The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, January 06, 2006

First Chakra and Galileo's Ordeal

Must we kill to protect that we love?
Must we transform our enemies into monsters in order to kill them?  Or if they are monsters, must we become monsters ourselves in order to survive?  To me, this is a question asked in countless books and films, and is most recently addressed in Spielberg’s MUNICH.  My essay yesterday set off a minor storm of e-mails and phone calls, and I realized I’d touched a nerve.  First, let me set something straight before I go forward: I don’t think I’m “right,” I just know that it is vital to have an attitude, a point of view, that we can then test against reality in our attempt to find “what is.”

Writing fiction is one way of exploring that point of view.  We create stories in which characters see the world in a certain way, take certain actions, and the universe responds to their actions.  Greek theater existed to trigger debate between the members of society, each of whom was expected to have a vital role in the determinance of social and political policy.  Were I a soldier in Iraq right now, I would be doing my duty, obeying my superiors, protecting my buddies…and PRAYING that the voters back home were debating this war like crazy, arguing ever aspect of it, and making decisions based on both logic and emotion.  Should I stay and kill or die?  Can I come home having honorably served my country?  Only the voters can decide that.  As a soldier, I do what I must.  And pray that whatever sacrifice of my life or soul has been made with full consciousness on the part of my country, not in blind adherence or knee-jerk reaction to ANY political position or event.

After giving a talk about LION’S BLOOD, my novel of African Muslims colonizing America, I was asked if I thought Israel had the right to exist.  The man who asked me this question might have been Jewish, he might have been Arab…I could not tell, but knew he’d been disturbed by my talk.  I thought carefully, knowing that I wanted to speak MY truth, and not (necessarily) something I’d been told by others.  And I told him, “Yes.”  I see no way in the world to deny that any group of people have the right to one piece of land to call their own.  And Jews, as Jews, have no other land.  To deny them this is to say, “die.”  And to say that is to violate the most basic dictate of all living things, the one dictate upon which all other growth and evolution is based: survive.

Does this mean I approve of all actions taken to ensure  that survival?  No.  Does that mean I don’t think the Palestinians have valid complaints?  No.  Does that mean I think Palestinian terrorists are sub-human?  No, not at all.

It does mean that I understand how each side can CONSIDER the other to be evil, sub-human, illegitimate, and cowardly.  Because that is the way human beings drive each other into categories, that their young men and women have no doubt in their hearts about the right to kill, torture, maim, and steal.  This is what we do to each other to survive, and to try to keep our own hearts alive. 

It doesn’t make it true.  Israel has, in my mind, the right to survive.  What should the Palestinians do? I don’t know.  I do know that the things they do are completely understandable from the framework of human history, and to deny that is, in my mind, to put on blinders that keep us from truly understanding the game board on which that history is played out.  And if we can’t understand the rules—the REAL rules, not the convenient rules our politicians or moralists ask us to accept, then we have no chance of actually winning the game.
In the 17th Century, Galileo peered through his telescope and saw things that challenged the Ptolomeic cosmology.  The universe, he said, did not revolve around the earth.  The Catholic church was not happy with this, called him in, displayed the instruments of torture, and told him to recant.  And quite reasonably, so he did.  What he had suggested challenged the order of the world, said that human beings were not central to God’s creation, and apparently weakened the entire social order.  He asked people to look through the lens of his telescope, and see for themselves, and they would not.  Pure fear.  Their lives, their hearts, their souls (they feared) would be placed at risk.

But ultimately, whatever “Is” is beyond our concepts and opinions of it.  We cannot approach that truth merely by discussing it, or making thought experiments.  We must engage.  To point out that terrorists have motivations, families, hearts, fears, hopes, and dreams “humanizes” them, and that is a threat to some.  They fear that if we suggest they have some legitimate complaints, we may not be able to take actions to stop them.  I believe we are not so small, or stupid, or simple.

All our history we’ve been able to kill those who threaten us.  And every culture I know of has warrior traditions that seek to guide the human heart in such circumstance. Must we kill to protect that we love?  History says, sometimes.
Must we transform our enemies into monsters in order to kill them?  History says no…although that is the common reaction.  Or if they are monsters, must we become monsters ourselves in order to survive?  Again, history says no…although too damned often, that is exactly what happens, and must be guarded against.

We exist not merely to live.  We live not merely to survive.  But if we do not survive, we cannot grow and change and evolve.  If there has ever been a conundrum more demanding than this one, I do not know its name.  As artists, we have an obligation to ask the hardest questions imaginable.  If they cannot even be asked in the theater of the mind, what hope is there for humanity?

All my life, I have HATED what was done in America to my people in the name of economics and social order.  The temptation was to hate those who did it.  To consider them monstrous.  But I saw the result of such thought in those who railed against injustice: it destroyed them, their health, and their capacity for love and light.  So I sought another way to understand.  But first, I had to survive.  This helps explain my interest in guns and knives and thirty odd years of martial arts training.  No one can tell me I have no interest in surviving.  But if my enemies ARE monsters, I will not become one in order to conquer them.  And if they are NOT monsters, I will not fall into the most basic human trap: the need to hate that we must kill.  For if we do not hate them, if we see ourselves in their eyes as those eyes dim with death, we never cheapen the cost, we continue to search, at all costs, for a way to avoid killing them that does not place our children at risk.  We never stop searching. 

When we do, regardless of our intent, we become what we fear we are fighting.  Israel has the right to survive.  As does America.  As do the Palestinians.  Dear God, none of this is easy.  It’s not supposed to be.  Dehumanizing our enemies is the road to hell, paved as it may be with the love we feel for our children.  I will not walk that road, regardless of cost.    After 9/11, I heard the voice in my head saying “it is time to go and kill them.”  Had I been in my 20’s or even 30’s, I would have enlisted.  But I would never have let ANYONE take from me the awareness that they love their children too, that they have hopes and dreams and desperation.  Not for their sake.  For my own.  For the world I wish to build, that I wish my children to inherit. 

I would look through the telescope.  I would see that we are the same biological stuff, have the same needs.  I would cry as my heart is broken, and do what is necessary.  I would kill, or die, but would not lose my soul to ease my mind.  Never.
What is your attitude about these crucial issues?  Whatever it is, pour it into your writing.  Give it to the world.  These issues, issues that touch so deeply, are your doorway to the greatest art you are capable of creating.  Get to work.

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