Saturday, May 7, 2011

How Quickly Will the Poison Build Up Again?

How many deaths will it take 'til he knows,
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
The answer is blowing in the wind.
--Bob Dylan

I have been in a somber mood for most of the last week. Those of you who read the last post on this blog know part of the reason why, as I wrote about my wrestling with an uncharacteristic and unexpected emotional reaction to a tragic bit of news. In the time since then, the intense emotional pain has subsided, although my feelings are still tender, and I can be set off weeping just by thinking about it or being reminded of it. (Music, especially singing, can do it, for example.) But just as I was beginning to feel more or less "normal," another event, much larger in scope, imposed itself on my conscience.

I was working here on that high school classmate Facebook page last Sunday evening when someone posted a note saying the president was going to speak at 10:30 on a "national security matter," so I went downstairs and alerted my wife. We turned on the TV and then waited and waited for the president to come out; finally I gave up and went to bed, so I never heard his announcement. But in the meantime, the information that the president was going to deliver had leaked to the media, and the CNN reporters told me all I really needed to know: that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden had been hunted down and killed by American forces.

I have to say that I didn't react at all, one way or another, at the time. I simply accepted it as another news fact, no different than any other news fact. It wasn't until many hours later that I began to recognize that this initial reaction to such a significant event was rather strange. Maybe my emotions were still too raw to react? I don't know.

All the next day (Monday), I think I was in some sort of daze or trance. In light of my emotional vulnerability over the past two weeks, I didn't think I needed anything to happen that day that could provoke another emotional breakdown. (No, I didn't think it would be good to start blubbering in class!) So I tried to keep my distance from the whole thing. I deliberately stayed away from news broadcasts and newspaper reports about the details of the search, the raid, and the final outcome; I'm still purposely avoiding news reports of the affair and only slowly peeking at reports of other events. There are facts about this event that I simply didn't--and still don't--want to know; at least not now. But by Monday morning, I began hearing people talking about celebrations during the night, and that disturbed me. People celebrating bin Laden's death? How does that make us any different from the people ten years ago who filled Middle Eastern streets celebrating the collapse of the towers?

Then a friend and colleague from school posted some comments on Facebook, expressing a sentiment similar to what I had begun formulating:

[Name withheld] considers posting an opinion about recent events and wonders how many people will 'unfriend' her for finding all this kind of anti-climactic, thinking more about the deaths and permanent damage (visible and invisible) visited on many MANY good goood people, and wondering how quickly the poison will build up again.

So I came around and posted my own comment, echoing her concerns, and even borrowing some of her wording:

Don Plummer is still processing what he thinks about the news that broke late last night.

Like another Facebook friend mused, I've wondered how many people will ‘unfriend’ me if I post what I'm really thinking? Thirst for blood has been satisfied, I suppose, but what a horrible cost has been paid! Far more lives than were killed in the terrorist attack. Desire for revenge killed Hamlet in the end, after all.

Right now, I'm not willing to:
  • engage in flag-waving;
  • gloat over bin Laden's death;
  • begin to think that this event will solve our problems; rather, it may unleash even more terrorist threats as bin Laden has now gained martyr status;
  • think that targeted assassination, even of the most diabolical figures, is anything more than sanctioned murder.
I posted my comments not because I wanted to make a definitive what's-right-and-what's-wrong statement, but because my mind and my spirit were still trying to process the event and the nation's reaction to it--just like they're still trying to process the earlier-learned fact of my classmate's death.

Later Monday morning, I posted a snippet of dialogue from The Lord of the Rings, a work that has profoundly influenced the way I view the world. It's one of my favorite scenes, in fact, and features an exchange between Frodo and Gandalf that takes place after the latter had finished telling what he had learned about the creature Gollum, the miserable soul that had possessed (or rather, had been possessed by) the One Ring for so many, many years:
 "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!"

"Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need ..."

"... I do not feel any pity for Gollum ... He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

This passage came to my mind very soon after I posted my first Facebook comment; again, not a statement of right or wrong, but a commentary on our all-too-human rush to "deal out death in judgment" (not to mention that Gandalf's comment, "some that die deserve life," reminded me again of my departed classmate).

In the comments thread generated by the earlier Facebook posting, I explained that my biggest concern was that we as a nation have dragged ourselves to the level of our enemies and have become what we hate. The temptation to do that is all too natural and must be fought against. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem we were up to the challenge.

I can be certain that none of my tears over the last six days were shed for Osama bin Laden. He was a despicable figure--far more despicable than Gollum, in fact, who, although a murderer, was really more of an old, miserable wretch, totally in thrall to that shiny object dangling from Frodo's neck. (If there's an analogue to bin Laden in Tolkien's narrative, it's more likely to be Saruman than Gollum.) But I have been mourning for what our nation apparently has become--how we have allowed the event that bin Laden will most be remembered for to make us forget who we are as a nation and to become something we were not. And I have mourned for the countless thousands that have died, multiple times more than died when the towers fell, in our nearly ten years of senseless war: some of them our own brave soldiers, of course, but many more non-combatant, innocent Iraqi and Afghani citizens.

