Monday, May 28, 2012

Forgetting they're people...warning: this is not pretty

"The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, [killing them] will be no different at all." The Hunger Games

As I was on my way to meet a friend a couple days ago, I was listening to NPR, This American Life, the entirety of which was devoted to a particular massacre that happened in Guatemala in 1982.  It was one of the many massacres that happened in Guatemala during that time.  Similar horrors were also going on in El Salvador.  The last thing I heard before I got out of my car was about how this particular massacre happened to be the first one (that declassified documents show) the U.S. government knew about...after which it, my government, continued supporting the Guatemalan government in the bloodbath against its own people for many years.

I am thankful that, beyond your average mosquito or cockroach, I've never purposely killed anything.  Many years ago, I accidentally hit a raccoon.  I killed a teeny frog in India when I was trying to scoot it out of my room.  I felt pretty bad about both incidents.

I have no desire to kill.  I hope I never will.  I hope I will never have to seriously think about the possibility of taking someone's life.  When I have talked to my students (or anyone else, for that matter) about my attempted commitment to nonviolence (how many times do I fail in word and thought?), I explain that I think it is very different to be willing to die for something or someone and to be willing to kill for something or someone.  I'm not sure I'm willing to die for a cause, though I guess I've been in situations where there was a remote possibility of it.  I can confidently say that I am not willing to kill.  Maybe that confidence would be shattered if I were caught in a violent situation.  Maybe that commitment would vanish if the life of a loved one were in jeopardy.  I don't know and couldn't possibly know unless I were in that situation.  I hope I never am.

When I think about how someone can kill someone else, or maybe many others, it seems that distance, sometimes physical, but certainly spiritual and emotional, is key.  Someone who participated in the Guatemalan massacre came forward many years later and told in great detail what happened.  Mind you, what he described was not unique.  My sister who lived in Guatemala after the war and was present for exhumations of mass graves can tell you that.  Anyone who knows anything about the war in Guatemala can tell you that.  It was a scorched earth policy- the routine for the massacres was to go into a village, destroy all buildings, kill livestock, put most of the  people in one place (like a church), rape the women and girls, torture the men, and ultimately kill them all.  I remember hearing a story in El Salvador about how soldiers in one massacre threw babies up in the air and shot them.  It was a game for them.  In the case described on the radio, the bodies of some villagers, sometimes still with breath in them, were thrown in a well.  If I remember correctly, there were remains of 63 people recovered from the well.  Sixty-three.  Clearly, the soldiers did not see the villagers as brothers and sisters. The soldiers conveniently forgot the villagers were people.

Any time I hear about these things, I wonder how people create enough distance between themselves and another human to be able to kill.  The process may start innocently enough.  Simple steps to separate me from you.  You're different because _________________.  Therefore you're inferior.  You're an animal.   You're worse than an animal.  Your life is worthless. In fact, your life is harmful, so I must take it to preserve the well-being of others.  I think it goes something like that.  I hope I never walk far down that road, though I know I've taken steps on it and probably will again.

A few years ago after admiring a T-shirt, I made a poster with the theme "Love The Neighbor," the same theme of this blog.  I made it because I wanted it in my classroom as a constant reminder of that imperative for me and my students. I had my creation professionally photographed and then printed posters of it.  I figured if I needed and wanted the reminder, others might also benefit by having it around.  (As a sidebar, though I am not writing this to sell posters, I still have them for sale if you're interested.  Just let me know.)  I have needed the reminder more than I knew I would.  For a long time, the blank line at the bottom was the one that helped me most, as I'd fill the blank in with whomever was testing my resolve to love.  Of late it's been the "thy Jewish neighbor" line.  It shames me to admit it, maybe it comes as no surprise to anyone who's been keeping up with this blog, but after being in Palestine and seeing what Israelis do to Palestinians on a daily basis, it's been hard for me to feel loving towards Israelis and sadly, sometimes those negative feelings broaden beyond the small Israeli perimeter to those who I fear may support them, namely other Jews.

In an attempt to release some of those feelings, I visited the Jewish history museums in both Girona, Spain, and Amsterdam, Holland.  In both places I was reminded of the atrocities Jews have faced at various points in history.  I was saddened and sickened... In so many places and during too many different historical periods Jews were the people who others "forgot" were people and were treated accordingly, often to the point of death.  I learned that World War II was not the first time Jews had to wear a symbol to set them apart.  It was done in Spain centuries before.  And so the dehumanization process began, one that ultimately led to the expulsion of the Jews and the Inquisition.  Learning about this and reminding myself of the scope of the Holocaust only deepened my sadness over what is currently going on in Israel and Palestine.

How can people who have suffered so deeply now cause the profound suffering, sometimes mirroring their own experience, of others?  I don't know.  Israelis, let me correct myself, many but not all Israelis, have created distance- physical, spiritual, emotional- from their Palestinian neighbors.  The distance makes it easier to think of Palestinians as nothing, leading to horrible abuses, and, in some cases, to killing them.  (If I'm being honest, I could say the same for Palestinians.  The difference is that Palestinians don't have the power; Israelis do.)  Thankfully, because of my experiences with groups like Ta'ayush and Breaking the Silence, I cannot write off all Israelis.  I also know there are many Jews in the U.S. and around the world who recognize Palestinians as their brothers and sisters.  I also have to believe that if others (and I don't only limit this to Jews) knew what I know, then maybe they, maybe you, would be as outraged as I am.  So I continue to write my thoughts that sometimes connect easily and sometimes come together with ragged edges like a mosaic made from broken pottery.

Today is Memorial Day, a day to honor those who have died defending our country.  I believe it is noble to serve one's country.  My grandfather and uncle, friends, and students have done so.  It is admirable to be willing to give up one's life for it.  I wonder how many also had to surrender a little of their humanity as they were trained to kill, as they were taught that the "enemy" was comprised of sub-human better-off-dead beings. That is also a huge sacrifice.  I wonder how many soldiers today suffer from giving up that piece of humanity. Each week at mass, one of my friends prays for men and women serving in the military and prays that someday in our lifetime we will see peace in our world.  This Memorial Day I also fervently pray for peace in our world, so that on future Memorial Days there will be no new names that we must memorialize, so that no one else will have to choose to forget that people are people, relinquishing some of their humanity in order extinguish the life of another.