“As Mr. Bush was speaking, Muntader al-Zaidi, a 29-year-old journalist, rose abruptly from about 12 feet away, reared his right arm and fired a shoe at the president’s head while shouting in Arabic: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” Mr. Bush deftly ducked and the shoe narrowly missed him. A few seconds later, the journalist tossed his other shoe, again with great force, this time shouting, “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” Again, the shoe sailed over the president’s head.” NY Times December 15, 2008
“In Iraq throwing a shoe at someone means that you despise that person. If you want to insult someone, you would put his head under your shoe. So throwing a shoe expresses hatred of someone. In Iraqi tribal law it would be a big deal: it cannot be erased or forgiven. This guy [Mr. Bush] is the unluckiest guy I ever knew. He started his time with 9/11 and ended it with two shoes. I feel sad for him, I don’t want to be in his shoes.” NY Times Journalist Atheer Kakan, who was present at the press conference.
Consider this: You are a reasonable man who, (after eight long years of living with continual death and destruction of your country and your fellow citizens perpetrated for reasons that have been found to be groundless and ill-considered) is listening to the very person who instigated all of it and is now standing before you for the last time seeking approval and recognition of his personal delusion of success. What person in their right mind could stand in the presence of such hubris and lies without breaking somewhere deep inside.
Buddhist psychology has much to offer us when we consider all sides of this incident. When we recognize the pain of others, even in the face of great distress or direct attack, we can hold their suffering with compassion and understanding. As Bodhisattva Langri Tongpo wrote in the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation:
When I see beings of unpleasant character
Oppressed by strong negativity and suffering,
May I hold them dear—for they are rare to find—
As if I have discovered a jewel treasure!
Imagine if Mr. Bush had had the presence of mind to see the truth of his own culpability in the suffering of the Iraqi people and recognize that the thrown shoes were a pure expression of this man's intense suffering. Imagine if in that moment Mr. Bush offered his deepest regrets, and spoke his desire for the suffering to end for all Iraqis. Imagine how that might have transformed the moment from one of intense pain to one of humility and forthrightness.
In order for this to have happened, Mr. Bush would have had to renounce his own egoic need to remain in denial of his mistakes and the immense suffering that has occurred as a result. He would also have had to renounce feelings of hatred or aversion for his attacker and instead self-reflected upon his role in bringing harm to this man. Again Bodhisattva Langri Tongro:
In all my deeds may I probe into my mind,
And as soon as mental and emotional afflictions arise
As they endanger myself and others,
May I strongly confront them and avert them.
As to the actions of Muntader al-Zaidi, the Buddha was very clear about what constitutes right speech. "One speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful; one's speech is like a treasure; uttered at the right moment, accompanied by understanding, moderate, and full of sense." He chose the way of desperation and reactivity. Though one might not agree with his methods or timing, I applaud his courage to speak the truth of his outrage in the language of his culture. Mr. al-Zaidi refused to allow Mr. Bush a clear path to continuing to perpetrate lies of omission.