On December 31st I took my children to a daytime New Year’s Eve celebration at a local museum. There were crafts, snacks, and a balloon drop from the roof of the building each hour. At 1:00 in the afternoon all the kids gathered on the museum lawn and looked expectantly at the employees perched high above, ready to shower them with balloons. A young man brought out a bullhorn and announced a list of places around the world where it was now 2007 — various countries in time zones eleven hours ahead of our own: Russia, Kenya, Madagascar, Kuwait. As the crowd counted down, balloons were dropped, and kids stampeded, I found myself pondering the countries that were read aloud, and realized that there was, at least to me, one glaring omission: It was midnight in Iraq, with a new year beginning.
Later, I looked at the top Google listing for “World Time Zones” and found that when sorted by time zones, Baghdad was indeed on the list with the other countries that had been named. While I don’t ascribe negative intentions in the failure to announce that it was New Year’s in Iraq, I did feel saddened by the missed opportunity for compassion, for empathy, for connection — not only with our own American soldiers away from home, but also with ordinary Iraqis. To me, the incident seemed to illuminate our tendency to shield ourselves from both the bad and the good of Iraq. It is much easier to deny our own complicity in this illegal and immoral war when real Iraqi lives are reduced to numbers streaming by on the television set: numbers displaced, numbers dead. Numbers are easier than names and faces, families and traditions, celebrations and bereavement, change and growth.
The following day, January 1st, I attended what was to be a walk across the Golden Gate bridge marking the death of the 3000th American soldier, and the hundreds of thousands civilians killed in Iraq. On my trip to the bridge, about a half-hour before the vigil began, I witnessed what seemed to be a horrible accident, with a woman hit by a car and dead on the freeway. I thought of her children, her loved ones, her friends, and hoped that they had not had seen the accident, that they might be spared these last images of her. I thought of the driver of the car that hit her, the image of him with his head in his hands in sorrow and pain. And I hoped that all would be solaced and ultimately healed by their communities.
As I walked the bridge, my mind moved between these events and images. I saw faces and families in both celebration and mourning, and tried to imagine the joys and sorrows, the hopes and dreams, the quirky habits, the mundane and intimate details that breathe life into each and every one of the numbers that we see, and too often ignore, day after day. Had the woman on the freeway toasted in the new year, made resolutions to be kept and broken? Even amidst the chaos, were Iraqi families able to gather together, to sing and dance, to greet 2007 with the slightest bit of hope shimmering on the horizon? How many of our soldiers counted down to a long-distance kiss and silent wish to come home? And then, how many of each of these beings that celebrated (or not) the previous night, would make it through until tomorrow? In 2007 how many children will watch their parents die needless deaths, how many parents will bury their children?
I soon discovered that the woman on the freeway survived with relatively minor injuries. Rather than become a statistic, hers was a life returned, renewed. Will we be able to say the same for the children, the women and men, both Iraqi and American, who daily must live the horrific reality that our imperialism has wrought?