Sept. 11-A Message from Author Barbara Kingsolver

Sept. 11-A Message from Author
Barbara Kingsolver

Published on Sunday, September 23, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Pure, High Note of Anguish
by Barbara Kingsolver

TUCSON -- 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 America.

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
was.

Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel is "Prodigal Summer."

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