Saturday, April 20, 2013

Our enemy.

When I sat down to write this morning, I did not want to write about the Boston bombing and the ensuing manhunt. What was there left to be said? And yet, we know next to nothing.

I badly want to hear Dzhokhar's story. He was a classmate and friend of a close family friend in my native Boston, and by all accounts, did not "come across as someone who would do anything like this."

But who does? In the recent debate over gun control, people spoke with ease about denying purchases to the mentally ill, but is that so easy to define? Growing up in a family of psychotherapists, I found that debate somewhere between ludicrous and horrifying, as the mentally ill were presumed to be a new category of the "others" that have long been the source of so many of our ills. The conflation of despicable acts with mental illness, and the ensuing belief that if we identify mental illness we can limit atrocities is somewhere between wishful thinking and utter denial of a much more threatening reality.

I do not want to hear Dzhokhar's story to understand it, or to feel empathy, or forgiveness. The events at the end of the Boston Marathon were horrific. In a way, the magnitude of the maiming--runners who came to run a race and left with no legs--outstripped even the death. Scores left with limbs lost and lives forever changed. There is nothing he can say to make us understand the wanton cruelty of his and his brother's act, no personal story nor political rationale that will make us sit up and say, "Yes, I get that."

In his essay Inventing the Enemy, Italian essayist Umberto Eco describes the need for defining the other as the enemy as an enduring part of what binds societies and peoples together. His is not a judgement, but an observation.

"Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness. But let us be realistic, these ways of understanding the enemy are the prerogative of poets, saints and traitors. Our innermost impulses are of quite another kind."

Growing up in Boston was to feel the constant animus between communities that together comprised what to the outside world was a great cultural and intellectual capital. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the great Harvard mathematician and humorist, the white folk hated the black folk, the Irish hated the Italians, the Catholics hated the Protestants, and everyone hated the Jews.

The hatreds in Boston were very real, and the rage lay just beneath the surface. And they boiled over in moments such as when Louise Day Hicks led her community of the white working class to protest the racial integration of public schools. It was the Other that bound us together. We all hated the Yankees, the Canadians (the team, not the people), and the Lakers.

Despite the years since 9/11, and despite the years of watching Palestinian bombs killing indiscriminately on buses and in cafes in Israel, the bombing in my hometown last week gave me a visceral understanding of British national anger at the Boston Irish community--led by the Kennedy family--lending financial and moral support to the IRA, whose bombs were as indiscriminate in their slaughter and maiming. It gave me an understanding of a Russian friend's anti-Chechen animus for years of similarly indiscriminate bombings in Moscow.

I want to hear Dzhokhar's story because of the rage that I grew up with, that I inherited from my father as literally as DNA is passed down from one generation to the next. My father's rage was more consuming of his life than mine. For me it comes only in moments, and it passes, but it is consuming in those moments. I have experienced it as a vestige of the immigrant experience. His parents came from Russia, 1,000 miles north and a bit west of Dzhokhar's family home. I have often commented that the dislocation of that migration took four generations to dissipate, as I imagine that my children finally and fully experience life without the rage I experience.

Eco's fundamental observation is that we define ourselves by who our enemies are, that civil society relies upon the presence of the other as a central organizing principle. A week ago, before Boston dislocated my thinking, it occurred to me how much easier it was to be President during wartime. Bill Clinton was the first President of my lifetime who governed without a significant war, and since the collapse of the Evil Empire, the need for a new enemy has been tangible in our politics. Eco talks about the millennial anticipation of the Anti-Christ as an animating force in Christendom and Europe's slow evolution to its modern form, and we watched over the past two decades the labeling of our adversaries as the Anti-christ, including Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the absence of definable enemies, as I learned in Boston, we turn on each other. Perhaps it is only with the waning of the wars of my youth that this has become so apparent in our national politics. Now, Democrats and Republicans have turned on each other in the absence of a common enemy, with new permutations of class warfare where it is the wealthy who resent the poor, and where our President is the Anti-christ. We have taken the art of cultivating resentments and channeling hatreds to new heights, across multiple new platforms.

I want to hear Dzhokhar's story because his and his brother's assault was so deeply personal, in a way that was obscured in 9/11 by the large scale nature of that tragedy. He chose to place bombs in crowded places. His action was both personal and impersonal. His life story as written across the web and in the words of those who knew him lacks a sense of animating rage.

I want to know how he took the step that so few take, to turn on one's enemy and in a deeply personal act inflict horror upon them. Defining this as the action of the Other--one more Muslim Salafist driven by religious rage against modernity--is not enough. This was a personal act. I have to believe that there is something there that makes Dzhokhar different, because it is too threatening to think that there isn't.