I was not present in Rafah that terrible day, 16 March 2003, but I have frequently replayed in my mind the events leading up to the moment when a bulldozer rolled over Rachel Corrie. I think to myself: What compelled this young woman, neither Jewish nor Palestinian, to travel 10,000 miles from home, throw in her lot with a family not her own, a people not her own, and ultimately meet a death that came suddenly, swiftly, in an instant of shocked comprehension.
In the biblical book of Ruth, we read of Naomi whose two sons have died, leaving two young widows. Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, their own land. One daughter-in-law kisses Naomi and bids her farewell. The other, Ruth, chooses to accompany Naomi to the distant climes of Judah. Why does Ruth go? “Entreat me not to leave thee,” says Ruth, “for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.” And she continues, “Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.”
The biblical figure of Ruth journeys to her new people, expecting never to return, but to be buried in foreign soil.
The modern figure of Rachel journeyed to her new people, expecting to return for the start of the school year, and never to be buried, or to be buried at some vastly distant unimaginable future, but never to find her death in the soil of her chosen destination. She journeyed to her new people expecting to find another culture, another language, another way of interacting, but never to find another attitude toward the taking of life. She journeyed expecting to see death, but never to be embraced by it herself.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard recounts the story of Abraham as he takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah. The story is so unfathomable – how could Abraham take his son, his only son, and prepare to slay him for no apparent reason other than God’s inscrutable request? Kierkegaard constructs several scenarios of what may have been coursing through Abraham’s heart as he walked his son to Moriah to kill him.
Writes Kierkegaard: “It was early in the morning, Abraham rose betimes, he embraced Sarah, the bride of his old age, and Sarah kissed Isaac, who had taken away her reproach, who was her pride, her hope for all time. So they rode on in silence along the way, and Abraham’s glance was fixed upon the ground until the fourth day when he lifted up his eyes and saw afar off Mount Moriah, but his glance turned again to the ground. Silently he laid the wood in order, he bound Isaac, in silence he drew the knife – then he saw the ram which God had prepared. Then he offered that and returned home…From that time on Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had required this of him. Isaac throve as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened, and he knew joy no more.”
In my mind’s eye when I see Rachel standing on that mound of earth and facing the bulldozer, I envision a young woman looking at the small window fast approaching her in the brow of the bulldozer, peering into that dark space to find the eyes of the soldier who was driving, perhaps someone her own age, someone who also loved to dance and joke with a younger sister, someone who was thinking about how long it would take until he could finish this job and get back to the base where he didn’t have to face the anger of people who don’t understand what he’s doing, thinking about his weekend pass and his own future, maybe he would go back to school and finish that course, or about his own loneliness, and how it is to be out here alone at the gears every day, and then there’s this girl out there, and why doesn’t she get out of the way. What was his next thought – “Shall I kill her?” or “I’ll scare her – she’ll move” or “Still time to brake!” – as he hurtles forward.
In this land where blood pours down like lemon drops and sticks to all the senses, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, we cannot know what thought compelled this young man to push on. Later that day, he may have wept and found comfort among his friends. He may have shrugged it off – a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. But we do know one thing: He will live with the death of Rachel for the rest of his life. He may not read every article about her, he may agree only with those that justify his deed, but we know that he reads some of what is written, and we know that he thinks about that day, and wonders if things, somehow, could have ended differently. How do we know this? We know because we agree with Rachel, who risked her life in the belief that whoever was driving that vehicle would stop before he harmed her. We know because we believe, like Rachel, in the fundamental decency of every human being, and that even those who kill, harbor pain in their hearts for that death. We do not have to forgive this man or this system that led him to kill in order to understand that the trauma of Rachel’s death, which affected millions of people throughout the world, also affected the man who took her life.
On that blindingly sunny day in Rafah, when optimism glints irrationally from every tank, every M16, every dogtag on the necks of 18-year-olds in uniform, photos of loved ones in their pockets, Rachel stood her ground with ease, waiting for his eyes to meet hers, waiting for decency to slow the grinding treads, waiting for the moment of sanity to kick in, to interrupt the flow of tension swelling toward collision, waiting for the inevitable to happen – that reason would prevail.
Today we are some distance from that moment, we have had time to think about it, and still we are no more capable of fathoming what transpired: That until the moment of impact, Rachel never lost her faith in the decency of the bulldozer driver; that until the moment of impact, the driver never understood that he was capable of this terrible crime.
Writes Kierkegaard, “It was a quiet evening when Abraham rode out alone, and he rode to Mount Moriah; he threw himself upon his face, he prayed God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to offer Isaac, that the father had forgotten his duty toward the son.”
In my own efforts to understand these terrible deeds, the one on Mount Moriah and the one in Rafah, I ask myself: At Moriah, what was the more terrible – that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice his son? Or that God had demanded this of him?
And in Rafah, who is the real sinner – the soldier who ended the life of a girl on a mound of earth in a land not his and not hers – a land where Rachel, like Ruth, was invited and welcomed, but he was an interloper and resented? Or, in Rafah, too, is the real sinner the God who had demanded this of him – God the army officers, God the brutal policies, God the society of those willing to inflict pain on others to still their own fears and traumas?
And whose gaze turned from one of trust to astonished alarm? The driver, who trusted that Rachel would leap away before it was too late? Or Rachel, who trusted that the driver would halt the vehicle one tread sooner?
Ever more relevant is “Season of the Camomile” by the late Palestinian poet Samir Rantisi, written in 1988, soon after the killing of an Israeli and a Palestinian near the village of Beita. An excerpt:
How many more ordinary mornings
will fill us with horror
and transform our day to another sky;
who chose us
to be the victim and the symbol
to be the beginning of the beginnings,
the moment of historical trial;
we, the two dreamers,
the routine, the ordinary,
who chose us
to be the heart of the conflict
and the crossroads of time
why didn't you find someone besides me to be a symbol?
why didn't they find someone besides you to be a victim?
why could they only find Beita in the spring.
Our hearts in grief, we ask: Why didn’t they find someone besides you to be a victim? why didn’t they find someone besides you to be a symbol? Ah, Rachel, ah, unknown soldier, why could you only find Rafah in the spring?