Friday, July 08, 2005

Tea and Savages

In the wake of the London attacks, I spent the day feeling numb. By now, that feeling is familiar. I don't think it is necessary to replay the London atrocities in this space, or verbosely lament how another layer in our civilization's veneer has forever been washed away. We all know it too well. There's plenty to read about how Britain's experiences with IRA bombs and the Blitz has endowed them with their trademark stiff upper lip. Britishers will manage terrorism as their cultural norms allow, unique from the Spanish and Americans.

Really, the whole 7/7 experience has left me brooding, and frankly, I am in a dark mood. So please forgive me for letting the black clouds of 7/7 shadow this little post; I can't summon the stiff upper lip on 7/8, not quite yet.

I've read about the clash of civilizations, and how our way of life is in the breach in the era of terrorism. I watched Red Ken impersonate Winnie, like he knows who his enemy is. I saw that rather strange video of Prime Minister Blair making a statement about the bombings, with the G-8 leaders standing behind him like placards. It wasn't Blair's statement that was strange -- it was the leaders arrayed behind him that were odd. They stood there in purported unity, nictating into history's television camera. For some reason, I wasn't overwhelmed with the feeling that they were unanimous in their opinions of what transpired in London that day. I detected no genuine solidarity, which one might expect from the leaders of the seven richest nations on Earth -- plus Russia, since we have to be nice to them. No, there behind Blair stood the Deer-8, blinking into terror's headlights. I half expected them to scatter in separate directions.

My wife and I are currently watching an old PBS miniseries on DVD called The Flame Trees of Thika, written by Elspeth Huxley. It's set in 1913 Kenya, where young Elspeth Grant and her parents acquired colonial land to cultivate with native labor. Throughout the series the juxtaposition of African tribal customs and English propriety contrast to absurd proportions. In one scene that we watched on the evening of 7/7, we saw the Grants on their English-like porch, surrounded by the dainty habiliments of high tea and crumpets. From their thatched balcony they looked down at the native workers' round huts, where the local chief and his entourage were witch-doctoring an ill tribesman, in a savage spectacle. And there sat the Grants, delicate teacups in hand on their English porch, gazing down at the peculiar natives, agog. Their English faces were bemusedly blank, like they were staring out from a high tower, exposed to the inexplicable.

I couldn't stop thinking about those G-8 guys standing behind Tony Blair who had the same listless glare as the Grants, in the face of the London bombing spectacle.

"What to do," Elspeth's perplexed father opined, "they have their way, and we have ours." Then he and his family resumed sipping their earl grey and politely munched on cucumber sandwiches, while the tribesman's hut went up in flames. And so too after Mr. Blair's speech about the horror of 7/7 London, the assembled world leaders momentarily dithered on their standing spots, and then shuffled back to the G-8 meeting, agendas and crumpets largely intact.

Really, I'm not suggesting here that terrorists can or should dictate the time, place and agenda of the G-8. Indeed, the world must press on. But I was struck by the dichotomy that took place yesterday. I really think that all of us in the West -- liberal, conservative, religious, sectarian, etc. -- would really rather worry about global warming, abortion, corporatism, creationism, financial matters and extending the terms of Social Security. Certainly, those issues are pressing. But even though the G-8's tone was grave, and the topic of terrorism was brutally apropos, I feel cynical the day after 7/7. Does the West really have what it takes to defeat nihilism?

I think it's debatable as to whether or not nihilism is a western disease that infected Islam, or visa versa. Europe's falling apart in the midst of trying to come together comes as no comfort when some kind of unanimity is required to defeat global terrorism. The shades and hues of nihilism has much to do with Europe's malaise, as well as the West's. Nihilism isn't just for Islamofascists.

So while I fully expect that Britain and the West will go on red alert for a while, in the larger view I sense a collective shoulder shrug. "What to do," a perplexed western world opines, and turns away to refresh a familiar teapot. Except this time, we're not in tribal Africa, with the option to go home to England, yet to be sullied by two devastating world wars and decades of indulgent socialism. This time, the savage spectacle is not easily and neatly separated from who we are, and who we might become.