I walked into an Introduction to Journalism class one morning and told my students an outright lie:
“Did you read a newspaper this morning?” I asked, as they had been instructed to do each day in preparation for unannounced news quizzes. “What’s the major news today? It affects you all.”
Silence. Darting looks. Involuntary swallowing. A few good guesses, had I not been lying.
“The draft has been reinstituted,” I said. “Didn’t you read that?”
You should have seen the response, especially among the young men. Before then, I was starting to wonder whether a few of them were alive.
“They can’t do that,” one of them said.
“I think they can,” I replied.
It went on like this for about a minute before I told them I was lying. A few of them laughed, some settled back into their chairs, a few looked back at their cell phones, and a few others, I could tell, wanted to strangle me.
But I told them the lie was part of learning to recognize and understand the emotional response to news, a lie itself, although I think it worked, if only briefly. I told them the lie was part of my ongoing edict: Just because some yahoo out there says something doesn’t make it true and doesn’t mean you have to report it. If it’s a purported fact and you can’t verify it, it’s junk.
“You guys took my word for it,” I said. “I was standing up here lying, and you believed me. Your heart rates jumped.”
More than nine years after 9/11, I still had an occasional student who believed President Bush was “behind it all.” By occasional I mean one or two a semester out of more than 50 students. They told me essentially the same thing: Mother had seen a documentary, she believed it, and so they did, too.
“I’ve seen that documentary,” I’d tell them, “and it’s laughable. Do you realize the scope of the conspiracy you’re talking about? Jesus would have to be involved.”
But I didn’t lie to my students that day specifically to teach them anything. I wanted to see, for myself, how young men and women would react to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if they thought there was a possibility that they, or someone they loved, might wind up in them. My suspicion was right: It would mean something then.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t meant much to most of us. Only a miniscule percentage of Americans have had any blood in them. Most of us have sacrificed nothing, and we haven’t been asked to. The most fortunate among us have gotten hefty tax cuts, in fact, and the stock market just keeps making more of us richer. Our stores are still fully stocked; we’re still buying gas-guzzlers – gas-guzzlers that always seem to come with an outer magnet telling us to “Support Our Troops.” We still want – and feel entitled to – cheap gas. Casualty reports from the Department of Defense should be required daily reading, but we’re fed “Housewives” and “American Idol” instead.
Our political conventions, now over, do most certainly reflect us and our self-indulgence, our overwhelming fascination with ourselves, our this and that – everything that produces our delusions and keeps us sane.
Auden was so right about us:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …
Musee de Beaux Arts
What we were doing, for instance, when Pfc. Shane W. Cantu died of shrapnel wounds Aug. 28 in Charkh, Afghanistan? Were we sleeping, working, shopping, eating, driving, walking, talking, lying, loving, hating? Were we at a baseball game? Were we petting the dog?
Aug. 28 was a Tuesday. Afghanistan’s between 8 ½ and 11 ½ hours ahead of us, depending on where we live in the United States. So we may still have been in Monday when the first-class private took his last breath. But what were we doing at that moment?
Cantu, of Corunna, Michigan, was 20. He graduated from high school just a little more than two years ago, but he’s being buried on Monday, the day before the 11th anniversary of 9/11. He was just a little boy then.
We’re grateful for him, of course. But not enough to look at ourselves and see that we’ve enabled this horrific insanity for almost 11 years, in the face of overwhelming evidence that neither war had to be fought, that both Iraq and Afghanistan have been wars of choice, despite all the blustering and penis-challenging from the Republicans and Democrats.
We’ve enabled it because it’s been easy, as if we’ve all been lulled into some fugue state that’s turned off reason and the heart. Some of us, like Halliburton, have also made a whole lot of money.
Meanwhile, Cantu became the 2,103th U.S. troop to die in the Afghanistan campaign. He joins 4,475 of his brothers and sisters from the Iraq war. More than 49,000 others have been wounded. Thousands of coalition troops have been killed and injured. Tens of thousands of civilians – the exact number is almost impossible to know – have been killed and maimed.
But for us the horror has been hidden behind a curtain. The powers that be couldn’t have orchestrated our navel-gazing any better.