I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
To know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
— William Stafford
This beautiful, somber painting, as much meditation as painting, was sent to me by the artist Tilly Woodward who lives in Iowa. It’s a small bird’s abandoned nest – a ground nester, I guess, because of the dried leaves caught in it. Its weave of gray and brown dried grasses and white root hairs is slowly unraveling, its symmetry disintegrating. This nurturing cup of time seems at once elemental and fragile, miniscule and cosmic – like the universe itself is unraveling its miraculous structure … the way this time on Earth feels to many of us, how we humans have allowed this paradise of protection and nurture and evolution to come undone.
Although the painting is exquisitely beautiful, it’s also painful, wistful, like the last fading chords of a Mozart piano sonata. When I say the nest is a ‘nurturing cup of time,’ I mean how the nest’s purpose is to nurture new life, hold it safe for merely two or three weeks, make the continuance of time possible for those most vulnerable days – from hatchling to fledgling then gone – how the simple weaving of flimsy grasses into a cup briefly holds that purpose and then is abandoned. The weavings of grasses mimic the weavings of galactic gravity, those similar spirals, so perfect, perfectly beautiful, woven by an incomprehensible intelligence expressed through instinct.
If Tilly had not found and painted the nest, it might have never been seen. Most people, I think, would walk by it without recognition; its creators designed it to be virtually invisible – especially by predators. I introduce my thoughts on genocide with this painting, to use it as a metaphor for the fragility of life on this planet. A metaphor for the miraculous, for the insistence of life going on, for the fate of all things endangered by human violence, and for what, as humans, we are responsible to protect.
In a time like this, a time made atrocious by the crimes inhabiting it – when the history of this time is like a balloon swollen with the acrid, hot unforgivable smoke of war crimes – in a time like this we have to reckon what is happening, who we are, what might we have done to alter that history? Iraq, Ukraine, Darfur, Gaza…
Will there ever be any accounting for it? And what good would that do?
Diverse thoughts jumble and pile up in my head. I want to sort them out, lay them out, like bodies in shrouds in the cratered courtyard of a Gaza hospital or an Israeli kibbutz, to at least unjumble the pile. My thoughts remain random. But If I keep them inside, unsorted, they resemble unattributed body parts. Some are memories, some are projections; they have no particular order. I extract one idea at a time, try to disentangle it from the general snarl, give it a name.
Four years after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, U.S. president Bill Clinton apologized for not intervening and attempting to stop it. In his speech there, he said, in part:
“…These events grew from a policy aimed at the systematic destruction of a people. The ground for violence was carefully prepared, the airwaves poisoned with hate, casting the Tutsis as scapegoats for the problems of Rwanda, denying their humanity. All of this was done, clearly, to make it easy for otherwise reluctant people to participate in wholesale slaughter.
“…The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began…. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope.
“We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere.
“Indeed, we owe to all the peoples of the world who are at risk because each bloodletting hastens the next as the value of human life is degraded and violence becomes tolerated, the unimaginable becomes more conceivable. We owe to all the people in the world our best efforts to organize ourselves so that we can maximize the chances of preventing these events. And where they cannot be prevented, we can move more quickly to minimize the horror.”
But how does the world community step in? UN Peacekeepers? Economic sanctions? Actions by individual governments? Appeals to desist? Attacks? Sentiments such as Bill Clinton’s are full of regret and apparent determination, but each instance is different from the past. And if the regret and the determination aren’t acted on in this next instance, they become just another piece of a shameful history. In fact, the worst kind of grandstanding morality – a public piousness composed by governments deeply committed to hypocrisy. Nevertheless, many of the facts are true – the increasing degradation and dehumanization of the other.
And what if the perpetrator happens to be an ally, a perpetrator about whom and to whom you cannot tell the truth? As the perpetrator commits genocide, you publicly agree that this is self defense and keep silent about the long standing actions by the perpetrator that created the crisis. This kind of dishonesty, which is a kind of insanity, intensifies the dehumanization and helps write a history of blood.
What agency does an outraged person, living thousands of miles away, have? Yes, letters, marches, civil disobedience, sit-ins. The trauma being suffered by the victims, the terror, the horror is so much more, so categorically different than the most empathetic among us unless we have experienced war. What we, the observers, suffer – especially if we are living in a country supporting the perpetrator – is the damage done to our consciences, the helplessness of our anger and care and complicity. The letters and marches may help to alleviate our moral crisis, but not deter the genocide.
The Israeli government seems bent on a fanatical course of revenge. Eventually they will exhaust their blood lust to exterminate the people they call beasts. What then? Millions of Palestinians will still exist. Will Israel make their military occupation even harsher? Or will they talk about making peace and dictate that the Palestinians have no right to their own revenge?
