Author and journalist Omar El Akkad shouldn’t be unique. His novel “American War” represents an idea that is not only familiar, but inescapably personal: empathy. The irony of empathy is that the key requirements of it are innate, but still, modern society needs aggressive reminders to implement it. El Akkad’s “American War” is not only a reminder, it is a threat.
El Akkad – born and raised in the Middle East, former reporter for Canada’s premier newspaper and now living just outside Portland – explained his latest work to MHCC students and faculty at Wednesday’s “Mouths of Others” literary speakers event in the Visual Arts Theatre.
“What I did is take the wars that have defined the world in my lifetime – these are wars where American involvement has been either indirect or from a great distance – and I recast them as something very close to home,” he explained. “And I couldn’t think of anything as close to home than a second Civil War, where you’re fighting yourself.”
The book expands on existing concepts: internment camps, water boarding, drone killings, etc. El Akkad said, “There’s no such thing as an exotic form of suffering. Those people over on the other side of the planet aren’t fundamentally different, they aren’t behaving in a fundamentally different way. This is what happens when you’re on the losing side of a war.”
His novel chronicles the life of a young Sara T. Chestnut (known through the novel as Sarat Chestnut). Slowly, as she is subjected to the terrors of war, she becomes violent and vengeful. The author chose to focus more on the history that amounted to violence than provide a definitive statement on the violence itself.
“I’m interested in the process of how someone can be transformed this way,” he said.
Ignorance ‘won like a badge’
Fiction writing serves a different purpose for El Akkad, he said.
“There are no answers in ‘American War.’ Ignorance and unknowing are two different things,” he said. “You look at news in America and ignorance is worn like a badge. Unknowing is a vacuum. Ignorance fills that vacuum, but fills it with garbage.
“The fact that there are people who get paid considerably more than you or I to sit around and propagate – as news – wild conspiracy theories about ‘Sandy Hook being fake’ or utter nonsense… and that there exists an entire delivery infrastructure, and a lucrative infrastructure at that, for that kind of garbage is, in and of itself, a form of violence,” he said.
The purpose of El Akkad’s novel is to evoke empathy towards figures we view as demonstrably evil.
“We live in a country where the defining statement of the last 17 years has been, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ That is an obliteration of gray spaces,” he explained. “I wanted to get this idea that it is possible to understand why someone does something horrible without taking their side.” His focus is on the “us and them” mentality adopted with distance between people.
“It shouldn’t be a controversial statement to say it is important to understand why people do terrible things,” he said.
Made ‘easier to kill’
El Akkad noted that the current state of division perpetuates itself.
“We’ve conflated it with supporting the other side,” he said. Frankly, he said, “It’s just a lot easier to think fundamentally evil people, who were born evil, will die evil, and have no complex motivations. It makes it easier to kill them. It makes them fundamentally different.
“It’s hard to live in the country and not believe that there are millions of people in this country that would rather be hurt by someone who looks like them than hurt by someone who doesn’t,” he said. “This idea of foreignness is intertwined with that.”
El Akkad believes media has played a significant roll in the interpretation of war. He notes the development of film and broadcasting as means to bring wars closer to home, but at some point the violence and depiction became abstract and distant again.
Then again, he cites a collective effort between media outlets and the mouths they feed. He said, “It’s sort of like trying to make sense of a snake eating its own tail.” He referred to surveys conducted by his previous employer, the Toronto based Globe and Mail newspaper, that were used to gauge public interest. “We had two kinds of surveys: The non-anonymous would be, ‘What do you want to read?’ and they (readers) would say ‘investigative news, serious political journalism’… then, we have the anonymous numbers, and they were universally ‘sex scandals, the horoscope, weather, and plane crashes,’ ” he said.
El Akkad’s perspective has fostered an idea that demands universal participation and interest: namely, while often clouded by diplomacy and statistics, war is at its core an ugly instrument to implement on a human being.
“I want to put forth a defense of empathy. I want to put forth the idea that the fundamental prerequisite to solving most of the world’s problems – especially problems of mass violence – has to do with understanding how people can get to a place of committing these acts of mass violence,” he said.