My Letter to Bob Bergdahl

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Dear Bob,
I know this is a difficult time for you and your family, which is partly why I’m reaching out, to let you know that I feel a deep kinship with you, despite the many differences in our circumstances and perspectives. While you lean conservative in your political views, I am an unyielding progressive. While you reside in a small town in Idaho, I am composing this from Pittsburgh, the city in which I live. And while your son was held captive for many years by the Taliban – while you struggled to secure his release with the determined focus only a father’s love could generate – I have struggled in a different way, working to move beyond the terror attack which injured my wife in Israel, an attack which has propelled me to fight for the human rights and dignity of my so-called enemy.
Despite these differences, our struggles have shared several fulcrum points, and these points have made it so difficult for me to watch politicians and the media exploit you and your family’s pain. There are moments this past week in which I have trembled with anger, have felt the need to lash out, to grip someone by the throat and scream, ‘Leave them alone’.
But I’m not a violent person. I’m a writer who acts with the pen, not with fists, and as such I’ve chosen to write to you in public as a way to support you in a country where so many want to reflexively do the opposite.
I hope this letter finds you in peace, and so I’ll begin again by saying שלום עלכם (shalom alechem), which is the Hebrew equivalent for the Arabic السلام عليكم (as-salam aleykum).
Peace be upon you.

While I do not understand the full complexity of your trajectory, what I do know makes me feel deep respect and admiration for you. I know that, in order to fight for your son, you immersed yourself in language and culture, learning Pashto as well as everything you could about the Taliban, about both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a way to understand those who held your son. And I know that, as you immersed yourself in such learning, you began to understand in ways so many don’t the complexity, and the humanity, of those on the other side.
You learned of the effects our drone program has had, even learning that one of your son’s captors had his own son killed by a CIA drone strike. You came to understand the evils of the detainee issue at Guantanamo Bay, of the suffering experienced by both sides in this conflict. And this inspired you to pray for those holding your son, and compelled you to recognize them as victims as well.
Your original goal was to secure your son’s release. And that journey brought understanding. In some ways, it’s a similar journey I underwent, despite the obvious differences. In 2002, my wife was injured in a terror attack at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an attack which killed the two friends with whom she was sitting and psychologically paralyzed me. Upon moving back to America, I began researching the bombing as a way to overcome it, and immediately learned that the Palestinian man who perpetrated the bombing, Mohammad Odeh, had expressed remorse for his actions – was sorry for the pain he had caused.
This moment propelled me on a journey to meet him personally, a journey which led me to voraciously read Palestinian writers and come to understand the deep suffering and traumatic historical experiences of my so-called enemy in ways I never had. And I took that understanding back to the Middle East and into the living room of Mohammad’s family.
Now, my journey was an attempt to free myself from the captivity of PTSD, which seems trite and insignificant when compared with your struggle to free your son from a very real and painful captivity. That said, I know what it means to understand the other side, to come to terms with the other side.
I also know what it means to be vilified for it.
You and your son have been viciously exploited for political gain. You have been called a terrorist sympathizer, you have been cast as anti-American, you have been slandered by those who claim you suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. All of these verbal attacks have been launched not because they represent any truth; they have been launched by those interested in waging a metaphorical war against the White House and a very real, military war against Muslim countries (often driven by a deep Islamophobia). In short, your pain has been delegitimized, your compassion has been delegitimized, and your understanding has been delegitimized by those who wish to use you as an instrument of war.
In a muted way, I understand this personally. I have been vilified in the American Jewish community, called an anti-Semite for legitimizing Palestinians’ right to nonviolently oppose Israeli policies, called anti-Israel for recognizing Palestinians’ deep suffering and the denial of their human rights, and charged with suffering from Stockholm Syndrome for personally reconciling with the Odeh family.
These attacks are equally bombastic and false, though I understand where they come from: they come from a place of fear. A fear that my people, Jews, will forever be in peril, that Israel as a safe haven will disappear in a world where anti-Semitism has brought unspeakable atrocities.
The attacks against you and your family also come from a place of fear, an irrational fear that anti-Americanism, this case in the Muslim world, will lead to further attacks upon our country. Our post-9/11 world has created this, and we must contend with it every day as our security state increases.
Despite your incredible experiences, you seem determined to oppose this fear. To not allow it to dominate your actions, your views, your will.
I send my deep and sincere wish for all this to pass soon, for your family to find the peace it deserves, and for you to know that there are so many in this country, like me, who support you. As Americans. As global citizens. As fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, as those who understand what it means to lose, what it means to love, and what it means to live with a fear that things could break at any moment.
Please send my love to your wife and to Bowe, if this letter finds you, as so many strangers have done for me. I know how much it can mean to just know there are others out there.
There are others out there, Bob.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.