Peace in Kingston, War in Iraq, Sickness in China, Gangs in New York

A few days ago I was riding home in a cab having a good talk with the driver. When he asked, I told him I was from the U.S. We had a typically sad, discouraged conversation about the war. And he commented that I'm much safer here than I would be at home. It's an irony that Wayne and I have noticed quite a few times since we've been here. In the months before we left my mother would tell us stories practically weekly about someone she'd talked to who had asked her whether she was actually going to let us go. What all these concerned friends and family members were worried about was how dangerous Kingston is.

Kingston is dangerous--I have no doubt. As I read Laurie Gunst's book, "Born Fi' Dead" I see it even more (despite my problems with her perspective that I will share in a blog soon.) There is a lot of non-random gun violence, with a chilling amount of killing even by the police force. I am too far from it to know the actual causes, though it seems to be well-accepted that it is usually cocaine-trafficking-related. But the violence is far from random and nearly never directed at an uptown, foreign, white woman like me.

From my vantage point here in Kingston, life in the U.S. looks more dangerous. We get our news about the war from the New York Times on the web, the BBC on the radio and TVJ and CVM news on the television. All I see is sadness in it. So many people are dying and as Bush pushes forward in the war, I see no more evidence that it was justified. The news articles make much of the small amount of civilian support that soldiers are seeing in the last day or two, but to me it does not seem so clear. I have no doubt that these people have been treated terribly by Saddam Hussein. I will not be sorry to see him go. But whether they are cheering because they are happy to have him replaced by a Bush-engineered foreign government or whether they are cheering because they have learned that the only way to survive is to cheer for the most powerful despot, I'm not too sure. The BBC seems to give a somewhat more balanced perspective than the New York Times. They show a somewhat healthier skepticism for the claims of the U.S. generals about their advances, having seen the claims turn out to be hollow so many times so far. Only the Iraqi information minister seems to be bending the truth more than the American generals. The BBC also includes interviews with people throughout the arab world. Their lives are so sad and their situation so helpless, it is hard to understand how they go on. We hear footage of American soldier yelling at them in very loud, carefully enunciated English while they walk around intimidatingly with guns, "GET OUT OF YOUR CAR!" We can't see them, but I imagine the awkward gestures they make as they try to make themselves understood to people who speak no English and are supposed to see these men as their saviors. The Jamaican news is almost the most absurd. The entire country is staunchly ideologically opposed to the war, but is so dependent on the U.S. and Britain and so powerless in International politics that there is little else going on here except for a general feeling of disdain for Bush and Blair. The news begins at 7 with the local headlines. At the end of the local headlines, the newscaster makes some comment about the war like "More bombs drop in Baghdad" and then switches without a hitch to "And Trevor, there were some bombs in todays cricket match as well, weren't there?" Later, 30 minutes into the news, they show about a minute of gory, generally negative BBC footage and then switch abruptly into the sports news that takes up the next 20 minutes.

There is discussion in all three places about the possible terrorist repercussions in the United States. The consensus in all places seems to be that this agression on the part of the U.S. is only going to increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks in the U.S. The ability of Iraq to enlist large numbers of suicide bombers from among Iraqis, but more strikingly from among Jordanians, seems to corroborate the assumption that terrorist acts will follow. On Jamaican TV we watched an episode of 60 Minutes that detailed the danger posed to American commercial aircraft from shoulder-to-air missiles that are guided by heat-seeking technology. The assessment was that these weapons are out there (having been sold to Iraq by the U.S. in the past), too small to track definitively, and very easy to use with very little training. The question is whether to spend billions equipping the already financially challenged airlines with laser missile defense systems. Here in Jamaica there is a little discussion of terrorist attacks, but it does not feel serious. Who would attack Jamaica? And why? We don't support Israel. We can't even support ourselves.

I have become minorly obsessed with the SARS epidemic as well. I find it fascinating and frightening. The mysteriousness of it, the way it travels unseen, and the clear pattern with which it strikes down travellers to Hong Kong all contribute. I think the main thing that bothers me about it is that the not-understood contagion of it can, does, and should prevent the closest family members from visiting, sitting with, touching, and often even talking to loved ones who may be dying. China's response astonishes me, even though it seems consistent in some way with the typical prejudice against the Chinese government's way of doing things. Again I feel isolated from it here in Jamaica. There are no cases of it here yet. All business and other travel to China has been strongly discouraged preemptively. I watch as large areas of the rest of the world don masks and/or wonder when the disease will reach them.

Reading about and seeing all this pain, here in Jamaica and all over the world has taken an emotional toll on me, as I imagine it has done with many many people. But in day to day life here, in the relative safety of Kingston, it is easy to forget. But safety doesn't amount to a feeling of peace. Life in Kingston means being constantly surrounded by noise. Loud noise. There are cars, children, birds, sound systems, sirens, dogs and roosters at all hours of the day. It also means heat which sometimes rises to the level of oppressiveness. Last Friday was one of those days at the end of a long week. In the late afternoon I persuaded Wayne to go to the movies at Kingston's main movie theatre, the Carib 5 at Crossroads. The movies that come to Jamaica are a somewhat predictable but uninspiring mix of huge American blockbusters, gangster and martial arts movies, and anything featuring an African-American in the cast. (We are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Head of State, the Chris Rock/Bernie Mac movie. Don't tell us that it's bad: we don't want to hear it.) Gangs of New York was the most promising of last week's selection.

Outside the Carib 5 in Crossroads is the typical Kingston din. The wide road is jammed with cars and busses, all honking their communications back and forth to one another. People and carts line the streets. There is a lot of trash. Entering the theatre is like entering another time and place. The style is old--maybe 50's, with large concessions selling popcorn, hot dogs, ice cream and soda. It is well-kept. It is quiet. The theatre itself has a screen covered by red curtains and large comfortable seats. There were few people there. As the movie started I felt a sense of peace. It is hard to find peace in Kingston, but this is it. During the movie, watching Daniel Day Lewis, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo Di Caprio, I forgot momentarily that I was in Jamaica. Two things called me back. First, when the movie demonstrated the corruption of the New York police, firemen, and particularly politicians, the Jamaican audience loved it and demonstrated their appreciation. Second, about 2 hours into the movie the curtains closed for a 15 minute intermission.

The movie itself is anything but peaceful. It is filled with gruesome killing, death, revenge, and heartlessness. I cried, as I usually do, at the toughest moments. But when I got home, I couldn't stop crying. I wasn't crying for the thousands who died in the riots in New York during the Civil War. I was crying for the people dying just as senselessly today. And for the dismal reality that we have learned nothing from the thousands who have died in similarly senseless battles before.