14 October 2011

History Repeats Itself

Preface: Three years ago there was a Hezbollah-Israel prisoner swap (of sorts) and, in my flurry of thoughts about the situation, I wrote an opinion article regarding it. It has since sat in my pile of thoughts and documents, growing increasingly out of date.

Now a new prisoner exchange is taking place. Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas militants for five years now, is finally being released…in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners.

It’s difficult to comment on this. On one hand, I want to rejoice along with Israelis that Shalit is finally being released. On the other, the inequality of the exchange speaks distressing volumes, and here is where the old article I wrote from 2008 will serve instead of any further commentary. And: warning. The commentary conveys strong feelings. It is not impartial. It is an opinion piece coming from someone with very strong opinions:

Dead for More Dead

I must write about an exchange.

Prisoners for Prisoners, bodies for bodies…these are natural exchanges between enemies.

Prisoners for bodies is something I cannot stomach.

This is a difficult subject to present. Not because of its controversial nature…to most, the morality of this subject, or lack thereof, is plain. And not because of its complexity. The facts are also plain. No, this is difficult to write because it is a subject about which it is nearly impossible to speak dispassionately. Hopefully the sources and translations will speak for themselves.

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers were returned to Israel, as Hizbullah received five live prisoners in exchange. The bodies of 199 militants were also promised as part of the exchange. The most prominent of the prisoners returned to Hizbullah is Samir Quntar. Quntar is the most infamous of those being released because he shot an Israeli man, Dani Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by repeatedly striking her in the head. Haran’s wife apparently hid and their second child was killed as the mother tried to smother the child’s cries, so they could both remain hidden. I am trying to use the coldest language possible to describe this information, lest I be accused of “inciting emotions.”

Now, putting aside the “lop-sided exchange,” as it was stated in one paper, I want to focus on the reactions.

Al-Jazeera dutifully reported both sides of the story. (In this case that means both sides of the border):

In Lebanon there was celebration at the return of the five prisoners and a hero’s welcome for Quntar*.

In Israel there was mourning, as the families, and the nation, were finally able to bury their dead.

The Al-Jazeera article about Israel described the funeral and the national mourning, with half the article dedicated to reporting the medical examinations, which were conducted in order to prove who they were, and to determine how they died. The article states that “the examiners found difficulty in examining the bodies because they had not been preserved in freezers and they were in a progressed state of disintegration.”

My automatic reaction when I read any article is to go to the bottom and see what the reading public had to say. Al-Jazeera draws its viewers and its readership from all over the Arab world. Disappointingly, many of the reader’s comments were too hateful to warrant translation, but I will offer a few examples.

“With a quick look at the developments we see that the strategy which Hizbullah employed is sound and effective and simply requires patience and prior knowledge of what is needed. So it is a lesson to us Arabs in how to face against [the enemy]”.

Another says:

“God greet the heroes of Hizbullah who freed those men who are of the Arab people and the Islamic people.”

Some quotes are just religious rhetoric immediately followed by congratulations to Hizbullah and “the resistance” (generally referring to Hamas and such groups). 

Another reader directed his comments towards Israelis: “God willing all your days will be sad, and it brings me great joy when I see you all at a funeral.”*

Another simply says “Death to America and Israel” and describes the judgment that will be brought on them.

Out of nearly 30 commentaries that are currently posted for the article, I only saw one, which stood in sharp contrast to the rest.

“Look you Arabs how the leaders treat just one soldier. If it had been an Egyptian, or a Jordanian, or a Syrian or a Saudi soldier, would their country have launched a war for their sake? Or have conducted a funeral such as Israel did? When will the Arabs learn from their enemy the meaning of respect for a citizen…”

The President of the Republic of Lebanon, Mishal Sulayman was present to greet the released prisoners, as were other representatives of various official political factions in Lebanon. Perhaps this is one of the most troubling results of this situation and yet it will likely be viewed as peripheral information, if it is noticed at all.

Again, to make it very clear: The President of Lebanon was present to greet the return of the prisoners, one of whom killed a father in front of his daughter, and then brutally killed the girl. This criminal was treated honorably, warmly and as a hero. The attendance of President Mishal Sulayman is equivalent to Lebanese government support of this man’s actions.

The article about the celebration on the Lebanese side of the fence was followed by pages of congratulatory letters directed towards Nasrallah, (Leader of Hizbullah), and the “resistance”

Another stated “By God, Oh Arabs, what a victory…2 in exchange for more than 200…we congratulate you on this accomplishment, oh Arabs.”

One reader seemed suspicious of the absurdity of Israel’s concessions and speculated that there was some other strategy afoot.

