I have sent out a request that Senator Barack Obama, or Michelle Obama, get in touch with me. While waiting for a response (and imagining how busy they must be), I decided to write down my thoughts. After watching the debates between Obama and McCain, something has leapt out at me. It has now leapt out twice, and I would like to avoid having it appear a third time. It is Obama’s statement that, when he is president, he (the U.S.) will pursue Al Qaeda in the hills of Pakistan, find Osama Bin Laden, and “kill” him. Though I understand that Obama wishes to show himself as “strong,” even “tough,” this is problematic on ethical, moral, and practical levels. It might also cost him the election.
For many this may seem far-fetched. I don’t think so. I am also not saying the same thing John McCain is saying about walking and speaking softly and carrying a big stick. We know that during McCain’s service to the country there have been countless people assassinated, bombed, disappeared and in other ways destroyed, if not by him directly, then by the system of government that he serves. No, this is about something else: the language we use in leading, and why.
Each time Obama has said “We will kill” Osama Bin Laden I have felt a testing of my confidence in his moral leadership. And I support him, and have demonstrated that support, to the very limits of my finances and my strength. Could it be that, like millions of children around the globe, who are taught: “Thou shalt not kill”, I am reacting with disappointment and shock to someone blatantly declaring their intention to kill a specific person? This could be it. In a Christian nation, this is what most of us learn. And, even if we cease to call ourselves Christians, the notion of non-killing is hard-wired in us. We are not likely to accept the “killer” (even if the killing is done in our defense) with the same open-heartedness and lack of fear we might have for someone who has not declared for murder. This is why John McCain coyly smiles each time Obama makes this statement.
Too, we live in a country with a not too distant custom of lynching, particularly in the South. For those of us who are forever aware of this reality, something rises in us whenever there is a man hunt (in my case, even an animal hunt) to demand decent treatment of whoever is captured, and a fair trial. To the surprise of both McCain and Obama, apparently, millions of people in the world don’t believe Osama
*The Chant of Metta
Bin Laden bombed the Trade towers and the Pentagon. But even setting such disbelief aside, we have to think of what we are teaching the youth of the planet. And it is through language that we can help them grow into the responsible world citizens of our dreams. Obama quite often says “We’ll ‘take out’ Osama Bin Laden,” and this is far better than saying “We will kill him.” It is a metaphor. The very, very young will not even get it, hopefully. But to announce: “We will kill him” leaves no doubt. Unfortunately this conjures up nightmares of murderous possibilities in old and young alike: not a good thing to have on one’s mind and conscience when entering the voting booth. Of course there are “tough” guys and gals for whom the spectacle of Bin Laden’s destruction (and all the women, children and old folks who are bound to be living around him – and his nurses, because somebody has to handle his dialysis machine) will be an entertainment. But for most people, and especially for the women and the young who are Obama’s most ardent supporters, this will not be the case. Our hearts will feel divided, at best. Not because we’re “bleeding heart liberals,” but because we remember another way of saying “I’ll get my man.” It is: “Justice will be done.”
There is also the black man factor. For many, finally getting to know a black man in all his glory is the high point of their education as American citizens. However, there lingers in the collective psyche a very carefully planted fear of same; that he is vicious, that he is mean, that he is…a killer. This, I think, is not to be shrugged off; even if, by now, much of the planet knows who most of the serious killers are. There is the danger of linking one’s self to a behavior, in the public mind, one might personally abhor, and drawing to one’s self the behavioral possibility, in public imagination, one describes: sometimes identified as the boomerang effect. Even if everyone in North America is as careful as can be, this will still be a dangerous presidency; making it more so by using language without nuance and metaphor, when nuance and metaphor would help, does not serve us.
I admire Barack Obama for so many reasons. His courage alone to take on this deeply dysfunctional, falling apart, fantasy addicted country is breath taking. When I look at him and Michelle Obama and their daughters I have to stifle an impulse to scream: run! Not for the presidency, but for a sane life for you and your family. What they are preparing to sacrifice for a country that hasn’t yet learned the meaning of gratitude is enough to make us weep; and yet, they are brave enough to stand up for all of us, and for this land that is so beautiful and so abused. Fundamental goodness shines in them. So no, this is not exactly a criticism. It is a caution. About the power of language. One writer reminding another.
Copyright©2008 by Alice Walker
October 8, 2008
Alice Walker’s latest books are: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness (Meditations); Why War is Never a Good Idea (for children); and Now is the Time to Open Your Heart, a novel.