Friday, November 28, 2008

A turtle's response to terrorism

I feel like such a turtle. I’m just so overwhelmed by today. One glace at the BBC front page is enough to send me reeling. The three top stories are presented 1) the attacks on civilians (mainly tourists) in India with a slideshow of images 2) Thai protestors who have shut down the Bangkok airport are “braced for battle” (and I know of various people trapped in Bangkok as that is one of the primary hubs for getting out of or into Dhaka) and 3) Suicide bombing at an Iraqi mosque.

I’ve been reading updates from Mumbai and one of the terrorist targets that is still currently under siege by the Indian military as they try to regain control of the building is home to the Chabad House. Many Jews, myself included, go to Chabad Houses for kosher food, conversation, to meet other travelers, and enjoy Shabbat meals and services together. In fact, I’ve been to the Chabad Houses in Kathmandu, Bangkok and Koh Samui. And if I had been in Mumbai, I would have gone to the Chabad House there too. Since I live in Bangladesh, going to India isn’t such a far-fetched idea.

For all the associations we have with the world of terror being centered in the Middle East, I was surprised to learn that save for the treacherous war-zone that is Iraq, I’m living next to (indeed surrounded by) the country that suffers from the highest number of deaths by terrorism. Yes, it even outnumbers Afghanistan. (Okay, population density also needs to be taken into account here.)

I’ve found all this so overwhelming that I got in touch with my inner turtle. Instead of completing the umpteen works tasks I had allocated to myself for this afternoon, I went home, covered myself with a blanket, shut my eyes and did my best to block out the world. The only problem is that the world, as noncompliant as it is, was still around when I woke up from my nap. Terrorists are still rampaging in Mumbai, there is still a horrid war in Iraq, pirates in Somalia, genocide in Darfur and countless other examples- big and small- of human beings who refuse to be humane. (I know the pirates are a bit of an outlier in that list- but hey- they’re pirates. I couldn’t resist.)

Alan, who hosted our thanksgiving dinner recently moved here from Afghanistan where he was working on a nation-building project. (And yes, some of his colleagues there were killed and he could have been too. He said the daily question was “Is what I’m doing worth losing my life?”) I think his reaction to the current large-scale terrorist attacks in Mumbai sum up so much what many people feel. He repeated time and time again- “I’m just tired of it all.”

Terrorism is not new- not to the 21st century and not to humankind. The question is, how can we who value human life live in a world where human life is not valued? And it doesn’t take a gun, a grenade or a bomb to show that human life doesn’t hold value. Here in Bangladesh I see men tear down large buildings by hammering away on the very walls on which they are precariously balanced. They wear cheep flip-flops or no shoes at all and a lungi (traditional man-skirt). There are so many people here, that they are considered expendable.

In one of the many books I’ve read on Judaism/ Israel, the authors contend that when we accept terrorism (particularly in this case, suicide bombings) against our allies or our enemies, that these tactics will eventually spread to be used against us. (Look at the current use of suicide bombings by Arabs against Arabs in Arab states.) The bottom line is once the world does not universally condemn an act that devalues life- whether that life be of a friend or a foe- the act becomes acceptable. In short- if the people (whomever they may be) who trained and armed the young men/ boys who are carrying out the attacks on Mumbai think that they are furthering their own cause they are wrong. (Unless, of course, their sole cause is indiscriminate mayhem and destruction- then they’re spot on.) This mentality- that devaluing the life of others can bring more value to one’s own life/ causes- is simply incorrect. When we devalue human life for a specific group, regardless of the excuse (poverty, race, religion, communism, capitalism, etc), we devalue our own lives and those of the people we love. Those who teach hatred, embody it, perpetuate it, are doing nothing but escalating hatred and dehumanizing the world. Hatred, war, terror- these are illogical acts- they might be taught with “facts” ie, People X stole our land, People Y oppress us, People Z killed our loved ones, etc- but all logic falls away as the animalist/ emotional side reigns and people can then talk calmly about how they will die/ kill to further their own cause. A stark and scary example is a recent article in the BBC, “Just married and determined to die”. The goal worldwide needs to be the de-escalation of violence, not the escalation with justification. (Just to reference my sources, the ideas that war is illogical and de-escalation is key- came from a recent conversation I had with Karim H., one of the Egyptian diplomats here.)

And here in Bangladesh, I’ve already lit my shabbos candles. I am required to be joyful on this joyous day. Sometimes, it is increasingly difficult to find joy in the world. Yes, my personal life is wonderful and I have much for which to be joyful and thankful. However, how can I treasure such joy in such a world? Does this require me to turn a blind eye to the reality of human existence? Yet, even in- especially in- difficult times, joy for living must be found- life must be celebrated. As Alan continued as he lamented the terror of the world, “Don’t these people have anything to live for?” Maybe if everyone could perform the simple, yet sometimes difficult task, of finding joy in the world- no matter how small, this subtle change of perception could make a global difference. Maybe.

In the mean time, I’m going to contemplate the beauty of my Shabbat candles.

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