Uncomfortable Conversations: Children And The Bad News

On Friday morning, I finally faced the kind of problem I had heard many other parents make note of: how do you talk about the horrifying in the presence of children? On Thursday night, I had gone to sleep after reading the news reports on the murders in Nice, and on waking up, wanted to discuss them with my wife (who had gone to bed earlier than I had, tired and worn out after a long day’s work and then, an exhausting putting-to-bed session with our daughter.) But mornings are occupied with preparing our daughter to get ready for ‘camp’; and I did not want to initiate conversation about Nice with my wife with my daughter listening.

There was, after all, no way to sanitize the descriptions of what had just happened in Nice. I would have to say something like “someone ran over people in France in a truck, killing men, women, and children.” My daughter has given enough indications, recently, of understanding what ‘killing’ means–bizarrely enough, children’s story books involving animals and hunters have introduced her to this concept. She has also been introduced to notion of someone ‘dying’–via a pair of recent conversations about safety on the roads and the death of a beloved pet belonging to my brother’s family. She probably would not be able to figure out the full horror of the killings in Nice from my quick description of it to my wife, but I was still nervous that enough would get through to confuse her severely just before she left for the day.

Besides, I did not want to just stop at informing my wife of the news: I want to fulminate, to agonize, to express shock and anxiety at what seemed to be yet another installment in an insanity slowly building to a world-wide crescendo–and none of that was going to be ‘suitable’ for my child. Over and above the cuss words, my daughter would hear the fear and worry in our voices–and perhaps even sense it in our bodies from the expressions on our faces and our body language–and be driven to anxiousness and insecurity herself. And so I waited till she was gone, artfully avoiding a moment of confrontation that will not be postponed too long.

There is little I can do to protect my daughter–my most precious ‘possession’–from the world she is preparing to enter. I agonized over the decision to have a child in the first place, an unsurprising reaction to the prospect of bringing up innocents in a world apparently going to hell in a handbasket. Days like yesterday introduce a severe cognitive dissonance then: what have I done? Perhaps the only consolation I can offer myself is that last week I took my daughter up to the Atlantic coast in Maine, where she saw sights  that will hopefully retain their vividness as she grows up, providing an acute counterpoint of natural beauty to the ugly man-made horrors  that will continue to force themselves into her consciousness. At those moments of remembrance of the pleasures of childhood, I hope she will forgive me for exposing her to all else this world holds in store for her.

The Intimacies Of Mass Killings

There is an added dimension of the gruesome, the visceral, in reading reports about mass killings where the immediacy and intimacy of the deaths involved becomes apparent. Tales of bombings of distant lands are remote, colorless, obscure, and abstracted; there is a distant plume of smoke, perhaps a spectacular pillar of flame, a mound of rubble; we are told dozens died, but we see no bodies. There are, in the end, only numbers. We cannot even imagine the violence unless we see the mangled and charred remains of the bodies of the dead. Bombs and missiles do their work relatively anonymously, thus ensuring vital cover and protection for their perpetrators and for those who would employ them in their political policies.

Matters change with shootings.  A gun connects the shooter, the killer, with his or her victim; it establishes an intimate bond between them. The killer can see the victims’ expressions of fear and resignation, hear their pleas for mercy, and finally, see bullets do their deadly work, their impact immediately visible and manifest. This final, fatal, scene can be easily imagined; it may come to haunt our waking and sleeping hours as we mentally place ourselves in a similar situation. Watching videos of the street outside the Bataclan Theater in Paris where ISIS’ killers struck last November, you can hear the sound of gunshots as the assassins went about their work; you can conjure up horrible visions of what lay beyond the closed doors of the entertainment venue turned slaughterhouse. You pray for quick bullets and easy death, for no extended bleedings to death, for no charades involving the begging for, and the denial of, mercy.

And there is the horror of what happened last night in Nice where a killer drove a truck for over a mile through a crowd of human beings–men, women, and children. Heavy vehicles driven at speed do terrible damage to a human body; they are heavy, they possess momentum, they destroy bone and tissue and vital organ function effortlessly. Moreover, the truck’s entry into the crowd would have created a stampede of sorts; many of victims would have been run over and crushed after they had been knocked down by someone else fleeing to get away from the vehicle of death. The shock and horror of what happened is, sadly, all too imaginable; the screams of the scared and the wounded would have rent the night; the horror of the crushed and mangled bodies would have been starkly visible; the killer would have felt the bumps of the bodies as he drove over them, seen the terror of those he drove towards.

