Cyprus Installment 14: September 23, 2001

We’re all different people than we were the last time I sent an installment. That I know for sure. It’s strange to realize that we are so geographically far away from each other at such a significant time, but we’re all struggling in our own ways with similar questions and emotions. In that, our world has become claustrophobically small. I’m sure that for all of us the attacks have been a devastating reminder of both the ephemeral nature of life and the importance of valuing those that we love.

So first of all, Jimmy and I love you. This usually goes at the end, but it belongs at the beginning – every time. Thanks to all of you for your prayers and thoughts and phone calls and emails. It’s hard not to be home, but I know things are hard there as well. Probably harder. Please know that you are in our minds, laughter, tears, worries and hearts every day.

With all of the rhetoric, opinions, grief and anger spinning everywhere, I tried to write something about anything, anything other than the terrorist attacks. I couldn’t. There is nothing else on my mind. For those of you who are fed up with opinions, skip this installment. Hopefully the next one will be more palatable. But in defense of the editorializing to come, I think it’s important that we each add our voices to the debate.

In the last week of August, I sat in a computer security briefing at the embassy about a new network to be implemented on our office computers. A team of nine federal employees had come to Cyprus, and as part of the training we watched a Power Point presentation on “malicious code,” “data migration,” and passwords. On one of the slides, just for emphasis, a picture of Osama bin Laden peered from one corner and an animated stick of dynamite sparked in the other. After the meeting, the facilitator gave out calendars to people who had answered questions. (For some reason I got one, though the only thing I said was how paranoid it was that our CD-ROM drives were being dismantled out of fear of viruses.)

A couple of days later I found myself in a conversation with one of the Marines posted here. He was telling me about his weight-training regimen and then launched into a pronouncement about how the Marines were the best-trained fighting force in the world. His comments seemed so over the top, and he was so worked up with pride and aggression that I stopped him in the middle of a sentence. “Okay,” I said, “but who are we fighting?”

Those who have been licking their chops for war no doubt see an opportunity to sink combat teeth, and all that defense cash, into. But what and where is the enemy? This seems to be the paradox. George Bush claims we are at war, but war presumes an identifiable enemy. Terrorism of course, goes the rallying cry, but terrorism is a way of life, not a quantifiable physical force. When I read the news I can’t help but see Don Quixote charging at windmills.

This year, the US government handed over more than 50% of all Congressional discretionary money to the Pentagon. That’s $349 billion, compared to the second highest national priority, education, which got a measly $45b. This was supposed to make us all feel safe, but now the enormity of the uselessness of our resources has rendered us helpless beyond belief. Maybe it’s time that we, as a nation, stop to realize the enormous effect our actions have on the world, wake up to the dark place to which our anger is taking us, and admit that, perhaps, our country’s power is its greatest weakness.

If that is so, I hope and pray that we can channel that power into the equality and democracy we all learn as children that our country stands for. I want us to be permitted, each and every one of us, to share our thoughts and contribute to the enormous decisions that are being contemplated at the out-of-reaches of our government today. I hear all the heart-warming stories about Americans uniting in the face of the grief and loss, public opinion coalescing, people coming together as one under the American flag. But I also read reports of shootings and beatings of Arab-Americans, gun and ammunition sales skyrocketing, potential bombings of innocent civilians in far-flung places.

I want to be sure that our well-placed grief and sense of community will not be used against us. I want to know that our support for each other will not be manipulated to justify mindless revenge. I want our differences to be respected, even as we share one another’s pain. I want no part in the culpability for committing atrocities as reprehensible as the crimes that were committed in New York and Washington DC. But no matter what our country does, every one of us will stand as the accused.

