In her email home dated February 27, 2003, Rachel Corrie wrote:
I’m having a hard time right now. Just feel sick to my stomach a lot from being doted on all the time, very sweetly, by people who are facing doom. I know that from the United States, it all sounds like hyperbole. Honestly, a lot of the time the sheer kindness of the people here, coupled with the overwhelming evidence of the willful destruction of their lives, makes it seem unreal to me. I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it. ?? I’m having a hard time right now. Just feel sick to my stomach a lot from being doted on all the time, very sweetly, by people who are facing doom. You actually do go and do your own research. But it makes me worry about the job I’m doing.
This has to stop. I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this to stop. Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it. This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world. This is not at all what the people here asked for when they came into this world. This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into when you decided to have me. This is not what I meant when I looked at Capital Lake and said: “This is the wide world and I’m coming to it.” I did not mean that I was coming into a world where I could live a comfortable life and possibly, with no effort at all, exist in complete unawareness of my participation in genocide. More big explosions somewhere in the distance outside.
Even more than a decade later, the Rachel Corrie affair remains for me and for many others, a sort of open wound. That is: Despite the fact that during the past eleven years many other idealistic young people have been killed for no particular reason in conflict zones, the death of Rachel Corrie in the Gaza Strip seems to retain a persistent and perhaps unique power to disturb moral and political sensibilities.
That death has inspired, on the one hand, visions of Ms. Corrie as a sort of martyr, and elevating her to quasi-sainthood, as a 21st century version of Joan of Arc. And on the other hand, forensic-sounding “analyses” purporting to demonstrate that Rachel brought about her own death through a combination of stupidity and naiveté, analyses often combined with sneering jokes about Rachel and pancakes. In each case, we are dealing with something other than an intellectual debate or a conflict of interpretations. It’s as if some sort of undeniable but rarely glimpsed truth emerged from the wreckage, a truth that asserts itself beyond or beside possible interpretations of historical facts, and demands a response from the hidden depths of one’s heart. So it’s worth asking: What sort of truth is that?
Begin with the observation that Rachel Corrie was, at the time of her death, emerging from adolescence into adulthood. Adolescence is the time at which each individual is presented with adulthood as the thing one is asked to choose, to consent to. It is in adolescence that the world’s claim to legitimacy is exposed because, at least in parts of the world that claim liberalism as their foundation, that claim to legitimacy rests on consent. It seems to me that Rachel Corrie’s last emails from Gaza reflect a mind preoccupied with the idea of consent, thus of the social contract.
There are at least two ways to view the idea of a social contract. According to the first view, the contract may be seen as a bargain under which one agrees to obey society’s dictates in order to gain the advantages of being a part of society. Under the first view, conforming functions as a substitute for consenting: I agree to obey on the understanding that society will not withhold from me the benefits available to law-abiding subjects. For example, a visitor to a foreign country agrees to conform to its rules on pain of being deported. But this view is inadequate because the point of invoking the idea of a social contract is exactly to question the kind of advantages that society promises – for example, are these advantages fairly distributed? What must be given up in order to secure them?
Consent in the second sense – the sense that establishes legitimacy – implies consent to membership in society, which means citizenship. Citizenship implies that I recognize the society and its government not as a foreign visitor but as my society and government. I do not merely subject myself to its jurisdiction but allow that society and its government, as they currently stand, to speak for me. The question of consent, genuinely raised, asks not “Why should I obey?”, but, given the prevailing degree of injustice and inequality in society as it stands, “Why should I recognize this society as mine?”
Distinguishing between the first and second views of consent is important because, among other things, this distinction determines the value and meaning of political dissent. If consent is manifested by my submission to society’s rules, then my failure to conform to those rules may be seen as a breach of the social contract – a withdrawal of consent, and thus a waiver of the protection of society’s laws, justifying my censorship, imprisonment or expulsion. However, if consent is manifested by my acceptance of (shared) responsibility for what my society does in my name, then dissent may be seen as my insistence that my voice (along with those of other members) be heard, that society be responsive to me, to us.
