The Realities of Terror

In the midst of letters of anthrax and soldiers with M-16s at the airport, it’s a little difficult to get you arms around the current situation in America. The land of the free and home of the brave has become the land of fearful and home of the terrorized.

And in part, we do it to ourselves. Time reported that the FBI was called in when a woman found a mysterious white powder on her keyboard. False alarm. She’d been eating a cookie. It’s rare comic relief like this that makes me feel better, but then I start worrying that all Americans could be this stupid.

One thing I have learned this past week is that now every American has a tiny taste of what it’s like to live somewhere else. We are a privileged nation. As much as I complain about my loans, my bills, my desperate poverty — I am rich. The fear and apprehension that’s sweeping across the land is a tiny inkling of what some people go though every day. They live in fear and oppression. Bombs go off in their streets all the time. Watching someone die is a common occurrence.

In many parts of the world you don’t have the option of eating in or going out. You don’t get to decide if Friday night will be a movie night or a game night. You don’t get to decide if you’ll watch the big game on Sunday afternoon or mow the lawn. You don’t have the option of taking your beloved to the park for a romantic afternoon.

Some people in the world have bigger problems. They worry about their children having enough food, and don’t have time to worry that they’re not eating. They work long hours in poor conditions for minimal earnings, and put it all towards medicines for ailing relatives. They’re oppressed and afflicted by dictators, drug dealers, over-zealous police forces, and yes, terrorist groups.

No one else in the world lives in the comfort we have in the United States, comfort that was made a little less comfortable on September 11. And as much as I hate to say it, we need to realize that God didn’t put us here to be comfortable. He didn’t tell us that we’d always be happy, always be safe, always content.

It’s time to leave our superpower uppity-ness behind us, and embrace a world of hurting people. Are you scared as you stand in line at the airport, eyeing the National Guardsmen and their rifles? Do you fear for your loved ones as they leave the house in the morning? Do you pause before opening your mailbox, wondering what diseases may be coming first class? Do you brace yourself before turning on the news or looking at the front page of the paper? Now you have a small taste of the every day existence of the common person. The Bible calls us to be in this world–and notice that the command refers to the whole world, not just the comfort of America. Life is not microwaves and fast food and instant cash. It is pain and hardship and suffering and the persevering love that someone how comes through. Ask anyone in the world.

It’s a Different World

Last Saturday I spent the day driving from St. Paul to Detroit, and then flying back to St. Paul. It was a long day, but gave me a chance to reflect on some of the events at hand.

Some observations…

The day after we began striking Afghanistan, several hundred protesters showed up outside the Federal building in Minneapolis to protest. There was a good mix of college students and older people (“long-haired hippies who protested the Vietnam War,” as someone on the bus put it, in a tone that made the Vietnam War sound like the Second Coming of Christ). They carried signs that said “An Eye for an Eye Makes a World Blind,” and “Drop Food, not Bombs”–which I found ironic considering we are dropping food.

On my way home I saw lots of American flags–patriotism like we’ve never seen, even during the Gulf War. I also saw close to a dozen billboards reading “In God We Trust. United We Stand.” I’m still not sure what to think
of that.

When I pulled up to the $2 tollbooth on I-90 just east of Chicago, I noticed that the woman taking my money was wearing rubber gloves. I’ve never seen that before.

When my dad dropped me off at the airport, there were three National Guardsmen in camouflage, talking to a police officer. When I got to the security checkpoint, there were three more standing around observing, all with pistols at their sides. I made it through the metal detector fine, but they still made me spread my arms and ran the wand over me. Anything time the wand beeped, they felt the metal to make sure that’s all it was–including the snap on my jeans. When the guy was almost done, he asked me to lift my feet, and he ran the wand over the soles of my shoes. I watched others go through the checkpoint–anyone with a belt had to remove it, and I saw a number of people have to put their shoes through the x-ray machine.

When I did finally board the plane, I had to check my backpack. Purses, laptops, and diaper bags were the only carry-ons allowed. I put a couple books and a notebook in a plastic CompUSA bag, and felt like a refugee.

When I got off the plane in Minneapolis, we weren’t greeted by anyone. Passengers only. As we rounded the corner and walked down the stairs to the baggage claim, three more National Guardsmen were standing guard–but these guys had M-16’s over their shoulders. One of them looked like he was 18.

It’s a different world.

That’s the way it is.

