Friday, January 2, 2009

While we are sleeping

A question is haunting me. It's a question which should only haunt young idealistic minds, not seasoned pragmatic minds like mine.
Still, it's there.

It's a question for me and it might be a question for you -- particularly if you're not thinking about it. But I'm embarrassed; I dare not ask it for fear of showing a lack of realism, a lack of understanding about how the world works.

College or high school kids have nothing better to do but point the finger at the world and they ask questions like that. In my opinion, that makes them sound like Debbie-Downer. (Debbie-Downer is a Saturday Night Live or Mad TV character who kills dinner parties with one-liners reminding everyone of all the horrors in the world, which we can do nothing about.)

Still, I have this question, so I must ask:
If our country (our government) is passively or actively complicit in wrong-doing while we are sleeping, will we be held responsible for that? How about if our government is the best possible government we could dream of, and still has a blind spot and does not see that it is passively or actively complicit in wrong-doing, will we still be held responsible for that?
I think back on history. The European powers in the 1920s and 1930s weren't doing much evil, except for some colonization here and there, and only with the best intentions in the world at that. We also felt we were rightly exacting due punishment on the Germans for World War I. Nobody felt too involved in the rising anti-Semitism among impoverished Germans. We didn't react much to Adolph writing "My Kampf." Could the French and British really be held responsible for the brew mixing in Germany? Not really. Payment for war damages was crushing to the German population, but that was just a consequence of WWI. What could possibly be the responsibility of the average citizen in that? Pointing to what was happening in Germany at that time, both what was happening to the German population and what was happening within the German population would certainly have felt like a Debbie-Downer moment. Neither appropriate during the roaring 20s, nor during the 30s' financial crisis. The average French or Brit honestly could not feel overly responsible for the story unfolding in Germany.

50 to 72 million people -- most of them "average people" -- died in World War II.

We may not speak of responsibility, but we can speak of consequences.
So I ask my question again.
Michael Scheuer who used to work for the CIA and specifically led the hunt for Osama bin Laden (OBL), neither a poet nor a peacenick, made a simple point in his books+: muslim terrorists do not try to kill us because of who we are but primarily because of what we (the "West") do in their countries. And we all know--by now--what happened to all those weapons and all the guerilla training we provided to moujahideens in Afghanistan.

After the first Gulf War (which had international law behind it, regardless of how you feel about the decision to go to war), the US and the British stayed in Iraq. Directly or indirectly we contributed to the death of at least 500,000 children in 10 years through economic sanctions--even if responsibility was shared with the actions of a nutcase dictator (Hussein)--and we also contributed to a severe worsening in the health of the Iraqi population (notably through the use of depleted uranium bombs). Between the first and the second Gulf War, local papers kept repeating that 'we would have to go back into Iraq and finish the job.' A friend of mine shocked me on the verge of the 2000 US election by stating that the US was "at peace with everyone."

Direct links of causality are not easily drawn, but a picture emerges with inescapable causes and consequences. We were sleeping. We were not responsible. We were not willingly bothering anyone. But the cycle of action-reaction spun one more time around. We got 9/11, we got Madrid, we got London, and we're now in another unending war in Iraq.*
So, looking further back, I ask my question again.
What about the US Founding Fathers, as remarkable as they were, and their blind spot on slavery? What about the average Joe in Louisiana, who didn't know any better, and was even "nice" to his slaves? How about the average Jim in Pennsylvania, who opposed slavery but understood that the priority was to consolidate the Union, that this would have to wait? Would they be responsible for the consequences of that stain?

700,000 people died in the Civil War, from both the North and the South.
This leads me to today.
For good reasons, we (the West, but even more specifically the US) support Israel and we support it blindly. I say for good reasons, because there are actually good reasons, valid historical reasons, even more grey-zone cultural reasons for recognizing and supporting Israel--just maybe not so blindly.

