Tuesday, April 15, 2008

1000 balloons = 7000 rockets

Today on campus 1000 red balloons mingle with the lingering blue-and-white balloons inflated to welcome accepted prospective undergraduates to their campus visits.

(Photo from deryke.blogspot.com, not of campus.)

Signs around campus starkly read "1000 balloons = 7000 rockets."

My first thoughts turned to the war in Iraq, though sadly there are so many conflicts using what I feel it's accurate to call weapons of mass destruction (not only the military/government/mainstream media gets to define that term) that the statistic could refer to many places in the world. It does in fact refer to the Gaza strip: on April 9th the Candanian Chronicle-Herald reported, deep in a story on the visit of a Canadian-Israel Committee to the Gaza Strip, that "Since the Israelis pulled out of Gaza, there have been over 7,000 rockets sent from Gaza landing around and in Sderot" (according to committee member Michael Zatzman).

Here's not the place to debate why it takes a local story - visitors from Canada, or x untouched place, under fire in a zone where residents are regularly under fire - for the media to pay attention; after all, that the story is news is worth focussing on.

So too are the 1,000 red balloons on campus, and the equation accompanying them. The equals sign reads to me as a question mark and then as a not-equals sign, the gap in number of balloons and number of rockets an implication that, quite aside from partisan affiliations involved with the issue, nothing can stand in for the current of rockets on the Gaza Strip.

The balloons do act as a stand-in though, bringing some version of the idea of rockets to a community which has many strong ties to the area and many members who, like me, have never been to the area and whose only affiliation with it relates to friends, academic study, and media reports. A bright and visual presence on campus, the balloons are also fragile and temporary objects, bound to deflate, fly loose, or burst.

Mapping these three possibilities back onto the rockets brings home one point of the presence of the balloons on campus. The deflated balloons are perhaps no longer a pleasant sight, but they are in a sense disarmed, dead. Those that fly away leave their intended target (the campus community) but their lack of trajectory diverges from the directed flight of rockets. It is only the bursting balloon that echoes the rocket, leading passers-by to stop and look before they continue to pass-by. The continuing to pass-by is, of course, not possible for those who are the advertent or inadvertent targets of rockets.

The balloons then, lead to pause, which sets up the possibility of our acting differently, of not-passing-by, of changing direction. They also attempt to convert, symbolically, the rockets into something safer, something no more dangerous than a loud noise and fragmented rubber. Air escaping.

I'm left wondering what effect they have. It is not enough to write this, and it is not enough because too often it seems enough to write something, to draw attention to it. Is the failure of the media as a fourth estate the continuing direction of attention to events that should be reacted to, rather than the directing of their and our own (written) efforts towards some form of action?

(I'm reminded of a lingering image from Simon Armitage's book-poem Killing Time which reimagines the Columbine shootings as the gifting of unexpected flowers to various students. The effect is haunting, in part because the flowers do not lessen the devastation of the event. The substitution makes what happens seem at once arbitrary and causal, which is pretty much how Aristotle defined tragedy. I'll post an excerpt when I get my copy of the Armitage back from the friend who I've loaned it to.)

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