Anyone who reads from an honest perspective Rachel Corrie’s emails from February 2003 cannot fail to notice the clarity with which she understood – perhaps more intuitively than intellectually, which is as it should be – the issues at stake in the idea of a social contract.
That Rachel did not view conformity as a substitute for consent is shown by her description of the moment when she as it were announced her readiness to enter the adult world:
“This is not what I meant when I looked at Capital Lake and said: ‘This is the wide world and I’m coming to it.’ I did not mean that I was coming into a world where I could live a comfortable life and possibly, with no effort at all, exist in complete unawareness of my participation in genocide.”
Unlike the foreign visitor who agrees to conform in consideration of society’s benefits, Rachel found herself, by virtue of being born into circumstances of relative privilege, to have already entered into some sort of compact with society, and to have already accepted in some sense an arrangement that denies equality and withholds justice both to its members and to others in far-away places.
“This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world. This is not at all what the people here asked for when they came into this world. This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into when you decided to have me.”
What Rachel discovered, when she passed through the door leading into adulthood, was that the pact to which she was, apparently, a party, was not genuine social contract that establishes the legitimacy of governance. Thus, the problem for her was not to decide whether or not to obey society’s rules, but to discover her position with regard to an existing arrangement to which she as a matter of fact, was a party, yet could not recognize as an arrangement she had chosen. As if she had discovered that the union of which she was the issue was somehow illicitness, casting doubt on her legitimacy. Discovering (as opposed to passively accepting) one’s position in the world means entering into crisis, or accepting isolation and the disorientation that implies. In a brief statement called “Leaving Olympia” written in January 2003, described her position as follows:
“We are all born and someday we’ll all die. Most likely to some degree alone. What if our aloneness isn’t a tragedy? What if our aloneness is what allows us to speak the truth without being afraid? What if our aloneness is what allows us to adventure – to experience the world as a dynamic presence – as a changeable, interactive thing?” (Compare this with the following sentence in Thoreau’s Walden: “Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives. The loon retires to solitary ponds to spend it.”)
Answering the question of consent (i.e., what are the limits of my responsibility for the actions of the society of which I am a member?) does not require gathering more information or expertise or the rational balancing of costs and benefits. For the most part, the issue of consent depends upon one’s willingness to respond to what is blatantly obvious and everywhere one looks. What was blatantly obvious to Rachel Corrie was the disparity between the deliberate, calculated destruction of lives undertaken in her name, and the serenity with which that destruction is both inflicted and tolerated, by her government and by the majority of her fellow citizens. Her response was one of disbelief – of disappointment and disgust:
“I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it … Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it.”
Most of all, what Rachel understood is something that each of us, regardless of our differing political or moral viewpoints, understand all too well but try our best to avoid, namely, that there is no reason why we cannot have a world in which we want to live. This lack of a reason is expressed in this sentence: “I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop.” What could be easier? What could possibly be more difficult? Nothing, no insurmountable obstacle, no immeasurable distance or impenetrable wall, stands between our desire and its satisfaction, properly imagined – nothing, that is, except ourselves, our own fears and evasions and false attachments to fantasies of power and impotence.
Returning to my initial question, the truth written on Rachel Corrie’s grave and expressed in the few emails she sent home shortly before being crushed by a bulldozer is the truth of our shame, which is the obverse of Rachel’s disgust – both shame and disgust being entirely valid modes of political knowledge, knowledge of the political.
The shame is expressed equally in the twin tendencies to remember Rachel as a saint on the one hand and as a “terrorist supporter” on the other.
For the latter, the shame of having constructed a world which can only inspire disgust, horror and disbelief in a young person invited to join it. Making pancake jokes about Rachel is a weak and cowardly way of covering up, hence expressing this shame.
For the former, the shame is that of not taking Rachel’s disgust upon ourselves – as if only a martyr or a saint would or could undertake that kind of burden. Imagining Rachel Corrie as a saint is yet another way of covering up shame, not by mocking the victim but by refusing to acknowledge that her innocence is also ours to win or lose.
Stella Roberts lives in Dallas, Texas.