Somewhere there’s an office
with a tired steel desk and a bored
bureaucrat and not enough air conditioning.
Every night a woman sweeps out
sand. It never helps. The bureaucrat tells himself
his work is vital to the cause, and sometimes
he believes it. He looks at resumes,
interviews candidates, and occasionally
packs up the desk and files and moves
to a different town, smaller, with more sand.
Once he moved to larger towns,
but the cause falters, and now he worries
about job security. He worries about
benefits, his retirement package.
His candidates don’t ask about benefits.
They look for meaning.
He looks for enough new hires. He asks them,
“Do you believe in Allah and His prophet?”
Everyone says yes. “Do you have any experience?”
Most of them say no.
But terrorism is an easy job, just above
suicide bomber. Anyone who claims experience
as a suicide bomber is gently
guided in another direction. Otherwise, his job
is to weed out spies. Paranoia
is endemic in the cause.
The front office keeps demanding
new hires, and recruitment
is a different department. The HR guy
sometimes thinks he might like
to change jobs. All he really wants
is better air conditioning and a stable
pension plan. Less sand. He looks at his own resume.
It’s good. Years of loyal work.
But will IBM hire middle management
whose last job was with ISIS?
I worked in corporate America for some years, although not in human resources. I was sometimes involved in hiring, and sometimes wondered where those people came from who wanted to work for those companies. I know for certain that it was not their devotion to Islam that brought them to my office. It was also, usually, not their previous experience in similar jobs.
And while I never worked for an officially labeled terrorist organization, at least three of the companies where I served time earned the contempt with which they are remembered by my business contacts.
So it was not a terribly large stretch to imagine a middle manager for ISIS. Someone has to do that job, after all. Someone has to track how many wives each warrior has been given, whether he has been issued his suicide vest and AK-47, and so on. As another religious fanatic, Milton, said, “He also serves who only stands and waits.”
And it’s very easy to condemn those middle managers, especially when we can be so sure of our moral superiority. As part of a series of epistolary poems I am working on, I wrote a letter to Dick Cheney. When I read it in public, it usually gets a big laugh. The idea of talking about what I have in common with him!
But he, and I, and the H. R. guy in this poem do have a lot in common. We are all humans, and we are all trying to to what we think is right. Actual evil, for its own sake, is vanishingly rare.
The mostly progressive poetry community can’t imagine having compassion for Dick Cheney, so the poem is received as comedy. Only once has someone come up to me after a reading to talk about what that poem really means. Yes — even Dick Cheney deserves our compassion. And if Dick Cheney, then why not the guy who pushes paper for ISIS?
For more than two decades I have been troubled by the growing divide in American politics, between human beings and Them. They are not humans, not real Americans, not deserving of our respect or empathy. They are the deplorables, whose votes and concerns do not merit our attention. They should not be our friends, and should not intermarry with Us.
This attitude, which I see on both ends of the political spectrum, seems to me the greatest threat to our democracy. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea needn’t do anything. We will destroy ourselves, gleefully. “The H. R. Officer” is part of my small effort to save our collective soul.