On Living in Wartime

September 9, 2011

The simple truth is

That WWIII started


 – Elfie S. Raymond

It was a bright and sunny Tuesday morning, and I was still lazing around in bed, taking in the late-summer warmth. I was eighteen years old and had just started my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, just a forty-minute train ride away from Manhattan. I was filled with excitement, having met a group of formidably intelligent first-year students and registered for classes I’d never dreamed of taking in high school, like Surrealist Poetry and Anthropology of Religion. I was filled with anticipation; cool things were going to be happening this year.Then, the call came. It was my mother, and her voice was panicked.

“Jeannine, Jeannine, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” she cried.

I did not panic. In fact, I did not react at all. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Okay. The idea that thousands of people- or even one person- had died due to this event somehow escaped me.

“Okay, well, it must have been some pilot error, right? Or-”

“You don’t understand. A plane has crashed into the building. There’s going to be a war…”

And then, the phone went dead. I tried calling back, but I couldn’t get through.

It was then that I started to wake up. I threw on some clothes and shoes and ran out from my dorm from the main administrative building where Geraldine, the quiet white-haired woman who staffed the desk, was sitting with a glum expression on her face. She merely pointed me in the direction of the television, where already a small group had gathered. I stared blankly at the screen, unable to comprehend the images that flashed before me. Another plane hitting the second tower. Both buildings filled with smoke. Panicked reporters describing the scene behind them, then shouting, “I’m getting out of here” and running away as wind blew rubble toward the camera. And- this was the worst…People the size of ants falling down from the highest windows of the building. Preferring to be smashed to the ground than burned alive.

This could not be happening. All right, maybe it could happen in some of the far-off places I’d read about in my high school history books, but not in the United States, just a short train ride away from where I was standing. This was the kind of thing that only happens to other people. Right?

I don’t recall much of what went on at Sarah Lawrence that day. Classes were cancelled, of course. The administration had scheduled some big event- I don’t remember what; it involved outside visitors rather than students – and there were plenty of snacks set out on long tables covered with fancy white cloths. When we got tired of watching the minute-by-minute coverage of the “Attack on America” we stepped outside and sat on the lawn, slowly eating this food without tasting it. There was an eerie silence over the campus, and what struck me as most bitterly ironic was the brilliant blueness of the sky- really it was too blue, chemical-blue, special-effect-in-the-movie blue. I just couldn’t believe that only a few miles south of where I now sat, hundreds of not thousands of people were being burned alive. And there was nothing that I could do about it.

I don’t remember much else from that day. At some point I went to the library and started sending emails (I’d only just set up my first email account and learned how to use it one week prior) to everyone I knew – my few friends whose email addresses I knew, my wonderful high school guidance counsellor, who’d urged me to write to her once I’d started school. “Are you all right?” I asked them, even though none of them lived in New York. It didn’t matter. This was an event that affected all of us.

Like so many others I was struck by the New York City mayor’s strength and courage in this terrible moment. Like so many others I was disappointed by our president’s angry, vengeful promise to “hunt down” the people responsible. There were few words of consolation for this violent act. Only the promise of more violence. I remember feeling queasy in subsequent days and weeks as I observed the subsequent changes- the Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the plans for a war in Afghanistan. My mind was torn. I just could not believe it–Our country was at war? It was a reality that I just didn’t want to accept. A few weeks later, I found myself joining a group of Sarah Lawrence students and boarding a bus to Washington, DC, a city I’d only visited once before on my eighth grade class trip. But as I listened to my fellow protesters’ chants of “War is not the answer” and observed their “Down with Bush” signs, I felt that everyone was oversimplifying an issue that was too complex for any of us hippie college freshmen to understand. Of course I didn’t want a war. Just because three thousand innocent people had died in New York, why should more innocent people have to die in Afghanistan? At the same time…We could not just sit back and do nothing. We had been attacked by people who had reduced their understanding of the world to ideology and symbol; we could not leave them space to do it again. Was there any way to confront the people who had done us this harm and resolve this conflict without resorting to a simple “eye for an eye” solution? I could not think of an answer. Ten years have gone by, and I still can’t think of a satisfactory answer.

