Betsy Shebang - Column for 9/18

Dungeons and Dragons and Cowboys and Terrorists

I've worked hard on my column - see below - but first, this is a link to an excellent article that every American, especially our political leadership, should read:

It's written by a 35-year American resident, born in Afghanistan, who has some very important observations about what our response to the attacks will mean. I highly encourage you to read it and share it with many others. It's certainly more important than anything I have to say.

As for meÖ

Iím tired of waking up wondering how I would defend my plane from hijackers. (Current plan: Floatation Device Seat Cushion has two straps in the back, making for dandy Nerf-shield; broken miniature wine bottle in each hand provides pro-environmental recycled jabbing weapon. Leather jacket adds to illusion of invulnerability. If I don't stop thinking about this stuff, I'll need my own comic book.)

Iím tired of Americans who demonstrate their patriotism by killing other Americans. (Do animal lovers go out kicking dogs?) Innocent Americans have been attacked by Islamic extremists; now, Americans with Middle Eastern headgear - or, you know, Americans mistaken for Arabs even though they look nothing like Arabs - have been attacked by American extremists. If chaos in America is the terroristsí goal, weíre already doing our part to help make it happen.

When our flag reminds me of better things that this, Iíll display one on my car every day.

I want to be proud of my country. For some people, "proud of my country" is a decision, like picking an outfit. (Perhaps "I'm proud of my country" and "I want to be proud of my country" are one and the same for most people.) For me, it has more to do with "compare and contrast" thinking: Would I be proud of any country that funded homocide worldwide, broke treaties for questionable gain, led most of the world in legal executions, swallowed the majority of Earth's resources and shit out Jim Carrey movies, and whose citizens went on homocidal rampages in order to restore calm and order?

Of course, our flag does remind me of better things than this. I enjoy many freedoms (for the time being), including the freedom to bitch about the freedoms we can't enjoy. A flag belongs on my car because this is my country, damn it. As long as I expect America to believe in me - in gay rights, in freedom of the press; as long as I expect citizens to be furious that our email can be searched without a warrant (Feinstein just pushed that through) - this is my country. This is my country because I refuse to let them have it - the terrorists who weren't born here and those that were.

Sunday I went to a church service that made me proud of my country. The priest called for unity of all religions, reminding us that we must rely not only on God, but also on each other.

I've been hotheaded and upset lately. I don't trust George W. Bush not to make a terrible situation worse; from the minute he took office he's shown an ability to alienate and infuriate other countries that we can no longer afford. Yet on Wednesday I finally took the "Gore Won" sticker off my car. I still think the statement is true; but after Tuesday, it no longer matters. George Bush is our leader, for better or worse.

George Bush has used a kindergarten word to describe the attacks: "Evil". Heís used it over and over and over. Was any word more appropriate? Probably not. Killing thousands of innocent people - or even relatively innocent people - is a horrific thing. The acts of the Nazis were evil, certainly. Our minds have to label this event "Evil" before it can even get in the door; as it is, the magnitude of the suffering has kept it wedged in the entrance to my mind, thousands of times too horrible to comprehend. Living skyscrapers have fallen. To myself and many others, that's a symbol for a day we never thought we'd see. It wasn't an act of God, but christ, it looks like one.

The problem with the president's statement is that "Evil" is the same word our enemies use to describe us. Apparently "Evil" means "guaranteed to perpetuate the suffering." Let's see if our response qualifies.

The attacks did not happen because of an abstract thing called "Evil", any more - or any less - than Hiroshima happened because of "Evil". The people who did this had reasons for doing it - warped reasons, to be sure, but reasons; and probably at least one that had something to do with love for their families and concern for somebody's (although clearly not everybody's) children. Greed was not a factor; the perpetrators died in the process. We're doing something they want us to stop doing.

Yet the president called the terrorists "people that hate freedom", as if we'd been attacked by retarded monsters. It was like saying "they hate our oxygen". As nutty as the Taliban are, I doubt this act was committed because the terrorists despise our board games and flashy clothes.

Jon Carroll said: "'cowardly' is exactly the wrong adjective to describe the hijackers. They were brave. It would be good to understand what made them brave."

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons a lot. (Still like the idea, but I have other priorities now.) The game taught me a few things; my sense of good and evil became stronger.

I also read articles about Dungeons and Dragons. Every player interviewed said "I have learned from the game; my sense of good and evil has become stronger." Good and Evil existed, and we all knew which side we wanted to be on.

We had it all wrong; we didn't even understand the books we'd learned it from. Consider two familiar, contemporary and, for what it's worth, very effective mythical stories: The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. In each, we know who is good and who is evil; they have different costumes, different homelands, even different species. But in each, where is the key to the overthrow - the kernel of the ultimate "Evil"? The goodest of the good folks (Frodo, Luke) are carrying it with them. If their quest fails, they will not simply be overwhelmed by the enemy; they will have personally delivered the enemy's victory.

Good and Evil were never meant to wholly represent "us and them". In storybooks, the good characters represent the good inside each of us; the evil characters represent the evil inside each of us. An obvious enough point, it is. But our country's crucial next decisions will be made by someone who either doesn't get it, or doesnít want us to know what he's really up to. I really can't say if that's evil in itself, but it's very, very scary.

Columns by Betsy Shebang