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Communication Breakdown
Published on Friday, March 12, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Communication Breakdown
by Kim Antieau
 

Thursday, March 11, ten bomb blasts ripped through four commuter trains in Spain. Witnesses described horrific scenes: the mangled trains, the dead and dying, body parts strewn amongst purses and briefcases. And then the sound--as the news got out--of cell phones ringing amidst the carnage, friends and relatives on the other end, trying to communicate with those they knew were riding the trains that day. As I listened to the news, I imagined all those people on the other end pleading with their loved ones to please answer their phones.

I wondered what the perpetrators of this crime had been trying to communicate. Did they actually want to accomplish anything besides murder and terror? How do people get to the point where they decide violence is the only answer?

I live in a warrior culture. I know war. When I am wronged, my first thought is war. I was breast-fed on the teat of television and listened to stories of war. It is what I know best. It is what most of us in this culture know best. I have tried to step out of the warrior culture and learn a different way, but it is still my first response to most stressful situations.

Today my husband and I went to the video store. The background music was loud, a repetitive hip-hop song that had the same beat as the headache I was about to get. Minutes before, after reading an article about the Madrid bombings, I was wiping away tears. Now I stepped up to the counter to pay for the movies.

"If I had to listen to that music all day," I said, "I'd go crazy. I think I'd have to kill someone."

The young woman at the counter smiled.

I said, "And I'm a pacifist."

"Is't it interesting when things challenge our belief systems?" the woman said as she got our movies for us.

"Yes it is," I agreed.

I didn't tell her I was not a true pacifist. I had used violence my entire life. As a girl, I hit my sisters and got into frequent fights with boys. As a young adult, I decided I was non-violent, but that did not keep me from flipping off pedestrians while driving a car or screaming obscenities at cars when I was a pedestrian. During a stressful time in my mid-thirties when I was ill and unemployed, a teenaged girl called me a name. I saw red--I had never understood or believed people when they said they "just lost it." Until then. I raised my hand to hit the girl. Fortunately I came awake to what I was about to do, and I stopped. I knew then that anyone could be pushed past their limits.

Several years ago, I began working to stop pesticide spraying in our county. For years I tried to be the "peace" warrior. I attempted to engage the people in charge in dialogue. I brought in experts to talk about the dangers of pesticides. I even became part of the system as a member of an advisory board on pesticide use. The county's use of pesticides went up. I hired a lawyer, sued and won, and they continued to spray.

Last summer, the person in charge of public land near where we lived decided to use pesticides. We explained I was chemically sensitive and exposure to the pesticides could be dangerous to my health. People from all over the community called to ask them not to spray. The man in charge did not like getting phone calls, he told us. He said he would agree to contact me before they sprayed if I agreed to never have anyone call his office about this matter again. It was blackmail. I wouldn't agree. He shrugged and said he was not doing anything illegal: so screw me. Essentially.

When I first began talking with the county about this issue, I was a reasonable human being. When I didn't feel as though they were listening to me, my view of them began to change. I figured they must be stupid. Otherwise they would see that the evidence was clear: pesticides were harmful to human beings.

When they sprayed in front of my house one morning without telling me, I got paranoid. Maybe they were trying to kill me. When the man tried to blackmail me this summer, I knew they were evil. I was certain they were out to get me. I also knew there was nothing I could do about it. I felt helpless and hopeless. I had tried all legal avenues, but my life was still in jeopardy because of the actions of these people.

I began fantasizing about ways I could make them suffer. I imagined vandalizing the man's car, writing "poisoner" all over his place of work. I hoped he would find himself in a situation where he or one of his family members was in jeopardy, so he would know what it was like to be terrified. It startled me that I was thinking up ways to make this man hurt, even though I was never going to act on any of the ideas. I wanted to communicate to him how much he had made me suffer. After years of trying to work within the system, I could see no value in the system. I wanted the system destroyed--and the man with it.

All of this was happening at the same time that Bush was waging war in Iraq and I was part of a peace group. I was fully aware of the contradiction of me trying to create peace in one place and waging a war in another area of my life. In our peace group, we were also struggling with communication problems. One person would ask a question and another person would take the question as an attack upon them. But we worked on these problems because we trusted one another. No one was seen as evil or the "bad guy."

I told a friend who had lived in the Northwest all his life about the problems I was having with government officials. I asked how he would deal with a problem. He told me that, for instance, if he was having trouble with a neighbor's dog, he would never go over and tell the neighbor to get control of his dog. (Which is exactly what I would do.) He would go over casually, talk about the weather, gossip a bit, then say something like, "I see you've got material over there to build that fence for your dog you were talking about. I've got some time today to help."

"That seems so indirect," I told my friend.

He shrugged. "But that's the way it works here. My way the dog isn't a problem any more. Your way the dog, you, the man, you're in a war."

I knew he was right. Everyone communicates in their own cultural way. Each of us is our own culture: a medley of personal, familial, regional, and country belief systems. The people in the county were not evil or out to get me, they merely communicated in a different way than I did. English is a second language for my husband, so sometimes we need to explain semantics to one another. When this happens, I am in awe that so many of us get along so well. Language is an imprecise way of communication. Some believe we started using language in the first place so we could lie.

Violence is also an imprecise way to communicate. Had I ever acted on any of my impulses to make the "man in charge" pay for putting my life in jeopardy, I would have communicated nothing worthwhile and gained nothing--except a stint in jail. Yet for a few moments as I contemplated those petty acts of violence, I did not care. Because he had not listened to me--because we had not communicated--he had become a thing to me; I wanted him to suffer. Is that how terrorism begins?

I suppose the people who caused the bombings in Spain were attempting to communicate something. If they were trying to spread terror, they succeeded. If they were attempting to communicate anything else, they failed. No one is answering the phone, no one is listening. And that is the problem.

The author's essays have appeared on Common Dreams, Alternet.org, Journal of Mythic Arts, Pulphouse, SageWoman, Of A Like Mind, and other publications. Her short stories have been published in dozens of magazines and anthologies. Her latest published novel, Coyote Cowgirl, came out last summer and her weblogis at: http://www.furiousspinner.com, and website is at:http://www.kimantieau.com

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