One part of it all I understand, probably better than most Americans alive today, better than many of my readers, better maybe even than a good many of those on either side of the battle, the cold and the now newly hot war, who say it is for this they fight, they kill, they murder.
I understand the land, how a man removed from it, denied it, is less of a man, however much he may feel compensated by the alternative he has chosen or how resigned to or accepting of the landless condition he endures. I have enjoyed the amenities of a few of our cities. Boston is nice for a day, although half one's time there will be spent lost on its miserably labeled streets and highways; better to bore right through on I-93, falling tunnel ceilings be damned, to Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, the Arboretum, that land cultivated and semi-wild that is refuge and wonder within the steel and stone. New York is a delight for a weekend or a week, but again it is Central Park, Fred Olmstead, bedrock outcrops, that great rectangle of managed land oscillating between found and made, remade and redeemed, as much as the towers and museums, subways and streetcars, that a Maine man there appreciates. Tampa is shining cerulean tiles and pink stucco and tropical heat and white sand and that great bridge strung like a musical instrument above the bay. And it is trees: palm trees, banyans, ficus, jacaranda, magnolias and live oaks and cypress. Under the cities, before the cities, after the cities have eroded or corroded, rotted or been burned and blown up, there was, is, will be the land.
I live on forty-three acres of woodlot and rough field. I am the person you have come, however briefly or shallowly or indifferently, to know partly because of my experience on this small farm and woodlot in this little town, and before that because of the childhood I spent growing up, growing familiar with the details of the odd corners and ignored places and wild creatures in another town, on other land, in upstate New York. If you took me from this land, or took it from me by force or twist of law, I would likely not die, but what life remained would be diminished. I would become weak and sad and lost and confused. Or I might become mean and hard and vindictive; I hope not, but I have read history and I watch the news and I do see how it so often goes.
So the Jews, a people without a home, are granted a part of Palestine by decree, the givers who did not own the land to give forgetting or ignoring the fact that the property was already inhabited, peopled, was already home to someone else. So begins “The Palestinian Problem.” We are now nearly six decades on, countless ramifications and intrigues, skirmishes, wars, deceptions, lies, bombs and missiles and blood and death beyond the theft, the dispossession, or the rightful return (according to your particular sympathies or alliances, or which history or tribe you more highly value). Every day is now a good day to hate your neighbor, his wife, his children, to covet his land, or your land that he holds.
But land can be traded, divided, reordered; deeds compared; descent and grant and lien understood, amended, corrected, compensated. Little of it looks much like good land from a New England perspective, but men and women of open heart and good intention could resolve its titles and apportion it so it can serve many, so all have some, rather than some almost all, and so many less than nothing (unless anger, hopelessness and rage can be weighed and measured and stacked up to equal something).
In Maine we have the municipal office of Fence Viewer to decide land disputes. But if our selectmen appoint Richard Verney or Joe Barth or Clifton Walker to that job he will not have to decide ownership of a blasted dwelling, a ruined village, assign metes and bounds to the dust and destruction, declare void the interest of a headless parent, a bled-out baby or a mutilated corpse of unrecognizable sex or age or creed. We may poach a pine log from our neighbor, but we will not kill him for it. We love our land but we largely doubt that it came to us from God. I will say it—we do even doubt God. But that's just Maine for you; who knows what they might do in Tennessee or Kansas if things got tense. Or Wyoming. Dick Cheney has shot a man for less.
I understand passion for land and desire to hold what one has, or to acquire that which one wants or needs. But the God business, the “Chosen People” the “Party of God”, the smiting of thine enemies because thy god is stronger or better, bigger, holier, more righteous—that part just seems crazy to me.
I say New England is not soaked in the blood of these gods, not Christian and not Muslim and not old testament Jahwe. Of course, you say, you have all those old white Unitarians, those smug, but well-meaning Quakers, but I include even our Baptists and Pentecostalists and all those little “Community Church” congregations of more-or-less unspecified fundamentalist thrust that infest our small towns. Even our faith-healers and tract-peddlers are restrained, calm, polite if occasionally pedantic and argumentative. When the world doesn't end on schedule as foretold in the Book of Daniel or Revelation as interpreted by Pastor Prayerworthy, we just slump down off the hilltop and go back to the farm or factory until an improved date can be calculated.