As I said, I've deliberately stayed away from the news this past week, but I have been told some of the circumstances of the raid on bin Laden's compound. I understand that the "official" story has changed and I would presume that we may never know exactly how events transpired. Although I cannot second-guess why the special forces troops on the scene decided they had to shoot instead of capture, it just doesn't strike me that cornering and then killing an unarmed bin Laden in his own bedroom, while surrounded by family, can ever be regarded as our nation's proudest moment or most noble achievement. We've been told that the death of bin Laden serves justice, brings closure, or causes satisfaction. The Columbus Dispatch even used the word solace. But I don't feel any of these sentiments. Rather, just thinking of this entire affair makes me feel hollow and gives me a sinking feeling. Hence the somber mood I've been in.

Violence begets violence. Or, as put far more eloquently nearly two thousand years ago, "all who take the sword will perish by the sword". This past week, another friend blogged on the myth of redemptive violence. I highly recommend reading it. Already al-Qaida is plotting revenge on their new martyr. When will it end? Why couldn't we have ended it at the beginning, by responding differently to the initial attack?

I don't pretend that my words here are the last word on the subject. I'm still trying to make sense of this event and don't feel I could give a definitive word if I tried. If you think you must break off contact with me because of what I wrote here, do what you feel you must do. But I would hope, even if you disagree with me, you will read these comments in the spirit in which they are written: the cries of an anguished heart, concerned about what our country has become; and that you will receive them in that way.


  1. Thanks, Don, for this brutally honest commentary. Everything you say here is right on target, as far as I'm concerned. We ought to be talking about these things as a nation. The fact that we can't, or won't, or that those of us who do so are afraid to speak too loudly lest others take offense, is a sad commentary on the state of the "rights" we still claim to value so highly.

  2. Don, I reached this page when I did a search on trillium, but just want to say that I totally agree with you, as do virtually everyone I've talked with. Someone pointed out that much of the celebrating being done seemed to be by college-age kids, who have lived with the threat of terrorism since they were little kids -- and who are more inclined toward group think with their peers. One would hope that they will also grow into a more mature understanding of the roots of violence and will view things differently as they mature. It is up to those of us who feel the way we do to put this alternate viewpoint out there, so thank you for doing that!

  3. Some random thoughts (but not really arguing):

    The college-age kids don't remember what life was like before 9/11--we've always been fighting terrrorists, we've always been at war. I often have Afghanistan/Iraq vets in my classes.

    That is one of the most striking passages from a book by a man who, while losing his best friends, survived the trenches of WWI and lived through the Blitz--he could write with authority, I think. Yet his experiences also caused him to write a book that didn't shy away from warfare: as a Catholic, he had a well-developed sense of good and evil and of the concept of the "just war."

    I did stay up and watch Obama's speech, feeling no joy for similar reasons. Yet, what if something analogous had happened to Hitler earlier in the war (clearly understanding the flaws in the analogy)? What would we feel if we heard that Bin Laden had been killed by his own men, or had died of natural causes?

    Bin Laden was in thrall to a murderous ideology--his own gold ring--that was somehow mixed up with his need to be what? Powerful? A celebrity in a perverse way? He poisoned the lives of thousands of young Muslim men and women and murdered not only Americans, but people of his own culture as well.

    I think America's dark side has always been present--was just reading yesterday about the internment camps on U.S. soil in which citizens of Japanese heritage were kept during WWII. And there are so many other examples, beginning with how we stole this land in the first place. You could write a history of shame. Yet there have always, continuously, been those working for peace.

    Since I take a generally dark view of the way we humans conduct ourselves, I do expect the violence to continue. Of course the violence will continue. Yet many of us will continue to live and practice and promote peace and non-violence. Maybe that's another of Tolkien's themes. World without end...

  4. Thanks to all for your comments. I think all of us are trying to make sense of this event, and I appreciate your inpot.

    Thanks for your support. I fully agree that these are things we need to be discussing, but our nation collectively seems so unwilling.

    Thanks for reading! Since I didn't watch any news reports, I didn't see the street celebrations. I was unaware that most of the revelers were young people. Thanks for letting me know.

    Since I was expressing feelings more than making arguments, I don't consider your comments to be taking issue with mine. We all are exploring our thoughts, and that's good.

    Yes, bin Laden was controlled by his own gold ring. Yes it was a murderous ideology that he followed and promoted. Yes, he has poisoned many lives. But I reject the Manichean "he's evil; we're good" mentality that was promoted especially by President G. W. Bush and still runs deep through our society.

    You mention that you take a dark view of human behavior. Of course, Christian teaching talks about our fallen nature. To state that belief in terms of the topic at hand, we all have a bit of Osama bin Laden dwelling in each of us. That's a thought, I would guess, that very few Americans, even Christians, would be willing to entertain, let alone acknowledge. Nevertheless, I have no doubt about it, because I can sometimes recognize it in myself.

    You are also certainly right about the dark side of American history. It's just that, to me, ever since 9-11-01 we've allowed that dark side to come to the fore in a way we hadn't for a long time, by allowing and even promoting things like torture, spying on each other, curtailment of civil rights, profiling of people who look Middle Eastern, discrimination against Muslim Americans, and so forth. The nation's mood seems more beliggerent than before, and we seem less civil to each other.

    Again, not arguments, but rather feelings.

    Here's a very thoughtful article that I recommend reading. It asks questions that need to be asked and that requre answers, in my view.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Don. I'll check out that article. Now back to essay marking. ; )