That’s the way it is. One day you’re three and a half, curled up in your grandfather’s lap, a moment captured on black and white film. The next thing you know you’ve got bills and rent and car payment and the alarm goes off before the sun comes up. Life.

A country’s at war and you long for the presidential statements of history, but all you get is a Texan who stutters when he thinks, repeats himself, and mispronounces common words. It’s not that he’s a bad guy, he’s been impressive the past month, but you want something more. You want speeches that go down in the history books, audio sound bytes that our children will remember. Instead you get E-raq instead of Iraq, and Is-slam instead of Islam.

Life is never as dramatic as we’d like it to be. And then sometimes it’s so much more dramatic. The tragic happens and we can only cover our mouths and gasp. We’ve been trained to look for life through the camera lens, for life through the director’s eyes. Fast, well-timed edits: shot of the gas pedal to the floor, cut to the car cruising down the street, cut to driver’s view, cut to stick shift, dropping to third, cut to pedal shot again, back to driver’s view, back to bird’s eye watch the car swerve, shot of the driver spinning the wheel, all the while the soundtrack thumping in the background. Is that what life’s supposed to be like? Bring your own soundtrack?

If your life was a soundtrack, who would be on it? If your life was a movie, who would star? If your life was a novel, who’d be the author?

Questions and answers, more questions than answers, more answers than questions. And you’re always rehashing. They say drop food not bombs, and we are–but you still can’t win. That’s the way it is.

Missionary in Afghanistan

The other night on the news I saw a story about a missionary in Afghanistan. They called him the only free American in the country. The only other Americans in the country have been arrested on charges of trying to covert Muslims to Christianity. He spoke with a slight Carolina drawl, but worked with the local people trying to bring aid and relief. He had no desire to flee the country in the wake of U.S. attacks. In fact, he saw it as a greater opportunity to show the people of Afghanistan love.

That is true Christianity in action.

War in Afghanistan

We went to war. While I find myself uneasy with that concept, I know it is unavoidable. They attacked us in a most heinous manner, the American spirit calls for nothing less than retaliation. We can only hope that innocent people aren’t killed, that collateral damage is minimal, that relations with allies and would-be enemies don’t worsen, and that the terrorist response is stopped before more people are killed. War is not easy.

What I don’t completely understand are the protesters. Today a crowd several hundred strong marched outside a federal building in downtown Minneapolis. Half a dozen police officers from the station across the street watched over the demonstrations, and behind the rally I saw a few official looking guys in “Police: Federal Protective Services” jackets. I’m not familiar with that federal agency. The protesters wanted their voice to be heard, they wanted the media and the public to know that not everyone agrees with war. According to an ABC news poll, they must be the 6% of the population that disagrees with the U.S. action.

They carried signs that said “No Racism! No War!” and “An Eye For An Eye Makes a World Blind!” I sympathize with their situation. War is not easy. But I don’t understand their position. President Bush made it clear that this is not a war on Islam or the Afghani people. It is a war on terrorism. Our targeted attacks make that clear. Last night we launched only 50 cruise missiles. Several years ago when we attacked Bin Laden for bombing embassies in Africa, we used several hundred cruise missiles. Are the protesters agreeing with Bush and reinforcing his statement, or do they think Bush is lying?

And ‘an eye for an eye’ may not be the best policy. But then what do you do? One college student I talked to said that attacking the terrorists will only cause more terror. Then what do we do? Won’t hunting them down and bringing them to trial cause just as much terror? And we can’t exactly bring them to trial when the Taliban won’t cooperate. I find myself torn between the kind of peace Jesus modeled, and the practicality that a nation must defend itself.

How do we protect the poor, the fatherless, and the alien when we have no muscle to fight the very things that endanger those we wish to protect?

I do find it a consolation, if a blatant contradiction, that we are dropping humanitarian aid as well as bombs. If we were warring against the Afghani people, why would we be feeding them? This is a compassionate gesture, from a nation that’s good at hating our enemies.

I also find myself worrying about the Muslim backlash. Bush made it clear that this is not a war on Islam. Bin Laden made it clear that this is a war of Muslims vs. Christians. Who do you believe? Protesters in Pakistan seemed to side with Bin Laden as they burned buildings and rioted. The danger is that Muslims everywhere will side with Bin Laden and rise up against the U.S. I don’t think it’s likely, but the repercussions wouldn’t be pretty.

