What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? … You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.
— Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Lately, I find myself reading noir crime fiction and thinking about the genre as a way to explain the world. It may have something to do with the fact I’m an American critical of my government and losing hope that positive change is even possible. As hope evaporates, there seems less and less space between political reality and the criminal underworld. Or maybe it’s the obverse of a militarist obsession with Tom Clancy and War On Terror thrillers.
The adherents of wealth, power and violence seem so entrenched and in control that those without power become doomed to ineffectual marginalization and, if they poke their heads up too far, in danger of having their intentions and actions criminalized.
This feeling of an amoral tide overwhelming society is hardly new, and for sure, there have been worse times in human history. But knowing that doesn’t help when you look around and see exactly what W. B. Yeats was talking about in his famous 1919 poem “The Second Coming”:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Right now, a good friend of mine is being treated by several governments as if she were a criminal. She’s a retired Army full-bird colonel, and she’s the exception to Yeats’ nightmare vision: she’s a case of the best of humanity not lacking in conviction and passion. Ann Wright and a handful of Americans are still on board The Audacity Of Hope, which has been impounded and is being held at a US Embassy dock under Greek Coast Guard control in Piraeus, a port near Athens. The electricity to the boat has been cut off; the temperature has been around 100 degrees and a Russian grain ship nearby has sent obnoxious dust over the boat.
The nation of Israel was successful, like the proverbial tail wagging the dog, in getting the United States and other western nations to act as if the honorable people on this boat were somehow potential violent criminals. As has been widely reported, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton effectively gave Israel the right to shoot Wright and others on board if Israeli commandos deemed that necessary. July 1st, the boat attempted to leave Athens harbor to sail to a port in Gaza and was stopped by the Greek Coast Guard. The Captain, John Klusmire, was arrested and charged with illegally leaving port; he was released, but will face trial later.
The standoff can be seen in a video, where SWAT-suited Greek Coast Guardsmen point automatic weapons at the people on the boat. A very obedient Greek Coast Guard officer reads the riot act to Captain Klusmire. The purported issue is “seaworthiness,” which Klusmire assures the officer has been properly documented. Everybody knows the seaworthiness issue is a joke, a case of strong-arm politics based on the fact Greece is a highly vulnerable international economic basket-case and putty in the hands of Israel’s patron, the United States. The goal of the flotilla was to show how Israel is treating Gaza like a prison province. A spirited demonstration in Athens took up the frustrating plight of the flotilla.
Eitan Habner of the popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper in Israel says his government “has taken leave of its senses.”
Haber was not talking about the flotilla standoff in Athens harbor, but he might as well have. He was, instead, talking about a preposterous international gauntlet arranged by the Israeli government at various airports around the world to prevent westerners from attending a recent Palestinian conference in the West Bank. Most of the westerners attempting to attend the conference were not allowed on their flights to Tel Aviv by various airlines bowing to Israel. The only way to get to the West Bank by air is to fly to Israel. Those conference attendees who did make it to Israel were arrested and deported.
Haber wasn’t very sympathetic to the western visitors’ views; he was just a politically pragmatic, smart man. He put it this way: “Instead of welcoming these loony visitors, permitting them to sing, whistle and even raise signs, the world is liable to see the ‘Zionist storm troopers’ in action once again.”
This image of “Zionist storm troopers” is in line with the troubled vision of Israel’s future presented by Idan Ofer, a pragmatic Israeli businessman, speaking in May to a business forum. “We are quickly turning into South Africa,” he told his fellow Israeli business leaders.
At the same conference, another Israeli pragmatist, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, worried about the failure of peace talks leading to an expected Palestinian request to the UN General Assembly in September for recognition of sovereign statehood. “The morning after the anticipated announcement of recognition of a Palestinian state,” he told the Israeli business leaders, “a painful and dramatic process of Southafricanization will begin.”
Israel seems these days to many people, me included, to be determined to become a righteous international rogue state relying for legitimacy on a small pack of post-colonial western allies in gradual decline and led by men and women whose main challenge seems to be to hold onto a glorious, dominant past.
Many Israelis, American Jews and right-wing Americans are by now totally acclimated to the notion that Israel is being picked on by much of the world. This essay will certainly be dismissed out of hand in this vein by many. Poor Israel just can’t get a break. Palestinians and Islamists who balk at relinquishing their independence and dignity to the West are deemed monsters. And, no doubt, some have become as much. And, sure, Israelis are smart and tough and they have a profound and unique history.
