Columns » Bob Lancaster

Like a bad dream


Damn. Woke up thinking again about 9/11. About the spooky way those planes just disappeared into those buildings. Astonished, amazed all over again. One instant, planes and buildings. The next instant, no planes, and buildings still another instant away from showing any sign of a changed condition. It was like some kind of magic, the physical laws suspended just long enough for the unthinkable to happen. All of it silent as in a dream. Then the laws snap back and it becomes a big mess that has to be cleaned up that in some senses won't ever be cleaned up. Another page uncleanably stained with just the one word on it: "Well…?" Meaning, What am I going to do about it? What are we all going to do about it? That first on waking, and this second: a recurrence of the anger on behalf of all those who died in that instant between planes and buildings and no planes and seemingly unchanged buildings. Anger at the fanatics and at their fanaticism, and at all the fanatics and their murderous fanaticism, the world over and through time. At least since Joshua, who was one of them, fanatics have killed people wholesale who were different from them one trivial way or another, usually saying (not always, but usually) that the murders were an assignment from God. In every such case, every one of them, the fanatics were mistaken or lying about this. God didn't order those 9/11 murders, or Joshua's, or any of those in between that vile human beings have portrayed him as masterminding or sanctioning. The International Fanatics Association should get itself a bumper sticker: We don't kill people; God does. Something they can all agree on. But God doesn't tell these people to kill; he commands them not to. He doesn't take the fanatics' part. And doesn't intervene to shield from harm lucky selected bystanders while allowing the not-so-lucky ones to go ahead and die. Blind, dumb luck shouldn't be confused with God's will; there's room enough in big creation for both of them. And room enough for fanatics to range widely doing their godless hurt and godless harm, with autos-de-fe and ethnic cleansing. Ovens. Fertilizer bombs. Jumbo jets. The anger that most of us felt in that eerie instant when all of those people died demanded a response. (Still does, waking up mornings.) But civilized people, people who don't have murder in their hearts, don't know how to respond to fanatics' atrocities. Tree frogs know the perfect answer to a mating call, and Gen. McAuliffe knew the perfect answer to the Nazis' demand for his surrender ("Nuts!"), but the colossal outrage perped by murderers who hear God's voice in camels braying leaves those of us somewhere between the frog and the general agape, or yammering Bushlike. Our culture, our traditions have only two suggestions. Response One is eye-for-eye Old Testament retaliation, giving as good as you get, the main difficulty in our case being whose eye and whose tooth it would be appropriate for us to be poking and pulling retaliatorily, We have poked Afghanistan's and pulled Iraq's so far, and neither one seems to have got us any closer to feeling avenged. Maybe there's some small satisfaction to be gained from this approach. It seems to have no deterrent effect, but then again neither does forbearance. At least it gives the sense - sometimes it does - of doing SOMEthing. Taking prudent steps to prevent a recurrence may be the smart way but there's no pride or pleasure in it. There's no bravado to make us feel not so vulnerable. But the question keeps recurring, how many miles high does the pile of fanatics' eyes and teeth have to be before that old anger is quieted some, and you can go on home halfway feeling that justice has been served? Response Two is the Christian alternative. It involves turning the other cheek, loving the fanatics who are bent on killing you, trying to win them over by the example of your willingness to take their best shot and confidently keep on keeping on under duress. This method has few adherents. Lots of lip service, hardly any practitioners. It's too hard. It requires too much courage. Too much faith. So it was the first way or no way. Jumped on our horse and rode off in all directions. In pursuit of terrorists' scalps. We wanted ol' Al Kyda's scalp, but we'd take what we could get, and if it wound up being that of an old louse-headed tyrant hunkering in a dry hole, who'd had nothing to do with any of it, well, that's what comes of a policy that started out vague and only by dint of steady application and relentless duplicity worked its way up to a muddle. I remember in the 2000 presidential debates the Republican candidate being asked what he hoped to accomplish as president and he said his greatest ambition was to lead. He wanted to lead. Didn't seem to care much where. Whether into Utopia or over a cliff, as long as it was him there at the head of the column. As good an explanation as any of how we got from Point A, with hundreds of our own good people dying in airplanes piloted by fanatics, to point Z, with hundreds more of our young people dying in the arid wastes of Iraq at the hands of a whole 'nother collection of fanatics. Two and a half years. Waking up mornings thinking of all those people dying so a score of fanatics could make a stupid point. What was the point again? Those who died trouble the mornings now not to ask why but to ask if we remember and what we've done about it. And the third thing waking is to answer them: Yes, and Nothing.

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