Have you ever been watching television when you are joined midway by someone who hasn’t seen the whole first part of what you’re watching, and their experience of the program is totally different from yours?
I’ve been reading a lot of posts and blogs about the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden and I’ve begun several times to write about it myself but, every time I start, I’ve read something by someone far more eloquent than I, giving voice to exactly what I was thinking. So I’ve waited and reflected. And as several days have passed, I’ve tried to think about what unique perspective I might lend to the subject.
I was at my desk at work on September 11th, 2001 when I learned of the terrorist attack on New York, but this story begins in May of 2000…in South Korea.
That year, I traveled to Korea as part of a Rotary Foundation exchange program for young professionals. We were four young, liberal, American women spending a month touring sites of artistic and cultural significance – a life-changing experience for me in many ways. Our visit coincided with two major anniversaries. First, the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, a conflict that twisted our histories with those of our hosts in an uneasy knot. It was also the 20th anniversary of the Kwanjiu uprising.
Never heard of it? Neither had we, although it was a fairly big story in the international press at the time it happened in May 1980. In a nutshell, Kwangiu, the City where I was based for a month, was the site of a pro-democracy uprising after the new government took power in a coup, and imposed martial law. Led by university students, the protesters occupied the city for nearly a week, until the army sent in paratroopers with machine guns and machetes and put the uprising down. By its end, about 200 civilians had been killed. It took thirteen more years for Korea to become a democracy but ‘May 18th’ is considered by many the most important moment in that struggle – the spark that lit the flame.
We had never heard of the Kwangiu uprising but it’s a well-documented event (Google it!). When we were in Kwangiu, we visited ‘May 18th Park’ a newly opened memorial and historical center dedicated to the event. There’s an interpretive building there with incredible footage of things like women with enormous pots of rice feeding the crowds of protesters; teen-aged girls in the hospitals giving blood to help those wounded; stolen school buses being used as roadblocks to keep the army out of the city; horrible graphic photos of those killed or maimed.
At the end of a long, dim, room, a grainy black and white newsreel is projected which loops over and over. It’s a clip of three students on a tiny moped fleeing a heavily armored soldier with a machete. The moped, not meant to carry more than one small person, is overloaded and moving too slowly. The soldier is gaining. The students are defiant, and they’re singing with gusto…in English…”We Shall Overcome.” The reel cuts off just as the soldier reaches them, machete raised over his head.
Four young, liberal, American women spending a month touring sites of artistic and cultural significance are suitably moved, and suitably outraged. And they ask their hosts, many of whom are current government officials – many of whom were participants and leaders of these protests 20 years ago, many of whom spent time in prison as a result – “But where was the American government when this we happening?!” Our gracious hosts, a group of accomplished and educated men who had the daring to take on a well armed militia, all look at their shoes. Our translator, a young man barely old enough to remember the uprising at all, takes a deep breath and tries to explain…
“You see,” Sunkyo explains haltingly, “The US has been in Korea since the end of World War II…and our military…we are…we must ask permission from your government before…to do anything….”
In the awkward silence that follows, I can feel my mind shift. Something is now known that I suppose I had always suspected – but knowing is very different. Here is what I now understand. We allowed this to happen – condoned it, really – to people. And not just to any random people in a country far away. To people in whose homes I am sleeping. People I am sitting across the table with at breakfast. People whose children I am visiting in school. People who are talking to me about freedom and democracy with a reverence that would make Thomas Jefferson blush. These are true believers.
I imagine the rationale. The US must support the government of our ally. Fear that if South Korea became unstable, North Korea might seize the opportunity to expand a communist state. But aren’t we for “freedom”? Don’t we support the spread of democracy as the gold standard of human behavior? Am I so naïve that I still think this might be true? Isn’t that what we’re told even now in two, maybe three wars in the oil-producing world?
There is a fine painfully fine and arbitrary line between “rebel” and “freedom fighter”.
And then the flood of realization completely overtakes me. This isn’t an isolated event. My government does things that I cannot accept, and does them over and over again, all over the world- and has for a very long time. And those things have consequences for real people I may never know but who live and breathe and exist and want all the things I do. The very lifestyle I lead is dependent on a history of conflicted choices, broad rationalizations, and rewritten history that allows others to suffer while I avoid any consequence (or even knowledge) of the compromises that allow me to live as I do.
So, on September 11th, as I sat at my desk and the news reports began to roll in about a terrorist attack in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, I wasn’t shocked. It was as if something that had been owed for a very long time had finally come due. For me that day is so much less about horror and disbelief than it is about stillness…and resignation.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that those who died that day deserved to be murdered. I am as horrified by the suffering I witnessed then as I was in Kwangiu the year before. But I have difficulty seeing September 11th as the beginning of anything. That would be like coming in to the middle of a television program and guessing the ending. For me, September 11th, is an inextricable part of a continuum of human drama that includes our government’s choices on May 18th, 1980 in Kwangui South Korea, centuries of colonialism in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, questionable strategic alliances during the cold war – and the arming and training of a young Saudi “freedom fighter” whose enthusiasm for driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan proved a useful asset at the time.