From my youngest days I relished our family’s annual outing to a local July 4th fireworks display, sometimes nearby in the nation’s capital; what I remember of the end of the vaguely adventurous-sounding Operation Desert Storm, for instance, was the occasion for brighter lights and bigger booms, both of which I loved. If the noise overhead got to be too much I could crawl under a blanket – where all I’d have to contend with were the cries of my little brother who customarily spent the duration of these events there, huddled with plugged ears. By middle school he joined me in a phase of haggling our parents to supplement sparklers with more powerfully explosive fare for our backyard display. So, generally I like fireworks- the thrill, the thumping heart, the timing, suspense, colors and flares.
But this year a thought that has stirred in past years settled in my consciousness with a new unease (though I don’t expect I’m the first): there is something a bit twisted about reveling in the cacophony of this festive array of explosions when in so many parts of the world such noise – while surely of an intensified variety – sparks bone-chilling fear, signaling the prospect of destruction and death.
I am among many Americans who have the luxury of temporarily turning our neighborhoods into an audio adaptation of a war zone. Granted I have been fortunate to live in places where the worst day to day noises range from, rarely, stray gun shots or a car chase, to, more commonly, the incessant buzz and whir of gas-powered lawn care implements; I know far more terrifying sounds abide in some regions within the United States’ boundaries. But currently here in South Bend it’s the sounds of suburbia by day and, on this Independence Day weekend, the pop, bang, and boom of fireworks by night. Now fireworks were also legal in my home state of Virginia (lest you thought the above-mentioned teenage request was not only immature, but criminal), however Indiana seems to have cornered the market on truly earth-shaking, head-ringing, altitude-climbing, spark-spewing products. Perhaps because of this encounter with greater firepower on seemingly every block, this year the ritual inspires less awe and more angst.
Yet, more than that I think my unease stems from making the connection (which I’ve had the privilege to make or not) that many people around the globe live with such noise or in fear of it on a daily basis. And in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, and dozens of other regions suffering small- and large-scale conflict, the consequences of this noise are real and they are violent. For a little while last night I ventured outside and then back in and tried to inhabit the feeling of listening to these booms while bracketing their rational categorization as safe (relatively, anyway…), celebratory, controlled, etc. I tried to imagine what it would be like if each of them sounded a threat to my bodily integrity and my family’s and my neighbors’ as well as to our resources and livelihood. I could stay with the fear, for which I have only distant analogues in my own experience, for only a few minutes. I should be clear that I’ve never lived in a war zone, have no idea what it really sounds like and don’t pretend to. But if I could extrapolate from this mess of sounds and interpolate with what I read in the news, then I’m pretty confident in saying it must be sheer horror. Indeed this morning the NY Times included photo coverage of the culturally and religiously marginalized Nuba in Sudan who hide out in caves to avoid government bombing; even the rumble of planes or automobiles, not to mention an explosion, fractures any semblance of security. Previous posts on WIT have explored the American experience of threat and (in)security in the wake of 9/11 as well as the United States’ role in creating and perpetuating such conditions for civilians internationally (for example, in Afghanistan and Libya).
For those of us who live in countries or neighborhoods who choose tonight to blow things up for fun, for pleasure, for a rush, or for patriotism, yet who also profess some commitment to global solidarity, especially as Christians and also, I hope, as Americans celebrating the pursuit of freedom and human dignity, I wonder if abstaining from this form of holiday entertainment is an idea that bears consideration? If not, maybe we could at least carve out a period of quiet, or better, an intentional space amidst our noisy summer renditions of “the bombs bursting in air” to try to think about what such global solidarity entails. To what extent are we responsible for or complicit in the circumstances that place so many sisters and brothers in constant peril? In what ways do we as individuals, churches, and as a nation seek non-violent means to resolve global and regional conflicts? Again, it is a mark of comfort to be able to turn such reflections on or off, as it is to have the choice to hear fireworks brightly go boom and not be afraid. Still, I think it is our responsibility and a fitting exercise this 4th of July to engage these questions and act accordingly.