Two books that I read in 2009 made me think ‘big picture’ kind of thoughts more than most do, and I want to tell you about them. Yes, we’re a quarter of the way through 2010, but it’s taken me some time to sort my thoughts on the topic. It’s not like I’m about to bust out 800 words on “Horton Hears A Who” (though I probably could); this is weighty stuff here.
Studs Terkel’s “Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About the American Obsession” is a fascinating look at this topic. Each chapter is a story relating to race relations, largely told in first-person by people Studs knew or met over a period of decades. Some were relatively young, some were relatively old. Some were well-off, some were poor. It’s hundreds of pages long, featuring dozens of individual accounts, and it was sometimes difficult to have to absorb some of the weighty feelings that some people are carrying with them.
Richard North Patterson’s “Exile” is a fictional story about a Jewish lawyer in San Francisco who ends up defending a former lover, a Palestinian whom he hasn’t seen in years, against charges that she plotted the assassination of the Israeli prime minister while he was visiting the United States. The story was okay, though requiring perhaps a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief. What I really found interesting was the opportunity to get a glimpse into the underlying reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the author clearly did some extensive research on the topic.)
I came away after reading both of these books thinking about conflict as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Much human conflict seems to stem from a lack of understanding of the position of one’s adversary. Story after story in the Terkel book made me think that if we just got to know each other better than we do now, we could all sing “Kumbaya,” or at least not spend so much energy looking at life as an “us and them” situation.
When you’ve been wronged, you feel like the other party is the one that should make amends. When you and your adversary both feel like the injured party, where does that leave you? Stalemated, likely. Israelis and the Palestinians both feel like they’re the party that’s been wronged. In that, I’d say they’re both right.
The irony in some of these conflicts, be they between individuals or societies, is that an outsider might have a wholly different view than any of the interested parties, one that could potentially band the adversaries together. If you stood an Israeli and a Palestinian side by side, I would think that many Americans would have difficulty identifying which was which, short of taking the 50/50 guess. So there are similarities among them that an outsider would see that an insider would not, or even if they could see them they would discount them. To many Americans, an Israeli and a Palestinian are not of two different peoples who have a lifetime of conflict dividing them, they are simply “those people from over there.”
Likewise, when terrorists attacked this nation by flying planes into buildings, they weren’t targeting a specific subset of Americans, they were targeting Americans. It mattered not to them the race, religion, or any particular about whom they killed; the objective was to kill Americans. It was that which brings us together that they sought to destroy. To them, we are “those people from over there.”
Obviously there was and is so much more to their motivation than that, but isn’t that instructive? That which binds us may actually be far greater than that which divides us. We just have to open our eyes to it.
Of course, the solutions to society’s conflicts are not so simple to actually enact. It’s tough to convince someone who (or whose ancestors) suffered anything from an indignity to a crime against humanity to move on, but moving on is the only way to make any progress in the fight against fighting.
At some point, we must each choose that it is more important to have peace and civility than to have some historic wrong corrected. One cannot undo the past. Americans could hold a historic grudge against Germans and Japanese for forcing us into a war that took the lives of thousands upon thousands of our citizens. Instead, Germany and Japan are today two of our strongest allies. Something such as that does not happen by accident. There is intention to it.
As long as there have been people on this planet, there have been fights over territory, over resources…really, you name it, and we’ll fight over it. So my ancestors took someone’s ancestor’s land, but those people also took it from someone else. So your ancestors mistreated mine? Well, mine also mistreated someone else’s. The cycle continues without end, unless we choose to end it. It’s fairly easy to talk about, more difficult to actually do. But worth the effort, I do think.