Us and Them:

A Reflection on Imagination and War

Rebecca Nellenback

War is first launched on the landscape of the imagination. It is there that the logic of war fights to be the only logic. It fights so thoroughly that we can no longer imagine another way of being, another story to tell. War wins when we perceive that alternatives have collapsed and there is only one way.

Very shortly after September 11, 2001 the mainstream media churned out "news" that sought to shape public consciousness in a way that made war _ that is, violence and vengeance _ seem like the only choice. But for a few moments last year, there was an opening, an expanding of our collective and individual consciousness. Suddenly we had come face to face with a calculating brutality that was personal. There was a second when we asked, "What do we do now?"

I heard people say things like, "Innocent people will die in Afghanistan if we bomb there, and they will suffer just like we have." I heard people echoing the lessons we teach our children when they are very young: two wrongs don't make a right … we must do unto others as we would have them do unto us … let us not become what we abhor.

These lessons brought us to the edge of our consciousness and our experience. They brought us to the edge of what we know. They are uncomfortable; they ask us to stretch beyond the ready answers of what we've already tried, and envision something new.

It's scary to ask, "What if … ?" At some point in such ponderings we hit the end of what we know and have to take a step into the unknown. That's the vulnerable moment, the time when others point to how things have always been … and why they must always continue to be that way. It's the time when it's tempting to give up, to stop listening to our own inner voice telling us that the impossible is possible. It's the time when it's tempting to listen to those in charge, those with money, those with the guns and power to hurt us if we keep thinking, "Why does it have to be this way?"

There was a moment when many people felt a change beginning in their own heart and mind and imagination _ that powerful place where any true change begins. And it was a critical time: it was hard to ignore the never ending commentary from the news stations, owned by corporations like GE and Westinghouse, who manufacture arms and who profit from the logic of war. It was easy to think things like, "What good does the change in my heart do if others don't also change?" We are so accustomed to denying our own wisdom, so trained to strip ourselves of power in our moments of greatest illumination by looking outside of ourselves instead of staying focused on that inner truth.

The prevailing logic, the logic of violence and war, was there to slam the door on such an opening of consciousness. The logic of war understands that it's there _ in the hearts, minds and imaginations of individual people _ where it first needs to go in order to silence the questioning, the compassion, and the love that is the truth of who we are. So the mainstream media went to work, pounding the war drums, pulling out their big guns, with money, manipulation, and propaganda to make people believe that there is only one choice, ever, and it's already made: violence.

But they also manipulated the parts of ourselves that we all know to be true and divinely created. The media and the warmakers took our sorrow, our generosity and compassion _ our natural and innate tendency to look out for each other and reach out to those in need _ and called that "patriotism." They knew that if they could harness such kindness and goodness and use it to further divide the world into good guys and bad guys, that we'd be a force to reckon with. And boy are we.

There is nothing like human kindness. But we accepted, once again, that it's something that separates us from others. We accepted that our kindness is not divinely bestowed but the special province of America and a unique characteristic of Americanness. So instead of hearing the call in our hearts to respond with compassion to all of the world's victims, instead of seeing that the capacity for kindness or cruelty resides in all human hearts, and that we are not so different from those we call our enemies, we accepted our "leader's" assurances that "we" are "good" and "they" are "evil" _ and ignored the fact that our language sounds remarkably like theirs.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 is that thousands of people died and we denied the opening and expanding of consciousness that could have honored such an outpouring of sorrow. We have allowed a privileged few _ those who profit from war _ to dictate our responses as a nation. We have forfeited our choices, our rights, and our responsibility to choose new and differently, to grow and evolve. In the past year we have accepted that the choice is made for us, that there is only one logical response, and no other way. In a land supposedly dedicated to freedom and democracy, let us defy this tyranny of the imagination.

The logic of war says it's us against them. The logic of war says that killing other people will keep us safer. I observe the opposite: revenging our dead perpetuates a cycle of violence. More violence means more sorrow, more pain, more anger and hopelessness and bitterness visited upon other people. Eventually this turns back upon ourselves.

Until we see that there is no Other; until we see that there is only Us; until we see that this great chain of being, of which we are a part, extends as far as a small child in Baghdad looking up to the murderous sky and wondering, "Why do the Americans hate me so much?"; until we "love our neighbors as ourselves" and see that those neighbors include even those whose actions would make our blood boil; until we decide to choose another way, a grander idea about who we are; until we stop letting others choose for us _ we will continue to create a world in which more September 11ths are thinkable and justifiable to those who perpetrate them.

I point to September 11, 1973. On that day, having overthrown Chile's democratically-elected president, the US-backed Chilean military began killing thousands of innocent Chileans. I point to the holocaust that has been visited upon countless Iraqi children for the last decade in our name. And, yes, I point to September 11, 2001, when for once the weapons of mass destruction were unleashed in our direction. Here is the lesson we ignore at everyone's peril: we are all us; there is no them.

Rebecca is a revolutionary farm apprentice on sabbatical in Syracuse.