After George Bush’s speech on Thursday night, Trent Lott came to the podium and said, “Tonight, there is no opposition party.” While an appeal to solidarity in a time of national tragedy is reasonable, there is a frightening side to this statement as political rhetoric. For while our government was overtly garnering its resources for war and George Bush was declaring a “crusade,” that very day thousands had marched in an antiwar protest in Oregon. Last week more than 150 antiwar demonstrations and peace vigils, drawing thousands, had been organized in New York, New Jersey, Missouri, Maine, Oregon and California. Punk musicians, pacifists, and national church councils have come together to urge integrity and restraint. My hope is that these efforts are not obscured and that the solidarity continues to build – not merely againstterror but for peace.

Despite Cypriots’ dubious feelings about American foreign policy in the area over the past forty years, and notwithstanding a vocal minority that don’t mind spewing the “you got what you deserve” rhetoric towards specific Americans, the support from the people around us here has been incredible. The day after the attacks, I got calls and emails from people I had met in passing, once or twice in meetings, or through friends of friends. The scores of flower bouquets placed on the embassy gates by Cypriots bring tears to my eyes almost every time I see them. (Courtesy of Cathy Rissler, you can see a photo of this – though it doesn’t do justice to the scale – at`hankinhsd/thankyou.htm, page 4. Last Friday, the sirens went off at noon, here as well as all across Europe. Cars stopped, interviews halted, and everyone took three minutes of silence to grieve for the lives that were lost and to say thanks for the ones saved.

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Other Notes of Significance

Robin came to visit last week. While a strange and sad time, it was so wonderful to have home come to Cyprus. Having her here felt like having an anchor to hold onto. We went to the beach, saw a belly dancer and went to a barbecue. We also, you guessed it, did a triathlon. Like the other visiting members of Team In(adequate) Training before her, Robin was a standout, completing the longest distance possible and even winning a medal.

The Wales Half-Ironman Triathlon on September 9 was quite an experience for these two innocents from the temperate climates of Cyprus and Texas USA. Two days before the race, we tested the lake water for the swim amidst falling rain and temperatures. Jimmy had a panic attack from the cold, and I felt numb to my skull. The water temperature, it turned out, was a balmy 55 degrees. As it turned out, it rained all week. When race day arrived, nothing had changed. The wind was whipping at gusts of up to about 40 mph, and the sky was black with rain clouds.

Nevertheless, the swim went off better than could be expected and, numb toes notwithstanding, the bike ride began without a hitch. Within the first five miles, the wind blew my right contact out of my eye, and I was down on the ground in the way of bikers futilely feeling the pavement. Resolutely, I decided that this is why nature gives us two eyes, and continued on. Unfortunately, nature also gives us replays (What did Marx say – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce?), and at mile 48 of the 56-mile ride, my left contact was also lost to the wind. Down I was on the pavement once again, this time with my face closer to the ground.

By this time, I had lost my capacity for patience. The bike course had been a grueling battle with winds and steep two- and three-mile hills already. I was tired of distracting myself with grandiose visions of myself winning the Tour de France, and at this point, even the saving grace of spectacular views had been deprived me. Being out in the midst of the Welsh countryside with little to guide me, I continued on carefully and squintingly. At this point, I hadn’t yet seen Jimmy, who had started in the second swim wave fifteen minutes behind me and hadn’t yet passed me on the bike. At mile 50, he blew by me, and when I slowed him down to ask his opinion on my plight, he pulled his glasses off his face and handed them to me. What heroism! What bravado! What a guy.

In this way, with much-too-large glasses bouncing on the end of my nose, I completed the run portion of the race and crossed the finish line. Jimmy had finished with flying colors 26 minutes before me at 5 hours and 23 minutes. I pulled in, limping and cold but proud, at 5:49.

Once again, we love you all. Remember how firmly you are here with us in our psyches and hearts – not only now, but all the time. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you. Please keep us in your thoughts and send us an email when you get a chance.  If you want to call, here’s an incentive: We’ll call you back. The rate is dirt cheap from here, so if you pay for a minute, we’ll foot the bill for the conversation.

Much love,
Janie and Jimmy