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"WW III? No thanks...!" On-Line Library

What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Questions without Answers, Answers without Questions

Barbara Kingsolver
September 23, 2001

I want to do something to help right now. But I can't give blood (my 
hematocrit always runs too low), and I'm too far way to give anybody 
shelter or a drink of water. I can only give words. My verbal hemoglobin 
never seems to wane, so words are what I'll offer up in this time that 
asks of us the best citizenship we've ever mustered. I don't mean to say I
have a cure. Answers to the main questions of the day--Where was that 
fourth plane headed? How did they get knives through security?--I don't 
know any of that. I have some answers, but only to the questions nobody is
asking right now but my 5-year old. Why did all those people die when they 
didn't do anything wrong? Will it happen to me? Is this the worst thing 
that's ever happened? Who were those children cheering that they showed 
for just a minute, and why were they glad? Please, will this ever, ever 
happen to me?

There are so many answers, and none: It is desperately painful to see 
people die without having done anything to deserve it, and yet this is how
lives end nearly always. We get old or we don't, we get cancer, we starve, 
we are battered, we get on a plane thinking we're going home but never 
make it. There are blessings and wonders and horrific bad luck and no 
guarantees. We like to pretend life is different from that, more like a 
game we can actually win with the right strategy, but it isn't. And, yes, 
it's the worst thing that's happened, but only this week. Two years ago, 
an earthquake in Turkey killed 17,000 people in a day, babies and mothers 
and businessmen, and not one of them did a thing to cause it. The November
before that, a hurricane hit Honduras and Nicaragua and killed even more, 
buried whole villages and erased family lines and even now, people wake up
there empty-handed. Which end of the world shall we talk about? Sixty years
ago, Japanese airplanes bombed Navy boys who were sleeping on ships in 
gentle Pacific waters. Three and a half years later, American planes 
bombed a plaza in Japan where men and women were going to work, where 
schoolchildren were playing, and more humans died at once than anyone 
thought possible. Seventy thousand in a minute. Imagine. Then twice that 
many more, slowly, from the inside.

There are no worst days, it seems. Ten years ago, early on a January 
morning, bombs rained down from the sky and caused great buildings in the 
city of Baghdad to fall down--hotels, hospitals, palaces, buildings with 
mothers and soldiers inside--and here in the place I want to love best, I 
had to watch people cheering about it. In Baghdad, survivors shook their 
fists at the sky and said the word "evil." When many lives are lost all at
once, people gather together and say words like "heinous" and "honor" and
"revenge," presuming to make this awful moment stand apart somehow from the
ways people die a little each day from sickness or hunger. They raise up 
their compatriots' lives to a sacred place--we do this, all of us who are 
human--thinking our own citizens to be more worthy of grief and less 
willingly risked than lives on other soil. But broken hearts are not 
mended in this ceremony, because, really, every life that ends is utterly 
its own event--and also in some way it's the same as all others, a light 
going out that ached to burn longer. Even if you never had the chance to 
love the light that's gone, you miss it. You should. You bear this world 
and everything that's wrong with it by holding life still precious, each 
time, and starting over.

And those children dancing in the street? That is the hardest question. We
would rather discuss trails of evidence and whom to stamp out, even the 
size and shape of the cage we might put ourselves in to stay safe, than to
mention the fact that our nation is not universally beloved; we are also 
despised. And not just by "The Terrorist," that lone, deranged non-man in 
a bad photograph whose opinion we can clearly dismiss, but by ordinary 
people in many lands. Even by little boys--whole towns full of them it 
looked like--jumping for joy in school shoes and pilled woolen sweaters.

There are a hundred ways to be a good citizen, and one of them is to look 
finally at the things we don't want to see. In a week of terrifying events,
here is one awful, true thing that hasn't much been mentioned: Some 
people believe our country needed to learn how to hurt in this new way. 
This is such a large lesson, so hatefully, wrongfully taught, but many 
people before us have learned honest truths from wrongful deaths. It still
may be within our capacity of mercy to say this much is true: We didn't 
really understand how it felt when citizens were buried alive in Turkey or
Nicaragua or Hiroshima. Or that night in Baghdad. And we haven't cared 
enough for the particular brothers and mothers taken down a limb or a life
at a time, for such a span of years that those little, briefly jubilant 
boys have grown up with twisted hearts. How could we keep raining down 
bombs and selling weapons, if we had? How can our president still use that
word "attack" so casually, like a move in a checker game, now that we have 
awakened to see that word in our own newspapers, used like this: Attack on

Surely, the whole world grieves for us right now. And surely it also hopes
we might have learned, from the taste of our own blood, that every war is 
both won and lost, and that loss is a pure, high note of anguish like a 
mother singing to any empty bed. The mortal citizens of a planet are 
praying right now that we will bear in mind, better than ever before, that
no kind of bomb ever built will extinguish hatred.

"Will this happen to me?" is the wrong question, I'm sad to say. It always