Monday, September 09, 2013

"An Almost Impenetrable Innocence"

      With Kevin getting up early to work out before school starts, I’ve been getting an early start as well.  In fact, my editor complimented me on my punctuality, in his usual gruff style.  (“About time you began to put in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.”)  So I now seem to be on the same morning schedule as my neighbor’s foreign exchange student, Aadil.  

I saw him walking down the sidewalk--heavily laden with books, as usual.  Pulling alongside him I yelled, “Want a ride?”

“Good morning.  Thank you, I would be most grateful,” he said.

“Just push that stuff aside and toss your books in the back seat.”

He looked at the mound of football gear, jackets and hats, notebooks, sandwich wrappers, candy bar wrappers, towels, sales flyers, and cloth shopping bags.  “I can hold my books,” he said.  “It is no inconvenience.  I do not wish to disturb your possessions.”

“Suit yourself,” I said.  “Tell me, you seem to follow politics, what do you think of this Syrian situation?”

He glanced over at me.  “I know you enjoy discussing political matters,” he said.  “But perhaps we should converse about something else.  It is difficult to speak frankly when one is a guest in someone else’s country, and I have no desire to give offense.”

“Hey, I’m a grownup here,” I laughed.  “I’d like to hear what the other half of the world thinks.”

“Speaking numerically, it would be what the other 96% of the world thinks,” he said.  “But certainly no one person can represent the views of so many billions of people.”

“Just speak for yourself, then,” I said.  “I’m open-minded.”

He looked puzzled.  “What is this ‘open-mindedness’ of which you speak?”

“Sometimes American idioms can be confusing.  What I mean is, I’m willing to give a fair hearing to whatever you have to say.”

He looked a bit dubious.  Speaking slowly, picking his words carefully, he said, “Forgive me, then, but it is difficult for many of us in other countries to credit how naive the American people can be.  Your continued trust in the words of your leaders seems to indicate an almost impenetrable innocence.”

I frowned.  “I’m not following you here.”

“When your country attacked Iraq, your citizens were persuaded to do so because, it was claimed, Iraq had a nuclear program and chemical weaponry that threatened the U.S.  It was also claimed that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the tragic events of 9-11.  Many other allegations were made by your Secretary of State, Mr. Colin Powell.”

“Okay. What of it?”

“Not a single one of those allegations, as you may remember, turned out to be true.  Excuse me for pointing out that your country killed tens of thousands--maybe, indirectly, even hundreds of thousands--of innocent people; created more than a million refugees; unleashed sectarian violence that turned civilian life into a bloodbath; littered the landscape with radioactive materials; and destroyed the infrastructure of Iraqi society.  Many people around the globe disputed those charges at the time they were made, and pointed out that the evidence for U.S. claims was flimsy and contrived.  Yet you believed your leaders, and went to war.”

“Well, anybody can make a mistake.  And Saddam Hussein was a dictator and a bad man.”

“Yes, he was an evil dictator.  But that did not concern your government when he was your former ally.  In fact, many of his weapons were ones your country had supplied him.  This is what I mean about your citizenry’s innocence--one might even call it gullibility.  You refer to these claims made by your rulers as mistakes.  To most of the rest of the world, it was obvious that they were lies.  Even one of your Senate committees, long after the fact, found that the evidence for the war had been falsified.  Promoters of the war themselves eventually conceded that it was about oil, not evil.  Yet somehow the myths live on.”

‘‘These things happen.”

“Again, excuse me for saying so, but they happen with predictable regularity.  When your country attacked Panama and deposed General Noriega, a dictator you had supported for years, your government launched an all-out military assault, killed hundreds of innocent Panamanian citizens, and did so on the flimsy excuse that the Panamanian police had roughed up one of your naval officers and insulted his wife.  That minor incident was used as a pretext to launch a war that your government desired.  In 1964, your government charged that two U.S. naval ships had been attacked by North Vietnamese.  In response, your Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, committing your country to an all-out war in Vietnam.  It is now known that the two ships were never attacked, and that your administration had been seeking such an incident to justify an upscaling of the war.”

I was shocked.  “Are you saying we instigate fights, like some bully in a schoolyard?”

He thought about that.  “What I am suggesting is that your nation is an imperial power, which quite deliberately chooses wars to assure its dominance of energy supplies, pipeline routes, sea lanes, and other strategic goals.  However, in order to secure enough popular support from your people to divert more than half of your national budget from services to benefit them, and spend it instead on global domination, your government propagandizes its own citizenry with falsehoods and demonizations.  It manipulates intelligence, then creates a pretext to launch whatever war it wants at the moment.  The war it desires right now is with Syria.”

“Do you really think the American public is that stupid?” I demanded.

“No, certainly not,” he said.  “I think, as I said, that you are gullible.  Your gullibility is rooted in something quite admirable: your love for the ideals upon which your country was founded.  But your national self-image has been shaped by thousands of movies and books in which the hero is a single powerful figure, sometimes with a ‘sidekick,’ who acts outside the community, faith, and the legal framework to right the world’s wrongs.  You see yourselves in terms of the Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Rambo, Spenser, Dirty Harry, and so many others--all protecting the innocent, punishing the evildoers, and administering justice on their own, with their fists or guns.  Your rulers appeal to that deeply-ingrained self-image.”

