Three days after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force giving the president the authority to “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…” As Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death writes in a recent HuffPost article, there was only one dissenting vote that day against a measure that condoned a never ending war against anyone, anywhere doing anything perceived as a threat. Rep. Barbara Lee of California warned, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Few listened then. The divide between us and them seemed so vast. They were clearly evil and we were clearly innocent victims. It felt so easy to tell the difference between good and evil that Rep. Lee’s warning seemed more than a bit naïve. How would it be possible for “us” to become “them”?
A news story appearing 6 months after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 caught the eye of playwright Rajiv Joseph. A soldier, who was on duty guarding the animals at the war-damaged Baghdad Zoo, shot and killed a tiger that had mauled another soldier. An absurd thing to happen in urban warfare when one imagines the risks come from guns or bombs, not caged animals. That story prompted Joseph to explore the absurdities of war, or rather our absurd lack of understanding of the impact of violence on the human spirit. The result was his provocative and profound play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, now playing at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. Joseph’s play thrusts us into the middle of a war zone and dramatizes just how possible it is for “us” to become “them”.
This is a difficult play to sit through, I can tell you. The central character is the ghost of the dead Tiger and he haunts the streets of Baghdad demanding that God show up and explain why he’s still around. Is God punishing him for doing what Tigers do naturally? “After all,” he says, “lunch usually consists of the weak, the small, the stupid, the young, the crippled. Because they’re easier to kill.” He’s not the only one preying on the weak, not the only ghost to question his acts of violence, and not the only death the audience witnesses. Good people, confused people, tortured people and lonely people become perpetrators and victims. Violence is done to them, they witness it done to others, they survive somehow and shockingly find themselves mirroring the violence all around them. Things seem to be happening just as Rep. Lee warned, but this is just a play, isn’t it? Don’t good moral people hang on to their goodness in real life, no matter what?
Bengal Tiger is hard to sit through because it dramatizes our confused, misguided understanding that good people can use violence in a just cause without losing a hold on goodness. If we feel frightened enough and victimized enough, we believe, good people have a right and duty to respond with our own violence and nothing will happen to our souls or our spirits. Our consciences will be untroubled, no doubt will haunt us nor should it. As the Authorization for Use of Military Force demonstrates, we believe good violence is so good it can be completely unrestrained by time, place or legal barriers. Thank you to Rep. Lee for asking us to rethink that one, to Norman Solomon for reporting on her, to Lookinggass for staging this play and to Rajiv Joseph for writing it. Maybe we need to be forced to use our imaginations to see where such thinking leads us. Joseph has done the hard work for us, exercised his imagination so vigorously that he gives us a play that unmoors us from our normal framework. His Tiger that talks instead of growls insists we wrestle with our inability to admit that unrestrained violence is a bad thing. To believe otherwise is to live in a world so absurd that a walking, talking, praying ghost of a Tiger murdered in his cage passes for normal.
Good people become the evil they deplore when they believe goodness and violence make a sensible combination. In his article, Solomon reports on the latest attempt by Rep. Lee to pierce our belief in unrestrained violence: she’s introduced H.R. 198, a measure to repeal the Authorization for use of Military Force. If you’re thinking, “About time!” then do what thousands have already done – go to the special webpage at RootsAction.org and email your Senators and House members to support the repeal effort. If you’re still thinking our violence is an exception, always exceptionally good, go see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Or follow Norman Solomon or listen to our interview with the director the Lookingglass production, Heidi Stillman. Pick one – it’ll do you good.