Whether there is some grand plan or idea, I don’t know. But the whole thing boils down to this: One country gave up more than it perhaps ought to have in order to return the bodies of loved ones to their families and to show them that their country had not forgotten them. The other country received, in return, 199 bodies and five prisoners, at least one of whom was not imprisoned on any overlookable charge: killing a child. Not with a bomb, and she happened to be nearby...but in brutal close-hand fashion. This is a quote from Samir Quntar himself:

“I did not come to Lebanon except to return to Palestine.” He expresses that the greatest wish of all for himself, and Hizbullah and the “resistance” is to become a martyr and that he will go on fighting.

So will Israel put bullets in the hands of their enemies in order to do right by their own dead?

I think this was perhaps an honorable-minded concession, but likewise a horrible one. I’m torn. The newspapers and the commentary sections are burning up with passages about how this was a “fantastic victory” for Hizbullah. Those who would see Israel destroyed have now concluded that Israel will give up anything and everything in exchange for ‘nothing’. That is because, to those and sadly even to many non-militants, two men is nothing…nothing but cannon fodder and food for propaganda. To Israel, however, two men are indeed something. They are citizens, soldiers, brothers, husbands, sons…they are countrymen.

The disparity in the numbers of the exchange equals the disparity in mindset of the two sides of this exchange.

As Israelis mourn and finally have a chance to pay respects to their lost loved ones, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, Hizbullah, and any who look to them for their opinions, rejoice and swear on it as a victory on the battlefield.

*Quntar was later given an award by the Syrian President. I hope that most Lebanese and Syrians don’t actually concur with the honors accorded this man. I strongly hope that they do not. But those vocal on the Al-Jazeera Arabic commentary boards were in fierce support.

*I am aware that this is an exceedingly negative portrayal of the general Arab reaction. It bothers me too. Indeed, I am not trying to generalize. When I attended the commentary boards I expected a healthy debate and contradicting views. I must admit myself disheartened and surprised by the lack thereof.

Afterword: The points made here about a rather different situation still stand. I think the disparity in numbers is quite relevant. There are all manner of peripheral connotations which could be discussed (social pressure, symbolism, proper concessions, political machinations) but when we talk straight numbers we’re looking at a very unusual situation. I don’t know how to end this except to pose questions: Why are these exchanges so dramatically lop-sided? What does it say about how life is viewed and valued by both sides of the exchange? Why does this leave me feeling so disconcerted?

I speak Arabic and Hebrew and have worked with and enjoyed the camaraderie of Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Iraqis, and I’m not convinced as to whether or not exchanges like this represent progress. Part of me want to praise it--the willingness to give up a lot for what seems like very little (but surely it isn't little)--but I am still troubled by what is signified in the huge numerical gaps. It bespeaks other, more troublesome gaps.

11 October 2011

Kipling Again

I’ve decided to take a second shot at Kipling’s “If” poem. I’m not actually trying to run through this thing line-by-line, but I sorta can’t help it—there’s just too much to be had in there.

Immediately after the lines I wrote about previously—about not letting dreams become your master, or thoughts your aim—comes this curious creature:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;”

When I first heard those bolded lines sung by Chuck E. Costa, (I link to him because I really, really want you to hear the song!) I found them very compelling, but I couldn’t say why. I mean, the idea of keeping a cool head throughout both triumph and disaster is very sensible and noble and all…but let’s be realistic. Does anyone actually think we’re supposed to treat those two imposters just the same? Why should triumph be an imposter? Don’t we strive for it, invite it, and incur it?

Well, sometimes. But sometimes it comes unexpected and unaided by our own skill or intent. Likewise disaster sometimes comes upon us wholly unexpected—and sometimes we invite it, or incur it.

That being said…I still narrowed my eyes at those lines so as to mull them over, for this is what I cannot help but picture:

You are at home, doing this that or the other, when someone steps through your front door—quite without asking—and it happens to be someone thrilling, charming and altogether enjoyable to be around. You welcome them with open arms. You have riveting conversation. He compliments you and your family, lifting your spirits, giving you trinket-y or not-so-trinket-y gifts. So long as triumph stays, sitting on your couch and sipping congenially whatever drink you offer him, you are flushed and in flight! When he leaves, you are rather down-hearted, but the memory of his visit still makes you smile.

Next comes a new visitor. He inevitably barges in at the most inconvenient time and does not wait for you to greet him before he begins to make himself at home. You don’t want to offer him a drink, but he takes whatever he wants anyway, getting drunk and rowdy and destructive in the process. You would love to kick him out, but he won’t leave. He insults you and your family, brings low their spirits, taking unoffered gifts from you left and right. So long as disaster stays, swallowing everything you never meant for him to have, you are uneasy and despondent. When he leaves, you lift up your head only to see the devastation he wrought, which now must be dealt with.