I’d had more than enough.  “What are you?!” I bellowed.  “Some agent of al-Qaeda?”

He blanched.  “Please, sir, do not say such things.  Even such offhand remarks have caused people to be disappeared.  Far from being aligned with al-Qaeda, we have been followers of the teachings of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in my family for three generations now.”

“Who?  Was he one of bin Laden’s henchmen?”

He sighed.  “Ghaffar Khan was called ‘the Muslim Gandhi.’  He was a tireless advocate for peace and nonviolence in the struggle for India’s freedom and a united India.  I too believe in nonviolence.  I have no wish to offend you.  You sought my honest opinion, and I have given it.  I am only telling you what appears self-evident to millions of other people on our planet.”

“For your information,” I told him, “we may not go to war with Syria.  This is a democracy, and a sizable majority of the American public opposes an attack.”

“With all due respect, sir, it is highly probable that your country will be entering the civil war in Syria, and---incredible as it may seem--fighting on the side of al-Qaeda.  The intent isn’t simply to punish Assad for using chemical weapons.  Your president intends to kill Assad, eliminate most of his government, and annihilate most of the Syrian army.  I am sorry to say that your government does not care what your public desires, nor does it care what the rest of the world desires.   It cares neither for peace, nor truth, nor justice.  It cares for power and empire.  Your rulers simply want a war, and will use any means necessary to secure one.”

When I didn’t respond, he glanced over, and his eyes widened with alarm.  “Sir!” he shrieked.  “You must put your hands on the steering wheel!  You cannot drive with your fingers in your ears!”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Doesn’t the Pope Realize It’s Football Season?

       “A person could perish of entertainment....” 
         - Garrison Keillor
“Did you see that the Pope has called for people around the world to get together for a day of prayer and fasting this Saturday?” asked my neighbor Harmon, looking up from his newspaper.

“Guess I missed that,” I said.  “What’s that about?  On Saturday, you said?” 

“Looks as if it’s in response to the fighting in Syria, and maybe to Obama’s wanting to launch an attack against Assad.”  

“Doesn’t the Pope realize it’s football season?”

“According to this, Francis says that you don’t build peace with a culture of confrontation or a culture of conflict.  He says we have to promote a culture of encounter and dialogue instead.”

“You won’t win many games that way, Harmon,” I said, shaking my head.  “A team has to have an edge to it.  A bit of a nasty streak.  Play smash-mouth football.  Say, when you’re finished reading that, could I see the sports section?”

“Sure,” he said, continuing to scan the article.  “One of the comments here says Francis is acting as the ‘pontiff’--it means ‘bridge.’  He’s trying to bridge the gaps between people, to bring us together.”

“The tailgate party is before the game, Harmon, not after the whistle blows.”

“I think he has something different in mind, Ace.  He’s calling for a gathering in Saint Peter’s Square, from 7 PM to midnight, to ask God for the gift of peace, not just in Syria, but everywhere there’s conflict and violence.”

“From 7 PM to midnight?  That’s a five hour time slot.  And I thought it was bad when TV turned an hour-long football game into a three-and-a-half-hour marathon of commercials.  How’s he going to keep people entertained for that long?” 

“Five hours to focus the world’s attention on preventing the pain and suffering of an expanded war doesn’t seem like that much to ask.”

“You’ve got to keep things in perspective, Harmon,” I said.  “He’s getting some bad advice on his scheduling.  The evening games on Saturday are the big headliners. West Virginia has a road game at Oklahoma that starts at 7, and Notre Dame plays Michigan at 8.  That’s really going to cut into his audience.”

“Rome’s in a different time zone, Ace.  There’s a... let’s see, six hour difference, so midnight there will be 6 PM here.  The event in Rome will be over before those games begin.” 

“Thank God for that,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief.  “Notre Dame and Michigan are both ranked in the Top Twenty.  Do you think this rally in Rome will distract Notre Dame?”

“Funny you should mention Notre Dame.  Saturday is the vigil of the birth of Mary.  He calls her the Queen of Peace.  And ‘rally’ isn’t quite the right word, Ace.  This event he’s putting together isn’t a pep rally for one side or the other.  He wants people to approach the gathering in a spirit of penance.”
“Isn’t he afraid that will hurt the tailgating experience?  And cut into beer sales?”

“Not when he’s trying to get people to focus on the fact that an expanded war will mean more kidnapping and torturing, more shooting and bombing, more widows and orphans.  It’s a reminder of our own responsibility to help shape a more peaceful world.”

I was still thinking about the scheduling.  “You know,” I said, “UVA plays Oregon at 3:30, and Oregon is ranked third in the country.  If he’s starting at 1 PM our time, he’s going to run well into the second half of that game.”

“Maybe people can record it and watch it later, Ace.  Besides, let’s face it, there are plenty of games on a zillion channels from noon to midnight.  Plus there’s Monday night football, Thursday night football, Friday night football, all day Saturday football, and the pros all day Sunday.  The stations run replays of a lot of the best games.  You can even watch them with an app on your iPhone.  And if you miss one game, there are plenty more.”

“It’s not the same as watching a team you care about while it’s happening, Harmon.  You just don’t get the same tension, the same excitement as when you’re watching live.  Then every snap matters, the outcome is in doubt, and you’re waiting to see if somebody can step up, make a play, and turn the whole game around.”

© Tony Russell, 2013