Several young women are in my thoughts right now as events grow more ominous from Brookland to Beruit to Bombay.
One young woman is in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) where she is running an AIDS prevention project. She wrote to me last week that she is safe after the terrorist train bombings there, but she works in the largest hospital in the city where many of the injured arrived last week, “so it has been a bit chaotic” she observes with customary understatement. But she likes her work there and hopes to continue, though her family here worries about her all the time. But she’s a graduate of a women’s college (not Trinity, alas) so I suspect she’ll remain committed to doing whatever it takes to change the world wherever she’s needed. I just hope she remembers to send emails once in a while.
Another young woman is in Beruit, taking the summer to learn Arabic. She insists that she’s fine, that the events there will not deter her from finishing the program. Thanks to modern technology, we can have continuous communication even amid so much chaos and uncertainty. She’s an eager student and will have much to report when she returns to the U.S.
I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and the events of the last ten days have certainly underscored his theory. While he writes about the flattening of the world’s economy due to the rapid adoption of technologies that have changed the nature of work, in fact, our experience of world events has also become flatter as I can watch headlines about the crises along with photos and videos in real-time on my computer or television even as I write this text. Instantly, we all know much the same thing, whether it’s a bomb in Beruit or Mumbai, or the latest crime up the street in Brookland.
But I have this uneasy feeling that the flattening of the world has only served thus far to encourage the voyeuristic, rather than contributing much to finding permanent solutions to the violence and oppression in so many places. Last night I was in Penn Station in New York trying to catch a train home after giving a speech at NYU about adult education. The train was late, so I stopped in a station cafe to pass the time. This particular place had walls lined with television screens — CNN, ESPN, FOX, NBC, ETC — one screen showed smoke rising from bombs in Haifa, another screen flashed people trying to leave on the roads in Lebanon, another screen had Barry Bonds at home plate, still another screen had something that looked like American Idol reruns. I could not hear anything above the usual din of the train station and crowds, but the surreal scenes flashing across the walls would have given George Orwell pause. We’re seeing so much, absorbing so little, distracted by the trivial because the tragic is incomprehensible.
In the midst of great tragedies around the world this minute, this afternoon’s headlines are about the president of the United States using a minor profanity in an unguarded moment. How can any news organization put this silly headline up there next to the emerging war between Israel and the Hezbollah, or the latest outrage in Baghdad, or the investigation into the Mumbai bombings? The media provide what the people desire. Technology has flattened our world in a way that makes it all seem like one giant movie screen, and we are viewers, not actors, passive observers rather than passionate advocates for peace.
Not all of us. The two young women in my thoughts these days, and countless others like them, are out there trying to live up to their sense of responsibility in their small corners of our chaotic world. Good for them! We pray for their safety and cheer for their courage. And we let their presence in these difficult places remind us that we can’t simply watch and turn away from the screen. We are called to action to stand with them, for justice and peace, in solidarity with the people of the world who have known precious little of either.