I remember being shocked in high school European history classes as we learned about the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War. I could not understand how any war could last that long. Then again, in more recent times Vietnam lasted twenty years. Now, the War on Terror has lasted ten, with no signs of any resolution in the foreseeable future.

Of course, unlike soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been fairly easy for me as an American to lose sight to the reality that the past ten years have been fraught with war. My life has progressed fairly easily: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence, spent the next few years travelling and working abroad, and then started a graduate degree. Over time, I stopped paying attention to the increasing death toll.

I think that one of the main reasons why my attention has wandered is the basic human weakness which leads us to become preoccupied only with people with whom they interact on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard to relate to the violence taking place on the other side of the world on an emotional level. I find myself especially vulnerable to this failing, until I remember that, despite all the money invested in American security, I am not safe. This really is the World War III, and the other problems which the world is facing – economic crisis, environmental problems, depletion of resources – are only making it worse.

I do not say this to instill fear, only to remind myself and others of the capacity for violence which lies in each one of us. Ten years after 9/11, what sort of progress are we making toward peace? Have we started treating people any better? Are we coming any closer to getting past our racial, cultural and ideological differences and respecting people for who they are?

We are living in wartime. And while I still believe that peace really is possible, I also know that we are going to have to wait quite some time before we learn from our mistakes and work to bring that peace about.

Note: this piece was originally published by www.lifeintheusa.com, a website for immigrants and Americans.

Am I a monster?

August 23, 2011

There’s a prison. In the cell there’s a prisoner; outside in the watchtower stands a guard. These two are the same person. Essentially, the prisoner is his own guard; the guard is his own prisoner. But these two, the prisoner and the guard, do not actually know that each is simultaneously himself and the other. They do not understand that they are one person because of their division; the division exists because they do not understand that they are one person.

 – Edward Stachura, “Fabula Rasa”

About a year ago I attended an interdisciplinary academic conference entitled “Monsters and the Monstrous.” Bringing together scholars from literary studies, religion, history, law, criminology, psychology and other disciplines, this conference certainly made me think about the many ways which concepts of monstrosity appear in our culture. Paper topics ranged from discussions of virginity as monstrous sexual deviance in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight to the media’s harsh vilification of criminals, particularly mothers who kill their children. However, for me, the most disturbing paper had to be a talk given by a young graduate student who described her main area of research as “the sociology of genocide.” The talk, entitled “Am I a monster?” was presented as an interactive dialogue between the speaker and the audience.

“Let’s think about the Nazis at the beginning of the Second World War,” she told us. “If the Nazis had to come up with a list of adjectives to describe themselves, what words would they use?”

“Industrious,” someone shouted out. “Progressive.” The speaker began to write these words on the board.

“Forward-thinking,” someone else chimed in.

“Rational,” another voice added. “Creative.”

“Sexy!” someone else cried out, and though that one caused a few giggles, we had to admit that the Nazis probably did indeed think of themselves as sexy.

Soon, the list grew and grew with positive attributes. Innovative. Visionary. Sophisticated. Organized. Responsible. On and on it went, until the board was covered with all the positive words describing the ways that the members of the Nazi party most likely saw themselves, even while committing what has gone down in history as one of the most horrific acts of the twentieth century.  To the rest of the world, they were monsters. To themselves, they were a great society, maybe even divine.

And then, of course, came the punchline. “Now, how many of those words do you think people in your own culture would use to describe that culture?”

And that, of course, stopped me dead in my tracks as I looked at that list of words. How many of those descriptions have we Americans used to apply to our own society throughout the course of our history? In our own opinion, we are indeed forward-thinking, responsible, creative, rational, idealistic. Even when we were committing a mass genocide against the people who were here before us; even when we were holding so many others in slavery; even now, as we support an institution such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay, these are the words we use to describe our great nation.

“Everyone is a monster to someone,” the speaker concluded, and we were left to deal with the emotional consequences of this assertion on our own. And while this statement on its own is not original or even all that controversial, its implications can be pretty hard to take on an individual level.

