Friday, October 30, 2009

Retrospective: A Meeting in the West Texas Desert

This is a true story from when we were on tour in the midst of the Bush regime... a story that carries with it shocking echoes of hatred, bigotry and the seemingly inexorable slide towards fascism that scared so many of us during those years. At the same time, it is a tale of faith, redemption and hope, maybe a way to look at how far we've come since then ... and finally, perhaps, a challenge to remind us how far we have yet to go.

I offer this as a prayer for love, peace and understanding ... a prayer that deepens in its intensity when we are confronted with the horrific alternatives to living a conscious and loving life. May we indeed be the change we wish to see in the world!

Here goes:

April 7, 2005 the desert just outside of Van Horn, Texas ...

I don’t know if I could have even imagined this, had it not happened … out here in the middle of seemingly nowhere, we met Mr. Nolan West (not his real name), a white man who originally hailed from South Africa, at the gas station in Van Horn, Texas. What a powerful message he had for us!

Our interactions started at the gas pump, where Nolan told us (much to our surprise, given where we were) how much he like our “Impeach Bush” and “I love my country … but I think we should start seeing other people” bumper stickers. A very friendly and loquacious man, very passionately devoted to compassion and conscience, he shared his story with us – a story that left us deeply moved and forever changed.

He grew up under apartheid, and was fully indoctrinated in the prevailing prejudicial beliefs of that culture. He expressed deep concern about the ways in which what is happening here and now under Bush mirrors his experience in South Africa. Depicting your “enemies” as “evildoers” is exactly what he saw in his youth and was largely the means by which the policy of apartheid was perpetuated.

He was raised to believe in the “Black Danger,” which held that the black population of South Africa wanted nothing more than to drive the whites into the sea, to murder them without remorse, or at the very least to force them back to Europe “where they belonged.” This “Schwarze Gefahr” was invoked in precisely the same spirit that Bush uses in referring to the “axis of evil.” Nolan knew well, the moment he heard Bush speak these words, that the US regime was headed down the same slippery slope.

Hanging from the rear-view mirror in his old pickup truck was a well-worn American flag, measuring about 6 by 12 inches. Here was a man who loved his adopted country with a fervor few of us who were born here share … and one who passionately believes that caring for the welfare of others is as sacred a duty as any. He would gladly take up arms and lay down his life for this country – make no mistake, our newfound friend was no peacenik. But he was clearly incensed by what he sees happening here – AND in Iraq. Iraq is a “new kind of war,” according to one British correspondent, a very tragic and dangerous precedent in which many times more innocent civilians than fighters are being injured, maimed, and killed on a daily basis.

Nolan was himself a soldier as a young man – a soldier who was trained thoroughly not to ever question authority – particularly the authority of his superior officers in the South African military.

He was assigned to a border patrol post in the north in 1968, very close to the border of Angola. His own epiphany of awakening and true compassion came about at that time – under truly horrifying circumstances.

There was a great tension between the troops in the region and the local tribal villages, in large part because the locals were seen as aiding insurgents who were crossing the border, giving them food, shelter, and water.

One day while on patrol, his cadre of soldiers saw a number of local tribal women walking in the distance, carrying firewood on their heads, as was their custom. The commander of their patrol unit looked at these women through binoculars and ordered his men to “take those fucking Kaffa bitches down.”

Our new friend told us that he was surprised and perplexed by these orders. Clearly these women posed no threat to them. So he asked his commander, “Why, sir?”

His commander replied by handing his binoculars to him, asking, “What do you see?”

“I see a number of women carrying firewood, sir.”

“Look again. Can you tell me how many of them are pregnant?”

He looked through the binoculars, and it was clear that three of them were with child.

“Three, sir.”

“That’s right. Each one of those bitches is carrying the future enemies of your children. Tell you what … I’m giving you the privilege of taking down that one on the left. Take her down, now.”

“But, sir …”

“That’s an order. If you don’t shoot her now, I’ll have you court-martialed for disobeying a direct order.”

Nolan felt that he had no real choice. So he set his rifle on automatic – a setting that would fire his entire clip in one short burst, rather than allowing repeated single shots should he miss his first shot. He aimed as low as possible so that he would hit her legs, not her torso or head. And he fired.

Just as his target went down in the distance, his commander said the Afrikaans equivalent of “attaboy” and patted him firmly on the shoulder. In that moment, Nolan knew he had no choice but to desert. The years of indoctrination fell away in an instant.

As he related this story, his eyes filled with tears, and his face showed the agony of a man who wished beyond all else that he could somehow undo what had happened. Heather and I experienced this same feeling on a visceral level, feeling Nolan’s pain even as our own tears welled up uncontrollably.

Nolan did manage to desert by coming to America when he was next on leave. Had he been caught, he almost certainly would have been imprisoned indefinitely or even executed.

Very few of us ever have such an experience, such a powerful epiphany that so clearly lays bare our conscience. Nolan feels that, as a nation, we have not been listening to our conscience. Rather we are being moved in a direction contrary to our conscience by a regime that is succumbing to the titillating temptation of greed and power. A regime that is moving us into a mode of totalitarianism on the world stage that all too closely mirrors apartheid’s South African equivalent.

It is our prayer that, as a compassionate nation, we may wake up to what is happening before we, too, are asked to pull the trigger.

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