We are our brother’s keepers
And the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9
I have a friend in Afghanistan. From all I can see, based on only knowing him on Facebook — which in many ways is as real as any acquaintance we might have face to face — he is a good man and a faithful Moslem. He loves his family. He loves his daughter as much as he loves his son.
My friend is looking to the future, and oh, my dears, he is afraid. Like so many good people in the sights of a gun and watching the finger on the trigger tighten, he despairs and he grieves. The U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan, and just as a tsunami first empties the bay, that leaves a gap for disaster to rush in.
Thirty-two years ago, in college, I was introduced to the concept of a “destroyed culture.” For the life of me, now, I could not tell you where I read it or if the source was anthropological or sociological, the rival twins of human study, nor can I find reference to it on the Internet. Still, the idea remains vivid.
Destroyed culture occurs when an outside force — usually an invading culture — comes into a previously established cultural system and replaces it with nothing. Rather than craft a new society where all individuals are made members, the invaders sit high, wide and handsome while the ousted natives scrabble to survive with no paradigms or frames of reference. Colonialism is, of course, the perfect example. In destroyed culture, the social mores that hold a society together are utterly destroyed. Women walk away from their newborns without a backward glance. People eat heartily literally cheek by jowl beside a starving neighbor. One particularly heinous example that remains clear in my memory (although I cannot find the source) is of an elderly blind man who wandered into a campfire and could not find his way out again. He burned to death, shrieking, as the other people by the fire either laughed or watched indifferently.
I have seen destroyed culture in action all my life. It was the cause of the genocide in Rwanda. It was apparent in Kosovo where ethnic Albanians would invade homes and steal the valuables, the appliances — and the woman, who would be sold into sexual slavery. It is apparent in ghettos and on reservations in this country where people who should be standing in solidarity with each other toward a better future murder each other in drive-by shootings or drink themselves to death as they give birth to children with fetal alcohol. This is not a phenomenon that can be ascribed to any race or ethnicity. It can and has happened to any group of humans that can be individuated in some fashion.
I have the usual sketchy western grasp of Afghan history, but I do have the living memory of having been in this world for much of their recent destruction, beginning with the Soviet invasion. If the Afghan culture had not been in trouble before, it was now. The land was wracked with war and violence. It became a land of amputees and desperation, clinging to survival, able best to produce some of the best heroin poppies in the world and not much more. I have vague pre-Soviet memories of a joyous Islamic culture. I remember women with heads covered but faces out, dressed in some of the most marvelous, multicolored dresses I’ve ever seen, decorated in exquisitely crafted bangles. Of families herding sprawling herds of sheep and goats. Of people laughing and playing music as they lived lives that had sustained their families for generations.
After the Soviets, those images — those lives — disappeared as if they had never been. Once the culture had been emptied, a tsunami of homegrown and incoming evils took over. The warlords became more powerful even as a pernicious variant on the beautiful faith of Islam – the Taliban – came in to stomp out as much of Afghanistan’s gorgeous art, culture and history as they possibly could. Their first target? The women. I tell you, my dears, if you want to commit complete cultural suicide, first destroy the women. It is an educated and empowered population of women that provides the basis for a healthy society. The Taliban lifted its collective foot and utterly eradicated any rights Afghan women ever had. Those colorful dresses were replaced with black. No education. Imprisoned in the home, to the point where a widow’s choice was to watch her children starve to death – or to commit suicide. We all read of how the suicide rate of Afghan women rose dramatically.
When the U.S. came in, it was not only the fighting, it was the physical mass (both in bodies and in actions) that filled considerable space and pushed the Taliban aside and allowed the ordinary Afghan citizens – men and women – to emerge from hiding to begin the long, painful, halting slog toward rebuilding their country.
The Taliban have not gone, though. They skirt around the edges. They have found new areas of the planet to harm, such as Mali, currently suffering from a sudden emergence of the Taliban within their borders. In Afghanistan, they kill here, suicide bomb there, and vanish again. They are just enough presence inside Afghanistan to keep the people terrified. They lurk also in Pakistan and other nearby lands, waiting for the U.S. departure to create the void, so that once more they can be the tsunami rushing in with all its destructive force. And so my friend tells me, “we are doomed.” I know he is thinking of his wife and his children and his family and friends – good people all – and, in advance, he grieves.
I really do not have a solution, not on my own, although I am anxious to hear ideas. I am also not sure if my words here could possibly have any effect. I am one woman among of billions. But this I do know. If the world lets this happen without a sound, if we let the members of our human family in Afghanistan go down for the third time without even reaching out a hand of compassion, then we will again be watching the killing fields, just as most of us stood by and watched Cambodia and Rwanda and Kosovo happen.
And I cannot live with myself if I were to do that again. Can any of us?