Columnist Thérèse Soukar Chehade: Return to an obtuse and dangerous innocence

  • In this Dec. 6, 2016, file photo, Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, speaks at the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 1/5/2017 8:03:34 PM

A guy named Richard Spencer made the news in November when a video of him exhorting followers to give Nazi salutes went viral.

He heads the new face of the white supremacy movement. He has degrees, the smooth impersonal tone of someone who knows how to turn the knife, and is handsome if you like a certain look and the feel of chills up your spine.

The banality of the scene in a hotel ballroom populated by sturdy young people, mostly men, evoked for me the masses of ordinary people who throughout the ages have allowed gruesome crimes through their tacit consent, fear and indifference.

I grew up in Lebanon around a lot of older boys — cousins, the brothers of best friends. When the civil war swept the country, the boys joined the Christian militia, known as the Phalanges.

They were hardly old enough to shave, and yet we asked them about the future of the country as though they were oracles. They spoke of epic battles that would steer the war in our favor; of purging, purification, cauterizing, and luring the enemy out of hiding, as though those on the other side were both festering wounds and cockroaches.

War was the air we breathed. We hated it, but it kept going. We did our part, wittingly or not. We were the “good ones.” Our ordinary lives were proof. Our boys, too, were good. We had known them in moments of disarming innocence and untested goodness.

It was the others we couldn’t see as brothers, sons, and cousins. Fights over who was wrong and who was right were grounded in blinkered litanies of the other side’s transgressions.

I was a month shy of my 13th birthday when the war started. I hated it. But the ones on the other side were bombing us, and they had to be stopped, and there were our boys trying to do just that. My good instincts fought with prejudice born of fear.

Time wore on and the boys died, lost limbs and sometimes their minds, because of head injuries, drugs and sorrow.

My father planted the seed of doubt in me. He abhorred sectarianism. His example allowed me, when I wasn’t in survival mode, to question and imagine a different life. Had he lived beyond the first year of the war, he would have been in trouble with the Party. He died young of a heart attack. I’m convinced the war broke his heart.

Leaving Lebanon achieved what my father had started. In the U.S., I read books that jolted me into a radically different version of my story. In Jonathan Randal’s “Going All the Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers and the War in Lebanon” I was shocked to see the name of a close friend’s older brother. The young man had risen through the Party’s ranks. I don’t know all that he did, and I prefer not to extrapolate. But seeing his name was a little like falling out of love after a bad breakup: the foibles of my native land once blurred in the fog of attachment now crowded my vision.

I can’t say after all this time if Randal’s book was any good. He was a foreign correspondent, so he must have missed a few things yet still offered us a view of ourselves that bore some truth. Reading his book was as necessary as the loss of innocence is to living a conscious and responsible life.

There’s an alarming return in this country to a bigoted and cloistered self, and to an obtuse and dangerous innocence that equates ordinariness with goodness. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, evil can be utterly banal in real time.

Around Thanksgiving, I sat at my computer to watch a video of a few Trump voters in rural Pennsylvania. They looked hopeful yet a little downcast, as though half-disbelieving the greatness they had been promised. How you’ve been suckered, I thought. The jobs will not come back, and neither will the illusory greatness of America, that well-spun story and its racist and sinister subtext.

I watched them without any smugness — ordinary Americans down on their luck making Thanksgiving wishes. But I felt sad and annoyed because now their lot was my lot, and neither lot was going to get any better if they continued to vote their misdirected anger and baffle our logic.

A few more mouse clicks took me back to Richard Spencer, this time in the Washington Post. He’d already been covered by the major news outlets, including the New York Times and NPR. His utopia comprised an ethno-state purged of nasty minorities and filled with women (because you always have to have them on hand) trotting about in “traditional” roles. If these people didn’t like what he had planned for them, then things might get “bloody and horrible,” he conceded, but that was the price one paid for having a dream.

Crazy and hateful are crawling out of the wormholes, and they have forked tongues and a platform.

If that lot becomes part of the ordinary, we are in deeper trouble than I care to contemplate.

I saw their kind in my youth and I fear I am seeing them again.

Teacher and novelist Thérèse Soukar Chehade, of Granby, is the author of “Loom,” the 2011 winner of the Arab American Book Award in the fiction category. She is working on her second novel set in her native Lebanon in the period surrounding the outbreak of civil war.

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