The Rockets' Red Glare
Examining a birthright of violence
I’ve never been one for violence.
As a kid, my media intake was decidedly PG, but I still lost my shit over the sound of gunshots and trauma of mother murder in both Bambi and The Fox and the Hound, and then there was the heartbreak of Dumbo’s mother singing lullabies behind bars.
I abstained from horror/slasher movies in my teens, even though my friend Anna was obsessed with the genre and promised she’d break me in gently with the likes of Pet Sematary or Child’s Play. But I declined. I knew my overactive imagination had barely recovered from the years I spent believing a child-eating witch lived under my bed.
As an adult I desensitized myself enough to read Stephen King and watch The Ring in the theater, but I always paid for it with nightmares. Marido would be away for a week on a work trip and I’d sleep with a taser in my nightstand and a security system fully armed. Midnight trips to the bathroom were fraught with dark corners and things that went bump. It was hard to rest easy.
Once Filha was born I lost any tolerance I had gained for depictions of violence—written, visual, hearsay, I wanted none of it. The transformation was instantaneous. The moment that baby came out of my body and I held her in my arms, looked into her tiny wailing face, I became acutely aware of the very real violence lurking in every corner of the world.
We mothers try our best to delude ourselves into thinking we can shield our babies from every flavor of harm, but deep in our hearts we know it’s a lost cause. On her best day, the world is cruel and capricious. Calamity comes out of nowhere and there’s nothing any mother can do to stop it.
So I’d rather not consume imagined brutality. Reality is enough of a horror show.
Motherhood blows your heart wide open. No matter how empathetic you were before, your sensitivity increases a thousand-fold after. You come to know exactly what James Baldwin meant when he wrote: “The children are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality.”
I have been thinking of this truth nonstop for the past 55 days as I watch child after child die in the palm of my hand. Sometimes there are survivors pulled from rubble, tear tracks washing paths through the dust and ash on their small gray faces. The ones who don’t cry sit and stare, and that silence is worse than wailing.
The desolation is unconscionable. The violence is heedless. Needless. And Gaza is just the latest. It’s just the one that’s live-streaming into our consciousness right now instead of existing at a comfortable remove in headlines or memorial plaques or sanitized blips on the news shows.
At this very moment there are genocides underway in Myanmar. Sudan. China. Ethiopia. New Guinea. Nagorno-Karabakh. Congo.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
The truth beneath the truth of so much devastation is wrapped in an American flag. Missiles and munitions proudly Made in the USA, funded by the tax dollars of people like me.
In the book They Called Me a Lioness by Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi and journalist Dena Takruri, Ahed describes her childhood in the West Bank. Every Friday afternoon from 2010 to 2016, the villagers in her home of Nabi Saleh would hold marches protesting the occupation. Soldiers from the Israel Defence Forces would show up to quell the demonstrations by firing teargas, skunk water, rubber bullets, sound grenades, and live ammunition into the crowd.
Later, the children of Nabi Saleh would gather the empty tear gas canisters and plant flowers inside them; transform spent bullets into necklace pendants. It’s a moving image, but the part of that story that keeps coming back to haunt me is when Ahed wrote: “I played in streets and on hills and in front and back yards littered with the remnants of bullets and explosives fired at us by Israeli forces, much of this ordnance marked Made in the United States.”
In the past 248 years since the American Revolution in 1775, my country has been involved in 107 wars and rebellions. That’s a lot more than we were taught about in any kind of history class.
Did you know we invaded Honduras in 1859? Or fucked around in Korea in 1871? We tromped all over Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam in the late 19th and early 20th century. We occupied Nicaragua for 20 years or more; occupied Haiti and the Dominican Republic, too. In Vietnam they don’t call it the “Vietnam War,” it’s the “American War.”
There’s no way to neatly encapsulate in a single sentence all the horrors we visited upon the indigenous peoples of North America for centuries, but did you know we were still waging actual war with them in 1923?
From 1945 to 2020, the United States of America bombed or invaded Afghanistan,
Bosnia, Cambodia, China, Congo, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Panama, Peru, Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Vietnam, Yemen, and Yugoslavia—nearly one-third of the people on earth.
In the past 20 years, we’ve dropped an average of 46 bombs a day.
Oh, say can you see? Land of the free. Home of the brave.
My deconstruction from the oppressive religion of my birth took at least two decades, from the time I was a teenager until my early ‘30s.
I am now in the midst of deconstructing from America—which makes sense, because America itself is a religion.
Just like with my exit from evangelicalism, I can’t pinpoint the exact day this deconstruction began. I can’t name an inciting event. It’s just been bubbling over on a low simmer in the background: a stealthy, creeping awareness that I have been lied to.
The glorious fiction of America I was force fed as a youngster is laughable now. I once believed that if my country were human, it would be embodied by a Steve Rogers-type Captain America (white, male, straight, young, buff, natch). Honest and true. Stalwart defender of the little guy. Benevolent bringer of peace. Founding father of freedom.
But my country never really was that plucky protagonist. If this story were Star Wars, the USA would be the Galactic Empire, not the Skywalkers.
I wasn’t born yesterday, so the broad strokes of this revelation are not new. I’ve been aware for some time of the ways the Stars-and-Stripes rhetoric fail to line up with reality. I’ve marched in Stateside protests over one injustice or another for decades. Way back in 2004 when George W was re-elected, I submitted my apology note for that Sorry Everybody website. When Marido and I traveled to Italy in 2005 we joked about sewing Canadian flag patches onto our backpacks so no one would know we were Americans. My homeland’s hypocrisy is not new news.
But I am understanding that hypocrisy in a deeper way in my third year of living abroad—I’m seeing a more global reality.
Before I left the States, my focus was mainly on all the ways my country was abusing its own people. The widening divide between mega-rich and desperately poor. The screaming ridiculousness of our two-party political system. The lack of funding for all the things that truly matter like education and healthcare and art, in stark contrast to the bottomless flow of cash for war machines and machinations. Racism: individual, institutional, and systemic. All the isms and phobias: Sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia. And the violence, the violence, the violence. Guns in schools and guns in restaurants and guns in bowling alleys and grocery stores and movie theaters and concert venues.
Before I left the States, I thought I understood the ways in which my country is an obnoxious bully, treating the globe as its playground, stomping around and bellowing on and on about Freedom! and Democracy! as if it’s espousing some noble notion instead of using the guise of freedom as a cover to take whatever it wants from whomever, whenever.
But I am understanding the scope of things more wholly now. I am seeing through eyes that are not my own. I am hearing stories that are so different from mine as to have happened on another planet. The world is not America.
So what do I do with this understanding? I am not my government. I wield no nation-shifting powers. I don’t have it all figured out, either—I am still on this journey of seeing, hearing, deconstructing. I am still learning, every single day.
What I can do, though, is stay open. Stay soft and vulnerable, no matter how much it hurts. Reject cynicism and apathy. Continue to be horrified by violence in all its many forms—and to not simply be horrified, but to DO something about the horror. Educate myself. Unlearn all that star-spangled propaganda.
In the midst of all this, I am welcoming the fierce mother instincts, the understanding that the children are ours, all over the globe.
And I am teaching my own child that although we cannot choose the country of our birth, we can choose what kind of humans we want to be in this world.
Perhaps we were born to a birthright of violence, but we don’t have to claim it. We don’t have to make it our own.
If we’re going to build a better world, I think that’s a pretty good place to start.
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