Seeing Through Fear at The X-Ray Project

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on November 5, 2007.

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)

On a recent visit to San Jose State University I picked up a brochure for what promises to be a complicated and disturbing art installation set to open in San Jose this week. The X-RAY Project is a collection of x-ray and MRI images gathered from hospitals in Jerusalem and arranged for display by an artist named Dianne Covert. The diagnostic images are of the injuries sustained by victims of terrorism, and they show with clinical sterility what pain and suffering is endured when terrorists strike.

According to The X-RAY Project’s website, the traveling exhibit’s aim is to “explore the most important social issue of our time: the effects of terrorism on a civilian population.” The project was born of the artist’s desire to push back against those who might condone terrorism.

I’m conflicted.

On the one hand, it always is good to honor the victims of violence by remembering their suffering and naming the evil by which they were harmed, and, if the actual installation turns out to be as powerful as the online rendering of the exhibit’s images, The X-RAY Project certainly does this. On the other hand, I fear The X-RAY Project will remember the victims of terrorism in a way that does more to stoke American hysteria than to honor the memory of the victims.

When it comes to terrorism, the American people are perilously close to a meltdown of rationality. Presidential candidates are speaking of the terrorist menace with increasingly apocalyptic language. Pundits and politicians are in a panic. And a growing number of Americans appear to agree with The X-RAY Project’s assertion that terrorism is “the most important social issue of our time.”

Which, of course, it is not. Terrorism is bad enough to be sure, but as social issues go, terrorism doesn’t hold a candle to HIV/AIDS or malaria or genocide or the grinding poverty that wilts the human spirit in large swaths of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The violence afflicted upon women and the neglect shown to children, the cruelty of military dictatorships and the callous concupiscence of multinational corporations all pose a greater threat to the human family than does terrorism.

When fear becomes unhinged from the doorpost of reality it has the capability of causing great harm. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, it seems likely that many visitors to The X-RAY Project will be burdened with harmful fear. The exhibit makes no pretence of balance. The disturbing images all come as a result of Palestinian terrorism. Absent are any images culled from Palestinian hospitals in the wake of Israeli aggression. The power of the exhibit almost certainly will move some visitors to fear all Palestinians, to hate Arabs in every land, and to dread Islam. Such fear, which already courses through the American body politic, impedes the cause of peace in the Holy Land and stands as an offense to common decency.

In a bygone era, when the United States was enduring the dual threats of Imperial Japan and the Third Reich, the members of what we now call America’s greatest generation believed the words of a president who said, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It was understood that a people living in fear already is defeated; a people acting on fear never will be victorious.

I will stop by The X-RAY Project exhibit sometime in the coming week, and when I do, I hope I’m wrong about the installation’s capacity to foster irrational and harmful fear. I expect to reverence the memory those who have been harmed by the crime of terrorism, but I will not be afraid.

4 thoughts on “Seeing Through Fear at The X-Ray Project

  1. Ben–
    Did you read what I sent you last week? I attended the Sabeel conference in Boston and had the opportunity to hear Naim Atteek, along with Desmond Tutu and many others, speak out against the violence that is being largely ignored by the American population and government in Israel.

    One thing that struck me especially was Naim Ateek’s reminder to those of us there that “terrorism is a subjective term” used most often to describe what happens when a group of people, often an oppressed or victimized minority, acts out against their oppressor… I don’t think that this definition always holds, but it definitely seems to make sense in Palestine, in Turkey, and I would argue in Afghanistan and Iraq. These people are not being listened to when they speak, and when they act they are labeled terrorists, while all the while Israelis demolishing homes and setting up checkpoints that divide person from person is ‘sanctioned action’.

    And our country seems to think there is nothing wrong with ‘apartheid’ policy in Israel,… we only worry about ‘terrorism’ as defined by ourselves.

  2. Sarah,

    Funny, I was just reading about the Boston Sabeel conference before I read your post. It must have been an interesting event. I read some of the negative feed back that was written by a guy named Dexter Van Zile, a UCC employee of “The David Project.” Dexter is a sometimes pen pall of mine–we’ve had some hot debates over the issues. Jewish Voice for Peace had good positive coverage of the event in their most recent newsletter.

    I think the voice of Tutu is one of the most compelling voices on the issues surrounding the Middle East right now. I’m jealous that you got to hear him speak!



  3. Bravo, Ben! One doesn’t have to take sides to recognise and deplore the exploitation of fear that pervades American society right now. Fear, like guilt, is a pretty useless emotion. Caution and remorse can actually produce positive results. Thanks again for your thoughtful approach. I look forward to reading your comments after you visit the exhibition.


  4. Our esteemed leader yesterday in his first speech as Prime minister at the opening of Parliament kept terrorism fresh in everyones lives in the UK yesterday when he came up with this new bill;

    “Counter-Terrorism Bill

    Would enable post-charge questioning of terrorist suspects and the drawing of “adverse inferences” from refusals to say something which is later relied on in court. The bill would ensure the police and intelligence services can make full use of DNA and convicted terrorists provide police with personal information when they are released from prison. Convicted terrorists would be banned from travelling overseas. Applies to whole UK. ”

    They are trying to introduce ID cards in the UK at an enormous cost to every single person in the country, we have to buy them ourselves and they are going to cost a couple of hundred pounds!!!! They say it is to prevent terrorism, the Spanish have id cards it didn’t stop the Madrid train bombings. We do not work for the State, the State works for us.

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