Sunday, September 11, 2011

Paralysis: The Day the Words Ended

“What's that Bin guy's name?” I asked Ron Bowering, who'd just told me that two airplanes had deliberately crashed into New York's World Trade Center towers. And so it began. As I outlined last year in my analysis of the U2 song, “Beautiful Day,” everything began to change for me on that day. In the case of U2, the song's meaning was transformed, but in so many other ways my attitude and outlook also began to morph into something different.

Throughout the rest of that horrifying day, windows opened onto a whole other reality. For about an hour after I watched the first tower fall on a TV in a boardroom, I tried to work. In my day job, I write feature and sales copy about fine wines and spirits, so I tried, vainly, to go back to it. Finally, I knew I needed to get out, so I grabbed a work colleague and we walked down to the water's edge at the Toronto harbour. Everything was quiet as we talked and tried to make sense of things. A handful of images from our moment by the harbour persist today: hundreds of seagulls knew something had happened because they surrounded us, just walking rather than flying, as if they had received the no-fly order too; a bus circled aimlessly around in the background (we were in an unused parking lot where bus drivers were obviously given lessons); just before we returned to work, a single-engine plane approached the island airport. We both found that odd since we had heard that all North American airplanes had been grounded (clearly this pilot didn't get the memo). We went back to work and I sat at my keyboard to start again on our latest 'magalogue' about the wonderful world of wine. I opened the program, rested my fingers on keyboard and, nothing. I thought, “What the fuck does it matter that I'm telling people about wine when the world was ending?” I couldn't type, I couldn't think about anything else except what was happening in New York, and, later, Washington and Pennsylvania. And then it seemed to be getting worse. A friend called and said there was gunfire in the streets of New York. Another friend told me the Sears Tower in Chicago was down. It was like the end of days.

Then our receptionist came by my desk and told me, “I've just been told by the federal government to go home. I'm sorry, I don't know about anybody else.” Some months before this it had come out that her dad worked for the feds in a capacity she either didn't know or wasn't at liberty to say. I constantly teased her that her dad was a spy. Seems I might have been right. Around noon we were all allowed to go home. But I felt a need to give blood for the first time in 12 years at a local temporary clinic. The area in the mall where the blood donor clinic was set up was a mob scene, and yet, despite the crowds, nobody complained. We all talked quietly among ourselves while we waited our turn.

The next day, after little sleep, I went to work, fired up my computer, opened my program and ... nothing. I remember sitting at my desk for what seemed half the day with my hands resting over my keyboard incapable of typing or even thinking. This went on for three days. Finally, on Friday the 14th I turned on my computer, opened the program and then a thought passed through my head: “Well, if what I do brings a little bit of pleasure into some people's lives then I guess I can go back to it.” And so I did. I thought I'd pushed through the horror and was returning to a semblance of order, but now, 10 years later, I know that the writing malaise went on for several years after. Yes, I did return to it, it is what I was paid to do, but it was rote and lacked much in the way of creativity. I was blocked, even as I continued to write.

Before 9/11, I had been a life-long liberal. Closer to the centre on most issues, but still a liberal. Over the next three or four years, as I tried to reconcile my feelings about what had happened, I needed to start reading to understand the changes 9/11 had brought out in me. As Susan Green so eloquently says in her piece that was posted earlier today, she has a wound that has never healed and I have too. I will also never forgive those who perpetrated this horrible crime. And to my shame, I know it has affected my views of those who are Muslim (though I'm thankfully making breakthroughs). However, it was this gradual shift in my thinking and political views that helped me return to writing that mattered. From 2004 to the present day, my politics shifted from liberal to conservative. I'm still somewhere around the centre, but I find I have little or no tolerance for the liberal need to appease, talk to, be “open-minded” about. Whenever people start to say “the West brought it on themselves” (and it's usually stated as if the person saying it is not a Westerner themselves), my blood boils. I've read too much, seen too much and processed too much to ever trust anything an Islamist says. Every time I hear someone say “we have to talk to the Taliban,” like Stephen Lewis did at Jack Layton's funeral, I want to scream in their face, “No we don't, because they will tell us whatever the fuck we want hear and then go back to trying to pull down our western democratic traditions, pushing women back into burkas or throw acid in their faces, and trying to return the world to a 7th century utopian ideal of Islam.” No thanks. (Might someone have also pointed out to Lewis before he got up to speak that day that mentioning negotiating with the Taliban right after praising Layton for the White Ribbon campaign is the height of insensitivity?)

What has brought some calm and clarity, and helped me to write again from a personal perspective, is reading people such as Paul Berman and his brilliant book, Terror and Liberalism (2003), where he outlines that the Islamist movement is no different in its cult of death attitudes than the Nazis, Stalinists, Khmer Rouge, Mao, Kim Jong-il, etc, were:

The terror war is not an imperialist war. Nor is it a clash of civilizations. The terror war is a new phase of the war that broke out in Europe more than eighty years ago and has never come to an end.
“Ali Benhadj said, ‘Principles are reinforced by sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah.’ Surely this, you will say, cannot be Western – surely this kind of talk, at last, is exotic! But this is how the leaders of Germany used to speak, sixty years ago. Bolsheviks were not afraid to speak like that. This is the totalitarian cult of death. This is the thing that got underway more than eighty years ago.

