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November 23, 2004

Thanksgiving in a Culture of Death


by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

The other day, something quite remarkable happened. Ever since the election, news anchors warned of the "coming assault on Fallujah," the "final clampdown," the "major military offensive" that would put an end to the resistance in that city. Dire warnings were made for civilians to flee – civilians already weakened, exhausted and terrorized by a year and a half of U.S.-style "liberation" – to parts unknown, on some kind of magic carpet.

Because I've been taking care of my mother who is very ill, I could only imagine other elderly and sick people in Fallujah "fleeing" the city on walkers, attached to ponderous oxygen machines.

I looked at my own children and imagined how we'd feel if we were told to run away as fast as we could to who knows where, because U.S. bombers were headed our way. Having grown up in a military town, I know the panic that grips even seasoned residents when a bomber appears out of nowhere, flying extremely low and darkening the sky over your head. Before you can figure out what's happening, you feel the earth shake under your feet. You can't see them coming – that's the truly terrorizing part. By the time you see that dark bat-shaped jet, it's too late to run.

As TV and radio talking heads waxed poetic about the high-tech 500-pound bombs that would be dropped to "soften" human beings and "break the back of the insurgency," I felt that growing sense of dread that is by now familiar to anyone who doesn't rely on mainstream U.S. news sources. This dread, this feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, tightens the stomachs of those who were raised to take seriously "Thou shalt not kill" … that dusty old law around which the Bush administration has found a thousand loopholes.

I began to suffer insomnia, fear, and guilt because I could not turn off my empathy for all the families who were suffering, or about to be killed, or see their babies' legs blown off, because of my president's addiction to bullying with bombs and guns and expendable young men.

Then a couple of days ago, I learned that indeed the massacre had taken place. Fallujah was "quiet" at last. Some called it a ghost town. Quite a few young Americans died in the process. Reports varied on numbers killed, but all agreed that innocent people were killed while I was sleeping. Maybe as many as 800 civilians, but as many as – and the military said this with cheer, not with regret – 1,000 "insurgents" were killed. Whether the latter were actually insurgents or civilians or kids who happened to be in the way we have no way of knowing, now that the independent journalists have been scared away.

Staring at those numbers of people killed and children maimed while I was sleeping, I sat and waited. Nothing. No feeling. I was free of any sorrow, free of that depressing unease. At last I was joining the crowd. What a relief, to feel nothing! Even as a Christian, I could turn a blind eye to even the worst killing, and have a good day!

I closed my laptop and made breakfast, thankful to finally experience what my conservative Christian neighbors have enjoyed all along – a delightful numbness. No painful compassion, no vicarious suffering, no guilt.

Remarkable!

Blissfully Numb in Bush's Culture of Death

The "God-fearing Christian" who wrote to tell me that I was stupid for talking about Jesus because that means Christians shouldn't defend themselves under any condition, and that it was better to "take the fighting to the Iraqis than to have it happen here," and that, all things considered, he hoped I'd get beheaded, would be proud of me now. I'd passed over to the other side, the side of comfort and tranquility. The side where might really does make right.

You know, the winning side.

It's been great this week, feeling that I have arrived at long last at the pearly gates of the Culture of Death, yet I see no evil. Even when I heard yesterday a commander saying in an interview, "Well, we didn't get rid of the insurgency in Fallujah, but we definitely killed a lot of them," I felt at ease: The killings didn't bring peace, but at least a lot of people are dead now.

In the Culture of Death where our president assures us that the ends justify the means, I can finally see war as somehow Christian. I can visit www.presidentialprayerteam.org now without wondering why no prayers are solicited for an end to the killings of Iraqis by the U.S., as well as the other way around – and without worrying about the implications of millions of American Christians being told not only whom and what to pray for, but actually being given a script to follow when praying.

While only days ago I was horrified by the use of massive bombs on residential neighborhoods because U.S. intelligence "suspected" that maybe some "bad guys" were "holing up" in a "safe house" nearby (the same code words are used in every bombing of every country), I'm too numb to feel that now. Instead, I simply repeat to myself the hypnotic phrase that Bush and Rumsfeld and Allawi and military psy-ops experts sing in tune: "We don't target civilians."

Since that strange buzzing numbness began, I no longer hear in my head the true emphasis of that statement – "we don't target civilians" – a huge difference in meaning that has bothered me for far too long.

Even now that another war appears to be in the making, I'm not bothered. I know that "we have to take the fighting over there, if we don't want it over here." I know that 800 or 1,000 people doesn't mean a thing to most people, because those are big numbers – most of us have trouble visualizing 800 or 1,000 dollars or shoes or paper clips, let alone 800 or 1,000 dead bodies.

We simply can't keep up with the casualties anymore – the numbers, the fancy airstrikes, the glorious memorials to "our fallen," they just keep coming too fast, and in numbers that are too big for us to comprehend. "That does not compute," as the lovable robot on Lost in Space used to say.

As American citizens, we who feel responsible for what our government is doing in our name try to keep our eyes and hearts open to the truth. But after these last three years of ridding the world of evil by ridding it of people, it hurts too much, and we're hated for being liberally compassionate anyway, so we begin to falter.

We are weary now. In Bush's Culture of Death, the war is not only to "break the back of the insurgency," but to break the hearts of Americans. To make us stop hearing or seeing or caring what our military does to Iraqis and to our own young soldiers. The real battle to win hearts and minds is being waged right here: It is the American conscience that President Bush and his men are most determined to subdue – one way or the other.

Restoring Our Weary Souls This Thanksgiving

Sooner or later there comes a time when the horrors cannot touch us, when the dangers cannot rouse us, when we give thanks for a few moments of feeling absolutely nothing. My daughter tells me that it'll never last, this unexpected vacation from compassion, and as a psychologist I know she's right. It won't last, and when it returns it will do so with a vengeance. When the numbness wears off, the numbers of the dead will begin to hurt. But perhaps just a few days more….

Maybe this Thanksgiving we deserve some numbness, some relief. If you've read this far, I know you're the caring sort, whatever your politics or your faith, and that you have suffered, too. Let us decide this together: It's okay to take some time to recover from a traumatic election that was followed immediately by a new level of "emboldened" U.S. violence, violence that's making enemies for our children and our grandchildren. These are sins against God and future generations, not to mention the Iraqi people, sins for which we can only beg collective forgiveness.

Before we eat our Thanksgiving meal, we can give thanks that we're here instead of there, that we're not Iraqis fleeing bombs and war-crazed boys with guns. We can thank God for those soldiers who are still alive, and we can pray for their continued safety. For those of us who are Christian, we can say our own prayers, from our own hearts, without a script.

And, in defiance of all the warnings by every politician and pundit in the land that talking or even praying against war is treasonous and "gives comfort to the enemy," this Thanksgiving we can follow instead a higher command:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?"


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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