Monday, September 01, 2003

Commentary -- Fearlessness

Early in August we went on vacation. We went to Logan Airport and chose to use curb side check in rather than stand in the enormously long Saturday morning lines. Generally, if we give the porter a big enough tip, we are assured our luggage will arrive to the same location as us at the end of our journey. There was a delay in processing my ticket. The porter had to go inside to secure my boarding pass. I became immediately worried. Was there some reason he could not print me a pass right there, as he had for Pat? What had I done? Was it the parking tickets? Some criticism of George Bush, John Ashcroft, the war? Had my work with immigrants run afoul of the USA Patriot Act? Would I be the first US citizen prosecuted for working with immigrant women, women who I never question about immigration status? All these worries tugged at my heart. I am a middle aged African American woman; I have been raised to expect the worst because frequently the worst happens. I figured I would never get on the plane.

Finally the porter came back with the boarding pass. We went to stand in the incredibly long security line. As we neared the front I was pulled aside. The immigrant -- non-TSA, non-communicative former security inspector now reduced to looking at boarding passes and getting paid less than the Americans who had taken her job – woman working the line pulled me aside. No explanation. Another immigrant woman put me in a holding pen. I knew my worst fears had been realized. I was going to be questioned a searched by the INS, by the TSA, by the FBI… Finally I thought to ask the second, slightly friendlier boarding pass and i.d. inspector why I was in this line. It turns out I had been pulled aside for the random, more intensive, security check. This was my first time. Truly. I must be the only colored passenger in the United States not constantly “randomly” chosen for extra scrutiny. The airline computer chose me, hence the difficulty with my boarding pass. All was well, except I had been on the verge of panic and grim resolve to face my persecutors bravely.

So they had won. I have been an activist all my decision-making life (since 16 years old) and have never taken the possibility of the government interfering with my movements or my rights as a citizen very seriously. George W. and John Ashcroft had done what no other administration had managed to do, they had instilled in me fear and caution and anger.
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The war continues in Iraq. “Post” war military casualties have exceeded those before, in May, George Bush, in his rarely used flight suit, declared hostilities over. Daily, Iraqis are killed by US forces and elements of the Baathist resistance. There is no count of the daily toll of the war on Iraqi lives. At least not until a prominent religious leader is blown up, during Friday prayer, and at least 100 of those worshiping with him. The US accepts no responsibility for protecting those Iraqi leaders who have sided with it in its war effort… and accepts no responsibility for their deaths. As near as I can tell, the US occupying force, our government, accepts no responsibility for any deaths, only weighing out blame, for US military and civilian casualties, the destruction of water, power and health infrastructure, the death of Iraqis, the lack of any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Most Americans still support the choices George Bush makes and the lack of direction his leadership provides. At least that’s what the polls say. But maybe people are afraid to say anything or too worried about their jobs, or lack of jobs, or need for a second job, to care about Iraq.

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I was in Akron recently, visiting my parents. The crisis over the Ten Commandments was finally resolved. I had been watching the news and reading the papers in a kind of wonderment over the energy this judge and all those Christians were putting into keeping that really ugly block of granite in the middle of the Alabama Supreme Court House. Who were these people? Why were there so many African American people, so close to the 40th Anniversary of the March on Washington acting like defying the US Constitution’s separation of Church and state was the most important thing in their lives? How many of the white people were card carrying members of the Sons or Daughters of the Confederacy or demonstrated to keep the Battle Flag of a failed military effort on the same piece of state property? How many of them think of our government as an occupying force?

They didn’t seem upset about the economy or the lousy state of schools in Alabama or the continued segregated nature of US society. They had not, as near as I could tell, extrapolated the meaning of the Ten Commandments beyond their need for its public representation and their fear for their (but what they claim to be our) Christian society if its granite image wasn’t left in the middle of the Alabama Supreme Court Building.

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There is a practice in Buddhism called Metta or Loving-Kindness practice. It is meant to help develop concentration and the quality of fearlessness. Not courage so much but fearlessness. I guess one does not need to be brave in the face of that which you love. Anyway, this practice is one of four that are collectively called the Brahma Viharas or, loosely translated (very loosely) the Really Wonderful Place (or Abode) To Live. Early followers of the Buddha discovered the need for the practice when practicing in a grove occupied by really angry tree spirits. Through the practice the monks learned to love that which they feared and that which they feared became very fond of them.

Despite what we proclaim to be our values, it is important to remember that the United States was founded through violence and manipulation; its economy built on fear and intimidation. The land we live on belonged to another people who were slaughtered in order to perpetuate the myth of a vast wilderness occupied only by wild animals and red skinned savages. When those savages could not be effectively forced to work in what was a nascent industrial agriculture they were forced to move or killed and other savages, black skinned ones this time, were captured, cowed and forced into slave labor. Our whole society has warped itself around rationalizing economic success that began with genocide, continued through enslavement, rape and more genocide, and could only be sustained through social apartheid, debt slavery (share cropping and the company store) and war. Every time in the last, and now this century, the country has been in economic or political difficulty our leaders have resorted to war as a distraction and fix. George W. Bush is no different. Recently his war hasn’t been going very well and frequently he looks spooked by his circumstances.

As I understand it, one of the reasons the Buddha encouraged his followers to develop the qualities of the Brahma Viharas (loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity) was so we could open our hearts and embrace the whole of everything – all beings in all realms, states, planes, universes – and realize all of it is in us and we are in it all. The practice begins with ourselves and moves out into the world. It results in, among other qualities, a deep commitment to help alleviate the suffering of all beings, even George W’s.

Our leaders and political commentators say a lot about democracy and justice and security. They say little about fearlessness, compassion and the relieving suffering. The polls and social analysts say most Americans are ok with this or are too distracted by their own suffering to care about the suffering inflicted on others in our name. I don’t believe this. Maybe I should, but I don’t. Perhaps our fellow citizens have not found the proper means for expressing their concern. Despite the pandering lip service conservative politicians have given to it, people have let their concerns for our society be derailed by misplaced worries about Commandments that our society has never valued enough to keep.

I believe everyone should engage in some practice that expands our ability to love and care and relieve suffering. I also believe everyone should engage in social change activities that alleviate the ongoing systemic effects that have arisen from the actions taken to found and maintain this country. While I might wish, in the context of metta practice, that George W. be happy, I am not required to wish that he be re-elected. In fact, more basic than elections, it is our responsibility to make sure no government, elected or not, is allowed to perpetrate suffering in our names. That is how we manifest our fearlessness in (what sometimes feels like) the vast grove of twisted and malicious tree spirits we call the United States.

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