When he gasped to take a breath and to stop swearing in his fractured English, he told her he had a “fucking shit life” and that she was a filthy whore who would die a horrid death. Spitting out more vitriol with each breath, he finished his rant by saying, “You will lose this war.”
Perhaps time will, if it hasn’t already, prove him right. Certitude rang out from this Algerian jihadist who had been captured by Afghanistan’s tribal Northern Alliance shortly after the American onslaught following 9/11 . At this point, however, the “interview” was concluded when she said, “That may be, but your own war is over.” Whatever eventually happened to him has disappeared into the smoke of time and events.
And perhaps likewise we can also ask whatever has happened to us in our world of perpetual war for perpetual peace, a world of torture, both real and metaphorical, where we find ourselves ever more ready to accept that the ends justify the means.
So as I read and absorb some of the disturbing news that has been published recently about combatants captured on the battlefield, I am conflicted and pained by some of the details. I like to think of myself as a child of The Enlightenment, forever thankful for this momentous break with the past where reason prevailed and human beings were freed from medieval dogma to journey into rational behavior.
Or perhaps only some were liberated, since the madness of war, superstition, religious fanaticism, the lack of education, and the filth of poverty have not gone away and appear to have only grown more mechanized and prevalent in our world. To have been born in Somalia or the bleak mountains of Afghanistan, the killing fields of Cambodia or the desolation of Haiti or a thousand other places where life is brutal, nasty and short rather than in a clean hospital in central Ohio, my view of the world would certainly be different today. One of the few truths I hold on to in this quicksilver world that pretends to offer some solid ground on which to stand is that I, like most of us in this country, are most fortunate by our accident of birth.
I am now old enough to have deeper insight into the Cold War childhood that formed my world view and has taken me on my own journey that has strayed into some back alleys where I would not have thrived had I stayed long. When I see the eyes of young soldiers staring back from TV marking how their twenty or eighteen-year lives have suddenly come to an end, my sadness is multilayered. As the body bags were loaded onto aircraft years ago in my own war, now ancient in comparison with what is happening today, we all must feel the deep grief of parents, loved ones, siblings and friends who have to come to grips with the reality that this young life is forever over, long before it really got a chance to come to full blossom. And as we know, forever is a very long time.
When I put my own life up in comparison, I again am most grateful to have had the opportunity to have gone through a number of passages to get to where I am today. As Stanley Kunitz, the former poet laureate of this country, once said in his powerful poem The Layers as he assessed his own passage through life,
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
And so, despite some of the headlines today, I am not ashamed to say that in previous lives I have been a warrior and a hunter of men. I have served with some of the soldiers cited in George Orwell’s famous quote that “people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” But in the end it’s no way to live, as a friend reminded me recently, if one is to live a full life and be able to lie down at peace with one’s self. She quoted from the Book of Isaiah where the vision is,
No hurt, no harm will be done
on all my holy mountain …
This mountain is where we all live and where our final thoughts will eventually rest. As I also look back and try to make sense of what has happened and continues to play out on a daily basis, my mission has taken me far from these rough men who once were comrades. My mission now is to inch along in hope of protecting what I think of as my own symbolic sacred spot, free from being defiled. Let there be none of Stanley’s “scavenger angels” wheeling on heavy wings, scattering my tribe.
Fortunately, I do not have to deal directly with jihadists or others I perceive to be intent on destroying my way of life. But as we were all witnesses to the recent nightmare that played out in a cafe in Sydney, we cannot ignore that evil is in our midst, even in the most seemingly innocuous places and at the most commonplace times. I wish for an easy answer to this overwhelming challenge, but know it doesn’t exist. We need the “rough men” who are there to protect or rescue us. But we need to know they are also compassionate men under their rough exterior, children of the Enlightenment, too, who are not there to break our fingers, drown us in sorrow, or turn on us in a myriad of ways to make us tell them what we think they want to hear.
Perhaps one path we can follow is to learn from the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali who tells us,
Cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy,
Compassion for the unhappy,
Delight in the virtuous,
And disregard toward the wicked.
Using these keys, as Patanjali calls them, will enable the “mind stuff” to retain its undisturbed calmness.