empathy for the devil by jaswinder bolina

On September 13, 2001, a man tells me, “They should find the people that did this and shoot them in the street.” He’s a tawny-skinned immigrant a generation older than me, a naturalized American citizen, and mostly a pacifist. There’s a pause before he says, “But, you know, it’s amazing what they did.” His gaze turns elsewhere when he adds, “For years, these Americans and these British came into our countries and treated us like dogs. Now they know what the dogs can do to them.” Two days after Tuesday morning, he wants justice like an American, he aches like an American, but his perspective is stereoscopic. When he says, “They should find the people that did this,” they means the American government. When he says, “it’s amazing what they did,” they means the attackers. Both sides of the conflict are they. Neither is us.

He knows that he and I better resemble photographs of the hijackers than photographs of the firefighters. And when he says, “they treated us like dogs,” us means the Indian conflated with the Pakistani, the Pakistani mistaken for the Afghan, the Afghan called an Arab, the Arab indistinguishable from the Persian and the Turk, the Shia and the Sunni and the Sikh all taken for one bearded and turbaned body. He means us who grew up in dusty villages of the Middle East and Asia, who cooked outdoors by firelight and drank well water, whose lands were taken or who were taken from their land. He means the colonized, and from the perspective of the colonized, what the hijackers did is amazing: nineteen men on four flights departing from three cities fewer than 45 minutes apart; the way they crippled a nation thousands of miles and billions of dollars from the broke villages of the Third World. We might abhor their proficient viciousness, but what they did is amazing for the same reason that, ten years later, we’re amazed by another act of lethal efficiency: 30 or so commandos, one dog, two helicopters in an alien airspace; their spectacular mission ended in under 40 minutes with an impossible bullet to the eye. Both acts are amazing, are inhuman.

When the immigrant says, “Now they know what the dogs can do to them,” he sends me into the uncomfortable moat between us and them, where history is a taut argument against the present, where there’s heroism in murder and murder in heroism. Trouble is, I’m not certain I belong in that moat. Truth is, I’m an American, and nobody ever treated me like a dog. No colonist stole my tea leaves or plundered my oil well. No C.I.A. ever propped up a puppet regime to oppress, maim, or slaughter me. No matter who I superficially resemble or what my name sounds like, I’m an American, complicit and part of the problem: a consumer, a taxpayer, and a voter. I haven’t been to Tunis. I don’t know the boulevards of Benghazi. I listen to the news every morning on National Public Radio. I read the BBC, Washington Post, and the New York Times online. I laugh with Jon Stewart and study Farid Zakaria. I’m a diligent liberal. Still, I don’t know the Egyptians on either side of their argument. I’m uncertain which Syrians want what and from whom. I know about the artillery and the bodies bleeding in the mosques of Homs, but when a body falls there, it’s a foreign body with a foreign perspective. Nobody ever treads on me.

Tonight in my country, there’s a girl mounting a unicycle on the sidewalk outside the Casa Nueva Cantina. She’s wearing the brown leather jacket of a bombardier and moving precariously up the easy slope of State Street. I haven’t invented her. She’s there, and if you were in Athens, Ohio, right now she’d be wobbling out of your view too. When I see her, I’m tempted to criticize. How effortless she makes it to bemoan her as a symbol of our excesses. How easily she invites the charge of American indifference. I mean, how the hell can she ride a unicycle through a world inhabited by Bashar al-Assad, a world that permitted Gaddafi and Mubarak and every other tyrant their manifold brutalities?

The philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno says that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Though I’m oversimplifying what he means when I invoke him, this plain statement makes this girl on her unicycle seem positively monstrous for her apparent apathy. Ditto the hot dog shack across the road, the tanning salon and the drunks in the two barrooms beside it. This is the view out the window, February 14, 2012; a Wednesday in Ohio. What a bore all our opulence is. I’m tempted to indict it, but my complicity in this culture and its apparatus makes such a critique feel self-righteous, hypocritical, and entirely hollow. Besides, I admire the girl’s sense of whimsy. I wish I could ride a unicycle too. I don’t want to engage in an easy and irksome brand of American liberalism either: an activist mindset that contemplates, criticizes, and mourns but does little to alter the conditions that permit both apathy and atrocity. Such a mindset might motivate me to vote left of center, to donate to Amnesty International. It might get me to march and to occupy, but the mindset can’t exempt itself from its complicity. It, too, is part of the problem. The difficulty, then, is in describing what the problem is.