In a terrible irony of sorts, the massacre last night took place during Bastille Day celebrations–a commemoration of the singular revolutionary event that set France on the long road to becoming a post-monarchical republic. Yesterday’s act was a counterrevolutionary act; it threatens to hand over France–and possibly even the US–to the forces of reaction, to those who will heed its dangerous call to escalate a war against the wrong enemies.

Hillary Clinton’s War Abroad Will Come Home Soon Enough

Hillary Clinton’s response to the Orlando massacre reminds many why they are nervous about a person who carelessly voted for the Iraq war becoming US president:

Whatever we learn about this killer [Omar Mateen], his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity that we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people. They are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls. In speeches like this one, after Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, I have laid out a plan to defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it. And the good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made recent gains in the last months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

On Facebook, Corey Robin responds and draws a damning conclusion:

Forget about policy, just examine the rhetoric. The way Clinton escalates and turns it up to 11, moving us away from Orlando and a police investigation, away from any domestic considerations and social concerns, to the platform of civilizational warfare, to a cosmic evil that isn’t containable but must be destroyed and defeated, to internationalizing and militarizing the whole thing. This is the language of George W. Bush.

I’m afraid Robin is right. The little excerpt above is very similar in tone to the kinds of speeches George W. Bush made when he was infected by the spirit of 9/12–which seems to mean ‘national unity’ for some, but which in point of fact turned out to be a paranoid, vengeful, misdirected, wasteful, rage. It resulted in the war crime called ‘the Iraq war’ and if you really take causal analysis seriously, ISIS itself.

Perhaps the most crucial sentence in the excerpt is the opener. For there, Clinton makes quite clear that no matter what we learn about the actual motivations of the killer, her focus on ISIS will not waver. That is where the easier action lies; that calls for saber-rattling and bombing, all the better to unify a nation with (the one doing the bombing, not the one getting bombed, as Libyans and Iraqis will testify.) In the next four sentences, the rhetoric is ratcheted up with ‘genocide,’ ‘medieval,’ ‘slaughtering,’ ‘beheading,’ ‘executing,’ ‘torturing,’ ‘raping,’ and ‘enslaving.’ The following four sentences showcase  a segue into aggressive plans for action, which are curiously and ironically informed by a sense of futility: the threat of ISIS “cannot” be contained; it requires–implicitly–a fight to the death. (Which as we all know, often tend to take down more than just the protagonists in the battle.) And then, finally, to wrap up, there is the nod to a global battle–waged on distant lands, from air, naturally, the American way, while hopefully, ‘allies’ sacrifice their foot soldiers to the maws of war.

There is no mention of homophobia, guns, masculinity, cultures of violence; there is no mention of domestic pathology. There is a problem; and here is a bomb that will fix it. Somewhere else. Never here. But those bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Wars are not just waged abroad.

Have Gun, Will Settle Dispute: The Dangerous, Alluring Temptation

I’ve seen fights, disputes, grow, fester, erupt into bouts of violence: disagreements become irrevocable, boundaries are crossed, and then, tempers flare. Punches and slaps are thrown, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes in a desperate flurry, sometimes shirt collars are grabbed as the ‘fight’ turns into an ungainly grappling session with headholds and chokeholds that aim to incapacitate. When the smoke clears, the protagonists emerge bruised and battered with a bleeding nose or lip–the former is more visually striking, liable to cause alarm, as red stains make their way down jaws and shirt fronts. On rare occasions, the fights have turned especially ugly: once, a young man picked up a rock and hit another on the face with it, splitting open a gash that instantly turned crimson, on yet another, a small piece of wood was pressed into service for the same purpose with the same effect. Drunken fights–like those I have witnessed on umpteen occasions at baseball games–are always infected with a touch of the comic; the fighters fight to stay on their feet even as their impaired co-ordination prevents them from landing a meaningful punch or avoiding the blows that come their way (the infamous ‘why don’t you step on outside’ brawl at bars often showcases such encounters.)

