Jan 17, 2002
"I have a dream today."
Martin Luther King Jr.'s words are, in retrospect, downright commonplace: don't we all have a dream? A dream of owning our own home, getting zero percent financing on a new car, or taking early retirement? Or, our dreams might be more mundane--finding a job. Putting food on the table. Getting our kids home from school in one piece.
Still, some dreams are bigger than others. Some have a way of capturing our imaginations. And King's dream, like his goal of freedom, continues to ring as true as it remains elusive.
But one thing's for sure: King wasn't dreaming when he made his speech. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, he knew the hard realities on the ground--the ground being the red hills of Georgia, the sweltering "desert" of Mississippi, and "the slums and ghettos of our northern cities."
King's dream was born out of the harsh landscapes of war, racism, classism, anti-unionism, and the physical and emotional abuse that attend any attempt at genuinely changing the system: contempt, fear, anger, threats and jail. Rising out of these harsh landscapes makes King's dream not an idle wish but a hard-earned acknowledgment of reality--a reality that, for many, was uncomfortable and threatening.
As the brother of a September eleventh victim, calling for justice, not revenge, for the terrorist attacks, I've gotten a small taste of those hard realities and harsh landscapes. People seeking alternatives to war--and to the killings of additional innocent civilians--are routinely dismissed as naive; our sympathies are misguided; and most importantly, we're not living in the real world. In other words, we're dreamers.
It's a potent image: peace-seekers napping in comfy homes while soldiers bed down in harm's way. Idealistic pacifists handing out leaflets on street corners made safe by military force. Soft-bellied peaceniks dithering while "they come over and kill us all." You hear it on radio shows and television, you hear it hurled out of car windows. We're well-intentioned, but we're irrelevant. Someone else does the heavy lifting while we dream on.
But don't we come from a nation of dreamers?
How else to explain the popular depiction of America as "a sleeping giant," reluctantly awakened to action--military, of course--by the noisy doings of an evil world? The notion that Americans could be roused to some other kind of action--seeking social justice, addressing economic inequities, rethinking foreign policy, asking tough questions--isn't part of the program. This is a giant with a one-track mind.
"I think he's a bit naive on how the world works regarding our forward projection of power," says a self-identified Marine caller to a radio show on which I guested, "and what we have to do in order to maintain our quality of life and what we know is good and free" (we have to kill innocent people.) And there are others: "If we don't do something now, it's going to be worse later on" (we have to kill a few innocent people so more innocent people don't get killed); "If we had gotten the guys from the 1993 bombing, maybe this wouldn't have happened," (we should have killed them sooner); "You're not much of a brother" (or else you'd be killing someone else's brother in his name); "Morally, if that's the way you felt, I'd have no argument with you, but you don't like what the Bush administration is doing" (you can pray, but don't try to actually change anything); "Me and my family might be the next ones to get killed by terrorists--have you thought about that angle?" (after all, what have you got to lose?). And: "Do you want to kiss Osama on the lips?" (because you must be gay if you don't want to kick his ass).
Who's living in the real world? And who's dreaming?
Cable pundit Bill O'Reilly asks, "Weren't the German people responsible for Hitler?" by way of justifying the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan--who, he deduces, are equally responsible for the Taliban. When I point out that the September eleventh terrorists considered their victims--including my brother--responsible for U.S. foreign policy, he says I've missed the point: "We had to defeat these people with as few casualties as possible, which is why we bombed."
Whose casualties? Where, and how many? If they're not American, they're irrelevant. Just before Christmas, Rick Roberts, a talk show host in San Diego, paints an appropriately humane portrait of the American victims: "People got up on the morning of the eleventh, kissed their kids goodbye, dropped them off at daycare, patted the dog on the head, took a last gulp of coffee before getting in their cars and driving to work." So far, so good. "They were attacked by a premeditated, cold-blooded murderer." No argument there.
But about the question of our civilian dead versus Afghanistan's civilian dead: "They were murdered. We did not do that."
Murdered? Accidentally killed? Wrongly targeted? Hanging around past sunset? The right verb is cold comfort when you're dead. But is anyone dead in Afghanistan? What about that figure of 3,700 civilian deaths, culled from a variety of non-U.S. news reports? Mr. Roberts finds the figure suspect: they're faking obituaries to garner sympathy.
Tell me again: who's not living in the real world? Of course, we should acknowledge and honor our innocent dead, civilian or military. We should remember their humanity. But aren't we dreaming when we suggest that the rest simply don't exist?
Mark Twain, recently getting the Ken Burns treatment on PBS, knew something about a society living in denial. In Huckleberry Finn, he has Huck fibbing about a riverboat accident to explain his late arrival at Aunt Sally's:
"We blowed out a cylinder-head," Huck reports. `
"Good gracious!" replies Aunt Sally. "Anybody hurt?"
"N'm. Killed a nigger."
"Well, it's lucky: because sometimes people do get hurt."
Innocent people get hurt and killed in war. Is it naive to acknowledge this reality? Are we dreaming when we seek alternatives? Are we being disingenuous when we express surprise at the increasing tensions between India and Pakistan, the increasing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the reports of China's plans to expand its nuclear weapons program? Do we act in a vacuum, or do our actions and reactions have real consequences in the real world? Aren't we dreaming when we pretend they don't--when photos, stories and eyewitness reports falling outside the purview of the Pentagon are dismissed, denied, and denied again?
Joan Didion, in one chapter of Political Fictions, examines the "systematic obfuscation and prevarication" that followed the disclosure of a massacre at El Mozote in El Salvador in the 1980s--in which those demanding official recognition of the civilian murders were repeatedly stonewalled with official denial--concluding,
"...We had emerged a people again so yearning to accept the government version, or again so angry, as to buy into a revision of history in which those Americans who differed...were again our true, and our only sinister, enemy."
Are those questioning the "obfuscation and prevarication" surrounding our unlimited use of force in the war on terrorism the enemy? Or are they the ones living in the real world--while the rest of us are dreaming?
"What happened to us, what we did, is stuff that most people don't want to hear. And the people that particularly don't want to hear it are the people that sent us over," writes Vietnam veteran Ben Chitty, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1969, in the book, Hell, Healing and Resistance. "The only people in America who took the war as seriously as we did were the people in the anti-war movement. Most other people in the United States didn't care. And it wasn't that they were bad people, or unkind, or stupid, or couldn't see what was going on. It was because they were busy. They were busy working, they were busy being parents, they were busy at their jobs, they were busy going to school, they were busy going to the movies, busy going to McDonald's, busy going to Burger King. They were too busy to pay attention to the half-million Americans over in Vietnam, the 58,000 being killed. They were just too busy."
Who's dreaming, and who's living in the real world? This morning I read a news account of fellow September eleventh family members who have journeyed to Afghanistan--to meet with civilians who lost family members of their own from the U.S. bombing. Their mission is one of reconciliation, of acknowledging the shared humanity of everyone touched by the terrorist attacks and the resulting war--and seeking a better way.
Are they dreamers? Are they living in the real world?
Or are they wide awake--and acting on these other words from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into a being a real order of justice."
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