A query in search of words.
“My son is a soldier in Afghanistan. If a drone will protect my child from harm, so be it.”
I listened and I trembled inside. The parent spoke at a public lecture critical of our government’s use of drones. For a few moments a stillness settled on the room. I do not take the parent’s statement as rebuttal to the speaker. Rather, I remember it as an implicit question: how do I reconcile my concern for my child with criticism of government behavior?
For that moment we stood on common ground: the speaker, members of the audience, the parent, and myself. Discussion stopped. In the stillness I felt this common ground slipping from beneath us. And after a few heartbeats, the room was filled with words about legalities, disclosure, and accountability.
I continue to reflect on that moment, remembering that I have, as many of us have, witnessed similar moments since the days of Vietnam. During those five decades we have seen these moments repeated when shared concern, even skepticism, about a foreign venture is deflected. Whatever the defects in the policy, we hear that we need to support our children in uniform or that our security requires that certain prices be paid.
When the parent spoke, how might I have responded? I remain uncertain. While analytical arguments about political systems and cultural values and about complexities of effective dissent provide necessary perspective, that talk seems insufficient by itself to address this question in search of the right words. After all the talk about constitutional questions, this place may remain barely explored. The parent’s response silences criticism of state policy. And criticism of state behavior often evades the parent’s question. The answer lies somewhere beyond the question: do I stop the drones or do I support our loved ones?
And so I feel drawn to this still point in time. At once I empathize with the parent and remain no less convinced that the drones are wrong. Moreover as a parent I know that these killing machines kill children over there. Today a parent in Afghanistan may be saying that if it were not for the drone, he would be having dinner with his daughter.
Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are asking the wrong question. Today I do not know the words for my question. Yet I feel it necessary to continue searching. I feel so when I stand at my community’s Saturday peace vigil and meet neighbors who are friendly to the dream of peace but conditioned to be fearful for their security. Again, the problem is posed as a choice between either peace or war with little ground between. Repeatedly though in different ways, I feel common ground slip away. Perhaps a first step may be taken simply by taking a deep breath and not stepping out of that still place.
Good work is being done that may enable us to sit in that still place between seeming opposites or irreconcilables for a bit loner. Last year neighbors in my community gathered in groups to read and discuss Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” and the Charter for Compassion project. That discussion continues in several forms including the Nonviolent Carbondale project. Parker Palmer comes to this place in his “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”. And Living Room Conversations works to bridge political division.
I am imagining a long process of undoing deep habits of thought that we share and that stymie our imaginations. But the wars have been going on for a long time, so long that we may simply call it The War. Learning the facts and calling for disclosure of government behaviors informs the discussion. But I wonder. The facts alone about drones or other policies once disclosed may not mean that they bring us forward. Intellect helps, no doubt, to address recurring concerns. Yet intellect alone may remain stymied, as it was that evening, without union with compassion and listening. Perhaps then we can work with that parent.