Wednesday, November 12, 2014

'In the global village, fire can jump more easily from roof to roof.'

Not long ago a soldier was shot and killed while guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. The shooter then hijacked a car to the nearby Parliament building, ran in, and got all the way up to the door of the House of Commons before he was stopped and ultimately killed as well. It was rattling.

Earlier I wrote some questions about our responses to that incident. As I watched the reactions on old and new media, something felt 'off' to me. Something about the upsurge in images of the flag seemed like echoing evocations of a kind of burgeoning Canadian exceptionalism. It's not that we shouldn't rally around the call to give of ourselves for a safer, more tolerant country. It's just that it felt more parochial than peaceable; so nationalistic that it sounded naive.

I'm still trying to put my thumb on what I mean by that, but I picked up a little book by Rowan Williams the other day which might help to capture it. The book is called Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and its Aftermath.

Now, I'm still not sure whether the incident in Ottawa is best classified as straight-up terrorism or not, but let's say it is: The question still stands whether we allow the terms of terrorism to frame the meaning we make of these events.

I'll leave this here as something more to think about. What does it mean to be part of a country today? What citizenship frames our approach to the clashes and conflicts of our day? Williams writes in Britain in 2002, but the thoughts and prayers still hold:

'It feels as though some kind of contract has been broken, some unspoken agreement guaranteeing that we in the North Atlantic world would be spared the majority human experience of insecurity and physical dread.

What Faustian contract did we think had been made on our behalf? How would we imagine that, in a shrinking world, we could for ever postpone being touched by that majority experience? In the global village, fire can jump more easily from roof to roof.

Globalisation is not just an economic matter, the removal of pointless and archaic barriers to the movement of capital; not just a cultural matter, a McDonald's in every village in Papua New Guinea. It isn't even a matter of the free flow of information, so that images of the triumphant culture are everywhere (though that is so strong an element in the resentment of the non-Western world).

All these things have one sobering consequence: suffering in one region is connected with action in another...
Global economics is impressive in theory as regards its potential for regenerating local practice; but in reality it is seen as managed for the sake of those who are already victorious... Globalisation means that we are involved in dramas we never thought of, cast in roles we never chose. As we protest at how much the West is hated, how we never meant to oppress or diminish other cultures ... we must try not to avoid the pain of grasping that we are not believed.

The horror of being vulnerable to terrorist violence might open our eyes to the vulnerability that in fact underlies the whole globalisation process... [T]he sudden and literally brutal discovery that there is not contract to protect people like us from death and danger, and the humiliation of not knowing even where the threat really comes from or when or how it may strike again -- the sheer surprise may yet have its force in persuading us to make some connections...

The trauma can offer a breathing space; and in that space there is the possibility of recognising that we have had an experience that is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents, a suffering that is more or less routine for them in their less regularly protected environments.

And in the face of extreme dread, we may become conscious, as people often do, of two very fundamental choices. We can cling harder and harder to the rock of our threatened identity -- a choice, finally, for self-delusion over truth; or we can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what's there around us -- to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied).

If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far. There is a global hospitality possible too in the presence of death.'

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