While I was offline last weekend, a parolee in Oakland shot four policemen to death before getting killed in his apartment. MacArthur Boulevard and 70th Avenue, thirty-five blocks from my house. I was oblivious because I didn't even turn on the radio or television all Sunday.
On Monday before I logged on, four Palestinians in a car leaving the refugee camp in my ancestral village in South Lebanon were blown up by a roadside bomb. My relatives' homes were rattled by the explosion. The road where the men died is visible from the back window of the home I lived in as a girl.
I started this blog in 2004 because of a vision I had at the beginning of the Iraq war, April 2003. It was spring in California and we were visiting the Central Coast. Orange poppies bloomed on the hillsides. Our San Luis Obispo hotel was empty except for scores of middle-aged Army reserve officers who drove up in their mini-vans and family cars, wearing shorts, khakis or jeans. They changed into military uniforms and drove off to a nearby Army camp.
In the evenings when they returned from training, there was a feeling of camaraderie in the air. TVs in the lobby and bar blared Fox news. One middle-aged guy, thin and fit, with the face of a dentist, paraded around in a teeshirt blaring FDNY: NEVER FORGET. He was going to avenge the dead New York City firefighters of 9/11/01. To do this, he was going to rehearse for battle in the gentle hills of the Gold Coast of California, among old cattle ranches and new vineyards; he was then going to ship out to Iraq and kill some terrorists. He, like the other officers, smiled kindly at my toddler boys, petted them, beamed at us. Our young family was the reason for their effort, in their minds. I guessed that seeing us, they thought of their own families left behind in suburbs all over California.
They didn't know and I didn't tell them that I am an Arab-American and against the invasion of Iraq. I believed they were going to war for a lie and I didn't want them to kill Iraqis.
Those officers didn't know and I didn't tell them that I had lived in sight of the World Trade Center for many years, that I saw the lights go dark the night it was bombed for the first time in '93; nor did these suburban officers know that I had grown up in the shadow of Mieh-Mieh refugee camp, haven of revolutionary Palestinians and later revolutionary Islamists, that some of those fighters had killed my grandmother and sacked my village in 1985. Those American warriors didn't know that I had witnessed more destruction already than any of their families ever would.
I did not tell them on the patio at evening barbecue dinners that I thought their cause was a mistake. My toddlers ate hot dogs and ran around the pool fence, accepting caresses from men with short hair and smooth faces, men who looked like accountants, real estate agents, building contractors. I felt horror at what was happening in Iraq and what I feared would come. And I felt compassion for these men who thought they were going to face death, who thought they were sacrificing themselves for their country and for my children. They believed they were avenging the deaths of September 11, 2001.
Later that week my family drove to a gorgeous public state beach west of San Luis Obispo: Montana de Oro, Mountain of Gold. The name derives from the orange-yellow poppies that blanket its hillsides in spring. Sitting on the sand, watching the enormous blue ocean at mid-day, I felt utter peace. War throbbed on television, in the hills to the north of me, and over Iraq, but where I was, all was calm. I knew in that moment that there were places in Iraq, too, that were just that peaceful, right then. No matter what bombs, guns, explosions, tanks, fighter jets disturb the peace, somewhere there is always a center of silence. That center might be deep inside a woman's heart. It might be at a fountain in the heart of an old mosque. It might be in a date palm grove abandoned to birds, mice and the wind. I felt kinship with and solace from the sand and the sun and the ocean, and I told myself - this is the true reality. Whatever the warriors and fighters are doing, they are simply mistaken, and their wars and their dramas are not the only reality. This peace is here, it is unending, and it is real.
Now it is morning in Oakland. I took a walk around nine a.m., down to MacArthur Boulevard and along the street for a few blocks, to 39th Avenue. Nothing was happening. A man in an orange vest swept trash from the sidewalks. A gentleman in a nice suit parked at the KFC and went into the funky coffee place, greeted a lady in high heels and business dress; we were old, young, middle-aged, black, white, Asian and mixed race, all in the cafe drinking tea or cappucino. On the way home, my neighbor was pulling weeds in the front yard and happily gave me a sack full of lemons and a few heirloom Chinese snow peas. Birds sang, sun shone.
