Friday, October 7, 2011

Dying in peace, dying in an endless war, and making the imaginative leap to empathy

I was in the United States for the past two months, from mid-July to mid-September, helping take care of my father, who was dying of cancer.  He died in late August.  In my time, I have known people who died of cancer, and have friends who have gone through the daily process of dying with loved ones, but I have never gone through it so intimately myself. 

When I say 'the daily process of dying with loved ones’ it is because I think dying is rarely done alone.  The person dying obviously lets go of that last breath alone, yes, but the entire process - the tending to the feed tube, constant attention to adjusting the pain controlling narcotics, the cleaning and bandaging, and, more importantly, the words said here and there, the final stories told, the sitting in silence, the living in the paradox of wanting them to die quickly to alleviate their suffering while still desperately wanting them to live one more good day, the deep sorrow and the final letting go (for both the living and the one who is dying) – are all included in one person’s death.  A form of death is going on for everyone who knows and cares about the person dying - whether they are sitting at the bedside or living a thousand miles away. 

 There was also, for me, the sadness and beauty of being in such close proximity to a story that was ending.  And the realization that a story – for that is a large part of what we are - is not really complete until it comes to an end (most writers know that a story is not really a story until the end has been reached).

In those two months, I gained an insight into the incredible work hospice caregivers do every day, and found a deeper connection to the hundreds of thousands, the millions, of people who have gone through, and are, at this moment, going through this process (the hopelessness, frustration, and – sometimes – crazy dark humor and joy).

Two weeks after my father’s death I watched on television for an hour or so the ten year memorial service for the victims of 9/11 in New York City.  The ceremony was intense and beautiful because of its simplicity.  The family members of those who had been killed read aloud the names of the dead, sometimes adding a very brief personal note.  The loss these people had suffered was palpable in their voices, ten years later.  Unlike my father, who was 79 years old when he died, the lives of the people who died when the twin towers were attacked had been – no matter what their age – suddenly cut short.  In an instant, thousands of people had no father, no mother, no aunt, no uncle, no sister, no brother.  I remember the despair and feeling of dread during those first two days after the towers fell, all the photos of the missing against the walls near what is now called ‘ground zero’. 

In Praise of Grief

On September 11, 2001, I was living in Sacramento. For days afterwards, as in all other cities, the sky was emptied of aircraft.  A few military helicopters made sporadic passes over the city.  I lived very close to the convergence of two major highways – Route 5 and Route 80 – and to a set of freight train tracks.  There was a constant dull roar twenty four hours a day from the trucks and cars constantly passing, and the steel clatter of trains backing up and coupling, or shooting by, blaring night horns for no one.  Because I lived surrounded by such constant noise, the silence that followed in the days after the attack became thick, almost claustrophobic, a wall of sorts, surrounding everything, trapping everything.  In retrospect, maybe the feeling of being trapped inside that silence was a kind of prophecy.  Walking through the city before the no-fly ban had been lifted and few cars were back on the road, I found these words sprayed in a shaky purple script at the northeast corner of 11th and S Streets:


Looking down at that graffiti I thought that 9/11 would give all of us Americans, as a unified nation, a glimpse into similar things that were happening, on a daily basis, around the world.  Bombs going off in public places, war crimes committed, mass executions, massacres…  

I went home and put on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.  It starts with a soft cymbal clash, reverberating into the opening strains of a saxophone; tentative, searching.  The saxophone and cymbals give way to a droning bass.  Duh-duh Duh-dah.  A simple line.  When the saxophone enters again, it wanders around the room for several minutes before finding its way back to that same simple line: duh-duh duh-dah.  Eventually the bass line dissolves into a deep voice (Coltrane’s) repeating “A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme...”  Duh-duh duh-dah.  Duh-duh duh-dah.    

The music is not happy.  It’s not sad.  It somehow ascends and descends at the same time.  It is…praise.  For grief.

A Love Supreme is praise for grief.  That’s the best I can do to describe this music.  The voice, the saxophone, the bass, all come from deep inside the earth, repeating the same words:  A love supreme, a love supreme.  As I sat there listening, ten long years ago, I could feel that something was being coaxed out of the dark silence in the bedroom, out of the silence beyond the bedroom walls.  The music pushes right to the edge (of what, I can’t say), where words – where even music – reach a point of submission, of release.  

(I read somewhere – or maybe I heard it on some radio program – that sometimes Coltrane would reach a point in a solo where he would stop playing, beat his chest and scream.  When someone asked him why he did this, he answered that he had simply run out of horn.)   

At the end of A Love Supreme, the drums and saxophone merge, move fast, faster, begin to chase something.  They reach out and touch that terrible, transcendent grief, but, surprisingly, almost menacingly, they continue to reach, to keep exploring, showing me every time I listen that there is something else, deeper, close – 


Listening to the family members read the names of the dead at the 9/11 ceremony, how could I not make the leap to all those civilians who have been killed in the decade-long war?  The nameless dead (in the US press, at least), labeled by the military (US, UK, or other NATO forces) ‘collateral damage’; how not make the leap to all those people who got caught in the cross-fire in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan?  How not sympathize with those in Afghanistan who have been killed because, ten years ago, their government gave sanctuary to al Qaeda?   

In the early years of the war, many civilians were killed by indiscriminate bombing.  Some of you may remember an independent study conducted by Marc Herold, a US economics professor at the University of New Hampshire, who accumulated data from aid agencies, the UN, eyewitnesses, TV stations and newspapers around the world, posting his information at  He estimated that at least 3,787 civilians were killed by American bombing between October 7th and December 10th of 2001 alone. 

