Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Time is no healer

President Obama speaks tomorrow in Cairo.  The Muslim world seems to expect a great deal of him.  Some commentators worry that he cannot possibly meet their expectations without offending their leaders.  He sees a way forward, but can he point it out in enough detail that others can go there with him?  Only a man with absolute confidence in the power of negotiation and compromise would consider the constellation of suspicions and misunderstandings at stake here capable of solution.

One wants to look forward, but Ahman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have issued tapes in the last two days.  The competing voices of reason and hate, of charity and fear take me back to two events, one seared in the memories of all of us, the other much less well known.  They represent as bookends the problems Obama takes on as he ascends the stage at Cairo University.  

Even though all of those reading this blog remember 9/11, all necessarily remember it somewhat differently.  I remember a vague awareness of students and staff gathered around a large-screen tv in a student lounge visible through the blinds of my office window as I spoke with a student.  When we finished, I joined them, but could not grasp what I heard and saw, that one of the towers had fallen.  I simply didn't believe it, using the cloud of debris as the excuse for my recalcitrance, until the second tower fell.

Less than two hours later, in the chapel, we tried to make sense of our fears, our sorrow, our anger, though I remember feeling sad, and resentful of those who expressed anger, though that resentment seems churlish at this remove.  Most of all, I remember a student who spoke from the podium, tears on her face, her voice trembling, one of our many Muslim students, a Pakistani.  "Please," she pleaded, to an audience that knew and loved her but which suddenly frightened her, "don't blame all Muslims for this."

The second event happened five years earlier.  A band of vaguely Islamist Algerian insurgents kidnapped and later killed seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine.  The monks had fostered dialogue with their Muslim neighbors, gradually allaying the suspicions of many that they intended to proselytize.  They performed acts of charity; one of the monks ran a medical clinic of sorts.  A much beloved figure in the town, he died in the attack.  

Many in the Trappist order and some in the Vatican hierarchy had for years doubted the wisdom of their presence, and some went so far as to consider the abbot a dangerously inflexible zealot.  To those, the sad ending at Tibhirine came as no surprise, if an utterly avoidable tragedy.  The monks at Tibhirine had tried to do the impossible, in this view, in so doing had touched a nerve they could not help but touch, with results all too easy to predict and too hard to repair.  The last I knew the monastery at Tibhirine remains abandoned by the Trappists.

President Obama has taken an enormous gamble:  that the world, particularly those who sit on the Christian/Jewish/Muslim divide--not to mention all the fissures within those only apparent monoliths--can learn to see each other without hatred, fear and suspicion.  It means learning to know each other in the broken mirrors of social division and religious difference, repression, chauvinism, fundamentalism and realpolitik.  It requires an enormous good faith effort on the part of many people who do not feel they can afford it, or feel on the contrary that they can make a mockery of it at will.  It requires that the Rush Limbaughs of the world see themselves in the al-Zawahiris and bin Ladens.  It requires the vast majority of us at neither extreme to find a way to isolate the extremists and wrest from them the power they have to sustain the current dangerous standstill, while the precipice erodes beneath us.  

More than anything, Obama's gamble requires that we learn to remember in order to forget.  9/11 and Tibhirine teach us what mistrust can lead us to do and what fear follows in the wake of hatred.  We must learn to unlearn that cycle.  If, as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Dry Salvages, "time is no healer," we must learn ultimately to discard the broken mirrors and, as he says a few lines later, paraphrasing the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "[f]are forward."  Obama understands this; let us hope he can persuade others of his wisdom.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for helping me reflect back on my own 9/11 experience. I saw the Towers as I waited to see my midwife. I was huge, less than a month away from giving birth. Every time, I reflect back on this morning of terror, I think about a kicking being inside of me.

    A couple of weeks ago, our family watched Man on Wire about Phillipe Petit, the tightrope walker who crossed between the two towers. We fast-forwarded past the scene that was inappropriate for kids.

    Hope and despair are so close together and you, Peter, write beautifully about this tension and opportunity. I will pray for my President. We have no choice but to carry on.