It’s always interesting to observe people’s reactions whenever a heinous crime takes place. Six years ago in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, a serial rapist and killer who had effectively terrorized our community over a period of twenty years was caught and convicted. To everyone’s shock, he was (as far as anyone could see) just a normal guy – married with children, a responsible worker, active in community activities, a practicing Catholic. He lived just about two miles from where I grew up. Naturally, the media jumped on the story. “Monster in our midst!” screamed the headlines. “How could anyone do this?” everyone asked – a question whose implicit meaning is, “I would never do this.”

Until very recently I myself could not understand what would provoke anyone to commit such acts of brutal violence. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I remember my reaction when I first heard the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first thought: this has to be some kind of an accident. My second thought (once the second tower was hit and we realized that it was indeed no accident): how could anyone do this?

Forty years ago, an experiment run by psychologists at Stanford University revealed that people will do shocking things when placed in certain circumstances. Prof. Philip Zimbardo gathered a group of college students and, after instructing them to take on the role of prisoners and guards, left them to their own devices. According to Alistair Leithead’s article in the BBC news, the results were horrifying: mental breakdowns, an outbreak of sadism and a hunger strike.

“The first day they came there it was a little prison set up in a basement with fake cell doors and by the second day it was a real prison created in the minds of each prisoner, each guard and also of the staff,” said Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist leading the experiment.

The volunteers had answered an advertisement in a local paper and both physical and psychological tests were done to make sure only the strongest took part.

Despite their uniforms and mirrored sunglasses, the guards struggled to get into character and at first Prof Zimbardo’s team thought they might have to abandon the project.

As it turned out, they did not have to wait long.

“After the first day I noticed nothing was happening. It was a bit of a bore, so I made the decision I would take on the persona of a very cruel prison guard,” said Dave Eshleman, one of the wardens who took a lead role.

“Suddenly, the whole dynamic changed as [the guards]  believed they were dealing with dangerous prisoners, and at that point it was no longer an experiment,” said Prof Zimbardo.

For Eshleman, the experience taught him the power of situations. “When I saw the pictures coming from Abu Ghraib in Iraq, it immediately struck me as being very familiar to me and I knew immediately they were probably just very ordinary people and not the bad apples the defence department tried to paint them as.”

We are then faced with the following disturbing question: would all of us become demons if placed in circumstances (war, genocide) where being demonic was encouraged? Don’t we have any free will at all? Isn’t it possible to control our actions, even when circumstances tell us to do otherwise?

Over the years, a few of my friends have told me about fantasies that they’ve had. Violent fantasies of inflicting harm on other human beings. They’ve never acted on such thoughts, but the impulse is still there. Until very recently, I never understood such impulses because I’d never experienced them myself. Maybe that was because, until recently, I’d never felt very strongly about any political or social issue. Now, unfortunately, I have to say that this situation has changed.

I understand what motivates the crimes that took place at Columbine and Virginia Tech. I understand 9/11, and I understand Abu Graib. I can empathize with terrorists, torturers and killers. I know what motivates people to kill for an idea. I can imagine how inflicting pain on others might be pleasurable.  I understand what it is that makes people spin out of control. I do not mean to frighten my readers or suggest that I am about to commit such a crime myself, because I’m not. Thankfully, for now at least, the goodness in me is still stronger than the evil. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that there is something very dark and dangerous tucked away inside each of us, and if these people are monsters, then I am one, too.

One of the things I pray for most is that I never have to live through a war. I watch the news of Libya and Iraq with horror and indignation, but also with a certain detachment. It’s hard to feel the sting of horrible events happening on the other side of the world. But what if the war were to come here, to North American soil? Wars have raged here before, most brutally the US Civil War, and there’s no reason why they can’t rage again. What 9/11 showed us, and what the current economic crisis and the downgrade of our credit rating are showing us, is that the era of American exceptionalism is over. What will we do when the war comes here?

I’d like to think that I’ll be brave. That I won’t harm anyone. That I’ll be a hero and lay down my life for the ones that I love. That I’ll maybe even sacrifice my only life for that of a stranger, just as St. Maximilian Kolbe did during the Holocaust. I’m sure that you yourself are probably thinking this same way.

But, God help us if we ever have to find out.


A thoughtful piece by John Fitzgerald on the phenomenon of Christian terrorism.