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Significance of a little folly

A few reflections on Abu Ghraib

Issue: "Memorial Day 2004," May 29, 2004

Albert Camus worried that man isn't significant in the universe. He needn't have. Man is so maddeningly significant that the teeniest choice of the lowliest private can scuttle the well-laid plans of a general. Lyricist Peter de Wijn laments that "we all walk the road to nowhere, leaving footprints in the sand," but in point of fact, the prints are not ever washed away, even by the successive tides of history. Every configuration is henceforth altered.

Achan was, I suppose, the pioneer of the "victimless crime." Who would be the wiser if he made a little hay from a military campaign? What harm in squirreling away the spoils of a city slated for destruction anyway-a little cloak from Shinar, a few shekels of silver, a bar of gold?

Flush with victory over Jericho, a more formidable city, the spies advise the commander Joshua regarding puny Ai, "Do not have all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and attack Ai. Do not make the whole people toil up there, for they are few" (Joshua 7:3). Ai would be a cakewalk.

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"So about 3,000 men went up there from the people. And they fled before the men of Ai.... And the hearts of the people melted and became as water.... Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening ... and they put dust on their heads."

All for the actions of one individual.

But if one individual, why then does the Lord say, "Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant ... ; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings" (7:11)? Who will challenge the Lord when he brings collective guilt for the sins of one or two or three? Who will correct Jesus when the Pharisees say, "If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets," and Jesus answers, "Thus you witness against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets" (Matt.23:30,31)?

The Lord's outing of Achan is a study in pedagogy: All Israel is gathered together; then a tribe is singled out from the tribes; a clan is singled out from the clans; a family is singled out from the families-till the excruciating threshing lands all eyes on the solitary knee-knocking offender, just a speck in the sea, but a troubler of all Israel. And the lesson of the day is thereby upper-cased and underscored: the unbearable significance of the "one."

The "one" does his deeds under cover of night-but the Lord above laughs, for the darkness is as day to him (Psalm 139:12). The "one" thinks his deed is private, but the Lord has it broadcast from the rooftops (Matt.10:26f)-courtesy of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. The "one" does his acts deep in the airless bowels of a prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, but the plaster and mortar of Abu Ghraib are as the ancient Temple to Him, where he once sent Ezekiel to "dig in the wall" so that he could "see the vile abominations that they are committing here" (Ezek.8:9).

"A little folly outweighs wisdom and honor" (Ecc.10:1). Balk all you want at that equation, but it's the way it is. No good to be defensive about it, as some of the conservative talk radio stations have been this month. "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.... And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.... Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven ..."

(1 Cor.5:1-6).

Oh, the significance of a little folly. The significance of a night of mischief. The significance of a clutch of soldiers small enough to fit in a walk-in closet. It makes you wonder: "What is man that you are mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:4). What is an individual that he is able to leave indelible prints upon the cosmic drama you have written?

And during this month of May the country has reckoned with a new reality on the ground, a wrench in the works not foreseen, nor planned for, nor remotely imagined by the most wizened strategists in the Situation Room and Pentagon a year ago. The generals are making adjustments, retooling, and perhaps reshuffling. It's a whole new war, because of the significance of man. Every configuration is henceforth altered.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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