Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
This travel warning is being issued to inform American citizens that, due to the continued unrest and a steady deterioration of the security situation in Haiti, including violent confrontations between pro- and anti-government forces, the U.S. Embassy has further reduced its presence in Haiti with the orderly withdrawal of Peace Corps volunteers. The Department of State strongly urges American citizens to depart the country . . . at their first safe opportunity.
— U.S. State Department warning, February 19, 2004
A body lies in the middle of a dirt road near where we live, tennis shoes poking out from under the cardboard and branches laid over it, flies buzzing around. Political demonstrations spin out of control as pro-government gangs swoop in with clubs and guns. Plumes of smoke rise from burning tires at intersections around the city. Roadblocks manned by angry young men pop up at random; they might take your car, or much more. A man in a wheelchair whom we see regularly on the way to work is murdered for his political views. Eleven radio stations are ransacked. Three foreign journalists are hacked to death by the machetes of an angry mob. Whispers circulate that those in power are offering human sacrifices, including pregnant women, to spiritual powers. A French woman is kidnapped. The rebels are coming. Helicopters — an overhead whir that usually means the president is on the move — are busier each night. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide announces he will fight to the death. U.S. Marines come in to protect the American embassy, and ships are stationed offshore to ensure Haitians don’t escape to south Florida’s beaches. I receive phone calls and e-mails from incredulous friends and family, asking, “Why haven’t you left yet?” The rebels are coming closer to Port-au-Prince — and with them the potential for a chaotic civil war between insurgents and gangs, both heavily armed. Police strip off their uniforms and dash in their underwear into the hills. Jails around the country empty.
As the above mixture of truth and rumors swirled at increasing velocity, my wife and I were in Haiti working for a grass-roots development organization. We consulted with many of our Haitian and American friends and co-workers about whether we should leave. They all said it would probably be safe for us to stay, but wise to go. To one Haitian man in our office, I said, “It’s awful. I can just get on a flight and leave, but you can’t.” The fact hung there for a moment. Then he shook his head and said, “I know, but I’m arranging to take my wife and two kids and stay with family in the countryside. Go. Go and come back, and we’ll be together after things settle down.” We hugged and returned to figuring out our respective plans.
The rebels had just taken over the north of the country without much resistance, and clearly a clash in Port-au-Prince (the president’s power base) was imminent. Haitian radio stations, the U.S. State Department, and our neighbors were daily spinning out worst-case scenarios of societal breakdown. President Aristide’s prediction was a “blood bath.” My wife and I talked every day about what to do, about how to make a decision like this. I found myself awake at 3 A.M. considering what I was willing to die for, not as an abstract philosophical exercise, but as a practical concern: would I call the American Airlines office in the morning?
I imagined living with both decisions: staying and going. I knew going would carry some regrets, whereas staying would result either in no regrets or devastating regrets. We considered the idea of my wife going and me staying. Chances were I would be safe if I kept out of the city. But there was also the chance of a messy, prolonged civil war. Would people target me, a foreigner, on the presumption that I had money or things worth stealing? I couldn’t do my job if it wasn’t safe to move around. I could accomplish more from Florida.
My sleep was fitful, my dreams troubled. I questioned my own integrity. Pride (pitiful, but it’s true) was urging me to stay: I would secretly enjoy being able to say that I had lived through a coup, which would somehow boost my legitimacy. Fear and the survival instinct — as well as the love that compelled me to protect and be with my wife — told me to go. On the one hand, I didn’t want to abandon the people I had come here to live with and work alongside. On the other hand, there wasn’t anything I could do for them in this situation. And so it went, round and round.
About five years ago I was working in Shkodēr, Albania, during the Kosovar-refugee crisis. My first night there, I was held up while walking on a dark street with a new Albanian colleague. The two young assailants unsheathed massive bowie knives from their belts. (There was something Wild West about the place.) My colleague stepped between them and me and told the teenagers they had better not do anything, or his family would quickly and surely exact revenge. The robbers apparently weren’t in the mood to start a family blood feud, which is not uncommon there. They let us go. The encounter reinforced something I was told over and over in Albania: “Never, never go out at night.”
One Saturday morning a group of Albanian friends and I went to the beach, a couple of hours away. I drove a rust-colored SUV, and another group followed behind in an old Volkswagen van. As we drove home in the afternoon, I looked in the rearview mirror and realized the van was no longer behind us.