I’ve never seen a fight, yet, turn deadly. No one got stabbed with a screwdriver or a knife and bled to death. The folks I saw fighting didn’t own or carry guns. But if they had, they might have pressed them into service, seeing in them a speedy resolution of a nagging irritation that had turned unbearable. Which is what a lot of folks all over the US seem to do–as the Parents Against Gun Violence page on Facebook reports, the following are some of the reasons Americans pressed guns into service in the month of May this year:

 

As you can see, the formula is pretty simple, and can be boiled down to a few essentials: see fellow citizen, enter into dispute with fellow citizen, reach point of irresolvable difference, settle dispute with gun. Sometimes alcohol, that most popular of all legal drugs, is also implicated, but it needn’t be; sometimes it is men doing the shooting, but not every single time; sometimes children get into the act. Traffic conflicts, workplace hirings and firings, prickly neighbors, property wrangling, domestic arguments–these can all be expeditiously settled with a firearm. (Road rage in the city and on highways has a long and dishonorable history of featuring guns in its eruptions.) Perhaps a handgun is used, perhaps a shotgun, perhaps an assault rifle. It does not matter; they all shoot bullets, they all shut a yapping mouth, they still a flailing body. They make the irritating person who won’t shut up go away.

Homicidal rage, the kind that results in violence, is always dangerous. It is made especially so when it can be coupled with a firearm. A gun promises a dramatic and satisfying denouement, a fantasy of forceful resolution, an imposition of our will on a stubborn and difficult world. It will always provide a dangerous and alluring temptation.

ISIS, America, ‘Failed States,’ And Gun Control

In the Orlando massacre, ISIS met, once again, the enemy it wanted: a society riven by a culture of violence, hyper-masculinity (and its inevitable attendant, homophobia), awash in guns, susceptible to fascist demagoguery, infected by a paranoid, self-destructive Islamophobia. That society’s lawmakers have passed over two hundred anti-LGBT bills in recent times; they also refuse to limit access to assault rifles that allow a lone gunman to shoot over hundred people in an enclosed space. Its political candidates exploit the socio-economic decline and corrosive anger resulting from rampant economic inequality to stoke fears of immigrants and foreigners and people of color; as if on cue, a fascist has become one of its presidential candidates this election season. ISIS could not have asked for anything more. It stands on distant heights, looking at the scenes arrayed before it, and it sees a polity ripe for exploitation. It wonders when this divided house will fall.

The power of ISIS in material terms is insignificant, for its rule is confined to a few pockets of territory in the Middle East; its progress in gaining square miles is merely fitful. Its soldiers and weaponry are as susceptible to munitions as anyone else’s. But ISIS rules America’s imagination, and that might be its most important conquest yet. ISIS would like nothing more than to see American saber-rattling and war mongering, coupled with a fierce desire to track down and persecute imaginary Fifth Columns; these are all are part of an explicit ISIS prescription for success in America.

It is the day after the Orlando massacre, and there is little to do in America other than sign petitions, make note of outrageous hot takes–like Donald Trump’s suggestion that Obama had something to do with the massacre–curse the NRA, and quibble about who or what should be blamed. America is at a loss. Such confusion–over political strategy and tactics, in response to a phenomenon that occurs with metronomic regularity–indicates a state ripe for the kind of infection the ISIS aims to spread; it is entirely opportunistic–for it first took root in post-war Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

A comparison of the world’s greatest superpower with the world’s ‘failed states’ might seem risible; but it is not so when it comes to the matter of mass shootings and gun control. For failed states are characterized by broken political discourse, by vacuums of power; such is arguably the state of affairs when it comes to these massacres in America. Political parties know not what to do; the populace is convinced of its helplessness. Guns and those who use them and sell them rule the roost–just like they do in ‘badlands’ the world over.  The culture of violence they enable, the disputes they help settle, the temper tantrums and inchoate prejudices they transform into homicidal rage, these continue to corrode the fabric of America’s polity.

Homophobia, guns, the violent resolution of disputes; these are part of the American cultural and political fabric. They enable ISIS too, just like its beheading videos do.

 

Women Raping Women And The Frightening Ubiquity Of Rape

A woman I used to know told me–in the course of recounting her political journey from timid, sheltered suburban dweller to a passionate feminist and advocate for abortion rights–that she had been raped twice. On the second occasion, she had been raped by a workplace friend; she became pregnant and required an abortion.  On the first occasion, she was raped–repeatedly, over the course of a semester–by her college roommate. Her roommate was a woman.

Whenever I have repeated the abstract details of this story to others, one reaction seems to predominate–it does not matter whether the audience is a man or a woman: “How is that possible? How can a woman rape a woman?”