The whole thing isn’t helped by the fact that a piece of wreckage was pulled from the World Trade Center site in the shape of a perfect cross. It was erected on the site and officially blessed. This only reinforces the image of Christianity vs. Islam. A concept that is completely untrue. We are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of free religious expression. We are a nation of Christians, yes, but also of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and more religions than you can count. It seems to me that encouraging crackpot ideas like Bin Laden’s holy war will only make this more difficult.

Who Holds Your Freedom?

It was only a matter of time. We all knew it was coming. The sad thing is I’m talking about the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan today, and I could also be talking about the next terrorist attack on the U.S. It’s a crazy world we live in.

Bin Laden claims it’s a war of Christians versus Muslims. I wish he knew how wrong he was. He sees this as a great Christian nation of infidels, trying to overthrow the Muslims. If only he knew that the golden arches were the sacred symbol of America, and not the cross. If only he’d watch prime time TV, he’d know this is not a Christian nation.

But he can’t really be that stupid, can he? Or is it deeper than that? Is it a war against freedom? Does he simply want power and sees our democracy and our religious freedom as an impediment to his power? Maybe the guy’s just whacked.

This certainly isn’t a perfect nation. We stole the land from people who were here first, people who understood the land and treated it with respect. But we did rise up against oppressors at one time, we did fight for a noble cause and won our liberty. That certainly means something. It seems that again we must rise up against oppressors and defend our freedom. Unfortunately this time the oppressors are almost unseen, and they hide among us. Who knows how it will all come out. Nation will rise against nation, blood will be shed, and God will wring his hands and sob.

Who holds your freedom? Who holds your liberty?
Who holds you freedom? Who holds you liberty?

It cannot mean to serve ourselves / That doesn’t mean a thing / It doesn’t mean to give the license / to seek ourselves in anything. / That would be slavery to ourselves, / It isn’t free / Jesus Christ, the only thing that freedom means to me.
(Five Iron Frenzy – ‘Anthem’)

The Consolidation of Christian Music

It really frustrates me that all the best things seem to die. Just when you think you’ve got something good going, you lose it. For those of us into Christian music, such a time is upon us. Let me clarify that, those of us who like good music that also happens to have decent, God-honoring lyrics. I’m not referring to the cheese that is much of contemporary Christian music.

And when I say cheese, I’m talking about much of the stuff that flows out of Nashville, the well-known capital of country music, and the little-known capital of Christian music. Most of this cheese is drivel, void of originality, free of any hint of freshness, and lacking in basic musicianship and decent song writing. As an example, adult contemporary group 4Him. For ordinary people that example would be enough. 4Him? What kind of a name is that? But it gets better. Their new album? Walk On. It just so happens to be the title of a hit U2 song from their newest record, which came out one year ago. Coincidence? Or cheese? You decide.

Squint Entertainment, former home to such respectable–no admirable artists as Sixpence None the Richer, Burlap to Cashmere, and Chevelle. All three bands earned major mainstream accolades, and I won’t even get into Squint’s non-mainstream successes, Waterdeep and PFR. Not to mention the band Squint was toting but had not yet released an album, L.A. Symphony, a highly acclaimed rap group from the West Coast. Well, say goodbye. Squint records unfortunately closed their doors, sending their bands packing. Last word was, Nashville cheese-inspired record company Word was picking up the assets and would continue the tradition of Squint, adding many of their alternative artists to the Squint label. Word’s record for alternative acts is a little weak. Most of them release one album and disappear, perhaps a second and then fade into oblivion.

Although there is hope. I recently heard that PFR had signed with Rocketown Records, the slightly more respectable Nashville label owned by dyed in the wool-CCMer with one time mainstream power, Michael W. Smith. Rocketown is also home to the CCM-adored Chris Rice, the extremely promising Ginny Owens, who played Lilith Fair dates after releasing her debut album, and newcomer Shaun Groves, who has the intelligence and song writing chops to make a real dent in the Nashville cheese.

The other Squint bands are up in the air or on their own. Burlap to Cashmere appears to be with Brooklyn Beat/Squint Entertainment, according to their latest newsletter. Sixpence is shopping around, and I smell major label deal. Chevelle has been awfully quiet lately in the CCM circles, probably because they just signed with Epic Records for an early 2002 release, while Waterdeep will probably languish on a Nashville label that doesn’t understand their indie appeal.