We backtracked on the narrow, treacherous mountain road to find the van aflame due to an electrical malfunction. The driver and passengers were safe, and together we watched sadly as the tires melted and the frame roasted to a charred skeleton. It was late afternoon, and we needed to get home to Shkodēr before sunset, but not everyone from the van could fit into my SUV. I drove as fast as I could to get the first group back as dusk fell.
By the time we arrived in Shkodēr, it was already dark. We still had to go back for the handful of people we’d left waiting by the charred van. I was the best driver, and the SUV was effectively mine, but I was reluctant to be out driving at night. It was not unusual for armed gangs to set up roadblocks on country roads, ambush drivers, and steal their vehicles. A few of us consulted. “You stay,” they said. “It’s dangerous. We’ll go. It’s better if we go.” So I put my keys into the capable but inexperienced hands of a sixteen-year-old Albanian, and he went back for the others, taking with him an adult who couldn’t drive.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” I was not willing to lay down my life, nor even risk harm — rather, I handed that risk to someone else.
I assume my Albanian friends and colleagues lost some respect for me that evening. I certainly lost some respect for myself. Nothing happened. Everyone returned safely. I still regret not having driven. The choice revealed something about me, and also, as such decisions do, played a part in shaping me.
I had grown up in a devoutly Christian environment that held in highest esteem missionaries and others who sacrificed on behalf of the poor in distant lands. Photos of missionaries were displayed on the church walls, and most homes had missionary prayer cards on their refrigerators. Through Gates of Splendor, an account of five young missionaries who died in Ecuador in 1956, was popular reading. Throughout my childhood, heroes of the faith would occasionally sit at our dining-room table, and I would listen quietly, enthralled by tales of their noble adventures.
Although as an adult I rejected some of the trappings of the faith that put these people on too high a pedestal, I did sign up for related work that I considered important. I had explored other possibilities in college, but nothing seemed as meaningful to me as serving people who needed help the most, especially people in far-off places. Before graduation I was recruited by a family friend (one of those heroes who had appeared at our family dinner table) to work with a refugee ministry in Europe. That experience set me on a course that led to Haiti, and this moment. Was it a defining moment, or just a crisis that called for pragmatic decision-making?
Each year I’ve found myself taking fewer unnecessary risks and trying to live a little healthier. (Which is not to say I’m never rash: just to avoid a couple of miserable, sweaty hours of Port-au-Prince traffic, I sometimes ride motorcycle taxis without a helmet along streets where I’ve seen lifeless bodies laid out next to crumpled bikes.) Becoming increasingly protective of my life has been a result of the wisdom of growing older and of becoming more appreciative of blessings like marriage, work, family, friendships. But this change is potentially corrosive if it eats away at my boldness in love. I want to live to be ninety, but I also want to love generously, which can sometimes cost dearly.
Simone Weil, French philosopher, theologian, and activist, once said, “The only choice before man is whether he will or will not attach his love to this world.” Weil believed one’s love should be attached to God (and thus one’s neighbor), not to the things of this world. During World War II, she participated in the French Resistance and then left France in hopes of creating a corps of nurses (herself among them) who would parachute into the raging front lines to care for the wounded. French general Charles de Gaulle thought the idea was crazy, but before Weil could return to the struggle, she collapsed with tuberculosis in England. Despite her illness, she refused to eat more than what she thought her compatriots in occupied France were receiving. The poor diet exacerbated her condition, and she died in 1943 at the age of thirty-four.
On March 25, 2003, Rachel Corrie, a twenty-three-year-old American working with an organization called the International Solidarity Movement, stood in protest between a nine-ton Caterpillar bulldozer driven by the Israeli military and a Palestinian civilian home slated for destruction. The bulldozer ran her over, and she died. Her father, according to CNN, said, “We’re very proud of her courage and what she stood for.”
Deciding whether to leave for Miami, I was unable to find the balance between sacrifice and caution, love and prudence, risk and safety. My natural inclination is to maximize my contributions to goodness while minimizing my personal risk. My faith that life goes on after death and divine grace awaits should have encouraged me to hold my life more loosely and give more recklessly, but I’m enough of a doubter that the possibility of death was still daunting.
It was rumored that the late movie director Stanley Kubrick refused to leave his compound in England except to film, and then he wore a football helmet and instructed his driver not to go faster than thirty miles an hour. Whether or not this is true, some days, when I consider the preciousness of life, it makes absolute sense to me. With more than forty-two thousand highway traffic fatalities annually in the U.S., it’s the rest of us who are insane.