The sun is still shining but the police helicopters have come out now, an hour later. I presume they are hovering over the funeral procession that will wind its way from the murder site two miles from me, down to the enormous coliseum whose lights can be seen from our upstairs on summer nights. Police officers from around the country are making their way to the arena, along with the governor, the mayor, presumably a senator or two. Some of the helicopters will be news reporters; the national press has been covering this tragedy.
In the last week Oakland's email lists and comment posts have been full of people raging at the violence. A common exchange: one person asks for prayers for all the victims of violence, and prayers for the murderer too; then another person demands to know why the first person is not lauding the dead policemen to the stars, and does she feel as much sadness for the murderer as for the officers? Where is the outrage? Then the two parties argue about whether it's right to say any word of blessing at all for the dead man who killed all those people. He was suspected of several terrible rapes. Why does his family say they still love him? Why do the black radicals call him brother and a resister? They are horrible people.
Another line of comment runs like this: those people in East Oakland are scum and should be exterminated, cleaned up, wiped out. This sentiment is expressed repeatedly in the comments section of the newspaper, or in email listserves.
I am reminded of the days and years after 9/11, when we heard frantic calls for extermination, for cleaning out terrorists. "Let's make Asia a glass parking lot," a woman said to my mother. "Just bomb them all, I am sick of this."
There was also the summer of 2007, when men inside of Nahr-al-Bared refugee camp in North Lebanon attacked a Lebanese military post, killing several soldiers in their beds. My own relatives had in-laws stationed at that post, and I heard rumblings of the usual: exterminate them, wipe them out. The Lebanese army did indeed flatten Nahr-al-Bared, rendering tens of thousands of people homeless. Many innocent civilians were killed or wounded, lives were disrupted. For what? The murderers of Nahr-al-Bared were generally known to be outsiders. But all the people of Nahr-al-Bared suffered. If I spoke in the blog or among my Lebanese villagers of the travails of the stateless refugee, if I mentioned poverty and the hopelessness of the refugee situation, I was accused of being soft on terror, of enabling lawlessness and massacre. I shut up.
Responding to violence with more hatred and violence just keeps the karmic wheel turning. I got off that wheel. Here in East Oakland the sounds of children playing at recess float in my window. Below the window, the rose bush puts up new buds even though the gardener clipped it severely a month ago. In Mieh-Mieh right now I am sure my uncles are dozing on the balconies or playing cards with their friends, and when the sun comes up, what few songbirds survive will flit about the olive groves, heedless of the conflicts roiling inside Mieh-Mieh camp.
Peace is always available. Peace is always here. Mourn the dead, but work for justice for the living. Poverty creates drug addiction, despair and violence. We don't know exactly why that man snapped and killed all those policemen, but we know that our communities are deeply wounded; nevertheless some of our children survive. I know children who grow up on those very streets where the policemen died last Saturday. They attend school with my sons. Their parents and grandparents work and tend to them and do their best to raise them well and give them what they need.
Violence does well up and threaten to overwhelm us, whether in Oakland, New York, or South Lebanon. But we don't have to give into it. We don't have to believe in the drama. We don't have to let our neighbors incite us into mob action, or massive wars of retaliation. We can keep tending our gardens, sending our children to school, cooking dinner, converging in places of worship or meditation or rest. If religions fail us then we can go to the ocean and gaze upon her vastness. Peace is here. It never went away. All we need to reach it is stop shouting and listen.
May the souls of the dead rest in serenity, and may the hearts of the living be comforted in their loss. And may the poor and the suffering find justice and harmony. May our wounded cities be healed. I love Oakland, and I love Mieh-Mieh, and I affirm that beauty and love triumph in both places.