Just recently the owner of a gelateria (a store for Italian ice cream) in the city of Bari was telling me how a crime fraught city center had been revived. He told of two separate mayors, each from different political parties, who had been leaders in implementing the changes. He was clear: he said, "It didn't matter which party they were in. They both cared about the city and they have both done such a great job." I heard this seconded in social conversation. I was so struck by the notion that it didn't matter what political party they were in; clearly partisan interest didn't take over.
My mind went: "'It doesn't matter'? How can that be, when everything that is political seems to have a taking of sides, with an intention of smashing and humiliating anyone of a different group."
It was the day before I read Part I of "Fractured Lands", the New York Times Magazine of August 14th, a major contribution written by Scott Anderson and photographed by Paolo Pellegrin. It is about the Middle East, about the conflagrations and destruction, about terrorism. It is about the history of the region, namely the nation states that were cut up and divided by England, France, Italy and later the United States. It is about leaders who held their own power together by making sure that tribes and sects were provoked to fight against each other. It is about a strategy of divide-and-conquer for the regimes involved. It is about how the US invasion of Iraq was pivotal in the rise of terrorism.
As I see it, this magazine edition also gives us a chance to see how we, even though we may think we are above more "primitive" or "tribal" ways of hating, are being manipulated to treat much of life as a team sport that can be fatal. We don't kill each other off in such obvious ways, even though our gun violence is pretty rabid, but we do have hatred and partisanship and even paranoia embedded in our political and social systems. I suggest we take the opportunity to learn about this region that is now supplying terrorists world wide, and at the same time probe more deeply our own being stuck in hatred. It is violent, also, to discount the opinions and rights and evidence of others, especially when that advice can help save many people, if not the planet as well.
"Fractured Lands" gives us a chance to consider and dialogue about one of the major issues of our time. Thinking needs uncertainty, confusion, doubt and a willingness to be surprised. Please prepare to be surprised, as I have been and expect to be even more so.
Actually one surprise for me was part of an interview that Anderson did with Muammar Gadhafi, the at times bizarre long-term dictator of Libya (before we took him out), in October of 2002. The Bush Administration had for much of 2002 been planning for the coming war in Iraq, and Anderson asked Gadhafi who would stand to benefit if the invasion did occur. Without his apparently usual dramatic hesitation, he responded instantaneously: "'Bin Laden,' he said. 'There is no doubt about that. And Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad."
Now I think the above is quite revealing, not at all stupid and definitely not psychotic. And this may go to show us that just because a person is paranoid, doesn't mean everything he/she says is off the mark. Just because we disagree with someone's philosophy or behavior doesn't mean they have nothing to contribute.
One of the reasons I am so grateful for the appearance of "Fractured Lands" is that we have not probed our invasion of Iraq while we move straight into adding hate to hate in the realm of terrorism, the hate being most obvious as it comes towards refugees of wars we have in some ways been a part of starting. Since Obama took office he too moved away from any real soul searching and accountability for our invasion of Iraq, by telling us we needed to move forward and not backward.
I see this mega-piece as perhaps provoking our interest in looking deeper, getting smarter, being willing to examine our own roles, our own ignorance perhaps, and our fears. It is hard to be sober in a time of such enjoyment of hate in our country alone, hard perhaps to consider our hatreds and prejudices as approaching tribal proportions with revenge as our wish and not further knowledge, never mind cooperation.
I persist in thinking (or is it hope) that there is an inherent love of truth, as well as a deep release that comes from not covering up what is felt underneath. I've also found that when I pick up on something powerful, it's frequently a chord that is shared with many who aren't yet speaking it out loud.
The fact that the editors of the New York Times decided to go ahead with this project tells me that they sense that many Americans are somehow hungry to know more, to connect more with what happened so we know better how to proceed.
I'd like to suggest that we read this magazine together, though some of you no doubt are quicker than me. Some may have questions and arguments, and perhaps the author would consider a forum for that as we keep going.
I hope you keep going and that we can talk about it. I know I need to.