One morning a few years ago I was sitting in my sixth grade computer science class utterly bored while I pretended to learn how to type simple sentences into Microsoft Word (something I had accomplished after my father first allowed me to use his desktop computer two years ago). A friend of mine, who had asked for a hall pass to go to the bathroom, returned and, with no introduction, proclaimed that ‘World War III’ had just begun. The whole class, including the teacher and teaching assistant, and I stared at her in confusion and disbelief. The teacher told her to return to her seat, blowing it off as a childish blow up, and we continued with the class. I was staring at the clock, willing the minute hand to move faster because after Science we had lunch. Suddenly we heard static and knew the PA system had been turned on. I can’t remember clearly what was said, but I knew it was the vice-principal speaking:
“All teachers, please turn your televisions on to the news.” Something like that and, if not. I do know that my computer science teacher turned on ours. CNN flickered on and we received an image of a tower pouring smoke. After a minute the camera moved and we saw an airplane approaching another tower and crashing into it. My eleven-year-old brain couldn’t understand how the pilot didn’t see the tower: it was so big! Of course, I had no idea that pilots don’t really have a good view of where they’re flying and although they probably did see the tower that was their target the whole time. Either way, to this day I cannot comprehend the decision to attack the Twin Towers. They are not as symbolic to the Western world as the Eiffel Tower, for example, but maybe it had something to do with the sheer amount of people who worked there and their place as a sort of center for capitalism. Then again, the real politic target was most likely the Pentagon, which they missed because the passengers on that flight overpowered the attackers and crashed the plane en route to the Pentagon.
Later that afternoon, or night, I listened to George W. Bush (a president I had mildly supported in the previous year’s election because I was ten and supported anyone my dad and grandma did and they were fierce Republican Cubans) declare a “war on terror” and my young mind thought it sounded like a great idea. I was scared of the dark and monsters under my bed, so I was somehow hoping that this meant no one would be afraid anymore of such things. Obviously I had little to no understanding of politics, government, or anything like that, but I quickly learned. That Friday my Geography teacher introduced a Current Events essay we were to write for every week and present in class. The first Friday every oral report was about what has come to be known as “9/11”. I guess it all started there for me because that was the first time my heart broke for a stranger that wasn’t a fictional character in one of my books.
Previously I had some idea of becoming a wildlife veterinarian and an advocate for protecting the environment (Discovery and History were my favorite channels), but right then I figured I’d find some way to make the world a better place socially and politically (though I didn’t yet know those were the words for what I felt). First I decided to become a lawyer and then a judge, which was quickly followed by a politician so I could write laws instead of just defending or upholding them. After all, I wanted to change the world not keep it the way it was but I began to learn it was not all as easy as choosing a career in my teens and pursuing it to its bitter end. Either way, when the atrocities of George W. Bush’s presidency I was filled with passion and energy to make a difference, so I decided to major in International Studies with an emphasis in Third World Development. The logic was that maybe if the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia weren’t so bitterly poor due to the exploitation of Europe and North America, then people would stop killing each other. Of course, as I learned more and more about the horrible things people do to each other and the sheer number of people in need I began to lose hope that any person or group of people or government or union of governments could ever make a difference. It began to feel like there was something essentially wrong with human beings, as a species, as if we could not live unless we were constantly trying to hurt one another. I moved back home, dropping out of the amazing college I had been accepted into, and completed a B.A. in Political Science because I already had half the credits, so why not. By the time I graduated though (summa cum laude), I had completely given up on politics, politicians, governments, and people. At that point I only applied to graduate programs because my significant other was and I didn’t want to be parted from him; he was the one thing that made me believe that just maybe not everyone in the world was cold and cruel. I got into a great program and he didn’t, so I stayed behind and applied to an MA in Comparative Literature.
Books had always been my refuge. In books people were either good or bad for essential reasons that could not be changed or the bad people were redeemed. There was always a happy ending or some solution to the dilemma, unlike in the real world. So literature seemed like a safe bet and yet I was to learn within a year, due to the passion of my professors for defending the Humanities, that culture and literature were as political as things got. Books were also a battlefield where competing discourses fought for power and where a lone voice either attempted to reveal the struggles of the oppressed or fed us a glorified picture of violence. In this way my professors were a bit heartless; the world is ugly and so are books because books reflect the contradictions inherent in life. An author writes to compel us to act. Sometimes reading itself is an act (especially when we’re talking about banned books).
