Tag Archives: terrorism

One Nation…With Liberty and Justice For All

20th April 2013

Today as I walked into my American literature class, just having seen the interview with the Boston bombing suspects’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni, I armed myself with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a clean, new copy given to me by a former student just this morning. Not all of them were aware of what had happened in Boston; the other students aware of the news filled them in, and then I read them this:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

[As an invisible person]…you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.  – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I stopped reading when the invisible man describes spooking a man in the street and then beating the man because he doesn’t see the invisible man, saying: “I was both disgusted and ashamed…. Then I was amused: Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life.”

I closed my book and said, “Sometimes the desire to be seen makes people do unimaginable things.” Invisible Man may be a work of fiction, but fiction so often reflects real life, and I certainly believe it’s capable of reflecting real emotion, and that description of feeling so outside of society that no one sees you that you purposely “bump” against it? It gives me chills.

Mass killings are, regardless of other motives, about attention, whether that is attention to a cause or a deep-seated anger or pain. One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, reportedly said in a wrestling profile, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” Though I won’t speculate as to his thoughts, it does seem that to some extent he felt excluded, Othered, just as the invisible man does. And just as the invisible man rails against his invisibility as an act of reclamation of self and of defiance against those who don’t see him, I believe too that these mass killings are at a very basic level about the same thing.

In my class this semester, we’ve focused many of our discussions on the inability to successfully answer the question: What or who is an American?  We spent time attempting to define the word, and with each text, I try to bring us around to whether that text is exemplifying or undermining our societal norms/goals. I think it’s a valuable conversation to have.

I brought up the FBI photos of the suspects, and I asked them what first came into their minds. We talked about the underlying issues in speculating the suspects’ origins, pointing out that if we can’t define who or what an American is, how can we possibly glance at a photograph and tell? A couple stated if they could speak with the suspects that they might be able to narrow it down, but I pointed out that students in our classroom have accents and that we don’t doubt their qualifications as Americans. I explained that I don’t have the answers here. I have no better definition than the rudely constructed one we’ve updated all semester. In the end, does it matter whether or not the suspects are American? Will it change the deaths or the life-altering injuries or the trauma?

Part of what I’ve seen this week is our intense desire as a nation to know. We want to know exactly what happened, how many people are dead, what the injuries are to others. We want to know who did this and why and how. We just want to know. Because if we know, we can place blame. We can tuck this away into a particular category in our minds and feel safe. As the victim in Invisible Man, we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that the terror wasn’t in our minds and hastily push it back into the darkness. That is very much human nature.

Yet it is that same desperate need for categorization – if the suspect is [insert ethnicity here], the motive must have been [insanity, anger, hatred of America, drugs, extremism, religion] – that causes us to make others feel excluded. And this exclusion all too often makes the excluded bump us back.

One of my students said, “But we’re not like that. We’re college students. We’re open minded and tolerant.” And it’s true, for the most part. They are. But what I wanted them to understand, what I want *us* to understand, is that we can’t escape this society we live in. We can’t remove ourselves from those of us who are also suspicious of those with accents or different skin color or those who beat a woman because of her religion and what we think that means. The reporters questioning Ruslan Tsarni are us, as much as I absolutely hate that aspect of my country. Our need to know creates the need for more, and that need creates the heartbreaking moment when a reporter asks a man living in America what he thinks about a country he calls home, a question that much of this population would never be asked.

President Obama last night said in his address, “…one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on earth but also what makes Boston such a great city is that we welcome people from all around the world, people from every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe. So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let’s make sure that we sustain that spirit.” And for a moment, I wanted to believe it. Instead, I found myself hearing his words less as an acclamation and more as an invocation: Please let us be these people.

And I think, now, sitting at my computer, trying to process the terror and fear and anger and sadness and shock of this week: Please let us live up to what we so like to talk about being. Please. Please let us be these people.


16th April 2013

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I never claimed to like running. In fact, I’ve been quite vocal (around friends and family) of how much I hated it – uttered after I’d gone for a run that morning or just prior to a late evening run. When I injured my right foot two years ago, I had to stop running. I started other types of exercise, experimenting which made my foot ache worse than others. And I didn’t miss it all that much. I saw doctors, one doing an MRI then telling me I needed to wear orthopedic shoes (ha!), all for princely sums of money. But after making me wait for two hours one day, only to release me, I immediately left the doctor’s office, donned my running clothes and tennis shoes and ran. I ran through pain and heat and anger and came out the other side, sated in a way, but realizing how much I’d missed that hated exercise. I think of a Nike pitch scene from the film What Women Want, one I’ve always thought captured running well, that describes running as an act almost of defiance of the self. As Jen at the Well Read Fish said in her post this morning, “I don’t run to protest anything. I don’t run to put others down. I don’t run to oppress. I don’t run to prove a point.” Running is intensely personal, so personal that the motivations for running a marathon can range from obsession to need to ambition.

