Marital Jihad

A few short months ago, I visited New York City with my family. We laughed and clapped at the circus, watched enrapt at a Broadway Show, laughed till our stomachs hurt at a comedy club on Times Square. Oh, yes; and we meandered through the business district, walking through the lobby of the Trade Center’s twin towers and gaping up like hicks at their astounding elevation. For more than one reason, there will never again be another trip like it.

Since then my family has fallen down into dust like those towers. I live in a different house, have been disenfranchised as a parent to my children, and stumble through a legal system as tortuous as it is blind. Perhaps it is only the distinctive madness of a lost man, but I wonder about the coincidence of these events, one so global and historical in its causes and implications, the other so deeply personal and intimate. If fate has chosen to radically alter not only the skyline of New York but also the horizons of my world, is there some deep, secret meaning in its turnings?

The men – and women – who were responsible for the chaos of September 11 have been well described. They were born in a distant land, raised on a stereotype of Americans as demons, hurled toward death with a firm though insane belief that the torture of others will somehow contribute to a just future. Many of them may not have ever met an American before they killed some, and all of them have certainly never loved an American. Known as “sleepers”, their relations with Americans had the as-if quality of dreams, where the only imagination at work is one’s own. The subtle shadings of everyday life could not be allowed to interfere with the florid hues of extremist ideology.

Most terrifying, before we came to know the unreal images of crashing towers and burning rubble, had been the screaming, flag-burning masses from Tehran or Bagdhad or Afghanistan, the twisted masks of rage that shocked us as we sat in our living rooms, good decent people who go forth to do what we can each day. Why would they want to destroy us, we who have never done them any harm, who would give them a free meal or a job or the shirt from our back if they needed it? But nonetheless here it comes, that tower piercing plane, over and over again, reducing our dreams of safety and simplicity to ashes.

I watched these gruesome images flicker across the screen of a strange TV set, seated on a different couch, the light from a new lamp illuminating the unread newspaper before me. It was a weird, unsettling moment. Disaster echoed through the world and resonated down to that belly-level reverberator we call a self, thrusting forth a strange consistency from the colossal stage of grand events to the small domestic miseries of personal alienation.

Has some wave begun to pass over the world, I wondered, has evil found a way to annihilate us not only from the outside but from the inside as well? It seemed to me that the superficial stereotyping that is so characteristic of global jihad is not different from the mundane domestic assassination that happens, household by household, in a million American homes each year. You demonize the other, you make them small and strange and insignificant, and then you destroy them. You destroy them with a sense of virtue and passion, perhaps backed up by the rule of law, you destroy them with a razor or a bomb or a plane or a judge’s ruling, and the wreckage that results is seen as no more than collateral damage in war that the self-righteous will call just.

It’s called externalization, and it occurs whenever we take the evil within us and project it onto someone else. It can happen between nations, and it will happen between spouses, and it is a legitimate question which is the more disastrous. When we take our hate and anger and shoot it like a doctor’s inoculation into another, we provide a stern test for their moral immune system. Will they be able to resist the viral urge to vengeance, to do unto others as has been done unto them? Will we? Will I?

Towers, of course, can be rebuilt and new planes will be fabricated and the walls of the Pentagon will look just like new. But what really is lost is the sense of safety that we shared when we believed that the sky would not fall, the security that allowed us to lose ourselves in a movie or a good book, the sense of closeness that developed when a group of warm bodies came together and called themselves a family.

For better and for worse, for richer and for considerably poorer, the jihad goes on in theatres both large and small. We have done wrong, and wrong has been done to us, and for reasons related to the unknowable twistings of the universe we are now the ones left with the smoking rubble. In the end, it is no more than that. In the end, and in the beginning.