The problem is Israel and its well-armed defenders have so internalized this sense of being unfairly demonized and attacked throughout history that they refuse to see criticism as anything but more of the same anti-Semitic abuse.
Men like Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman now running the Israeli government are “full of passionate intensity” that the control of land and borders based on military domination and force is the only means of survival. Reason and compassion are dismissed as weaknesses. The danger we American peace activists see is that no one in Israel – or, more important for us, in the United States — will be able to break this tragic process, and Israel will become more and more like a dangerous cornered animal sucking the US into its defense.
You may have guessed it by now, that I’m in spirit one of those “loony visitors” Eitan Haber wrote about. If I had the cash, I might have attended the conference in Palestine. If I had the cash, I might be on The Audacity Of Hope right now. It is true that sometimes we earnest peace movement people succumb to the many frustrations in our paths and do things like march around with signs that make us susceptible to ridicule by people like Haber. But anyone following his or her heart with courage is susceptible to ridicule in a world flooded by the blood-dimmed tide.
The fact is, it’s hard to be a non-violent peace activist in the world people like Netanyahu and Lieberman have created for Palestinians and those able to empathize with them. As their modern military forces armed to the gills with the latest restraint technology, lethal weaponry and surveillance tactics more and more turn into “Zionist storm troopers,” it becomes that much harder to be non-violent and retain any kind of dignity. Because, as everyone in the peace movement knows, the message you get from these hyper-armed forces reduces to: Stand only where we tell you to stand or we’ll haul you away. And if we feel your actions may potentially fulfill the Gandhian requirements for satyagraha – that is, effectively make the truth publicly evident through non-violent action – then we will undermine your actions ahead of time, as has been done with the flotilla in Athens. The real reason such great lengths were taken to stop the flotilla in Athens is that Israel concluded the flotilla would be effective in making the peace movement’s truth about Gaza manifest for all to see.
Whether we realize it or not — whether we support, or passively choose not to see, the oppression of others in order not to lose the sense of empowerment it gives us – we’re all at the mercy of the modern, secrecy-obsessed, self-aggrandizing State. We live in a post-Orwellian, global system that is more and more an interconnected web of hidden controls that simple, peace-loving people minding their own business can only imagine. We in the peace movement are not alone in this state of angst; libertarians and some tea baggers, for example, see the same thing from a different angle.
It seems to me all the people of Gaza and the West Bank want is for their families to have a good life and a fair chance for a better future – exactly the same thing we Americans want and all Israelis want.
As a peace activist, on that level, it all seems so simple. First, you look honestly into yourself and ask, “Where did I go wrong?” – because if things are an intractable mess, as they are in Israel/Palestine, it’s a human certainty your side had something to do with it. Of course, the other side is very different and they may seem like “monsters” for the things they’ve done. The only consolation, in this respect, is you can be sure your enemy feels the same way about you. There are “monsters” on both sides.
The point is to make the first steps to overcome all this, to begin to ask who one’s enemy really is and, beyond our darkest fantasies, what they’re really about. Then there’s the clincher: What do they have in common with us?
Another smart, pragmatic Israeli, a retired general named Ephraim Sneh, wrote a recent op-ed in The New York Times in which he says “nurturing settlements in the West Bank and maintaining an occupation in order to protect them” is a policy working against Israel’s interests of future security. “Following that path will lead to disaster,” he writes. It’s “a doomsday prophesy.”
The point is, people of all political stripes – including my friends on the flotilla and those attempting to attend a Palestinian conference — are trying to nudge, pressure and cajol the Israeli government and its patron in Washington to take a fresh look and make bold changes vis-a-vis the Palestinian people. But so far US leaders like Ms. Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden are as fresh in their thinking as a week-old catfish.
The US and Israel should be pressured to open talks on real sovereignty for Palestine. Cut the double-talk. That would be the smart, pragmatic thing to do – and the best chance for making the September UN recognition unnecessary, which both Israel and the US want. The smart thing for them would have been to let the peaceful flotilla through and to concentrate on negotiating real security.
In the current volatile world of the Middle East, Israel and the United States should be on the side of real structural political change, instead of where they currently are, supporting the same old oppressive, unworkable status-quo based on violence. The real world reflects the noir world of crime fiction found in violent books like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me only if we choose to make the world that way.