THE QUIET IN THE NOISE
At this point in time it is worth reminding ourselves of our privileged place in the world. Most of the time we assume our relative good fortune is
somehow natural, dare I say, and with this short-sightedness, we perceive the rest of the world.
The recent swoop of terror on the United States has disturbed this false sense of equilibrium and we have been made to sit up and pay attention again, made to notice what's going on in the
rest of the world. Our wealth, security and peace now stand on guard, seen anew in this precarious moment. If we choose to turn away from the daily news of all those others burdened
by terror and disaster, and seemingly so far away, we turn away from their inextricable link to us and our common future. In doing so we deny the inherent, long-term danger in such a choice.
I live in Tasmania, an island state of Australia. As I write spring offers a satisfying texture of colour and complexity, a diverse celebration of life. A paradise of sorts seemingly at peace with itself. In this corner of the world we are grateful, for a change, to be that much more removed from thecentres of power and action. But all is not what it seems. The beauty of a Tasmanian spring masks the story of those indigenous peoples whose world was once invaded, changed forever by terror and almost wiped out. My garden grows cheerfully over this older story, known quietly as genocide, a story still fighting for recognition. Although our ancestors knew about it then, although we know about it now, it is still a hard story to reckon with. We seem too ready for argument, to trade insult and semantics, too ready to compete for truth. It is especially hard to listen knowing so much good fortune has come at the expense of so much misfortune. We'd prefer to cast our human natures in a better light.
Often it seems in these post-modern times there is too much to know about, too much to register in our hearts at any one moment. In any one day wemight be asked to consider an array of oppressive human circumstances: the living conditions of people in Nigeria; the appalling restrictions imposed by the Taliban on the women of Afghanistan; in the west the cynical exploitation of women by the advertising industry; the fact that number of people living below the international poverty line on less than one dollar per day grew by 200 million between 1993 and 1998; the growing numbers of homeless on our own streets. The misery it represents is brought to our comfortable lives by television and made unreal by it, colonised by it as Zadie Smith recently wrote. So that current affairs too is served up as entertainment to be consumed while we eat our dinners. When we can't watch anymore, we turn it off. This is our choice and sometimes it seems we have to do it. We reach saturation point, say enough is enough. In any one day our consideration of the issues has its limits. But the misery continues.
For those few of us on the planet who understand the privilege of having enough food, freedom and shelter, as well as the opportunity to live a fulfilling life, we feel at the very least we are obliged to listen. We
listen, then we tell others about our listening, not knowing how much good it will really do.
The listening will never be easy while the few continue to enjoy luxury at the expense of the many dying of hunger and preventable disease; while this wealth is seeded in destruction and the powerful obfuscate and manipulate the powerless. Pick any handful of stories about the corruption of power in the third world, see its links with the so-called civilised first world and you see why people are so angry with the west. You see why it can't go on like this, ad infinitum. How many more times do we need to be reminded? But how can our listening counter the enormous forces of destruction? Not fall captive to cynicism? There are no easy answers, still we listen. We listen to everything we can bear to listen to, to everything intelligent and compassionate we can come across. We search for the space in the confusion and note that empathy, as Robin Morgan recently reminded us, is the most subversive of emotions. The listening will never be easy while the words good and evil avoid the word why. They are such misused, conceited words.
Why is not the continuing and calculated scourge of preventable hunger, exploitation and disease, of greed and racism considered as evil as any fanatic driven to smash planes
into buildings? In all cases thousands of innocent people suffer. In all cases the violence is anything but random. Casting why as the voice of treason silences us with expedient logic. Peace cannot be bought at such a price when there are so many, apparently avoidable, bleak facts in the creation of human misery.
Something terrible has happened, said my partner the Wednesday morning here that was the Tuesday night there. It's so chilling, emailed my friend from Canada. Isn't it awful, said another, are you all right? Well of course, I thought rationally, what have I got to complain about? But after so much listening, three days later my body felt like it had been run over. I had listened and watched and read and listened, glued to the vision of those planes crashing into buildings, those mighty buildings collapsing, images played over and over for effect, feeding some kind of obsession, lest we forget. Images absorbed by my muscles, my bones, my stomach rigid and churning, my sleep fitful, triggering memories of my own personal loss and delivering me to that core of mass grief held in the smoke and rubble of New
Bosnia, Uganda, Rwanda, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Chile, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Palestine . . . . the ghosts weep . . . at the carefree, insulated, indifferent golden innocence that was my country's safety, arrogance and pride. Why should it take such horror to make you see, Robin Morgan writes. In Australia we had our September 11th before the USA had theirs. In Tasmania, that morning, I attended a protest against our government's appalling treatment of asylum seekers. Many come from Afghanistan, the country that was to be on that day, thrust brutally into the consciousness of the world. In just a few hours time here in Australia, the word refugee would become knotted into the hysteria of the word terrorist with all its racist overtones.
