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Is That Your Final Answer?

Escapism had failed me, so I briefly took heart from a drunk, because he seemed to be offering and I was in need. Now, though, days later, I find I’m uneasily turning his rhetorical question over in my mind.

“It’s all worth it, isn’t it?” he asked.

My daughter and I were taking an evening stroll around the neighborhood, which is something we do often enough just for fresh air and fun; but while it was for her another opportunity to delightedly point out all the puppies on the block and comment appreciatively on how startling Harley Davidsons can be (thusly, “Mocha-syko yowd, Daddy!”), it was for me an attempted balm. It was, I hoped, a restorative walk.

I had made myself sick with stress and impotent disgust by obsessively point-and-clicking through the endless accounts of the abuse inflicted by American soldiers and their allies on detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and other locations. I read story after story, and related story after related story, and tangentially connected story after tangentially connected story; I read the op-ed pieces and the DOD press releases; everything, every scrap, I could find online. I looked at all the accompanying pictures—the real and the staged, the verified and the disavowed. And, of course, it left me feeling filthy.

And, what’s more, guilty. Guilty, not in any specific political way—I was not, as it happened, a supporter of the decision to invade Iraq (not that anyone asked). Rather, I felt guilty in a kind of genetic way. I felt an inclusive, species-wide loathing. I saw the leers on the faces of Pvt. England and Cpl. Graner, and I hated us. Not us Americans: Current atrocities notwithstanding, we’ve not yet cornered the market on man’s inhumanity to man, an equal-opportunity enterprise if ever there was one. (Just add power, makes its own human-rights violations!) But us.

I mean, did you catch the scandal at the Boston Globe? A Boston councilman called a press conference to decry the actions of the American military, whom he said were raping Iraqi women; further, the outraged politician claimed he had photographic evidence to back up the accusation, which he displayed. The images, which were violently pornographic, were clearly visible in the Globe’s own photograph of the meeting. This curious decision on the part of the paper to run that shot freaked everybody out—including the writer of the article, who had been careful to mention that the authenticity of the photos could not be ascertained and was, frankly, dubious. Sure enough, turns out the images were supplied to the councilman by representatives of the Nation of Islam and were originally obtained at a Web site called, get this, Iraqibabes.com, which depicted nonconsensual sex acts between ostensible servicemen and female Iraqi civilians.

Tell me, how do you collate your revulsion? There are so many levels of brutally ignorant selfishness, of shortsightedness, of exploitation, of raw fucking evil in this true-life tale that my stomach is cramping again at the recounting. How do you harness your outrage enough to begin thinking about, much less responding to, such news? It recalls to me a colorful caption from an old John Callahan cartoon, “This program contains material offensive enough to knock a buzzard off a shit wagon”, but here, I think, sarcasm and satire sputter ineffectually.

And, truth be told, these days, without them, I haven’t got much.

So, I shut the computer down and turned the CD player on. Believe it or not, my first attempt at consolation or comfort was to take out the all-instrumental discs that’ve been in the carousel for weeks and replace them with singers. I wanted an intimate reminder that we are capable of beauty. I wanted the immediacy and the reassurance of the human voice employed in the service of celebration and affirmation—as, I think, all art is implicitly, however dark its subject matter. If you have, as I have, ever been cheered up by Nick Cave, you know what I mean.

But it didn’t work.

So, when my daughter woke from her regular post-daycare nap, I strapped her in her stroller and we headed out into the evening for some head clearing, though I was not optimistic. This was not just one of my cyclical fits of prissy indignation, nor another—increasingly common—indulgence of my prop-room cynicism: It was nihilistic and misanthropic and despairing and sincere. I wished us gone. Like the dinosaurs.

I will not wax parental here; suffice it to say my kid does cheer me up with almost unfailing consistency. Her pleasure in the world around her makes the world pleasurable. So, when the florid and boozy gent in the skewed trucker cap smiled at her and, without looking at me, said, “It’s all worth it, isn’t it?” I was inclined to agree, and I felt renewed. It is, it is worth it, I thought: It’s worth it for me, because it’s a beautiful night for a walk with my daughter. And for me, the world of sweat and fear and humiliation and debasement, of enforced sleep deprivation and depleted uranium and Sarin gas and things on which no buzzard would comfortably settle is a world of TV and Web sites and newspapers, which can be shut off, shut down or dropped unread (save the crossword and Savage Love) at the curb. I’m free to drown out the reports of murder with Murder Ballads, and if that fails, to stroll the streets thrilling with pride as my daughter politely greets my neighbors’ pets by name. I’m free to ignore the uglier technologies, and to revel in the only one my daughter truly loves, which is the simple one granting stickers (“stick-ews”) their stickiness.

Selfishly—goddamn me—I say, it is worth it, and hope I can be forgiven for the thought.

—John Rodat


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