The Map is not the Territory

In the end, the success or failure of the roadmap depends on how we talk about it. If our discourse is framed by the premise that Palestinian violence is the primary problem, the roadmap does not have a chance.
" Misleading Media Story May Doom Middle East Roadmap"
Ira Chernus, Common Dreams, 5/20/03

Most of us believe our mass media do not inform us especially well. And given the vast magnitude and fractal complexity of information that deluges us every day, it probably doesn't. At the news desk, at our breakfast tables, this chaotic volume of information must be wrestled down into manageable maps -- stories -- that make sense in the context of our experience.

Even when we have reasonably accurate and complete representations of a territory, we are challenged to interpret them and understand their meaning -- what we should do about them. And this is further vexed as we all try to graph these stories onto our pre-existing maps for certain destinations.

We like simplified maps and prefer not to have to make hard choices. It's easier to assign a cause or blame for every event, define as liars everyone we disagree with, and divide everyone into Good Guys and Bad Guys, with the Bad Guys as evil by nature -- irredeemable, barely human beings who must be controlled, punished or eliminated because they can never be reformed.

Take these three mappings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Associated Press, Ravi Nessman, 5/21/03 "In new violence, six Palestinian children, ranging in age from 9 to 14, were wounded by army fire after throwing stones at Israeli tanks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

New York Times, Greg Myre, 5/22/03: "The Israeli troops pulled out of Beit Hanun on Tuesday after a five-day incursion during which soldiers blew up houses belonging to suspected militants and flattened large orange groves that had been used as cover to fire the rockets."

Personal e-mail, a Palestinian school administrator in Gaza, 5/15/03 [slightly altered to protect anonymity] "During my visit to a class of 10-year-old girls today, I observed that Suha was not wearing her school uniform and was dressed in ill-fitting blue shirt and trousers. She also had not completed her homework, but instead of reprimanding her, the teacher ... quietly instructed the other teachers that the child was not to be reproached.

"Suha's home had been one of the 27 demolished by the Israeli invasion of the KhanYunis West camp on May 13. I asked her what her family had been able to save, and she replied "Nothing.". She had borrowed her clothes from a cousin, and had lost her school workbooks.

"Later I went to see her neighborhood. I found about 150 people sitting on the debris of their homes, in whatever shade they could find under partially collapsed roofs, not knowing what else to do. They said the night before the demolition someone had fired crude home-made mortars from their street toward the Israeli Neve Dekalim colony, and most had expected a stormy collective punishment. The following night about a hundred tanks, armored cars, helicopters and over 200 soldiers stormed the camp from three directions. The residents at evening prayers heard the tanks and left the mosques without completing their prayers. The Israelis surrounded the camp, ordered all people to evacuate their homes and planted explosives in three large houses and detonated them. Most of the homes were shabby and not well built, and they collapsed in the explosion. Roofs and walls fell and broke furniture, cupboards and kitchen utensils, and left clothes, toys, and school books buried under broken stones."

What kind of maps are these stories? One thing leaps out: Israel's violence against Palestinians is the official policy of a government carried out by a publicly-funded army. Palestinian violence is the tactics of a non-governmental minority carried out by privately funded militants.

Another thing: the violent actions of the Israelis and the Palestinians are asymmetrical. Rocks are countered with gunfire; homemade weapons are answered by tanks; hundreds of soldiers retaliate for a handful of criminals.

What would you feel and how would you respond if these stories mapped events happening where you live. If your child threw rocks, would you expect him to be shot? What if your house collapsed when the police dynamited the house next door because they suspected terrorists lived there? What if your orange-grove were destroyed because some criminals had hidden their weapons in it?

The educator's e-mail maps a territory Americans scarcely see, from the point-of-view of a human being who sees the pain of children and neighbors caught in a circle of violence over which they have no control. It is not surprising that he concludes: "Invasions into the Palestinian towns and villages have been going on for about three years now. It has become the common conduct of the Israeli government to escalate its brutalities whenever an international party submits a peace proposal or suggests the resumption of peace forces. .... Since the Palestinian government, despite its reservations, announced approval of the "road map", we have had been exposed to more and more severe invasions. Palestinians are punished whenever anyone -- truly or falsely -- tries to start the peace process".

Chernus is right: the proposed 'roadmap' will only lead to peace in the Mideast if we can reach some consensus about the territory it represents and where it will lead -- something we must do through the stories we tell and the way we frame them. We live in the territory, not in our maps. But we must have maps that delineate features we recognize in the real world, and that give hope of reaching destinations we agree are just and humane.

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