Our own understanding is that we're fighting terrorism. And who wouldn't want to be fighting terrorism? Who wants to stand up and say "heck no! I support terrorism." So we have a global war on terror. We don't speak to terrorists--consequently we don't speak to the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people. Our government even plays a part in fostering violence between different factions. We even allow--against our own laws--the use of military equipment against civilian populations. Of course, we're "sorry" for the collateral damage, but what are we going to do? Obama said it, 'hey, if you shoot rockets in my house, I'll do something about it!' That's sensible enough to the average Joe. In fact, there are no more than 30-35 US Congressmen and Senators, Democrats and Republicans, who stand against that logic, who question whether Israel is the liberal, democratic state respectful of human rights and decency.

400 people died in Gaza in the last two weeks.
Our policies support the total subjection of 1.5 million Arabs in Gaza to the whims of a foreign occupier.
These 1.5 million people (75% of whom were driven by force from their homes) are born and live in the largest open-air prison in the world.
Israel continues to conquer and control in the West Bank.

But the average Joe cannot understand the details. "Haven't these people hated each other for centuries?" (The answer is "no", but how would we know?)
"Anyway, the Jews have the right to defend themselves." (Certainly, but is it what is happening when a village is locked behind a wall and the farmers lose their field?)
The average Joe has to listen to the politicians and the media. And if we were that wrong about the whole thing, someone would say it. Right?
"Plus we give a lot of money to the Palestinians, why don't they just get along and build Switzerland behind a wall?"
"OK - they can build it behind 5 or 6 separate walls, but why would they care so much if they can't go and see their cousin? I don't care much for my cousins, why should they?"
"Anyway, it's not solvable."

Certainly it's a mess. How can we be responsible? We're the good guys.
Now, let me ask one more time,
What if...
...the people who struggle for peace, whether Humanists, Jewish, Christian, Muslims, those who tell us that there is a great injustice being carried out, were right?

...our US tax dollar and our US-made weapons of targeted destruction were in fact used to occupy, dispossess, humiliate and kill? [CNN would tell us, right?] were actually a bad thing to lock up 1.5 million people and every day decide whether it's one or ten who are classified as 'militants' and are 'taken out?'

...our money (our abundant money), our weapons (our many weapons), our explicit support or our silence made us complicit of injustice?

...the Israeli government were led by flawed humans [is it that hard to imagine? then you haven't been watching], with their biases, sometimes racism, and a growing delusion -- as other governments in the past have-- in the pursuit of the national interest?

...we (Americans) were really really well-meaning and wouldn't hurt a fly -- and there's hardly a nicer people group than Americans as a whole** -- but for some reason our media and politicians had it wrong?
Well, what then? Could we be held responsible tomorrow for driving an entire population to despair?
I don't really know what being held responsible means, but here is my hunch:

If these things are true (and sadly they are true),
whether we sleep or wake,

whether confused or enraged,

whether honest in our error or cynically calculating,

whether we just think there will be one joyous nuclear Armageddon to spare us from all this, or we expect that in the fullness of time Jesus will make all things right and it's not our job to think too much for now,

whether we support the status quo out of genuine affection for a people which has also suffered more than its share, or out of ignorance,

whether we have serious concerns, like the economy and our 401k to worry about,
in this lifetime, on this planet, for you and I and our children, I am quite certain that there will be consequences to both the action and inaction of our countries today.

I'm sorry for being a Debbie-Downer. But I also think we can strive to change this before it's too late.
And that could have consequences too.
Salaam - Shalom - Peace. At least if we rise before it's too late this time.


+'Through the eyes of our enemies' and 'Imperial Hubris'
Of course for now "the surge has worked." More boots on the ground and $325 million a month in protection money to radical groups have led to improvements, which 'of course will be sustained.' I think the Sadr Army and others must be using the $325 million to send their kids to Disney World or Peace School, or to launch massive fun-with-macrame programs. Well- I'm not sure of the details, but with that much money coming from the DOD, we can be sure it is being put to good use, can't we?.
**OK - I'm just buttering you up right now, but you guys are suckers for that and you are nice folks; it simply wouldn't work on the Brits. They're not "nice" and they're cool with that.

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