life. He's moved to Beirut to teach and learn about the people he was born to. His blog is one of great beauty, and raw anger.
I was dreaming this morning and in this dream a wrong number with a wrong name kept asking the wrong recipient who was me, "how do you feel?" and as much as I tried to explain that it was a wrong number the wrong voice kept going: "Yes but how do you feel?"

I woke and could hear the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, a rhythmic, cadenced call that I find comforting in its daily reminder of one's humble status, of one's humanity, of one's community, to all points compass-wise called out.

And then another sound, of low-flying jets, a roar and a sonic boom that shook the building; and then another sound, an explosion, to the south; I ran to the balcony door, and the neighbors did the same, and lights came on and people stared out into the dark sky now reflecting light from a bomb blast just south in the dahiyeh.

And the noise of the jets forces you to duck your head as if they might graze the top of your very skull, and their sonic booms shock you into the very corners of your apartment though they cause no harm save some broken glass somewhere else, and the dull thud of bombs meeting their targets reveals itself in a viscerally felt pressure wave that is comparatively speaking easier on the ears as though to bely its deadliness.

God damn it.
"My electricity just went out along with the whole city it seems. It seems like they are bombing south of me which would be the southern suburbs, mostly Shi'a Muslim. I can't believe they can get away with this. This is the fucking capital of a country and they are striking civilian targets. I am sitting in the dark on the floor waiting for it to stop. I'm not freaked out just really fucking angry!"

And my sister called, which amazed me in terms of phone service here; and I kept her on the phone to keep her voice close, the sound of her voice comfort in the dark only I wish she hadn't heard the bombs drop; I wish she didn't have to hear the sonic booms ricocheting off the walls and through my head; the pause in our conversation endless as outside the noise screamed and pounded and boomed and silent pink lights rose to meet no target and yellow-orange flames reflected off of the smoke of their own creation.

And then silence. As after a nightmare, the rising sun serves to vanquish evil; a dark plume of smoke rose heavy in the southern sky, accompanied by not a sound, not a siren, not a cry, not a car, not a voice, nothing, no one. So silent, that one might try to sleep, exhausted, as if hearing and seeing were fatiguing activities.

And my parents called, and I prayed that my mother might be spared the sound of the night before, straining my ears for sounds of jets, ready to hang up if necessary to prevent such a transmission; sounds no mother should hear, especially when that noise is directly delivered to other mothers, that noise and the bomb it delivered that mowed down eight children of a mother's work yesterday in one fatal moment, that noise that haunts mothers' nightmares throughout this country, that piercing scream of death come quickly.

And for once I was discussing politics with my father and we were agreeing, and for once I realized how often I underestimate their wisdom, my parents; their lives of Depression and World War and living abroad; and we talked about racism and war and destruction; of actions beyond our control and reaction and frustration; of Gaza and Beirut and Iran and of America; and we agreed, and I regret only that we don't talk more, because talking more might mean agreeing more, and I hung up the phone and let myself cry for the first time since waking up hours before, if only for making them worry for me.

That was yesterday. Today isn't looking great, either.
...but I find this kind of funny, first of all because I just walked across half the city to get here and second of all because the American Embassy here is completely and totally useless (for the past few days the same email has been sent telling Americans to stay away from street demonstrations of which there are none); the U.S. State Dept. is completely and totally useless (their missive reminds us that evacuation is not free).

Furthermore, the other thing to know is that the dorms at AUB have potable tap water, generator-driven electricity, free Internet access, and a beautiful campus with some of the only greenery in Beirut plus a private beach. Meanwhile, my electricity up in Ras en-Nabaa is being rationed; when the electricity is out I have to walk up 5 flights of stairs and my water pump stops bringing my (for hygiene only) water up to my cistern. I have only a cell phone and no Internet or, needless to say, a private beach. So their whining is really annoying. I do live two blocks from the French Embassy should I need to I will go there instead.

I want to make something clear: I'm not planning on keeping a running journal here; I kind of needed to write out what I did yesterday to just process what is going on. Last night dusk was weird and this morning I awoke with no noise and the sensation that perhaps something had happened that ended it. Unfortunately, it was only a break for Beirut and not the south and not the Bekaa. Now it is 2:00 in the afternoon and they are shelling the suburbs of Beirut again.

Israeli newspapers are reporting that the aim is to "disarm Hezbollah". I would like someone to tell me now that this wasn't planned well in advance, and that tacit American approval was not behind it. I'd like to remind everyone that there are 25,000 Americans working in Beirut right now. Not that I think they deserve special privileges, exactly the opposite (although the dorm residents above might beg to differ). I guess I can see the U.S. government cynically hoping for hostage taking and the like in order to give them an excuse to "come clean up".

In the meantime, I have 100+ students to worry about. Colleagues, friends, and neighbors. I don't think I can set foot on a war ship if that is how they plan to evacuate people. And I don't know that I can leave since leaving would probably mean never coming back.

Oh, back to the running journal thing. I don't want this to any way be fodder for the schadenfreude entertainment mill that is foreign news in the States. I don't want to make a big drama about me because frankly that is the main sickness of the solipsistic Internet and also because I don't see myself any different from anyone else here.

The difference is not Daniel, per se. The difference is that because Daniel is real and human and articulate and flesh, Daniel must be seen and heard. This would or will make him very impatient with me some other time, but let's all suck it up and get to the point, here: dropping bombs is not an abstraction. Real human beings bleed real blood when they are crushed under concrete that used to be their homes, and real human beings melt and burn when bombs fall on them. Real human beings die in agony, and others live on in agony. You cannot pretend it is not happening. It is. And no one can any longer afford to be wrong, but never in doubt because being wrong is tearing the flesh of people whose survivors will have every reason to rise up and come for you.

If only in the interest of your own selfishness, get off your ass and tell your representatives in no uncertain terms this must stop. I'm sorry it's come to this. The one thing I can't stop thinking about is a snippet from the Times Magazine more than ten years ago in a story about the Bosnian conflict, after the US intervened. My recollection is hazy; my grasp of that conflict was poor and hindered by my safe-in-Jersey feeling that a thousand-year-old feud was a big waste of - well, everything. How could people be shooting each other in the streets of Sarajevo? They'd just had the Olympics, for Christ's sake. Yes, anyway: the article. After the US finally did something about the death, the mass raping, the war crimes, there was this one remarkable conversation the reporter had with an uncomfortable person. I don't know who it was or how it came to happen. The reporter asked if the person was pleased that the US troops had finally stomped out the fires. The person said, slowly, "We kind of hate you." These words ring in my ears now. I still don't understand what happened in the Balkans but I do understand that we have the capacity to stop what is happening in Beirut today, right now. And though we can't undo the tremendous damage we've done in Iraq and Afghanistan we have to find a way to stop doing any more.

We are responsible. Us.


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