Feel the Burn

The Earth is heating up. It’s in the state-sized chunks of ice detaching themselves from our polar caps. It’s in the nuclear weapons of Pakistan and India that could soon raise temperatures to millions of degrees for a terrible split-second. It’s in the righteous anger of those not heard in the halls of power, and the fanatical anger of those heard all too well. This is the metaphorical global warming, threatening to become a global burning–“every spark a drifting ember of desire, to fall upon the earth and spark another fire,” in the words of Neil Peart.

We Americans have been great at keeping cool–and keeping detached. In fact, for the entire 20th century, we were cooler than everyone. We built more air-conditioners, swimming pools, amusements and other accoutrements of life than the rest of the world could even imagine. In the 1970’s we figured out that the Freon which kept us cooler actually had the undesired effect of making it a lot hotter and more dangerous at the poles as our ozone layer was ravaged. 30 years later, and still the ozone-destroying Freon is being used in some parts of the world. Today, the Bush administration is finally acknowledging that global warming is a reality and has short-term consequences that must be considered. Yet despite the warnings (and warmings), Americans have continued to act as if they were in fact cooler. Sales of CO2 spewing SUV’s have never been better. Well, today at least their air conditioners use ozone-safe Freon.

There’s a principle at work here: push something away or suppress it, and it goes somewhere else. It doesn’t go away. We have attempted to ensure our comfort, coolness, and convenience by pushing away the natural heat, by looking the other way while we enjoy the benefits of goods made by impoverished peoples who slave for our comfort. Our lives may ultimately get a lot less convenient as a result.

Though fueled by fanaticism, the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001 were also the result of pent-up hatred of American insensitivity to the pain of the rest of the world. Suicide attacks on Israel are the result of a generation of people so beaten down that even the children are willing to give up their lives. These are acts of desperation–by people who’ve been burning inside for so long that self-immolation is an act of escape, of release.

In a much more impersonal way, nature is also giving us what we’ve asked for. Capitalism is really good at delivering inexpensive goods in an incredible variety at reasonable prices. It is also terrible at assessing the true costs of production. Industries in the 20th century created nightmarish cess pools of toxics with no thought to their proper disposal. We all paid the price as these waste dumps began oozing into neighborhoods, on beaches, and into the water tables. But this slow burn of chemical and nuclear wastes could at least be contained to localities and cleaned up. Laws have now assigned these true costs to the products produced.

Today and in the near future, if predictions come true, we will collectively pay even more dearly. It’s likely the entire planet will heat up noticably. Hurricanes will become more violent, crop patterns and climate zones will be affected, oceans will rise, and droughts will become more commonplace.

On the international stage, we are seeing organized opposition on an unprecedented level. America is increasingly seen even by its allies as belligerent. While many nations pay lip-service to the war on terror, an inescapable sub text has emerged: “America, you are at least partially responsible for your own ills.” This is true on a micro as well as a macro level. Our bureaucracy and changing administrations often make this country inconsistent and untrustworthy to those who have helped us. We have been ungrateful to both nations and individuals. Essam Al Ridi, a man who recently helped the U.S. infiltrate and arrest al-Qaeda members was left at the mercy of the pro-Islamic Egyptian government. He was tortured and held on a recent visit to Egypt, and was also fired from his job as an airline pilot, as a result of trying to help America. What happened to the witness protection program? Mr. Al Ridi is a U.S. citizen who lives in Dallas. Is this any way to treat friends or patriots….? How do we expect to cultivate agents in this war?

The seeds of the Pakistan-India conflict were sown in the colonial era, something the U.S. did nothing to stop as long as it benefitted from cheap goods. Then America armed radical Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight our cold war enemy for us. That war spilled into Pakistan. Now Pakistan hosts many of these same mujahedeen who have turned their Jihad toward their former handlers. The events leading to the current clash over Kashmir can be traced to recent attacks by Islamic militants in India–militants who can be traced right back to the highest levels of government in Pakistan, our supposed ally in the war on terrorism. The Pakistani secret service (ISI) has never been under the control of the weak Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, whose alliance with the U.S. is constantly being undermined by his own fanatical Muslim population. It seems Pakistan is using this current crisis to justify pulling troops away from the border of Afghanistan, releasing pressure on the al-Qaeda there. At the same time, pursuing a war with India amounts to lighting the fuse on a regional holocaust.

None of this is any comfort to Americans or American attempts to stamp out terrorism. This kind of conflict would give al-Qaeda free reign. Chaos and destruction is their friend, as has already been demonstrated by their ability to operate freely in Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

It’s no coincidence that as the war between India and Pakistan heats up, the U.S. is receiving new threats of new acts of terror. Reuters reported on June 2 that al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman bu Ghaith has warned, “What is coming to the Americans will not, by the will of God, be less than what has come, so beware, America. Get ready. Get prepared. Put on the safety belt,”

Whatever is being planned is designed to make us feel, fear, and possibly suffer more loss of life. However tragic a future attack would be, and however powerless we may be to stop it, it is important to look at the message. It doesn’t matter that we believe, and rightfully so, that the terrorists have declared war on us and must be routed. We may even ultimately beat them. But if we don’t get the message that’s being sent to us, our civilization will continue to face mortal challenges, and eventually be changed beyond recognition.

Our work here is to really look at the dark underbelly of our supposedly freedom-loving nation. We need to own up to our dark deeds. We have not always been the innocents. We have acted in self-interest, which has often hurt others. It’s not time to condemn specific people or groups or point fingers, but it is important that we engage in a national soul searching. We are paradoxically one of the hardest-working, most innovative, and most compassionate nations on the planet. We’re also a republic based on democratic ideals. What that means is that we are responsible for the actions of our leaders whether or not we agree or acquiesce to them. So until we are willing to follow the golden rule as a society–treating the rest of the world as we wish to be treated, treating the earth as we wish to be treated, we will continue to suffer the direct (if delayed) consequences of our collecitive deeds.

This mess wasn’t created overnight, and we can’t be expected to change it overnight. Many Americans are just plain oblivious to the impact of their actions. They don’t understand that when they buy a steak, they may be depriving someone else of a meal (see article by Jeremy Rifkin). They feel that driving around in the quintessential SUV is more important than a vague notion of global warming. They’ve never felt the burn of hunger, had their homes destroyed by war, or lived in fear of devastating epidemics that could be cured by inexpensive immunizations.

When we Americans look at our lives, and I count myself no exception, we can see that our standard of living is based on monumental waste. As a practical matter, we can’t escape the dictates of our economy. But spiritually and metaphorically, we need to come to grips with that fact that what we pay for one cup of Starbucks coffee could immunize 10 children. I eat steak too, and yet I may be taking food out of someone else’s mouth by doing it. I don’t drive an SUV, but my car pollutes too. America offers great technological prowess, which may eventually lead the entire world toward greater wealth and a more balanced existence. Today, however, the earth change we collectively create through the routine conduct of our lives in industrialized nations is making life more difficult for the other 75% of the people on this planet.

These injustices are epic in scale. Our freedoms are protected by the sword. If those freedoms continue to come at the cost of injustice for the rest of the world, we will eventually perish by the sword. For the sake of our nation, our families, and our future, I hope that the burn we feel can be in our hearts instead of the annihilating burn of a terrorist weapon.

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