This response displays a severe misunderstanding of the nature of sexual assault. (I did not ask my friend for any details of her rapes, but she did add a couple of significant details. Her roommate was much ‘bigger and stronger’ and, ‘she told me she would fucking kill me if I told anyone.’ My friend left the university after that semester and moved back home; she did not report her experience to the university and she did not tell her family her true reason for changing universities.) Without getting into anatomical details, it should be clear that if women can have sexual contact with other women, they can also have unwanted, unsolicited, non-consensual, violent, sexual contact with them. And that is rape. (See, for instance, this harrowing tale recounted by a young woman on Reddit–and the responses it elicited.)

Rape is not synonymous with, is not defined by, the forced genital penetration of women by men. And this definition is often supposed to be operative in only tightly circumscribed circumstances: the woman should not have been friendly with the rapist, ‘led him on’, had non-sexual contact with him, or a variety of other conditions. These seem to be the ways our common cultural and legal understandings would have it. Understandings, which conveniently enough, not only let sexual offenders off the hook, but also those who, by their indifference, implicitly condone such behavior and ensure its perpetuation. Such a narrow definition and understanding elides the basic nature of sexual assault. This impoverished understanding underwrites not only the responses I received to my recounting of my friend’s story but also a refusal to see the many varieties of sexual assault and violence that go unnoticed, unreported and thus, not understood.

My purpose in writing this post is not to make the facile point that it is not just men who rape, that women are also capable of sexual assault and therefore, should be included in the usual condemnatory responses whenever a high-profile rape case catches our easily diverted attention. Rather, it is something a little broader. As the statistics pertaining to the rape of women by women, men by men–a far more commonly noticed phenomena thanks to our knowledge, sadly enough, of prison culture, and men by women shows, rape is frighteningly ubiquitous. (Statutory rape perhaps deserves a separate discussion. Needless to say, the statistics of men raping women dwarf all the aforementioned figures, and thus understandably dominate our current discourse on the subject.) I will not, now, speculate about what this says about our species and its various cultural and political formations, but I do know that much of our current discourse about rape–and our frequent pessimism about being able to diminish its presence in our world–is doomed to continue proceeding along distressingly predictable lines till we achieve greater clarity about just what it is that we are talking about.

On Not Watching Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible

A dozen or so years ago, my now-wife-and-then-girlfriend’s roommate, a young woman who worked as a community organizer, told me that she had recently seen Gaspar Noé‘s recently released Irréversible. She really liked it: it was a disturbing movie, hard to watch because of that notorious eight-minute rape scene and all the other violence, but I, a supposedly serious fan of the movies, should still see it. It was good, challenging movie–well-made and cleverly constructed, an innovative deployment of the cinematic medium. I listened carefully to her descriptions of the movie and said I would check it out. A little while later, once I got my Netflix account, I placed it on my DVD queue, and then later, my ‘Watch Instantly’ list.

I have still not seen Irréversible. It sits there on my queue, waiting to be selected.

I asked my wife whether she was interested in watching Irréversible. She admitted  she was not terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of sitting through an extended violent rape scene.  So I waited for a suitable opportunity to watch the movie by myself.

I kept waiting. Irréversible is still on my queue, but whenever the opportunity to watch it arises, I blow past it and pick some other movie.

I know my reactions are not unique; Irreversible evoked similar responses from many who saw the movie and critiqued it. Its violence, directed against gay men and women, was easily accused of being gratuitous, misogynistic and homophobic, of pandering to those who sought titillation in violence.

But I was not making a straightforwardly political statement of disapproval by not hitting ‘play.’ Rather, I was simply owning up to an intense emotional and aesthetic discomfort. Some kinds of violence have simply become too hard to watch on the screen. (The torture porn of modern horror movies is another example.) Perhaps I have gone old, perhaps I have gone ‘soft.’

Modern cinema revels in the ‘unflinching look’ – all the better to rip of the mask off previously sanitized examinations of mankind’s cruelty to itself. These perspectives–the protracted sequences of beating someone’s face to pulp, the close-ups of missing limbs, the lingering over terrifying torture and disfigurement–are supposed to work by persuading us that we condone the presence of violence when we refuse to reckon with its grim reality.

But I am long persuaded. I am disgusted and appalled; I am left nauseated and sleepless. I do not need to be told anymore that there is nothing remotely sexual in rape, that it is an act of violence, brutal and unsparing in the damage it inflicts on its victims. My movie-watching over the years has not made me numb to cinematic depictions of violence; instead, I have been broken down. My stomach is not as strong as it used to be–if it ever was. Another eight minutes of persuasion will do me no good. Their rhetorical pressure will be unbearable.

Irréversible still sits on my queue; I leave it there as a reminder that my tastes in cinema have changed.