Searching for Shawn Johnson

February 28, 2009

(Spoiler alert: the word is man, human, homo, but I don’t really get into it. )

K, our 18 year old boarder, is watching a movie, a loud one, with his girlfriend, in his bedroom. Our 19 year old son, Jaimen, and two college-bound buddies are on a well deserved Cumby’s break after three hours of Ghost Recon on the living room TV. The summer is ending and they are enjoying one last blast of computer-generated mayhem before they leave. Which gives me a chance to claim the tube before they return. I really want to see Shawn Johnson compete on the balance beam. I already know that she wins the gold but I want to see the tape delay. She is the perkiest, pluckiest, prettiest little gymnast I’ve seen in ages and I confess to being sucked into the drama: the anonymous underage Chinese girls, the injured and melancholic East Europeans, and the perky, well-rounded All-Americans.

But I push the wrong button. I hit 6 and get PBS. Instead of Shawn and the gang at NBC I see a lone American man, sixtyish, walking down a street in a foreign city. He is talking to the camera — to me for as long I stay on the channel. There is something light, familiar, and calming in his voice though I know instinctively he is not bringing good news. This is a documentary. He is in Syria and is telling stories of refugees from Iraq who have swelled into the big cities of Syria and Jordan over the past six years. Two million. Two million. I really want to see Shawn on the balance beam but for some reason my finger won’t budge as the journalist continues to walk towards the camera speaking in a thoughtful uplifting voice about the tragedy that has befallen the people of Iraq. I know how it ends. I know where he is going. I read the New York Times online. I listen to NPR. As surely as I know that Shawn Johnson won the gold so I also know about the Iraqi girls who nightly rent their bodies on the streets of Damascus to buy bread for their shamed fathers. I know about the 200,000 Iraqi Christians, members of one the most ancient of Churches who are scattered now in Jordan and Syria. I know this stuff already. But what I don’t know is how this gentle,  intelligent man is going to tell it. Will he mention the prostitution? How will he handle it? How will I?Will he interview any of the girls/women?

Jaimen and his friends burst in, all sugared up, ready for another round of mock war video. “What are you doing Dad? We’re playing games.” “I have the TV now,” I say,
“I’m watching the Olympics.” He stares at the screen. “This isn’t the Olympics.” “ I know. Sorry. I have the TV now.”

It is Aaron Brown,  evening host at CNN before the sexy Anderson Cooper burst onto the scene. I could be watching perky All-American Johnson, an icon of youth, innocence, and excellence, instead I have let gray haired Brown take me up three flights into the small kitchen of a refugee mother and her three daughters. A young Syrian journalist who has adopted the family is also there, acting as translator and guide. Brown explains that against her own family’s wishes the journalist is tutoring the daughters and helping them pay for school. “Why do you want help those Iraqis?” her parents had asked. “You must think first of yourself and your future. The Iraqis are not your responsibility.” She is a courageous and strong woman, helping the family and starting a foundation to help other refugees. The mother of the three girls was abandoned by her husband because she was raped by an Iraqi from a rival group. She shamed her husband by being raped. How many layers of woman hatred are packed in that statement? And now it is only the kindness of this cash-strapped young journalist that keeps  her three daughters off the streets.

And then, as Jaimen and his friends cling to adolescence on the small screen in his bedroom, and K keeps the volume up as he acts the teenage man-boy with his girlfriend, Brown takes me to a red-light warehouse. He is going to do it. He has a woman and her daughter, filmed in shadow, faces obscured. Mother and daughter discussing the trauma of the nightly plunge into prostitution. The shame, danger, fear, desperation, the threats from their customers, of exposure if they ever return home.

My mind lurches back to college, to Dostoevsky, to Crime and Punishment, to Sonya – the suffering consumptive prostitute who emerges as the Christ figure, the one who remains alive and good despite her suffering, who clings to her dignity and the essential goodness of life, in the end redeeming the self-absorbed and guilt-ridden murderer Raskolnikov, giving him the courage to confront his inhumanity and flight from meaning. Sonya single-handedly blew my myopic Evangelical faith to smithereens and, I do believe, redeemed me as well. But these Iraqi teens and their moms, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, are not literary inventions and their too real suffering redeems no one, certainly not an American channel surfer who wants to watch a pretty blond get her gold.

Brown moves on. He doesn’t leave us in the red-light warehouse with the real-life Sonya’s. The documentary must end with at least a glimpse of hope so he concludes with the story of a family  which against ridiculous odds has been chosen to emigrate to the United States. The refugees from the war we started, the chaos we unleashed, some tiny fraction will actually be welcomed here, within our borders. This family was headed to Portland. “Do you know anything about Portland? Do you have any questions about where you going?” inquires Brown. “No, I know nothing of Portland. Only question I ask is how to be a man. How can I be a man? For my family. For my son. I have nothing. I have lost everything.”

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was taping sheetrock with William at the People’s Health and Wellness Center’s new building in Barre. It was quiet. No radio. At 11 am Alison burst through the door. “Have you heard? We are at war. We’ve been attacked. The World Trade Center is burning.” Not knowing what else to do I drove to the hospital, to the emergency room, thinking, I’ll give blood. They just looked at me funny and I wandered into the waiting room. Everyone was gathered around the TV. It was my first visual. The planes. The smoke. The collapse. My first and overpowering response was of deep sorrow and empathy – for the victims, in the planes, in the buildings and then victims everywhere spreading quickly around the world, victims of war, terror and injustice. Finally, I thought. It has happened here. On our soil. Perhaps now we will learn what it is to be a victim. Perhaps that will help us understand. Perhaps that will lead us to the questions that will help us see the causes of international violence and hatred, perhaps even open our eyes to our contribution to it. How better to honor the victims of 9/11? Clear-headed reflection, heartfelt examination of history and geopolitics, of grinding poverty and injustice and the remnants of colonialism and imperialism. To work for peace.

For a brief moment. Instead we dishonored the victims and in their name have virtually destroyed an entire country that had no involvement with 9/11, creating an unbearably disproportionate number of victims, dead, living, permanently scarred, permanently scattered. I believe it obscene to compare or rate pain, loss, to speak of proportion. How many US dead, injured, how many Iraqis? Oh, but aren’t they just doing it to themselves? It’s not really our fault is it? It can’t be our fault. We are the good guys. We have good intentions. Our soldiers are dying for freedom, aren’t they? No. Good intentions do not cover a multitude of sins. The list is long  and what we have suffered is a drop in the bucket compared to what has been unleashed in Iraq. Comparison is obscene yet does anything Saddam did compare to the general havoc that has occurred in the aftermath of the invasion? Our soldiers are dying (and killing) for the small-mindedness of Bush, the false hopes of the neo-cons and the gullibility of the American public. There is no honor in it.

For me the one redeeming element in the documentary was the Iraqi who was heading to Portland – not because we could feel better about ourselves for taking in a token refugee, but because of his question: How can I  be a man? He is asking the question we must ask. Or a similar one.  How can we be human? Can we look at ourselves and see what we have done?  Or will we just blame it on Bush? Or the volatility of the ‘Arab temperament?’ Can we as a nation recover our humanity and place it on a higher pedestal than fear and nationality?  Can we finally begin to honor the victims of 9/11 and all the new ones resulting from the misbegotten war? Or will we switch the channel or pop in another DVD?

The link to the PBS documentary:


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