Crossing the Threshold

Call me Janus. Call me a chiropractor. You know how skaters and dancers snap their heads around when they spin? My neck hurts from being whipped back and forth, facing past and future, hope and horror. It's supposed to be a new year, but the momentum from the last one is spinning out of control.

It was missiles and mistletoe for Christmas. Are we ready to toast 2002? "Next year will be a war year as well because we're going to continue to hunt down these al Qaeda people in this particular theater, as well as other places,'' President Bush said. ``Our war against terror extends way beyond Afghanistan."

Most of us have no idea about the scale and scope of this campaign which sounds like the Hundred Years War or a lifelong clandestine operation. President Bush told us we will not know what or where or when or how or who. That's it, as far as we are concerned. Should we carry on with what we were doing when we were so rudely interrupted September 11? Are we being told this dirty business of America is none of our business?

Let's review. There was life as usual, then there was September 11. But what if there is a link between before and after? Maybe our first resolution should be to find that link. Otherwise the new year sends us through the looking-glass into a parallel universe. We are in World War III, on the home front and around the world.

We would like to believe that every moment of consciousness is an opportunity to increase peace. We squander the moments. We could be multiplying them. Create dangerously, said Camus. I have set before you life and death; choose life, says Deuteronomy. We have a peace emergency. We should teach peace as a lifetime learning project. You get good at what you practice.

How are thresholds crossed, when do we reach some critical mass, or adjust a trimtab, as Buckminster Fuller called it, or find a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell's book describes it, or employ leverage, illustrated by Archimedes' fulcrum? We use New Year as such a device. Janus, the Roman god of gates and beginnings, is a threshold figure, facing East and West, so January is a time to watch ourselves coming and going, to look at the year in review and to look ahead, around the next corner. For awhile, our head is swiveling between yesterday and tomorrow, two popular songs.

Homelessness, murders, hate crimes, went up in the U.S. in 2001. As the figure for Sept. 11 deaths have gone down, the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan keeps going up. We have passed the point of measured response, and yet we have barely begun. Dismemberment is our policy. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Then what, until nothing's left.

"We suffer from a kind of comfort addiction," said Sean Penn. Are we prepared to break our addiction? There are no landmines in America. The Surgeon General's December report says that obesity is now a greater health hazard than smoking. Maybe the problem is the level of our excess, which, like an addict, we confuse with comfort.

A new year is an opportunity for renewal of our energies and attention. It took September 11 to get people to focus on doing many things they should have done before. This includes:

- Appreciating public servants such as postal workers, fire and rescue service, police
- Going after international terrorist networks
- Pressuring governments not to shield or support terrorism
- Learning about Islam
- Learning about Arabs
- Learning geography
- Learning languages
- Improving airport security
- Having dialogues with a broader range of people
- Reflecting on the meaning of one's life and work
- Getting better news about the rest of the world
- Finding out about perceptions of the U.S. around the world
- Providing humanitarian aid to refugees
- Supporting the United Nations
- Developing alternatives to military action
- Reviewing our foreign policy
- Looking at quality of life in new ways

Apparently this does not include stopping the drug trade from Afghanistan which is expected to rise.

It's not widely known that the UN's recommended guideline for foreign aid of its member states is 0.7% of GDP--and that most countries have not met that level. On the other hand, Target stores give back 5% of their pretax profits to their communities.

We are expected to get used to continuous war as background noise. More like background radiation accumulating in our bodies: babies are still being born deformed from Chernobyl, more than 15 years later.

Peace in the world, goes the song, or the world in pieces. "There is no way to peace," said A.J. Muste, "peace is the way." And how do we achieve peace? Do we want peace on earth, peace among all peoples, or a Pax Americana? America has less than five percent of the world's people and a military budget larger than that of all our declared and undeclared enemies combined.

This raises questions about what it takes for people and institutions to do things differently, to move out of their usual patterns and habits. Some people have for a long time been looking into how we can develop a sustainable future, groups like Factor 10, Worldwatch Institute, Rocky Mountain Institute, Redefining Progress, Co-intelligence Institute, People-Centered Development Forum, and dozens of others.

September 11 has stimulated a willingness to consider altering some previous behavior and attitudes, but how long will this last? Some people already want things and the world to "get back to normal." What if this is our new normal? Will we settle into a normal state of war or of creating a new life?

We can look at some of the chinks in America's armor.

Now that fire fighters are heroes, it's a good time for them to look at the treatment of women and minorities within their ranks.

Some Americans have responded by becoming crazed avengers. "Many of the victims of the 92 hate crimes logged by the commission were cases of mistaken identity. A Latino man was attacked in the Antelope Valley and his assailants told him they thought he was Iranian. In Valencia, a Sikh merchant was beaten with metal poles in his store as his attackers yelled about terrorist Osama bin Laden." (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21)

Americans have learned more than we intended about Central Asia, Muslim women, ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns, the cities of Jalalabad, Islamabad, Kanduz, Kandahar, Mazar-I-sharif. Who is ready to be a Sister City?

We don't like hate, prejudice, rage, despair, on general principles and we especially don't like staring into the eyes of those who feel such things toward us.

We need to guard against adapting to bread and circuses, defined as "offerings, such as benefits or entertainments, intended to placate discontent or distract attention from a policy or situation." In other words, being fat and happy.

We need to prevent ourselves from being insulated, sedated, alienated, from each other and the rest of the world. We need to avoid equating being good citizens with being good consumers. We seem to want it both ways, producers of war for others, consumers of peace for ourselves.

In some myths and tragedies, once you cross beyond a certain point, there is no going back. It's Macbeth who says, "I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Happy new year.

December 27, 2001