On May 1, 2011, I’m sitting in a booth of the Hopleaf in Chicago when my phone begins buzzing. The bar offers over a hundred craft beers, a sedate clientele, no televisions and no internet, and for these reasons is a perfect space to write in on a Sunday evening. But, the text message on my phone states simply: “Osama bin Laden dead.” It’s from a friend who works in the Personnel Office of the Obama Administration in D.C., and it urges me to gather my things, to find anyplace with a live feed. A block away, everybody in Simon’s Tavern is silent during the televised press conference from the East Wing. There’s a brief cheer in the bar at the news, but there’s something uncanny about this moment. I can’t imagine this feels anything like V.E. Day or V.J. Day. It certainly doesn’t feel like the fall of the Wall, a still lucid memory from my childhood. Less than a moral victory, this feels like bearing witness to an execution. Hitler had an army, Japan had a navy, and the Soviets a nuclear arsenal. Bin Laden lived twenty fugitive years in caves, tents, and dilapidated compounds. When I hear that he’s dead, I don’t feel anything resembling sorrow, but when I watch the young men in trees, waving flags and chanting U.S.A.! U.S.A.! outside the White House gate, I don’t feel any kind of pride either. Both sides of the conflict seem barbaric. They killed one of them, and neither side includes me.

My sense of dissociation has little to do with the idea that I played no part in the violence. My complicity might be indirect and inadvertent, but to deny it would be to lie to myself. I didn’t endorse the kill order, but I did vote for the man who did. I paid for the bullets and the stealth helicopters that brought them there. I might protest elements of American foreign policy, its too-easy embrace of bellicosity and military intervention, but it’s a policy written in my name. This year’s field of Republican presidential candidates would be quick to call my reservations ‘apologist.’ In their view, to question American policy is a betrayal, and if I don’t like it here, I should leave. But, I do like it here, and I don’t really have anywhere else to go. And anyway, I’m not exactly outraged either. In this case, I don’t disagree with the President’s order or with its execution. They should find the people that did this and shoot them in the street. Ten years later, I can’t say I disagree. This, then, might be what it means to be part of the problem. I’m unable to correct the failings of the State, but I’m also unwilling to abandon it. Further, my acceptance of some of its sins is inconsistent with my indictment of others. The consequence of all this together is a sense of alienation. At least that’s what I initially think to call this feeling. Then, I remember the immigrant’s perspective: both sides of the conflict are they, and neither is us.

I’m tempted to draw a link between his experience and mine until I realize my take on his view isn’t quite right. He isn’t apart from either side of the conflict. Rather, he’s part of both sides of it. His feeling isn’t one of alienation. Quite the opposite, it’s entirely one of empathy. This immigrant knows both combatants. He knows that in September and in May, a man gave an order to kill and gave it for a reason. In both moments, the man viewed himself not as a murderer but as an executioner. Each delivered justice, and each employed a similar logic:

  1. They came into our country and treated us like dogs.
  2. We should find the people that did this and shoot them in the street.
  3. Now they know what the dogs can do to them.

The boys chanting U.S.A.! in the trees of Washington on the first of May have arrived at simply this: Now they know what we can do to them. Bin Laden and his cohort, in the grainy video of their chilling celebration on the eleventh of September, arrive at the same conclusion. And it solves nothing. The logic that leads to it permits no contradictions. The attitude is entirely reaction without any iota of recognition. This is the critical difference between the combatants’ expression of Now they know and my immigrant friend’s expression of it.

Empathy is made of experience, and the men in trees and the men in caves don’t possess enough of either. This is why they celebrate murder. They see each other as dogs. But, when the immigrant speaks, he voices multiple nodes in the network of contradictions that comprise his perspective, a perspective born of his experience of both sides of the conflict. When, in the aftermath of the eleventh of September, he says It’s amazing what they did, he doesn’t mean to congratulate or admire what occurred. Instead, he means that something in him understands, not the depravity of the attack, but some aspect of the motivation behind it. He understands one retaliation even as he demands another and, in this, recognizes an element of either enemy. He sees through both sides of the bleeding eye, and to see this way isn’t apologist. It isn’t a betrayal. It’s amazing, utterly and supremely human, and this may well make it our only rescue from the horror of apathy; the indifference of atrocity.

Image: Turban Styles from “Le Costume Historique”, 1888.

About Jaswinder Bolina
Jaswinder Bolina is an American poet and essayist. His first book Carrier Wave was awarded the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry and published in 2007. His new manuscript has been awarded the 2012 Green Rose Prize in Poetry and will be published by New Issues Press in spring 2013.