And yet to believe that nothing is worth dying for is to confess that one loves nothing more than one’s own life.
A decision needed to be made. Airports were expected to close any day, and the situation in the city was rapidly deteriorating into violent chaos. I sat on a mountainside just outside of Port-au-Prince, vacillating. I felt fear and a strong urge toward self-protection, but I also wanted to be vulnerable to love’s persuasive power. If my wife were Haitian and hadn’t had a visa to exit the country, the choice to stay would have been clear.
While considering my decision, I kept remembering a German professor in his seventies who’d said that he wished he had refused to fire his rifle at a target as part of a Third Reich training program. He felt he had implicitly endorsed the Nazis by participating, though he had never fought, never done anything but train. He said, in a hushed, cracking voice, recalling the scene half a century later, “If I hadn’t fired the rifle, I would have been shot and killed on the spot. I’ve wished for fifty years that I had refused to fire.”
I didn’t want to be haunted by regrets. I still regretted my decision not to drive in Albania. I wanted to work on behalf of people who have almost no one on their side. I believed I was on the right team. But I wasn’t prepared for a civil war that had no clear, righteous side to support. I wanted to be ready to die in the stand against injustice, but as the situation degenerated, I couldn’t find an unsullied faction for which I was willing to give my life. I wanted to be willing to die for the love of my neighbor, but, frankly, my death had better produce results.
I was in Haiti because I thought I could help, if in a minor way, and I’d willingly accepted the risks of dangerous public transportation, inadequate healthcare, and crime. But in Port-au-Prince, work of any kind had been suspended; the city was indefinitely on hold. I was helping nobody.
The question of whether to stay in Haiti “in solidarity” remained, however. Solidarity makes it possible to help more effectively and also serves as testimony both to one’s neighbors (“We are on your side”) and to wider society (“We must not ignore this; we must find a better way”). More extreme acts of solidarity, such as Simone Weil’s and Rachel Corrie’s, serve as examples to the rest of us. I’m awed by the moral purity and seriousness of their decisions, but I’m also repulsed by their wasteful self-sacrifice. What good did they do? Maybe sometimes, however, we need to make dangerous, unpragmatic decisions for the good of our neighbors. My pragmatism seemed more like selfishness when we considered, after various conversations with neighbors, what our decision would communicate to them: yet another indication of the increasing hopelessness of their country’s situation.
Maybe it would be worth spending a Saturday afternoon working out a cost-benefit formula, a sort of moral calculus to which we could then apply hard figures in situations like this. As I weighed the potential costs and benefits of staying in Haiti, I came up with this:
Love of family: leave.
Love of justice as an idea: stay.
Love of justice in messy reality: leave.
Productive love of neighbor: leave.
Love of neighbor through solidarity: stay.
I needed something more scientific. For example, what would be the moral calculus of the decision to jump into a raging river to save someone from drowning, given that there was a reasonable, but not certain, chance that I would drown? I would jump into the river to try to save a seven-year-old girl. Maybe I would jump in to save a young single parent. No, I wouldn’t jump in to try to save a forty-six-year-old bachelor out on parole after a rape conviction. Yes, I would fight and die to defend my community if a ruthless enemy invaded it. Maybe I would go to the front lines of a UN-sanctioned war to prevent genocide if I could clearly help. No, I would not die to preemptively eliminate a nebulously defined, faraway threat. Yes, to save my life I would renounce church and pope. Maybe I would burn a Bible. No, I wouldn’t blaspheme Jesus. Maybe this exercise would strengthen my courage for future decisions. Maybe not.
© Matthew Nighswander
On Tuesday, February 24, five days before Haiti’s President Aristide was whisked out of power and two days before the Port-au-Prince airport closed, my wife and I boarded American Airlines Flight 1908 to Miami. The ride to the airport in the back of a pickup was tense. The streets were tranquil, with much less traffic than normal. “Leave your house only if necessary” was the unassailable wisdom. Did an angry roadblock await us around the next bend? We arrived at the airport safely. Took our seats. Felt the plane accelerate and lift off. Coke and pretzels? Yes, please.
As the shacks and denuded brown mountaintops receded below, my hunched shoulders dropped two inches, muscles that had been clenched for weeks released, and a slight headache drifted in. We had decided to leave rather than risk staying in the political chaos down below, which made my stomach slightly nauseated. I ultimately rejected staying because I couldn’t see what I would be able to accomplish that would balance the risk. We were escaping, leaving behind friends, colleagues, and neighbors for whom leaving was not an option. Now I had to live with the decision.