The dramatic images from New York took us straight to the hearts of its people and we rightly felt an emotional obligation to respond appropriately. Yet at the same time, here in Australia, images of refugees in rickety boats as real, live hurting people who sometimes drown in their desperation to get here, were being censored lest we forget our fears and open our borders instead. Nevertheless some of the stories have found their way through freedom' s grey zone. Refugee equals terrorist? Just imagine if a modicum of truth were allowed to take root in the collective consciousness, like refugee equals largely women and children. Would we then be treating them as an enemy, using our navy to round them up and dump them on poor island countries all over the Pacific? The lack of moral intelligence contributing
to this shameful episode of Australias history is astonishingly obscene, if not an example of evil in its most banal form. So here we are back again with that word evil. It's difficult not to use it at times when you feel something really deserves its cold, hard ring, especially when that something calls itself civilised.
Three weeks after September 11th as I sorted through my stack of newspapers ready for recycling, I was still stunned by the individual stories that have become New York: the look of bewilderment on a firefighter's face inside one of the buildings before it collapsed, the true fragility of bravery somehow captured on camera; the woman who survived after being buried for twenty seven hours under slabs of concrete and glass; the man who made it to the bottom carrying three women on his back. The falling ones, falling from so high up ... for a few seconds I look at them close, turn the photo upside down
to see if the person is a man or a woman, to see if their hands cover their eyes; for a few seconds as I gaze out onto my garden, I imagine the feel of the wind sucking past, the noise of it as they hurtle downwards, their screams stuck in their throats, lost to the atmosphere. I am stilled by these images, knowing their particular power has to do with the fact that those office workers and airline passengers were so clearly like me. The aggression that brought them to such an unsuspecting and terrifying end was never deserved, regardless of what may need to be said about the political transgressions of the USA or its unwillingness to see itself through the eyes of others.
The images of a crumbling New York also find a place in my heart because I visited the city not so long ago and discovered how much I like it, how humane it felt despite its violent reputation. I was relieved to discover how much low rise existed and surprised to see that skyscrapers, like the Chrysler building, could be beautiful. But on my last morning there I stood directly beneath Tower One of the World Trade Centre and bent my head back to look up at its disproportionate vulnerability, way, way up in the sky, too high for me I decided then, too high even for Superman it seemed.
Countless other images from around the world continue to fill countless newspapers, week after week, year after year, images of havoc and suffering, pitiable, horrifying in their cruelty, disturbing all sense of hope in humanity. There's no doubt these images get a grip on me too and over the years I've had to be careful in my handling of them lest they steal my dreams. As far as war and politics goes, the twentieth century reeks of its rotten causes.
On Mondays I practise Spanish conversation with an acquaintance from El Salvador. That week in September I tried to tell him why my body had absorbed, so intensely, the trauma of the events in New York City. I am like a sponge, I said wondering how well this expression would translate. My acquaintance is a refugee who refers from time to time to la guerra in our conversations. La guerra seen close at hand rather than on television. La guerra that caused his family and him to leave their country. How does he see my emotions? My acquaintance is a generous person who refers only occasionally to the dead bodies he saw in the streets of El Salvador. There were El Salvadorians who worked in the World Trade Centre he informed me. He has seen the wrath of the USA, he has seen things I've never even dreamed
of. He never dreams, he tells me.
Then there is my student. I teach him English. We talk about the terrorists. As a boy my student fled Laos with some of his family because his people, the Hmong, were being persecuted by the communists for co-operating with the CIA during the Vietnam War. After the war, he explained, the communists came to kill us like animals. As a boy he hid with his family in the jungle for four years, scraping to survive. He is not a critic of the USA . He appreciates the freedom he has in Australia. And even though he still has family in a Thai refugee camp, he believes our government is right to be careful about who it lets into the country. I try to understand his point of view. Unlike me, he has experienced a real enemy who threatened his life. We read about Laos in an old encyclopaedia. My student asks me to explain the meaning of the terms left wing and right wing. Where to start, I wonder. How to explain that their meanings grew from a framework now largely obsolete, yet still so apparently influential if the responses to the events
in New York are any indication. These old divisions still distort our discussions as we line up in our respective camps and try to argue about the meanings of the attacks on the USA. It's much harder and more confusing to abandon those camps, but more necessary than ever if we are to further our understanding. My student tells me if he could, he would go to war with the Australian forces who have gone to Afghanistan. I ask him why. There is no euphemism or linguistic disguise in his simple English.
I think war is exciting, he tells me. Why? I ask incredulously. You get killed. People suffer. You know that, I want to add, you are here because of war. My uncle say war is exciting. Why? I ask again. There is more to this that just conversation practice. There is here a raw admission, rarely heard. Oh you know, he continues, because you fight and then boom! boom! He laughs. My student has a pleasant smile. He is not an aggressive person. Men think that, I say. He looks at me not disagreeing, perhaps a little embarrassed. My wife wouldn't let me go, he adds smiling again.