When I read CharlesPierce’s piece in Grantland, it struck me when he talks about how the runners in the Boston Marathon had “already traumatized their bodies over 26 hours” that there is an exquisite pain in running but that the pain is immediately followed with a joy so intense, some term it runner’s euphoria.

And that running yesterday was stymied. The pacing and release of the run turned to running in fear, in anguish, in desperation. Some ran to find family. Others ran to tear down the barriers keeping the crowd from the runners, running again to aid the wounded, the shocked, the dying. Still others ran to the hospital to donate blood, taxing their bodies even further and showing up in such large numbers that they were turned away.

I hate everything about these incidents of mass violence in our society. I hate the death and pain – literal and figurative – that they inflict. I hate the fear they instill in each of us, in ways large and small. But I also hate the products of that fear. Seeing the reports that a Saudi national, here on a student visa, was questioned, made me near ill, as I have taught Saudi nationals here on student visas, students so amazingly kind and wonderful that just last week, one brought me a box of 60 (!!) granola bars as thanks for editing a letter for her. I hate, too, our desire to deconstruct the use or avoidance of terms like terrorism, when in reality, people were terrorized yesterday, and though that may not fit the FBI’s definition of terrorism, it works for me. Today, the terror many felt has turned into horror as the shock subsides and the reality sets in.

I want a kinder world. Yes, there have been moments of bravery and love and generosity. Even Twitter was a more watchful, cautious tool than it has been in the midst of more recent crises, as The Signal Watch points out so well. But that we’re learning to adapt and move forward warily doesn’t stop my desire for kindness in its largest sense. The who, why, and how doesn’t matter nearly as much to me in this moment because the answers to those questions won’t change what has happened. And as Craig Ferguson said on his show last night, “I just can’t not think about it.” And I suspect I’ll try and fail to not think about it tonight as my feet pound the pavement.

An Unexpected Guest by Anne Korkeakivi

16th July 2012

*The publisher Little, Brown and Company sent me this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Time rained down on Clare. 8:30 a.m., on the clock hanging above the breakfast alcove. Twenty-five years of pretending Ireland never existed.

She would have to step again into that air terminal. Stare into the dark waters of the River Liffey. Look over her shoulder at every instant.


Clare Moorhouse is the wife of the British diplomat in Paris. An American with Irish roots, Clare finds out rather suddenly that her husband’s post may be moved to Dublin and that she has half a day to prepare for a dinner party. Unsettled by the news because of an incident in her past, Clare tries to focus on the matter at hand but is constantly distracted by a figure from her past she sees over and over again in the market, on the street, through the florist’s shop window. Is he really there? Or is Clare so fixated on the guilt in her past that she conjures him? Over the course of one day full of planning, pacifying the cook, and trying to figure out why her son has suddenly arrived home from boarding school, Clare must face her unexpected guest and welcome or banish the memories that come with him.

Clare is of Irish descent, and though she’s told her husband she’s never been to Ireland, it’s not quite true. Twenty years earlier, she flew to Ireland carrying something for her lover, something she is now sure had sinister repercussions in a war-torn country. A move to Ireland terrifies her because of her secret, though she’s sure no one could trace the incident to her. As she plans a seating chart and arranges silverware orders, the brief summer she spent with Nyall plays back to her, and a chance meeting in the street with an accused terrorist brings her ever closer to ruin. Her son is unexpectedly home from school, and something is wrong, but she doesn’t have the time or energy to find out what, not today. Not when she sees Nyall across every street corner and in her mind.

An Unexpected Guest is a quiet novel, and what I mean by quiet is that it is a novel that is very interior. Aside from brief scenes with dialogue, almost all the novel is narrated from Clare’s mind, her thoughts and her recollections. Her life is very ordered. Married to a diplomat, life must be ordered, particularly when the difference between having salmon or whitefish for dinner is the difference between pleasing and insulting foreign dignitaries. This day, though, Clare is in disarray – at least on the inside. The strength of a domestic novel lies in its central internal debate (as picking out flowers, choosing cuts of meat, and polishing silver is only so entertaining), and An Unexpected Guest is no different; however, the several oddly-related coincidences that fuel the external actions seemed a little too convenient in drawing out Clare’s emotional reaction.

Read this if you like domestic novels and/or enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway or The Hours.