By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


Down the street from my downtown apartment, the elegant stone townhouses of the Gold Coast preen like dinner guests perpetually anticipating a cocktail party. On my walk through the neighborhood last week, the night the war began in Iraq, I stopped in front of an empty lot that stood out among the sturdy row of homes like a hole punched in a train ticket. Obscured by a sheet of black canvas clinging to a chain-link fence, the lot bears the debris of a home that was razed to make room for a new luxury townhouse complex. I peered through an opening in the canvas to see the silent scene of destruction—a bumpy brown dirt floor swelling into a mound of dirt sprinkled with concrete blocks in the back corner of the lot, emitting a heavy earthen smell. The sprawling chaos seemed out of place in the prim neighborhood—a blot of messy demolition amid one of the most neatly groomed blocks in the city.

I thought of that debris-strewn lot as I returned home and saw the news that the U.S. had struck a Baghdad bunker and begun the war. We have a 13-inch TV, which is usually irritating but that night helped me realize the oddity of how I was experiencing this war; the thunder of the explosions and flashes of light piercing the night sky over Iraq were all contained in a little box on a stand next to my bookshelf. I would not experience the destruction of this war in the way I had just viewed the construction site—a firsthand look at a violent disturbance of my immediate geography, smelling the dirt and seeing the wound of a neighborhood near where I live. Although September 11 has made all too vivid the fact that global conflict could turn a seemingly invincible urban center into a war scene (as a tense Washington D.C. was aware last week), the war in Iraq was much less likely to result in commensurate rubble on my end of the screen as on the other.

Because so much has been made of the effect of CNN on the 1991 Gulf War (discussed midway through this essay*), it is easy to forget just how unusual it is to experience a war this way—on the couch, remote control in hand, with little fear of immediate physical threat. The war is literally half a world away; the destruction will reach us only as electronic images. And as news commentators and military officials speak of the "surgical precision" of the attacks, the effort can sound downright tidy. They, too, are exerting a form of remote control, making decisions and judgments about a war at arm's length. As NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told a reporter during a commercial break last week: "Even with this degree of access, television cannot ever adequately convey the sheer brute force of war, the noise and utter violence. It somehow gets filtered through the TV screen, and that's probably just as well." It's too glib to say that the media are presenting the war as simply another TV show, though they have given it its own soundtrack and title graphics. But the fact remains: the thunder, the dirt, the smell of war is far removed from us, reaching us only by remote control.

How are we to do our most urgent duty as human beings—our duty to empathize with those who are suffering, to share in the pain of the people whose lives will be shattered by the war we are watching (even as we may reasonably believe that the destruction is a cure to the even worse disease of oppression)? The one means of communicating that is never remote is prayer. Unlike the blurry images of videophones, prayer is a means of direct, visceral connection to what is unfolding and to the people on both sides who are affected by it. Prayer is how we affirm our common humanity with strangers half a world away, sharing in their suffering and honoring the Creator whose image they bear.

  1. From The New Republic: War coverage as "unreality TV"*; NYT on TV coverage
  2. From Christianity Today's weblog: a nation on its knees
  3. News updates from CNN, the BBC, NPR, NY Times, Wash. Post, and more.
  4. Previous Filter: Media violence and worldview


Note: This category normally highlights cultural stories outside of the media's "news cycle." This week it features stories measuring the effects of the war in different places in and outside Iraq, from the New York Timesand Washington Post:

SAFWAN, Iraq, March 21—Happiness and dread rose together today from this desolate border village, where some of the first Iraqis liberated by American and British troops found the joy of their deliverance muted by the fear that it was too good to last. As hundreds of coalition troops swept in here just after dawn, the heartache of a town that has felt the hardest edges of Saddam Hussein's rule seemed to burst forth, with villagers running into the streets to celebrate in a kind of grim ecstasy, laughing and weeping in long guttural cries. "Oooooo peace be upon you peace be upon you peace you oooooo" cried Zahra Khafi, a 68-year-old mother of five, to a group of American and British visitors who came to the town shortly after Mr. Hussein's army had appeared to melt away. "I'm not afraid of Saddam anymore." … *

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