I guess I'd have to say this luke-warm faith, this only-on-Sunday religion-of convenience, our shallowness, our hypocrisy, our spiritual mediocrity, is a good thing in that it seems to keep us from crossing the line which, once crossed, few seem ever to recross toward peace, away from slaughter.
Not so in the Middle East, where Christian, Jew, Muslim and various sub sects and splinter groups of each faith have merged religion and politics and nationalism into a region-wide torment of hatred and unceasing bloodletting. Americans have come to think of Muslims as “terrorists”, but much of the world sees Israel as the brutal aggressor and the United States as Israel's protector and enabler. The current awful business in Lebanon, whatever decades-long history of injustices and abuses and bombings by both sides or innumerable players preceded it, stands as symptomatic of how we so often do business in this modern world.
Hezbollah operatives kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and offered their return in exchange for persons held by Israel. One might hope the response would have been diplomacy, however cold or hard or sharp. At the outset two men under arms were captured but alive. Israel's response was an immediate and enduring attack upon the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, including the bombing of gas stations, power plants, roads, bridges, municipal buildings and, almost daily, the incidental annihilation of civilians, with a particularly heavy toll of children. A thousand non-combatants are torn asunder to date. That's you, your family, everybody you know. That's a whole Maine town butchered because two state troopers were snatched off the streets of Machias and locked up in a warehouse in New Brunswick.
It was a bad thing, surely, to snatch those two soldiers. It is a far worse thing to blow up farmers and fruit peddlers and teenagers and toddlers, to turn their homes and villages to dust, to pollute the Mediterranean Sea with the toxic runoff, to instantly energize a new generation of hatred that will lead to decades more of terrorism and counter-terrorism. In this retribution is no proportion, no honor. Hezbollah (a bad bunch, to be sure) has a quantity of short-range, indifferently accurate missiles, and they're willing to lob them over the line, inadequate but lethal tat to Israel's ferocious tit. Who looks good here? There is not one man righteous; no, not one.
And in Connecticut, Democratic primary voters rejected one of their party's chief apologists for and boosters of our country's Middle-Eastern warmongering. Senator Lieberman no longer represents his constituents. Democratic leadership cannot yet see that Democratic voters (and many Republicans) have tired of studying war, seeking new countries to invade on pretext or contrivance. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran if Bush and Cheney get their way, Lebanon by proxy. Bush believes we are approaching Biblical “End Times”, that big and nasty doings in the Holy Land are inevitable and desirable. Condoleezza Rice, former oil company whore, blunders about the region braying her disdain for a cease-fire that would merely ease the suffering and loss but would fail to secure a political condition to her masters' liking
May God help us all. Whatever god is running things. Whichever god you choose. And it's pretty much the same guy, under different names and with or without a son who may or may not have been divine, and who might or might not have died to absolve us all of sins with which we we born already tainted. See, that's the thing. Many of us here in the land of short summers and cold winters and thin soil and some history of coming late or lukewarm to the passions of the hotter parts of our nation honor the forms but reject or ignore the bloody meat at the heart of our chosen or inherited religion.
Call us hypocrites. But if you kidnap Constable Albee we'll acknowledge that he or we may once have caused you some annoyance or harm, and we'll probably posture a bit, but we'll negotiate any reasonable trade for whomever of yours we may be holding.
I love this land, but it wasn't given to me by God. I bought it from some yuppies who couldn't stand the strain of digging a satisfying life out of its rocky but rewarding soil. I understand land, the love of it, the need for it, how unfair its misappropriation. My land was stolen from its native owners long ago by the power of the gun with the blessing of somebody's god with nothing more pressing to do than to dispense real estate to imperfect creatures of his own making. Well, nothing gets better and much gets worse, and America's hands are as bloody as anybody's. But I think even God has grown weary of that vile little self-serving creep from Connecticut, and there will come a day when the blight of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld is lifted from our land. The damage, meanwhile, piles up, my god against your god, the sand absorbing alike the blood of infidel and believer, culpable and innocent.
Chris Cooper lives in Alna, Maine. He reads all E-mail and responds to some at email@example.com.