After leaving Haiti, we stayed for a month with friends in south Florida, working for our organization and following the news from Port-au-Prince on TV and online. During our first few days back, Haiti shared the front pages with the theatrical release of The Passion of the Christ. The conflict climaxed with the Sunday, February 28, departure of President Aristide, followed by several days of lawlessness before the U.S. Marines arrived in force. Thugs in pickup trucks cruised Port-au-Prince, preening for the TV news cameras. This image was quickly followed by clips of James Caviezel as the soon-to-be-crucified Christ, grimacing amidst gallons of blood. Aristide, former priest and now former president, was sometimes accused of posing as a messiah, and soon after his departure, he began crying foul at the subversive plots of the U.S. and its allies. Meanwhile, Mel Gibson was crying foul at the subversive plots against his movie. In light of these performances, any impulse for self-flagellation over my decision to leave seemed laughable.
While in Florida, I found a July 2003 issue of Outside magazine in the ten-cent bin at the local library’s book sale. In it, journalist Peter Maass recounts his experience reporting on the recent invasion of Iraq. He and his colleagues drove rented SUVs in a caravan alongside American Humvees and tanks. He opens the article: “I do not know the value of life. In every war zone that I find myself in, I routinely fail to establish a sensible line beyond which I will not take risks. . . .” After spending his first night alongside the soldiers, he saw that this war, like all others, was chaotic and deadly. “At dawn,” he writes, “there was only one direction to go: [onward with the invasion]. . . . The road back to Kuwait was a professional dead end. I told myself I would stay with this war for now, see what happened, and pull out if that became the wise thing to do. Oddly, going deeper into the war was the easy way. Deciding that the risks were too high and living with the second-guessing and feelings of cowardice that might afflict me if I retreated and my colleagues continued on — that would have required real courage.” I felt both rebuked and justified as I sat reading this on a comfortable couch in an air-conditioned room.
After a couple of weeks, my wife and I received word that everyone we knew in Haiti was well, though general insecurity prevailed: carjackings were frequent, and one American woman, a friend of a friend, was robbed in her home by half a dozen armed men, though she and her child were left unharmed. Hundreds had lost their lives, but because of the president’s abrupt departure, a bloody clash between anti- and pro-government forces had been averted.
Ten days ago, still in Florida, we confirmed reservations to go back to Haiti. Then, seven days ago, the CNN.com home page led with close-up photos of four American Southern Baptist missionaries who had been shot and killed while working on a water-purification project in Iraq.
Will we face similar hostility on our return to Haiti? Certainly not from everyone, but perhaps from a small, dangerous minority. What are we going back to? We’re as white and American as the recently landed marines, who were met with noticeable indifference and some resentment. A strongly worded State Department travel warning remains in place. How will the gangs respond? Will kidnappings of foreigners begin in earnest as other sources of revenue dry up? Am I being paranoid? Is living in Haiti during the current political turmoil more or less dangerous than, say, living in a rough neighborhood of Chicago, or working as a timber cutter or a fisherman — America’s two most dangerous jobs?
I’m slightly sick to my stomach again, but this time because I’m going toward what I believe rather than away from it. My faith is supposed to gird me up in moments like this. My wife and I aren’t talking much about the decision; we’re moving forward simply because returning seems right to both of us. I tried to dissuade her from coming, but she has her own decisions to make about life and death and love. We don’t talk about the possibility of dying, or of losing each other. This silence seems yet another cowardly failure to me. But I keep searching for courage, for what is right.
We’re back sitting next to each other on the airplane. The island’s parched landscape is coming into view. I feel the clunk and hear the landing gear lowering as I look down on single-room, concrete-block homes below with farmers out beside them trying to coax life from their dry, begrudging fields. Time to land.
I see a parallel between the work my husband and I do and the missionary endeavors of Kent Annan [“Willing to Die?” January 2005]. Annan works with people in Third World countries who are materially poor but spiritually rich. My husband and I encourage community among Americans who are materially secure, but spiritually impoverished. We run a cafe, host salons at our home, and produce a local publication in upstate New York.
My job does not lead me to consider whether or not I am willing to die for others. The issue for my husband and me is how to remain spiritually, as well as financially, alive. Our nation’s spiritual deficit drives the system that is killing Annan’s Third World friends. Americans have no one to meet their needs for connection, community, and meaning.
So who really needs the missionaries?