Then ISIS rolled around and my friends, knowing I had studied nationalism and Third World politics, wanted to know my opinion. A professor contacted me to help in an investigation about the Iran nuclear deal. It seemed that the part of the world I wanted to escape from kept intruding in my life and every time it did I lashed out because I couldn’t see a single image of a migrant crossing the Mediterranean on some flimsy boat without crying. I couldn’t read about bombings and deaths and civil wars and protests without feeling my heart twist in my chest and the hairs on my skin rise up in some shudder of horror and fear and sadness and compassion…too much compassion. I did not want to be compassionate. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to turn it all off, but because I am so picky in my friends everyone around me only ever talked about politics and now it just hurts to be silent. Yet I feel powerless. Another bombing today…how am I supposed to feel? I can’t cry. I cried so much already and what do my tears do? I didn’t know them, why do I feel so sad? Why does the world feel like such a horrible place to live in? I pushed it all away. I refused to care about Paris and Brussels just feels like the tenth sequel in a over-extended Hollywood franchise. No one wants to watch Acts of Terror XI…but we can’t stop it. We are forced to watch.
What is truly disconcerting is how normal everyone keeps acting. Everyone came to work today and of course they did; we live on a small island colony in the Caribbean far far away from anything going on in Europe. It worries me how normal I feel. It disturbs me. I want to feel something, something more than disappointment or mild sense of defeatist acceptance, but it has all become so everyday that I fear I am becoming numb to the horror of it all. It is horrifying, tragic, and a part of daily life; why? Every single humanist promise that the West made itself has proven empty. Is it really impossible to correct the mistake of the past? To build a war of peace of millennia of hate and war? We massacre them and they massacre us: when is that a “them” and “us” even came to be? What are we fighting for? Salvation, they say. Peace and liberty, we say. What do these things even mean beyond their abstract and supposed transcendent beauty? More than thirty people died today in the Brussels, many more were injured, and I’m sure already someone is pulling up the statistics on citizens who died in civil wars and in the Middle East today from European or American bombs by comparison. Who is the greater monster? As if being a lesser monster is somehow redemptive. Are you still a victim when you’re the one perpetuating death and destruction?
Nevertheless, at the very least I struggle and fear my own numbness to so much violence, with my sadness and deep sense of powerlessness. I can’t even figure out the right thing to feel or say, much less do, while presidential candidates spout at the mouth insanely blasphemous and deeply horrifying proposals for mishandling terrorism before the identity and affiliations of the attackers have even been confirmed. The Brussels government and police, the one attacked, are acting reasonably and thoughtfully and are reticent to accuse anyone without evidence, but thousands of miles away Ted Cruz talks about “empowering” police to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighbourhoods (are they even exclusive Muslim neighbourhoods in the US? http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2016/03/22/ted-cruzs-call-to-secure-muslim-neighborhoods-stirs-a-backlash/?_r=0) and Trump wishes to close our borders and torture individuals accused (not even proven) to be Muslim or affiliated with terrorist organisations (http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/22/politics/donald-trump-brussels-2016-reaction/index.html). For decades now it’s been a running joke how uninformed, uneducated, and completely oblivious to history and foreign politics Americans are, so it shouldn’t really surprise us that presidential candidates are, hopefully unknowingly, mimicking the discourse of history’s worst dictator. In the face of this I cannot remain silent and indifferent. All I want, like so many people around the globe, is for the wars to stop. For the senseless death, destruction, violence, horror, tragedy, hatred, and retaliation to stop. As long as we choose to retaliate with violence and hatred, as long as we give in to our fear, we are perpetuating the cycle AND proving to the terrorists that their intimidation tactics are effective as well as providing them with citizens willing to join their cause due to the discrimination they face. What is the correct path to take? The problem probably lies in the fact that we, as humans, prefer to make a single choice and take a single action even in the face of complex and multifaceted problems. There is no single choice, no single action, no single path. However we do know what path NOT to take…and it’s the path that’s condemned us to live in a world of unending violence: retaliation.