Add to the list of cool labels in question 5 Minute Walk Records, home to the status-quo-crushing Five Iron Frenzy, folk-rocker Justin McRoberts, and former home of the meteoric W’s who are no more. 5 Minute Walk has been the California label, bringing a wave of fresh air to the Nashville crowd. Apparently 5 Minute Walk’s future is uncertain, which is a major blow to those of us who hoped Christian music could actually be cool. Apparently it’s not a financial decision either, which makes the whole thing even stranger.

Unfortunately that doesn’t leave us with much. There’s Essential Records, the young upstart that somehow snagged all the cool bands, Caedmon’s Call, Third Day, Jars of Clay, and then keeps throwing out these so-so money bands that are only following the crowd (read: FFH and True Vibe). There’s Forefront Records, the decidedly younger version of every Nashville CCM-label. Everything they release seems to have a CCM-friendliness, with the exception of those who’ve been around to earn the right to say what they want — dc Talk. Of course there’s always the Tooth and Nail conglomerate, which includes the mainstream friendly BEC, the rap/hip-hop Uprok, and the loud SolidState. Of course Tooth and Nail bands are consistently underground favorites that seem to languish around with a few hits here, a few flops there. The BEC bands usually have the most potential lately they haven’t seemed to garner much mainstream attention.

Alas. Sometimes you need to vent and long for days gone by.

Moving On

Today I’m beginning to notice how easy it is to forget about the terrorist attacks of September 11. We seem to have moved on. It’s no longer monopolizing the news. While it’s certainly not far from people’s minds, we are moving on. It’s amazing that something so immense can slip into the background as we move forward.

I suppose it helps that the promised U.S. retaliation hasn’t yet come. That will certainly be a reality that will sink in painfully when it finally happens. The scary thing to think about is that U.S. special forces are probably in Afghanistan as I write this, at the least doing reconnaissance missions and gathering intelligence. That idea seems so out there, yet it’s true.

The world today amazes me.

Saturday in a Shopping Mall Restroom

It was designed to easily handle a mid-December crowd. Of course there’s only a mid-December crowd in mid-December, so the rest of the year the bathroom sits quiet and echoy. There were five stalls and eight urinals, six sinks and two hand dryers–more than would ever be used at once, except perhaps for those crowded December shopping days when everyone has to pee at once.

But in mid-September the mall bathroom is usually the most lonely and secluded place you can find. The few patrons who travel down the back end hallways and actually find the bathroom are usually efficient and quiet, doing their business and doing it quickly, eager to return to their consumer bliss. Occasionally a father will take his time, and you can tell he’s probably here with a teenage daughter, or a shopaholic wife and is savoring the moment of serenity.

It here that I find my refuge. That probably sounds crazy, but you’d think a lot of things about me are crazy. Most people do. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in most people. The bathroom is quiet and cavernous, a good place to do some thinking. Your thoughts and any stray noises are magnified on the tile, and everything seems to come back to you more refined.

I’ll often spend an entire Saturday in the men’s room of the Willow Creek Mall. Sometimes I’ll divide my time between the three public restrooms, but I usually stick with the one by the north entrance, tucked away in a hallway to nowhere, across from Victoria’s Secret. There’s a men’s room on one side and women’s room on the other, and a sink and telephone in between. There’s a door a few feet down that leads to the emergency shelter, which once upon a time was a fallout shelter.

Curled Up in a Shopping Mall Restroom

So there I sat, watching the people come and go through the slats in the door. I was in the corner changing room, and I’d been there for the past three hours. It’s amazing the kind of people that come through a department store changing room on a Tuesday morning.

First it was the professional shopping moms. They came in with changing room limit, an armload of clearance items, and tried everything on with huffs and puffs and grunts and the occasional ooh. But for the most part they left empty handed. I think they were taking advantage of children at school and looking for something for themselves, hoping to find a reduced item they could afford to splurge on. This is why the rest of us only find size zero left on the clearance rack.

Later on the college girls came in, trying on the latest fashions and fueling their disorders. They would groan about this or that, ooh and ah over the other thing, rationalize the price, and tell each other how “so you” something was.

Another group of college girls came in later, apparently of another variety. They tried on a slew of fashionable clothes, only to cry in disgust that they looked like a tramp or that their boobs didn’t stay in the shirt. They left empty handed.

Al l the while I sat in the corner changing room, sitting on the short bench, with my knees curled up to my chin so no one would see my feet and they’d assume the room was empty.