Israel will be unable to tell itself the truth of its own ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians for a long time. Telling the truth of this history to themselves would engender an unbearable guilt.
Who can actually stop an immoral government action? In 2001 and 2002 when the U.S. government was lying to its citizens and to the world about reasons for initiating the war on Iraq, Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, presented the U.S. case to the U.N. Security Council.
He held up a small glass vial of white powder which he claimed was a biological weapon recovered from a portable bio-lab in Iraq which was making weapons of mass-destruction under the orders of Saddam Hussein. This was PROOF! that the U.S. claims were true.
But Powell was lying. He did not have a bio-weapon; he had some white powder…what? Talcum powder?
I bring this up when trying to answer the question about who and how can a person stop a war crime or a genocide. Colin Powell seemed to me, of all the scoundrels in the George W. Bush administration, the only one with a shred of integrity. At that moment in the U.N. he could have said, “I’ve been asked to make the case for war by lying to the world. I can’t do it. Hanging on my words are the lives of countless people. I won’t do it.” Powell would have been at first disgraced, but then lionized. The war would not have happened. Soldiers, like Powell, are selected and promoted for their physical courage and their willingness to follow orders. They are selected and promoted for their absence of moral courage.
I’m thinking of the girl Fern in Charlotte’s Web who sees her father walking toward the barn with an ax planning to kill a runt piggling not worth the financial cost of raising. Government violence is much harder to deter than a father’s. A father loves his daughter, he accedes to her pleas. A government loves its corporate sponsors; it accedes to their donations.
One’s helpless pity and rage of watching the devastation and murder take place on TV and be able to do nothing is soul destroying – knowing that as an American I am complicit. As observers, bystanders, we feel complicity growing in us like a cancer, a personal cancer and the structural cancer proliferating in our Gross Domestic Product, the horrifying profits American defense contractors are gleefully raking in from this horror. That profit-pleasure is the dark shadow of the real horror, the black hole into which all our decent values are sucked and disappear as we ship load after load of bombs and missiles to Israel to perfect their cataclysmic destruction of Gaza and murder of Palestinians.
The U.S. government could shut off funding for Israel’s weapons. It would be like a family deciding to do an intervention with a destructive alcoholic. Lots of howling, claims of betrayal. The truth is a betrayal after many years of supporting the lie.
Anyone who is as old as I am has lived through many state sponsored atrocities. Perhaps the most reprehensible and recurrent statement justifying the commission of ruthless violence against weaker people is, “It had to be done.” Like a parent’s excuse for drowning a litter of kittens. It had to be done – for American interests…for Israeli interests….
What is the crime of the Palestinians? Their refusal to be ethnically cleansed. In spite of the racism and terror inflicted on them, they refused to leave. This was their land, these were their homes, this, their community. They were not responsible for the immense Jewish trauma of the Holocaust, but they were expected to honor it by sacrificing their land and history to it.
A terrible racist vengeance is happening right before our eyes. This was not on our dance card.
This was not the angel we wanted to wrestle. But here it is.
We thought we were minding our own business and suddenly a snarling beast leapt on our backs, clawing head and heart. This beast is genocide taking place in our time…again. It will not be appeased by refusing to acknowledge it. Its hot bloody breath disgusts us; its stinking weight may crush us. Genocide is collective punishment on people who have been collectively dehumanized – perpetrated by people who have dehumanized themselves, collectively diminished themselves, by failing to honor the Other’s humanity.
News anchors often begin coverage of the desperation in Gaza by saying, “Three weeks after the October 7th Hamas attacks…” Or maybe 4 weeks now, maybe 5… As though this situation began then. As though we can put a pin in the calendar for the origin story. If the pin is really meant to mark something significant, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say, “Seventy-five years ago Israel proclaimed itself a state and killed many Palestinians who lived there, expelled many more and began a long process of ethnic cleansing of the rest under brutal military occupation…”
I heard Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, interviewed. He was asked what military advise the U.S. is giving the Israelis about how to conduct their operations in Gaza, i.e., how to best manage the civilian population. He said we ask them the same questions we ask ourselves: Is this the best way to accomplish our goals? Have we considered all the options? I heard that and laughed out loud…or snickered out loud. Perhaps Jake Sullivan is too young to remember all the idiotic, insanely cruel policies followed in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq. Were U.S. generals asking themselves any questions at all except: How can we make this war most resemble terrorism? Maybe that’s the U.S. advice to Netanyahu.
We see footage every day of fathers running with bloodied children toward a hospital, then an interview with an exhausted doctor saying their generators are out of gas, they have no more medical supplies and anesthetics, no clean water and part of the hospital has been bombed. Perhaps the father goes on running forever. Perhaps he’s thinking that he will find an abandoned bird’s nest to lay his burden down. Who will offer him a safe cup of time?