Naming it


I didn’t have a name for it. On September 11, 2001, I flipped on the TV just as the kids were leaving for school. I saw a plane crash into the World Trade Center. Live? The event, which seemed small on the screen, was not nearly as sensational as an action scene from a Hollywood thriller. As I stood there I drew a blank that left me without a name big enough to cover what I had just seen. Not able to put a name to it left me not knowing what to feel, let alone what to think or believe.

We learned a name soon enough––Osama bin Laden. He was not in any of those planes, yet within hours I was informed that it was proper to believe he was at the controls. He’s now dead, unless you’re one of those who believe he is not, really. Those who believe he’s still alive have a name for what they believe, actually two names––Osama and Obama. The incidental kinship of the sounds of these two names, which neither the rules of rhyme nor reason can inflate into a conspiracy, is all the proof the believers need to support their faith that both men are equally evil and both still alive. Only if the two of them were plainly dead and lying side by side would some of them be satisfied.

So what am I supposed to think, believe and feel now that I’m convinced Osama is actually dead? His name has not been given proper burial at sea, so we’re still stuck with it. He certainly no longer is calling the shots, though arguably he’s still at the controls of new terrors being hatched. This power he has over us while dead would not exist if we somehow could have buried his name in a sea of forgetfulness, where the names of great-grandmothers and war casualties swirl about anonymously with the identities of the living souls who slaughter the chickens and pick the beans we eat.

The burdens of memory make it especially difficult to think our way through troubles these days. The circuits seem overloaded. Not coincidentally do we silence each other by saying, “Too much information.” Given all the progress we’ve made in the past few decades it’s hard not to be caught in the infoglut of the worldwide web, its tsunami of fact, statement of fact, inference, opinion, belief, theory, whim, superstition, con artistry, and propaganda democratically sweeping us toward the great undifferentiated unknown resembling the sea of forgetfulness. It’s tempting to feel we’d go insane trying to make sense of things.

Like these words here.

I find it easier to believe than to do the searching, remembering, and sorting reasoned judgment requires. In a democracy it’s especially easy to believe that all beliefs are created equal. If I can talk myself into believing that Noah put two giraffes, two loons, and two anacondas on his ark, I don’t care what biologists, historians, linguists and archeologists say in books I’ll never read. What I believe is my truth, truth is truth, all truths are created equal, and my truth matters most because I matter most.

Therefore, if I believe that President Obama is trying to destroy the U.S.A. I don’t need a smoking gun. My proof is that Obama’s name chimes with Osama’s. This belief in turns makes real another belief: That Osama was not really buried at sea as Obama claims. Like Obama, Osama is still alive. And like Osama, therefore, Obama hates the U.S.A.

Belief systems, like closed minds, enjoy the benefits provided by exclusive club membership. Not everyone gets in, even if they recite the required pledge and know the code words. And democracy, with all its talk about free speech, guarantees the right of these clubs to exist. This makes it all but impossible, and maybe actually dangerous, to diagnose some members of these clubs as mentally ill.

Yes, I too believe. I believe Osama’s actually dead. I believe Obama is doing his best for the majority of people of the U.S.A., and I hope to vote for him again. Club membership in my belief system is shrinking, I fear, though I believe that my club is more inclusive than clubs hostile to mine.

So how do I feel now that Osama is dead? I think he performed criminal acts, but I know he was, like me, a human being. I can’t help feeling sorry for any human being who experiences an untimely, grotesque, and violent death. Osama had wives, children, friends. I try to multiply whatever sympathy I can conjure by 3,000, those who died at the World Trade Center scene, and nothing adds up. They too had wives, children, friends, and the grief is staggering. So I avoid thinking my grief, preferring to distance myself from sorrow so massive, individual and incomprehensible. This distancing requires me to turn off thinking about the enormity of the human loss. I do what’s second best and tolerable: I believe in my grief, hoping to make it more sacred that way.

I do this knowing that my vast ignorance of the sufferings of the victims of 9-11 is just one of several ground zeroes where massive killings have occurred. Somewhere I learned that all beliefs, whether enlightened or dumbed down by an imagination’s sense of art and morality, take blind leaps into the darkness of faith, that pit where fear hides behind the masks and inside the noise of the names we blame. Now that Osama bin Laden has been killed, I, along with millions, await the naming of a new lord of the flies. Once he is named we will have someone new to hate, and we will have our faith in that hate renewed. This will spare us the trouble of further honest thought about how to loosen evil’s grip on us.