9/11/01 was a Tuesday. That year, I met with my 5th grade class of gifted students every Tuesday. We had just begun reading the The Giver, by Lois Lowry, when another teacher beckoned me to the door and whispered to me about a plane that had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Even then, as sadness overwhelmed me, I had no inclination of the far-reaching consequences of that day’s events.
At the beginning of The Giver, the fictional community is surprised by the sound of an unexpected plane flying overhead. The inhabitants, unused to surprises, are fearful – until they are assured by a disembodied voice over the village loudspeakers that the matter has been dealt with and, “Needless to say, the pilot has been released.”
Readers do not find out until later that “released” is a euphemism for extermination.
As I walked our dog through our neighborhood the evening of 9/11, the eerie silence of the skies overhead in my own community near the airport chilled me to the bone. Many people had been “released” that day in a way most of us could never have imagined. Everyone I knew felt bereft, confused, and deeply frightened. I thought about the dystopian world of The Giver, where everything was safe but there was no freedom or emotion.
“This is how it begins,” I thought. Fear.
When I ask my students how such a community as the one in The Giver, where people cannot even choose their own spouses, could ever come to be acceptable, they are often surprised by this question. Because this is a fictional story, a fictional world. It came to be because an author imagined it, and for no other reason. It is incomprehensible to them that anyone could accept such an existence without rebellion in the real world.
We have a lot of discussions about freedom and safety and the barely perceptible line that separates the two. I explain to my students some of the events of World War II – how hate and fear caused so much suffering around the world. Those who haven’t heard of concentration camps are stunned – and many of the students are even more surprised to hear that we had Japanese internment camps in our own country. In hindsight, it seems so unbelievable that the United States, defender of human rights, could also be guilty of stripping away those rights.
In Lois Lowry’s Newbery award speech for The Giver, she describes one of the many events that contributed to her story. She was with her daughter, and had just heard a news story about a mass killing, and asks her to be quiet so she can hear the details.
“Then I relax. I say to her, in a relieved voice, ‘It’s all right. It was in Oklahoma.’ ( Or perhaps it was Alabama. Or Indiana.) She stares at me in amazement that I have said such a hideous thing. How comfortable I made myself feel for a moment, by reducing my own realm of caring to my own familiar neighborhood. How safe I deluded myself into feeling.”
I have not felt safe since 9/11. It is not the terrorists who make my stomach knot. It has been the slow erosion of freedom that has become our new normal as we desperately attempt to avoid ever experiencing that horror again. Every year, as I read The Giver with a new class of 5th graders, I consider how much closer we are to becoming the willing inhabitants of a community like the one in The Giver – safe from terrorists and natural disasters, safe from starvation, and safe from uncomfortable emotions.
No, the people who live in that community have no need to fear any of those things. Their only threat is the one they don’t see – the people who lead them. Those leaders – who protect them so rigorously from the menaces that lurk within a free society – will not hesitate to eliminate within their community anyone who might disturb this environment of safe predictability. By ruthlessly removing anyone weak or different, they are able to maintain equilibrium.
In The Giver, the protagonist, Jonas, has to make the decision to leave the community in order to save it. His best friend must remain behind to help the community to help it deal with the consequences of Jonas leaving. But Jonas wants his friend to leave with him, and blurts out that he shouldn’t care about the community. He immediately regrets his outburst.
“Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.”
And so, in this post I want to say that I care. I care deeply about all humans and their rights, not just the ones who look like me or think like me or live near me. There are evil people in this world who I fear, but I refuse to believe we must combat them by hurting millions of innocent people ourselves. I care about the refugees fleeing desperate situations, the men and women whose live are in danger because they allied with our government in foreign countries, and the people who come here for an education so they can return to their countries and make them a better place. It is wrong and cowardly of our country to turn them away because of fear. I refuse to remain silent about policies based on prejudice and bigotry.
I am an educator. In my classroom, it is my duty to remain neutral about politics. But I refuse to be neutral about human rights. I spend much of the time teaching my students about our global community and the importance of embracing different cultures, and I decline to be a hypocrite.
If you believe that policies that discriminate and punish people of certain races or religious beliefs will keep our country safer, you are wrong. Instead, we will lose allies and generate more hatred – endangering us even further.
“I liked the feeling of love,” Jonas confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. “I wish we still had that,” he whispered. “Of course,” he added quickly, “I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.”
Personally, I think it’s far more dangerous to live without it.