Friday, September 17, 2004

Happens Every Day. . .

Our Savage Numbness
by Bob Harris - at This Modern World - Sept. 15, 2004


(Note: this entry posted by Bob Harris)

Been meaning to comment on this for more than a day, but busy unpacking.  A big damn deal, though.  I am deeply saddened by the following.  This is no longer a country I fully recognize.


Y'know how gradual changes, which can eventually become radical transformations, are sometimes only obvious to people who weren't around much?  Aunts and uncles are always saying the kids have grown so much -- which, of course, they have.

I've only been gone for almost a month.  Maybe it was like this before I left and I'm just now noticing...

Yesterday, I'm working and unpacking, and I've got CNN on in the background.  And I hear Wolf Blitzer, barking in that constant breathless get-the-kids-excited-for-Christmas, here-comes-another-shiny-pebble pacing of his, mentioning a video of a civilian journalist, Mazen al-Tumeizi, and about a score of other civilians (reports vary) getting killed in a U.S. airstrike.  About 60 other civilians were injured.

I didn't actually see the report live -- Wolf had already moved on to his next story -- but I was struck by how casual this was: innocent civilians killed in a U.S. airstrike, and it wasn't even the news hook; the death of the reporter was.  (CNN doesn't have a transcript up for the report I saw.  They do, however, have one for a later, similar report.  Scroll down, or just search for the words "I'm dying."  The entire mention of the U.S. inflicting over 70 civilian casualties is exactly four sentences long.  The Batman guy, meanwhile, got thirty.)

So, through the miracle of TiVo, I rewound.  And there it was.

Video.

Civilians.

Being killed by a U.S. airstrike.

Non-combatants.  Celebrating on a disabled U.S. vehicle, granted.  But civilians nonetheless.
Certainly not in combat against any U.S. troops.

In the foreground, a reporter just doing his job, frowning over some little technical glitch, maybe something he forgot to do...

Bang, boom.  No warning.  Just an incoming U.S. aerial attack.  "To prevent looters from stripping the vehicle," the Pentagon later says, classifying everyone within thirty feet as "looters" and sentencing them to summary execution.

Blood splashes on the lens.  The camera spins.  Tiny glimpses of terrible carnage.

Without a beat, without reflection, without even a moment of minimal thought, Wolf Blitzer moves on.  As do we, collectively.

And that's that.  America kills innocent civilians.  Lots of them.  And it's no big deal now.  Not controversial.  No reason to ask questions or rationalize or even pretend to soul-search like the national media once did.  America kills civilians.  Lots of them.  Just part of the fabric of things now.

Happens every day.

The military isn't pressed and can't be bothered for a detailed explanation about the incident, other than to blame the victims themselves.  "Great care should be taken by all to avoid and keep a safe distance from any active military operation as unpredictable events can occur," the U.S. spokesman says.

"Unpredictable events," they say.  Like an earthquake or a lightning strike.  Like an unprovoked attack from an Apache helicopter, firing on unarmed civilians, on tape, recorded for all the world to see.

Nobody's responsible.  These are "unpredictable events."

I say this next as the most articulate, precisely-worded response I can muster right now, summing up all my emotions quite clearly:  FUCK.

And yet there's no sizeable outrage in this country I can find.  Not in the mainstream, and not even much in the blogosphere, except for a few posts.

We are numb now.

We are killing.  We are killing in large numbers.  And we are numb to what we are doing.

That's it.  Game over.  We have lost.

Not the war.  Ourselves.

The war and much more will follow, soon, if we can't wake up from our savage numbness.

PS -- I was going to leave it at that, but there's more to say.

In the past year, I have personally visited three of the six biggest Muslim countries on Earth, and I have spoken at some length with ordinary Sunnis and Shia on four continents.  This week I have just returned from Egypt, where I listened to lots of perfectly average people on the street, in trains, shops, and cafes.

This is true, I swear: we have hundreds of millions more potential friends than America realizes right now.  And we are losing them for a generation or more.  I promise you that on my soul.

Seven days ago, I was in Alexandria, watching waves break against the rocky shoreline with a 20-year-old named Mahmoud who loves Bruce Lee movies and wants to visit China and study in the footsteps of his hero.  He's a devoted Muslim who playfully tried to talk me into converting; he also thinks Bin Laden is (his words) "against Islam."  You'd like this guy, I promise.  And he'd like you.

Mahmoud wanted very much to know was if Kerry is a good man, and if he would stop the killing, and how Americans could possibly support what is happening in Iraq.

I still don't know all the answers to his questions.  But that's what they were.

An hour earlier I was accosted by a tall and angry fellow shouting "I hate America!" over and over, in a tone half-accusing, half-demanding-an-explanation.  But he wasn't a mugger or anything; actually, he was well-dressed and clean-shaven and looked more like an accountant out for a stroll who was just pissed off about the news and took it out on the white guy.  I nodded and gestured for him to join me as I was walking, letting him vent.  Which he did.  (Hoo-boy.)  I think he assumed I was German, since that's the language we wound up butchering the most for a while.  I didn't stop him for a good stretch.  When it was my turn, I struggled with the words, so I eventually pointed at the sole of my shoe (the dirtiest part of the body) while saying the word "Bush," then mentioned Iraq and mimed my own broken heart.  (Both of these gestures were entirely accurate, I think.)  And then, feeling safer once he understood I wasn't his enemy, I reaffirmed that I was an American.

You should have seen this guy's face -- a blank look for a moment, a cursor while his hard drive spun... and then the anger was completely gone, replaced with curiosity and a little, I dunno... hope, even.  It was apparently news to him -- good news -- that Americans don't all support Bush, and all he wanted to know was how many more of us there were.  (Yes, the media there sucks even worse than it does here.)  Oh, man.  Suddenly he didn't hate "America" anymore.  He certainly didn't hate me.  He freakin' wanted to buy me a meal, people, just to hear more.

I could go on, (and I intend to, in a book I'm trying to find time to write, called Almost Seven Wonders about this last trip).  But the point is, we have many, many, many friends in this world who are reluctantly -- reluctantly, I tell you -- becoming enemies, and furious enemies at that.

It's not just about Bush, although he is almost universally disliked and/or little-respected, my hand to God, not just in the Islamic world, but damn near everywhere, once you leave these borders.  (I think it's fair to guess that Bush has become the most widely-despised president in all of U.S. history, and probably by a wide margin.  I certainly can't think of a precedent that comes close.)

Bush got us into this mess, and he deserves all the scorn he gets.  But what happens next is up to us.

Last week, as you might know, I got lost in a dodgy section of Cairo.  Soon, five bright and delightful boys decided to adopt me for a while and walk me to where I was going.

Unless things change, those same boys might want very much to kill me -- and you -- when they grow up.

Dear God.  What's coming...

posted by bob at 03:31 AM | link

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