While the bombs drop, voices cry out for the need to respond to violence with something other than the same. These voices, many of them women, continue to swim against a tide of revenge and political cliches that call this option naive. But if we are to survive as a species how can it be anything but necessary, even though it is undoubtedly complex and contradictory. Twenty years ago many of us thought we were all going to die in a nuclear war. That time has passed to see us grow older in a world no less dangerous.
The week the world changed I attended the launch of a new book of poetry. A local publisher sensitive to the moment, celebrated the work of a nervous, sensitive poet. The poem he read couldn't have been more apt in the way it captured, almost prophetically, the sentiments of that particular week. Then they would take their freedom with both hands/ and eat it like a sacrament/Then they would care about the Middle East/. The crowd in the book shop was as silent as a congregation in need of comfort. Poetry of the kind celebrated that night is as essential as air.
Our papers keep saying the day the world changed but the change really only came for the USA and countries like it. For too many the world changed long ago. Chiles September 11th came almost thirty years ago and the man responsible for its crimes, now deemed too old and sick to pay for them, is free to enjoy the convenience of an old age that dissolves his guilt in memory loss. But there remain people who will never forget and who can teach us something in their remembering, if we listen. As a Chilean acquaintance, a refugee from Pinochet's terror, said recently, there's this quiet in the noise of burning buildings and people dying, there's this quiet in the noise of disaster. To speak the truth, to question why is not to demonise or justify. To state one fact is not to deny another. We need to look back in a way that allows us to go forward. To speak the truth is to desire survival. Otherwise, as Akbar Ahmed recently said, we are condemned to the brutal finality that denies dialogue, so dramatically represented by those planes crashing the World Trade Centre.
Very few of us . . . were aware of history, said a Vietnam veteran recently. You become wiser, you look at history and you see many more pieces of the jigsaw. To understand the jigsaw that is the world today, we have to understand that the picture is complex, contradictory, full of shades and nuances. The pieces represent a mixture of prosperity, poverty, freedom, suppression, ignorance, education, hypocrisy, friendship, all mixed up by the dirty hand of politics. The pieces won't fit together if we force them, if we refuse to see the underlying colour, the pattern at the edges, if we can't first admit all is not what it seems. We are being told that it takes a certain kind of self-respect to say we have met an enemy. We are being told that a cunning enemy will not be persuaded by a pacifist morality and will exploit the openness of societies like the USA and Australia. But what kind of enemy are we talking about and what kind of defence is needed? As Edward Said recently said: "Islam and the West are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly . . .demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of decent politics.
It is now mid-November. The current news reports the fall of the Taliban and that in celebration some men and women in Kabul shaved their beards and lifted their burqas. But the victory of that country's Northern Alliance, aided by the recent US bombing, looks sickeningly blood thirsty if the photographs printed by our salacious media are any indication. The Afgani women's group RAWA is warning us about these victors, saying their past crimes make them an unacceptable alternative government. So what sort of government will be installed in that war-ravaged land and what will it mean for its future? And what will it mean for our future? And will we get enough food aid to Afghanistan before it is crushed by mass starvation in a harsh winter? It is despair that feeds fanaticism said Tariq Ali. We cannot afford
to forget this. Will the devastating selfishness of the affluent world be at last ameliorated by, at least, some sense of global self interest?
Since September 11th I've been turning on the radio again and again, hoping to find hope in the words of the most well-informed and compassionate, hoping to see a pause amidst the rage of the mob, hoping the men of this world can stand back a little from their hell-bent course, infinite in its revenge yet so short on justice. For as Robert Fisk said, it has come to this. It has come to this and we have to be extremely careful now, in a new, creative and seemingly impossible way. For we have no choice but to try for a new type of courage, for a renewed wisdom and for that heightened awareness that comes from the quiet in the noise.
1 Zadie Smith, 27th October, 2001. "This is how it feels", in The Age
newspaper, Melbourne, Australia.
2 Robin Morgan, September 18th, 2001. Article emailed to Australian
Feminist Policy Network email list.
3 Anne Kellas, 2001. Poem titled "The Square Black North" from Isolated
States, Cornford Press, Tasmania, Australia.
4 Akbar Ahmed, 22nd October, 2001. Professor of Islamic Studies at the
American University, Washington interviewed on Late Night Live, ABC Radio,
5 Peter Michelson, 2001. Quoted in article "Going Back" in The Age. Good
Weekend magazine November 10th, Melbourne, Australia.
6 Edward Said, 2001. There Are Many Islams, article emailed to Australian
Feminist Policy Network email list.
7 Tariq Ali, 2001. Will Pakistan Jump to US Demands, article emailed to
Australian Feminist Policy Network email list.
8 Robert Fisk, 2001. The Wickedness and Awesome cruelty of a Crushed and
Humiliated People, article emailed to Australian Feminist Policy Network