When naivety gives way to cynicism
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I am currently reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, written from his experiences as a war correspondent in French Indochina. In this beautifully crafted novel narrated by world-weary English war correspondent Thomas Fowler, a well-intentioned and idealistic American intelligence officer, Alden Pyle, confronts the bitter realities of this French colonial war in Vietnam. From the highest of motives he tries to bring social and political change to a complex society. In many ways Pyle was an admirable man, principled and courageous but frighteningly naïve. However, as the book opens we learn of his murder. “They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about . . .” In other words, you need more, much more than idealism. For Greene, a Roman Catholic, there is invariably a spiritual dimension which we ignore at our peril. He has a realistic doctrine of original sin, that human beings will always make a mess of things. High motives will always be pulled under by the strong currents generated by evil for we live in a dangerous world. Although writing in 1955 Greene is remarkably prescient of the American involvement in Vietnam ten years later, with the same tragic outcome. Human nature doesn’t change. As Greene observes ““Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.” The reason for reading this Greene classic was a quote from the New York Times as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. It seems that when Richard C. Holbrooke was the special representative for Afghanistan from 2009 until his death in 2010, he insisted that all his team read The Quiet American. Sadly it had little effect, given the mess made of Afghanistan. But as we are beginning to realise, this is the direct result of the trauma caused by 911 which we are reliving this week through several excellent television documentaries. I found the BBC1 documentary 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room riveting as President George W Bush and his advisers, fearful of their own safety and constantly searching for information, were on the move all day and had to conduct their business in a school staff room, airbase bunkers and aboard Air Force One. One clip strangely says it all as the President, about to give the gravest speech of his life from the security of the Oval Office, suddenly bangs his fist on a fly. He is angry and taut. Above all he wants to “kick their ass” before knowing whose ass or how. This is justice verging on vengeance. A second documentary, on ITV, gave an excellent counterbalance to the top-down approach from the BBC: 9-11: Life Under Attack. This was essentially a compilation of first-hand stories from New Yorkers who filmed what they lived through that day. Here we see their reactions as the day with its horrors unfolded and their primary response is fear, primal and personal. No one knows what is happening, everyone is terrified not least for their own safety. I remember the day after 9/11 going to a Diocesan event at Liverpool Hope; the atmosphere was tense and worried. Bishop James gave an excellent address in which he tried to make sense of our emotions. He went on to say that the US is in trauma, in mourning – and as such, open to making ill-judged decisions. Looking back over two decades we can now see how the need “to kick ass” and “to hit out” from fear led to Afghanistan and Iraq, to enhanced interrogation at CIA black sites and Guantánamo Bay. Decisions made over a few traumatized months have come home to roost. Sometimes you just have to stop and think, think very carefully. I wonder how many of Holbrooke’s staff ever read The Quiet American with its heightened sense of human fallibility? Original sin has had a bad press in that it seems to diminish human beings along with an undue focus on sex. But as Giles Fraser writes in UnHerd: “Properly understood, original sin (is) simply a very particular way of speaking about human brokenness, and an understanding that this brokenness was deep in the marrow of human life.” To ignore this brokenness leads either to naivety or cynicism, to Pyle (“He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance”) or to Fowler (“There wasn't any point in being angry with anyone - the offender was too obviously myself” ) As human beings we are made in the image of God but each in need of the cross of Christ. For it is at the cross of Jesus where God’s love and God’s justice intersect. This gives the context for any response to a terrorist outrage, not least the urge to carpet bomb whoever you may think responsible in some way. As Frank Gardner writes in this morning’s BBC news website: “Respect human rights or lose the moral high ground.” Maybe that is the main lesson from 9/11.