le 14 novembre 2015
It was ten months ago that I wrote about freedom of speech, of words, of the privilege of pens, and of those were killed, in some ways, for that. #Je Suis Charlie. Today, yesterday, it’s freedom of assembly. A concert (could “death metal” become more ironic?). A soccer game. Restaurants. Freedom of movement, of passage. The borders are close to closed. Famously, in the 1830s (as also depicted in Les Misérables), Paris was barricaded, fighting from the inside. Seventy years ago, there was the Maginot line, there was “Free France” and my grandparents fighting in the Resistance, there was my old favorite movie, La Grande Vadrouille, with the propeller plane landing just over an invisible frontier and then escaping back to England.
I still don’t know how much we should take for granted. There is a UN declaration. But not even every country is counted in that.
I commented to a friend that this—ISIS, all of it—is like a terrible, blockbuster movie for July 4 weekend. Except I don’t know who the hero is. There isn’t one. In another friend’s village in Cameroon, he discovered that people believed that in action movies, those who die, die. Ebola was that. I have trouble truly conceiving of so much destruction I have not experienced except in fiction. I know personal tragic and tragedies. I’ve seen babies, so many babies (and so many adults) die of AIDS. And TB. And malaria. And diarrhea. And malnutrition. And tetanus (the most banal-sounding shot I give my patients to check off the 10-year mark) : a five-day old with lockjaw who died because he couldn’t feed. And there was nothing else to do. I’ve seen that. I’ve been in shantytowns. I was in Kenya six months after buildings and people were burned in the 2007 elections. I saw the burn marks. But I’ve never been in it.
In France…the example because it’s what I write today and it’s what I know most…there are bomb scars on buildings. World War II. I. There are plaques. Grandparents were in it. Parents vaguely remember so little food. None of that exists in the US; save now the September 11 memorial and buildings. Maybe. The small shock of the skyline in older movies and photographs. But war hasn’t been here; terror, not war; since the 1860s. Not here. I’m writing in New York, I’m writing a 15-minute walk from the 9/11 memorial, having climbed the stairs from the subway station still marked “World Trade Center.” I remember well the events. War has not happened here. Hate has happened here, hate happens here. But it’s easier to go to war when you haven’t been inside it, when it doesn’t threaten the lives of everyone left behind. Indirectly. It’s easier to bomb. It’s easier for war games to be an exercise. One of the people I love dearly is a naval officer. It’s easier as an exercise.
I don’t believe this in the name of religion. We have that, the freedom of. They call it rape, pillage, murder in the name of Islam. Take anyone or anything’s name instead. A thousand years ago, and now, it was and is rape, pillage, murder in the name of Christianity. Many thousands of years ago, and now, it was and is rape, pillage, murder in the name of Judaism. Bombs, bombs, more people incinerating themselves and nearby others, unmanned planes, bombs. When I was much closer to agnostic than atheist (it’s now been maybe two decades), I figured that for any god, if my only grave mistake, my major misstep, was not believing, I would be let into whatever counted as a benevolent afterworld. Comforting, that was. Within the construct of faith, to me, that seems true. Murder of non-believers does not. But it doesn’t matter what I believe in now. None of this could be done in the name of a higher power. Anything can be done in anyone’s name, anyone can be slandered, libeled, vilified, raked through the proverbial mud and over the proverbial coals in a misrepresentation.
I can’t help but naively believe, some days, that if everyone did art, if everyone lived and breathed art for some period of their lives, there wouldn’t be killing. Not like this. But maybe I have to exclude sociopaths, and maybe that’s all this is. (But per psychology books by and about people defined as “sociopaths,” I have to say that they, too, are unjustly misrepresented by that name and that it takes something more to kill in this manner). Poetry, to me, is connection. I feel that when I read. Someone says something that is so raw, deep, true to my own experience, breath to page to breath. And the greatest gift is when I have been told that about my own. It’s true of every art, but I know best that one. My theory falls short for those who do not connect. Or do not want to. Juliana Spahr wrote the book of poetry This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. In part, she writes about 9/11 and how in Hawaii the air she breathed was also to and from New York. Extrapolate to tsunamis, hurricanes in Haiti, nuclear plant disasters, kidnappings in Mexico, college kids shot in Kenya, internal displacements in Syria, shootings and bombings in Paris, yesterday, and war, war, war. This is reality, it’s reality for too many, and it has to be incorporated as that.
In the country of my birth, of my first and native tongue, in whose language I have been told I write the rawest and most real poems, in a beloved city in which I have lived, no one I know personally has died or been in the places where people died. Not last night. But my cousin’s young son marched in his first rally? protest? march, ten months ago, after the shootings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo. And eleven months ago, two of my attendings’ young sons were carried in their first rally, protest, march in the name of Black Lives Matter. Neither has gone away in either city. (I don’t mean to compare time-delineated terrorist attacks with systematic, institutionalized, pervasive racism. Only in the sense that these two are what large groups in each country have recently gathered around). It takes something truly, truly egregious and outrageous to bring it back. It’s a state of national emergency, France is in three days of national mourning. I think that when Les Bleus defeated Brazil 3:0 in the 1998 World Cup, in the Stade de France, incidentally one site of killing last night, there were three days of celebration because it was le 14 juillet, Bastille Day. The World Cup victory had happened just before. This time, it’s just after Veterans’ Day. In New York, I think I notice flags at half mast on an almost-daily basis, and I’ve stopped wondering for what.
Should I compare this to medicine, think as I often do and write of life in those terms?
One thing we do in my residency program is medical interviews for asylum. Mostly, these are asylum-seekers on the basis of torture in their native countries. We transcribe their stories. We describe and photograph their scars. We ascribe the diagnostic criteria of post-traumatic stress. My first interview was with a man who told me about friends shot around him in a soccer stadium. Officers had infiltrated and opened fire. He was kicked and stamped on while pretending to be dead.
I thought of that.
On est ensemble.