So I ask again…are we really to treat these two unexpected visitors the very same? It’s incredibly hard to imagine. On one hand, I don’t know that it is truly possible, or even always advisable; there’s something to be said for being able to genuinely relish a triumph, and no one expects you to put on a fake smile for disaster’s sporadic drop-ins.

But on the other: triumph can be coercive, sly and deadly. He can inflate your head and separate you from things—both trivial and vital—that gave you joy in simpler times before he came. And disaster, while cruel, can be an excellent teacher and can better expose the cracks in the veneer. Both can cause trouble, really. And both can bring about good. They just do so in such terribly, terribly different ways.

Until recently I would have left those lines mulling in the back of my mind, feeling that there was truth in them, but not understanding quite how. But a quote from Bonhoeffer brought it back to the fore.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who in his life became well-acquainted with that which we might call disaster, but which he called suffering—stands on viable ground when he asserts that personal suffering is a “more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” That is not to say that disaster is desirable or somehow virtuous by its mere existence—that’s a false greeting as well—but it should nevertheless be met with dignity. And I suspect that’s precisely what Kipling meant. Meet both these imposters with both full dignity and humility.

As Bonhoeffer said: “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

...a kind of life that joys in the Lord through triumph and disaster and confidently takes and appreciates all that can rightly be acquired from both, without fear of succumbing to the very real dangers of either.

04 October 2011

A Story About an Un-World

The following is a short story that I wrote a number of years ago to no particular purpose except that it was very vivid and disconcerting. It has been sitting lonesome and unused among my word documents and I thought it might have a place here:

In the dream I was a man with hollow eyes. Everyone else in this psuedo-world carried on as if all was well, but my eyes were empty. Being that it was a dream, I could look at myself. I was dressed in the manner of the typical “anti-hero”. Dark, rough, dangerous. It was evident that I had a wretched history.

The setting had a post-apocalyptic feel. One immediately knew that a cataclysmic event had changed the world. Even so, nothing looked different. The sky was blue, the grass was green, and I distinctly remember seeing a family picnicking at some sort of park. I don’t recall seeing cottages or skyscrapers, but they could well have graced the scene without being out of place. The thing that had changed the world was not a bomb, or a war…but whatever it was, it had left the air empty. It had left my eyes hollow.

I walked up to myself. My anti-hero self looked at me as if he expected me.

“What happened here?” I said.

The calm landscape flickered, like a weak television channel, and what showed beneath the flickering matched the empty, post-world feeling of the whole dream.

“They took God away,” I responded.

In the dream I felt nauseous. So did the anti-hero. In retrospect, any proper apologist of any belief, in the realm of theism or atheism, could have argued against that absurd statement. God was or he was not. If He wasn’t then no void should be left in His absence. If He was, then he could not simply be removed. But in this post-world, I did not question that God was. And they took Him away.

“So what happened?”

“Nothing,” I said.

I watched a woman approach. She was beautiful, but she had come to take me somewhere I didn’t want to go. I watched her with a hateful curiosity.

“Come. The world still holds much,” she said.

I shot her in the forehead. Don’t be shocked. I don’t think I was.

Before I pulled the trigger, I saw that her eyes were far emptier than mine. This was strange because when she first approached her eyes had been full of that certain Hollywood-girl allure. By the time I shot her, though, I saw that the allure in her dark eyes was on a reel…like a looped tape, rigged to emit the same flicker of charm over and over.

I don’t mean that she was inhuman in anyway. But the spark of life in her was an imitation. Recorded and repeated. Nothing new under the sun, right? But things are supposed to ripen, to grow fuller and sweeter in the sun. They have to be attached to a tree to do so. But here, in this place, instead of growing in the sun, everyone was drying up and getting smaller. They weren’t attached to anything. It was all just getting stale.

I was no longer independent of myself at this point in the dream. I shot her because the post-world had a special “people program” for those who had trouble adjusting to a world without God. They were always trying to draft me in to this program. I knew better. I think I was some sort of vigilante.

You see, I am not one of those people who have much natural moral compunction. If there was no God, I would have few, if any, scruples about…anything. I realized that since there was no God, there was no morality. Right and wrong were relative, and based merely on the state of society. Without the divine spark, what difference did it make if man lived or died? What difference did it make if I was the one who killed them? All this nonsense about preservation of a species…who gives a damn if a species survives? I sure didn’t. I killed people, apparently. If I wanted to. If I needed to. It’s hard to know. I just killed anyone who tried to draw me in. Anyone who tried to tell me that all was well. Anyone who messed with me.

Preserve society? How about not. In the dream, I was out to destroy it.

Then the nausea that pervaded the dream dissipated, and my insides didn’t feel like they’d been carved out anymore.

I woke up.