Saturday, March 17, 2012

ordinary atrocities

The trouble with atrocities is not their extraordinary footing. It is their utter banality. The essence of atrocity is not the vain explications of who and why they happened. The essence is ... I am the atrocity. This is not just some religio-philosophical piece of hyperbole -- oh how nifty and wise! It is simply a requirement that anyone wishing to live their lives wisely and well must meet and digest head-on if they want to stop the atrocities.

Buddhism, among other approaches, offers a precept ... do not kill or cause to be killed. Precepts are not so much what anyone actually keeps. Precepts are what anyone can and does break again and again. It is the willingness to pay attention that is tested and deserves nourishment. Atrocities are not some joke. They are soul-searing. They are beyond words. Atrocities are who I am, and this Failure to recognize and attend to such capacities is just another atrocity ... vast, insane and ... ordinary.

S.Sgt Robert Bales smiling
In the news of late, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan who was serving a reluctant fourth, is accused of walking off base and indiscriminately killing 16 Afghans before turning himself in. Afghans claim Bales did not act alone, that other soldiers were involved, but at the moment Bales is the only one accused of murdering men, women and children who posed no military threat. Staff Sgt. Bales is accused of an atrocity ... a deed that crosses some unwritten line in a world whose lines are fabricated at best and illusory at worst. Bales has been transferred to a prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

And it's not my fault. It's not my country's fault. It's not the fault of the paunchy and well-manicured and perhaps even well-intentioned men and women who shaped and supplied the environment in which Sgt. Bales operated ... an arena where the Stars and Stripes snaps gaily in the breeze. Bales will take the heat for the unspeakable, ordinary stuff, the stuff that has happened before and will happen again, the stuff that is OK as long as it isn't my fault.

Bales will take the heat, much as Lt. William Calley did during the March 16, 1968, massacre at My Lai, Vietnam. Men, women and children ... indiscriminate ... after raping the women, some soldiers stabbed their victims in the vagina. Wild, vile ... ordinary. And it's not my fault.

Although he may not have realized it, Calley was operating on precedent ... a precedent that reached back through history, but had lately been reinforced the month before My Lai when, on Feb. 7, 1968, American forces attacked Bien Tre and all but destroyed its buildings and inhabitants...indiscriminately. An unnamed major at the time was quoted as saying, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." Wild, vile, atrocious ... ordinary. And it's not my fault.

Calley took the heat and was later pardoned because of a vast public perception that he had been scapegoated. The public seemed to be aware that there was something vastly too easy and too ordinary  about blaming Lt. Calley.

Lt. William Calley...then
Listen, if you dare, to this MP3 from the BBC. It is a nine-minute report on My Lai. Witnesses were people who were there. They were there much as we are here. But of course it is not my fault.

After World War II, there was a massive revulsion at the concentration camp evidence that surfaced in the wake of the Nazi war. It became known as the Holocaust ... a grand name for an ordinary atrocity. Jews became most vocal since something like half of all those exterminated in the camps were Jews. The rallying cry became "never again!" But for all its heart-felt anguish, "never again" seemed a weak and somehow self-defeating banner for something that was so ordinary and, were the secret to get out, we all know damned well will occur again.

I once heard that a priest, after being released from a Nazi concentration camp, was asked what he thought of his guards and tormentors. And the priest said simply, "I might have done the same."

I might have done the same.

Thank goodness for such exemplars of honesty and steadfastness. I may be grateful that I did not do the same, but not for a nanosecond does that mean I could not have done the same.

Atrocities literally blow the mind. They are beyond screaming and beyond tears and beyond whatever is beyond that. But beyond the beyond there is a time in which it is necessary to breathe and acknowledge. Being depressed and run over is child's play. Horror, like joy, requires reflection. Hell, like heaven, requires responsibility. Atrocities may grab attention and anguish, but atrocities are most atrocious in their ordinary essence.

Perhaps it takes an atrocity to make wise men and women pay attention to the ordinary ... not in some philosophical or religious bloviation, but honest-to-goodness. What's wrong with the ordinary? What's wrong with a kiss or a walk in the sun, or the coming and going of the breath? It's ordinary and my vote goes to those who summon the courage and determination to address what is ordinary....

It's not my fault.

It is my fault.

It's not a matter of fault or lack of fault.

Life is smiling. I might as well serious up and get with the program.

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