These are people who are completely willing to die for their beliefs and plan to take as many people with them as they possibly can. With a few exceptions (especially those in the East), the Nazis, Stalinists and Islamists share another thing in common: their hatred of the Jews. In the next excerpt, he is discussing how liberal anti-war Socialists in pre-World War II France came to embrace the Nazis and their ideology:

Some of those Socialists went a little farther, too, and began to see a
virtue in P├ętain's program for a new France and a new Europe – a
program for strength and virility, a Europe ruled by a single-party state
instead of by the corrupt cliques of bourgeois democracy, a Europe
cleansed of the impurities of Judaism and of the Jews themselves, a
Europe of the anti-liberal imagination. And, in that very remarkable
fashion, a number of the anti-war Socialists of France came full circle.
They had begun as defenders of liberal values, human rights, and they
evolved into defenders of bigotry, tyranny, superstition and mass murder.
They were democratic leftists who, through the miraculous workings of
the slippery slope and a naive faith in the rationalism of all things, ended
as fascists. Long ago, you say? Not so long ago.

Today in the left's attempts to avoid war at all costs, they have ended up bending and shifting and moving in this direction. I remember in 2003, or early 2004, I don't quite remember, watching the newscast of anti-war protests in Toronto. The cameras would focus on the well-meaning liberals as they spoke passionately about the need to stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (but mostly, at that time, Iraq). In the background of the shot (at more than one rally) I saw banners proclaiming “Death to Israel,” and yet when confronted with this bigotry, the organizers of these protests rarely condemned such signage. Today, again and again, we see this continuing. Until very recently, the only Middle Eastern country that is routinely vilified in the UN or by the left is Israel, the only democratic country in the region. Beyond the implicit anti-Semitism at play here, by not condemning Iran or Syria (though finally they are now, but only because the Syrian government is slaughtering their own people), or any of the other countries in the Mideast except Israel, the mindset is to appease, placate and be “understanding” in order to prevent further crises. And yet, as I've learned from reading and thinking about the past, this is not unique. Democracies believe in rationalism and therefore fail to see that those who embrace totalitarian beliefs, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, do not.

Neither did the Nazis, and yet Britain and France bent over backwards to give concession after concession to Hitler until there was no other choice. An exceptional book I stumbled across, while doing research for my second novel set in World War II, makes this case. Written in 1944 by Canadian journalist Matthew Halton (like Berman, a liberal who came to believe in interventionism), called Ten Years to Alamein, it outlines how everything Nazism was and had in mind was laid bare and obvious for anybody who really wanted to pay attention. And yet, the anti-war mentality was so strong in the West that the signs were ignored. Remember, this book came out in 1944 ( in the narrative, he was actually recounting events from the early 1930s to his ‘present day’), and yet, as is made clear by the following passage, democracy faces the same dangers today that it did 70 years ago. We believe in a rational viewpoint, but – just like the Nazis – the Taliban, al-Qaeda and any other number of Islamist organizations do not. They either want us dead or converted. If we compromise, as was clear in 1944, we do it at our own peril. In this first quote, Halton was writing about conversations he had in Germany before the war:

A gentle little old woman drank her wine, and when we were
alone for a second she snorted: “The trouble with democracy is,
it won't use bombs!” She had put her finger squarely on democracy's
serious dilemma: should the Hitlers, the Mosleys [Oswald Mosley,
head of the Nazi movement in England], the Francos, the Coughlins [Charles
Coughlin, a American Roman Catholic priest who made repeated pro
Nazi and anti-Semitic radio broadcasts in the US before the war],
the yahoos, be restrained by force the moment they raise their heads
to advocate the overthrow of democracy? And if so, is that democracy?
Can freedom of speech be preserved by preventing some freedom
of speech? We must find an answer to that.

Halton went on to interview other Germans for the Toronto Star in the years prior to the war. Later in the book, he talked to an anti-Nazi German mayor (called Burgermeister in Germany):

I found the Burgermeister Max had come almost to detest such phrases
as “good will” and “better understanding.” “I already understand the
Nazis,” he said. “I understood them in 1933. That was the time to destroy
the mad dog. And when they say, 'What the world needs is good will,' I
reply I have no good will towards mad dogs. One might ask: Who is the
arbiter who is to decide which is the mad dog? I reply: If democracy hasn't
at least that much faith in itself, it has no right to survive.”

Writings by men like these have, in the post 9/11, helped me to return to writing in a much more vigorous and creative way than I could in the years directly after 9/11. That attack stole my voice from me, but with a lot of hard work, reading and thinking, I've been able to recover it enough to not only resume my writing about wine and spirits in a lively fashion, but also on this fine website with a diverse group of talented people, and principally to finish my first novel, The Empire of Death, which I realize too was in some way influenced by my reactions to the events on that terrible, terrible day. They tried to steal my voice then. Thankfully, they didn't succeed.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information. On the evening of Tuesday, October 18, 2011, David will be holding an event for his novel, The Empire of Death, at the Bayview Village LCBO's Lifestyle Kitchen (Bayview and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto -- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto). For information and tickets (cost $35, which includes a copy of the book, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres), call the store at 416-222-7658. Seating is limited to 25, so please register early.

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