Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dropping in on war and horror, thirty years ago and today

Tyler Hicks is a Pulitzer prizing winning photographer, a witness to many of the world's most violent conflicts. He was one of four U.S. journalists captured by Gaddafi's forces during the Libyan insurrection; he traveled into insurgent Syria with the reporter Anthony Shadid and brought out his companion's body when Shadid succumbed to an asthma attack; most recently, he accidentally found himself at a Nairobi, Kenya, shopping mall while invading terrorists killed 61 civilians and five security personnel in the fall of 2013. During a recent NPR interview, Terry Gross asked him how someone goes on facing that kind of death and horror and remains emotionally stable.

... I find that it's more after that you realize how much you're shaken in these things, like you -- I remember not long after that assignment, I was back in the States, I was in Connecticut with my sister, and we were just going for a run.

We were down by the beach in my hometown, and there was some work being done on a house, and there was a hydraulic nail gun that they were using, and it really sounds a lot like incoming gunfire with this thing. And as we were running, I put a few nails in, and I literally kind of like almost hit the ground. And my sister's reaction was like oh my God, you should look at yourself, man. I mean, you totally thought you were just being shot at.

I've seen that reflex. Thirty years ago today, my much loved partner flew off to spend six months in the war zones of Nicaragua, to bear witness to the Contra (counter-revolutionary) war against the popular government financed and incited by the United States.

Before she flew away, she mused about how the experience might change her:

... sometimes I am terrified. I don't want to die in Nicaragua. And you know that I give myself a good 95 percent chance of coming back whole, if not unchanged. ...There's something strange to me about being able to drop for six months into the danger the people of Nicaragua live with ...

Letters from Nicaragua

Nothing nearly so dramatic happened to her as has been lived by Hicks, but Nicargua's war was no picnic either. She escaped injury, interviewed survivors of Contra terror, and several times was present in towns that took mortar and machine gun fire, but fortunately escaped actual assault. Her exposure to war was nothing on what so many soldiers and civilians are now enduring. But unlike most of us in the United States, she has been to war.

And for several years after she returned, she had the sort of reflex reactions Tyler Hicks describes. In those days, the Fourth of July in San Francisco's Mission District meant crowds setting off every form of fireworks anyone could obtain from nearby counties where selling them was a seasonal business. You didn't drive; the streets were impassable, full of Roman candles, rockets, and cherry bombs. We had to get Rebecca out of town for the night, lest she jump under the furniture.

But this reaction passed.

Still the question remains, was she changed by dropping into someone's war? I can't assess that. I was and am too close. She remained a "brave, silly little" person, as she described herself then.

Today she starts many of her presentations about her book Mainstreaming Torture by explaining that she first met torture victims in Central America so long ago. What once was mainly visible to those who would travel to strange places is being pushed into public view at home, by journalists and by the victims. How do we internalize living in a context where seeing the unthinkable is more and more possible, if we choose to look? Do we choose to look?

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