According to Iraq Body Count the death toll among civilians in Iraq is now between 102, 868 and 112,419.  There are those who dispute the IBC methods of tallying the dead, saying the count is more in the range of 864,531 – which I tend to agree with – but what I’m trying to get at here is that, whether it's 100,000 or 800,000 –  every count is terrifyingly high.  There are people – real people – behind all these numbers.  Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers.  And none of these statistics include those that have been seriously injured or those that have been displaced, become refugees because of the violence (A UN estimate from 2007 claimed that at least five million people had fled Iraq between 2003 and 2007, to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the Gulf region).    

Who are all these dead?  Each one has a story.  I remember walking past an open door in my neighborhood in Sacramento in late October of 2001, overhearing someone talking on the phone, exclaiming “They’re dropping bombs on the bad ones and food on the good ones!”  This was the US government line that autumn.  It still is.  Does anyone still believe this?  The awe and enthusiasm in the voice I heard through that open door is the belief of a five year old being told about Santa Claus.  Meanwhile, the ‘good ones’ and the ‘bad ones’ (whatever that meant - it seemed to change month by month, year by year) were both beneath that rain of bombs.  

In recent years, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, there has been an increase in the use of drones to do the hunting and killing of Taliban leaders.  One particular attack stands out for me.  In June 2009 a US drone launched an attack on a compound in South Waziristan, Pakistan. When locals rushed to the scene to rescue survivors, more missiles were launched.  The next day, drones fired on a funeral
procession for those killed in the initial attacks.  The missiles were intended for Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, though officials later acknowledged that he had not been killed in the attacks. 

The reported overall death toll over the course of two days was at least 80. 

I remember being in canyon country in Utah when I heard the horrific news of the Hellfire Missile shot into the funeral procession.  Inside one of those coffins was a young boy, killed the day before.  Looking out over the canyons beyond the Green River, mesa after crumbling mesa on the horizon, I tried to imagine what it must feel like to carry a coffin so small.  What is the weight?  How do you feel it?  Who was that boy?  What was his name? 

 These drone strikes continue unabated.  A recent study by London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that at least 168 children have died in the Pakistan drone war (and between 386 and 775 civilians in total). 

My father was a naval officer, an aircraft carrier pilot.  He led a squadron in air strikes over Vietnam in the late sixties.  We are talking about dropping bombs on buildings, bridges, trucks...and people.  Although he may have suffered from PTSD from his experience, and, in the end, felt he'd been lied to by the government about the reasons for the war, he never thought of himself as a victim.  Many years later, he wrote blogs and letters against the invasion of Iraq.  He stood on street corners with signs in protest.  He gave a Memorial Day address once where he said: “The only really good thing would be a future devoid of wars requiring us to memorialize such sacrifices.  That would be the only thing that would make those who died or suffered horrific injuries to feel any sense that they had not been pawns of power brokers.  Most of the wars did not have to happen.”

To hear the sorrow in the voices of the 9/11 family members is to hear its echo - the sorrow of those who have been killed (in our name) for the last ten years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond; to hear the sorrow of those who have lost loved ones fighting on either side; to hear the sorrow for all the lost minds, for all the displaced, for all the injured.  For all the dead.  For all the waste.

 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

While many in the nation were fixed on revenge and war in those early months after the 9/11 attacks, there were those who chose a very different way of dealing with the terror.  In November of 2001, a group of relatives of some of those killed on 9/11 began a march from Washington DC to New York City, advocating for peace, calling for an end to military action in Afghanistan.  An extremely brave act at the time.  While there was a tremendous groundswell of opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Afghanistan met with very little resistance in the US, coming as it did so quickly after the September attacks.  Vengeance and blind patriotism ruled the day.  The families marched under the banner "Our Grief is not a Cry for War".

They went on to form a group called "Families for Peaceful Tomorrows" united to turn their grief into action for peace.  These are people who suffered directly from the terrorist attack.  On September 8th, 2011, anticipating the coming tenth year anniversary they released the following statement:

The members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows are grateful for the expressions of remembrance and concern being offered on the 10th anniversary of the events which took the lives of our loved ones.  On this day we ask those who feel compassion for our loss to expand their compassion to include others who continue to experience loss ten years later: innocent families in Afghanistan and Iraq experiencing the loss of their loved ones and displacement  from their communities as the result of war and political strife; Muslim-Americans subjected to bias and violence at home; those denied the protections of our Constitution and law, whether in Guantanamo or in our own country; those suffering from job loss and economic dislocation related to the cost of war and rising military budgets; and those who have seen their civil liberties and freedoms exchanged for the false promise of security.

"The lesson of 9/11 is that we live in a connected world. We rise or fall together. As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” On this 10th anniversary, let us honor those we lost by recognizing our kinship with people all over the world, and affirming the values and principles that will guarantee peaceful tomorrows for everyone."

The Pentagon has projected remaining in Afghanistan through to the end of the decade, at least.  This war costs 12 million dollars an hour.  It’s time to end all this needless suffering. Time to bring the war money home.  

                                           (All images by Kathe Kollwitz)


There is going to be a Mass Assembly against the war in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, October 8th.

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started on September 17th is gaining momentum, spreading across the US (Coverage of Occupy Wall Street from Democracy Now!).

Occupy DC protestors are currently rallying in Freedom Plaza in DC. 

Work for Peace.


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