Friday, February 29, 2008


I saw and heard a couple of things yesterday that have got me thinking. I was on my way to a meeting in Kansas and drove by a home on a major street which had a large, hand-lettered sign out front. I was driving, so I couldn't write down the message on the sign, but here's what it said, to the best of my memory:

"Just be glad
that we are killing
more of their children
than they are
of ours.
Happy Holiday"

The "Happy Holiday" part is definitely right, and creates a pretty bizarre juxtaposition. I'm not sure which holiday is meant. Which is the "let's celebrate the children we've killed in our war" holiday?

I wondered whether the sign was meant to be satire, but I'm inclined to think that it is not. Someone actually feels that way, strongly enough to put those feelings on a sign. Which leads me to ask: how is it that someone can feel that way to begin with, and feel so strongly that way that the person is willing to put it on a sign right next to a heavily trafficked street? (Roe Avenue at about 60th, for those who are local)

Even if it's meant to be satire, the language is so violent and objectionable as to fail miserably. At least as "front yard, general-public-accessible satire."

I was sad about this first, and then outraged. I wanted to turn around and go to the person's door and try to have a conversation with him or her. Or maybe I didn't want a conversation, exactly. I wanted an opportunity to simply express the hurt I felt reading that sign, the hurt I felt knowing that someone who lives in the same general area I live in has such blatant disregard for the lives of Iraqi and Afghan children.

I didn't, of course. I was late and I probably wouldn't have anyway because I'm a coward and I can blog about these horrible things instead of doing something real. Plus, I'm reasonably certain that person owns a gun. Or two.

So my meeting went on forever, and three hours later I was driving home and "Studio 360" was on NPR. The featured interview for the episode was one taped with the writer Susan Sontag. I came in late, but it seemed like the theme was "images of voilence and war," or something similar. Sontag talked about images that she had seen which had affected her deeply, and they did a couple of segments on war movies and photographs.

At one point Sontag talked about the ability of an image like a photograph to evoke moral outrage. Then she said that she couldn't understand why people had a puzzled reaction to the atrocities of war. She said she was tired of people wondering why an SS officer could tear babies from their mothers' arms and send hundreds to the gas chamber by day, and then go home and play a little Shubert and entertain the kids before supper.

Her point was a good one--that human beings are capable of any manner of violence, a truth borne out by all of history. She felt that it was somewhat disingenuous to be shocked, or surprised, when someone commits a horrific act, since people have been doing that stuff since Cain killed his brother (she didn't say that, but it's my frame of reference and I'm stickin' with it).

I understand her point, but I still want to reserve the right to be puzzled and outraged. I just can't resign myself to the notion that somewhere in the Kansas City metro, there are people who really devalue the lives of children enough to express the sentiment on that yard sign. And no, a cruel yard sign is not the moral equivalent of Nazi atrocities, but it is the sort of thinking expressed on that sign that leads to the sort of moral equivocation we're experiencing as a nation right now.

See, I need to be able to ask the question, Is the United States of America really debating whether or not it is okay to subject someone to waterboarding? Have we really succeeded in pretending that some people are not as human as other people, and therefore different rules apply to those people?

I don't understand it. I don't understand that sign, and I don't understand how we've gotten to this place. So I gotta ask, even though I already know I won't like the answers.


Paul B. said...

Paul here.

That's a sickening sign. But I thank you Donna for doing me the service of _remembering_ that we're fighting this war and as an American, this is what I'm doing to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sorry you had to see it, but it's sure easy for me to forget Iraq and Afghanistan.

Speaking only for myself, I thought Iraq was a weird and hideous idea before we invaded, but since I'm a citizen of this country, I'm as responsible as anyone else for what's been done and continues to be done there. Sorry that's not a fully formed thought, I've been throwing this around for a few months, but I'm not sure there's an absolute separation between me and other people in the world.

I never liked Susan Sontag, and I felt vindicated once I read Camille Paglia's hilarious stories of dealing with her. I know that if I'd spent my life with anyone, no less Annie Leibowitz, I sure wouldn't have made arrangements to have that left out of my obituary. Can I completely disregard anything Sontag ever said or read because she was closeted in a world that didn't care? Feel free to tell me I'm wrong here.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen that Mr. Bush used his veto on the waterboarding issue? What kind of counrty is this that not only does that happen but there aren't people out on the streets FREAKING out that we are ok-ing torture? What is more frightening is that I think a lot of American's might think it's ok to do...