On What Shall Become of Us Without Any Barbarians

I have been reading The Monster of Florence, a true account of Douglas Preston’s exploration of the infamous Italian serial killer. Yesterday, I reached a part of the story that discusses the (American) author’s decision to move back to Italy just after 9/11, wherein he includes the last stanzas of a poem that one of his Italian friends recited to him upon his return.

From Constantine Cavafy’s poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” about “the Romans of the late empire waiting for the barbarians to come,” the passage reads:

 

…night is here but the barbarians have not come.

And some people arrived from the borders,

and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

 

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

Those people were some kind of solution.

 

Reading this, I imagine the ancient Romans, anxious and fearful, preparing themselves for battle. The empire is beginning to crumble, the power and greatness of Rome vanishing before them. The barbarians are to blame, they tell themselves. The barbarians will come, they will fight, they will try to tear down what remains of the empire. And they must be stopped. If the barbarians can be stopped, they think, Rome will be saved.

But the barbarians never come. Rome still fades away, falls apart, and no one knows who to blame.

My favorite of life’s crazy little coincidences is when something you read or see matches up with something else that you’ve been thinking about and trying to sort out in your head.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around Peter King’s hearings on radical Islam, and the Maryland House of Delegates’ decision to not even vote on a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in this state. I’m trying to understand why teachers in Wisconsin have been stripped of their collective bargaining rights, and how Detroit will manage its financial situation without giving up on an entire community of young people. The earth beneath Japan has shifted and split and the ocean has literally risen up to wash that country’s people and communities away. And yet, it’s the US that seems to stand, looking out over its fading empire, waiting for the barbarians to come. But night has come and gone and the barbarians have not arrived.

I don’t deny that there are radical Islamists who seek to kill Americans and attack the United States, but the Muslim-American community should not be turned into a target of bigotry out of fear of another day like 9/11.

And I don’t deny that the idea of two men or two women taking a vow of marriage, and committing to a life of companionship and love doesn’t exactly jibe with everyone’s personal moral or religious ideologies (though I also don’t care. Get over it, you homophobic assholes), but living in a society that (too often incorrectly) prides itself on providing equal rights to all of its citizens, means that even people you don’t agree with are equally deserving of those rights.

And I don’t deny that there’s a budget crisis in the United States, or that too many people have been out of work for too long, but there has to be a better answer than demonizing hard-working teachers and public educators. A better answer than cutting so much desperately needed money from an education system that is already underfunded. Public school teachers and students are not barbarians.

Same-sex couples are not barbarians.

Muslim-Americans are not barbarians.

The Conservatives in our nation have held up these groups as some kind of solution to our country’s current problems. But there are no barbarians here.

So what shall become of us now?

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