Reflections on America and the World
Richard Newman email@example.com
Nassau Community College
A few nights after the September 11th attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, I fell asleep sitting at my living room window watching white smoke rise into the sky where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand. Illuminated from the bottom up by what I assumed were the lights brought in to aid the rescue and cleanup efforts, billowing out above the surrounding area as if someone were spreading a white blanket over lower Manhattan, the smoke was actually quite beautiful, I had to remind myself I was watching not a memorial flame sending itself heavenward in gentle remembrance of some past devastation, but rather the smoldering of the decimated buildings on the ground below. The images of the attack, broadcast over and over and over and over again, came back to me - and I am lucky: I know those images only through television - and I imagined yet once more what it must've been like to be a passenger on those planes. Or to have been among those who preferred to die by hurling themselves out of windows a hundred stories up rather than roast alive in the heat of tens of thousands of gallons of burning jet fuel. Or to have been someone on whose head the buildings collapsed.
I heard again the words repeated on the day of the attack almost like a mantra by television and radio broadcasters alike - This changes everything - and I wondered what they thought they meant when they said it, and as I sat there staring across the East River in the mixture of horror, disbelief, fear and rage that has not left me since the attack, as I sat there in the quiet that descends nightly on our home when my wife puts our nearly-three-year-old son to sleep, as I myself began to fall asleep, I had the illusion, created by the child safety bars on our windows, that I was looking out the window of a prison. The metaphor, of course, is a cliché - we are imprisoned by our fears; we are imprisoned by the tyranny of others - but it brought back to me the conversation I'd had with my father just a day earlier in which I'd expressed concern for my wife's safety. She is Muslim, from one of the countries on this country's list of states that sponsor terrorism, and I worried she could fall victim to the xenophobic and racist vigilantism that was already spreading through Arab neighborhoods in Brooklyn, that has resulted in at least two shootings, and that I have no doubt will continue to make itself felt here in one form or another in the days and weeks, and - especially in light of President Bush's warning that we should expect "a broad and sustained [military] campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism" - potentially months and years to come.
Two of my wife's uncles were just a block or so away when the second plane hit - thankfully, they're both okay - and they each saw the collapse of the building that followed. One of them, knocked over by the impact of that collapse, had to be dragged to safety, and he has told my wife that even there, in the moments right after the attack, even in all the panic and pandemonium of people running for their lives, you could hear people calling for the expulsion from this country of "those fucking immigrants." Another friend who witnessed the attack heard similar sentiments expressed in the long line of people making their slow way uptown once the exodus from the financial district had become a little more organized: "We were a better country without them," one person said, completely unaware, no doubt, that he or she was also talking about his or her own forebears. My wife herself - who was at the time of the attack handing out last minute campaign literature for a local political candidate - heard people on the street in our neighborhood call for putting all Muslims in this country into concentration camps. And what do you make of the following, overheard by my wife's friend in the women's sauna at the YMCA not far from where we live: The speaker was a white Anglo-American, as was the woman to whom she was talking: "There's a Muslim school not far from here. What I want is to kill as many of their children as possible, but I can't do it myself. What we need is to get a group of people together and head over there.…"
That woman's rage becomes at least comprehensible once you know that her close friend lost a daughter in the attack, and I'd like, I need, actually, to believe that she would not have carried out her threat even if such a mob had appeared the moment the words left her mouth and she knew they would do her bidding no matter what. Yet I also cannot discount the possibility that, given the opportunity, she might have done precisely what she said she wanted to do, and how can that possibility not make me afraid? For while it is true that politicians have been careful to make distinctions between the people here and abroad who practice Islam and the people who planned and perpetrated the attacks, and between Islam itself and the ideology of those perpetrators, I cannot help but wonder how long the resolve to hold that distinction will last if Bush's "broad and sustained campaign" results not only in significant losses of American military personnel, but also the possibility of spies among us and/or more attacks on US soil similar to the ones we've just witnessed.
"I hate to say this," my father said, "but maybe she shouldn't leave the house for a while, or at least she should only go out if you're with her." I myself suggested to my wife that she be careful to notice where she is when she speaks her language to our son, who is bilingual. You never know who may be listening, I said, or how they might respond. For how does one not respond with rage? More than six thousand people remain unaccounted for in New York City. They are most probably dead, and they are not symbols; and the tens of thousands who will mourn these husbands and wives and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and lovers and friends, they are not symbols either. Nor is the way of life at which these attacks were directed, about which so many of us have been so complacent for so long, thinking of such violence as happening always "over there." Someplace else, but not here. No, never, not here. Even after the bombing in Oklahoma City, even after the first bombing of the World Trade Center, even after news reports of the foiled millennium bomb plots, how many of us stopped to think that it was only a matter of time before this kind of terror lodged itself in our lives for good? And now that the realization has been forced upon us that we do not live in a universe separate from the rest of the world, that we are not, somehow, by virtue of the place of our residence or the affiliation of our citizenship, immune from the violence that consumes so much of the rest of the world, how do we not become enraged? And how do we not want with that rage to restore the relatively mindless comfort and security we enjoyed before the men who hijacked those planes demonstrated just how vulnerable we really are?
In his speech at the National Cathedral on September 14th, President Bush made the following comments:
God's signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own, yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral are known and heard and understood.… This world [god] created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.… We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come. As we've been assured, neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth can separate us from God's love.
To be fair, Bush also said, "Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called 'the warm courage of national unity.' This is a unity of every faith and every background," and, also to be fair, Bush is a devout (and, I believe, born-again) Christian, and so it's to be expected that he would couch his own words of prayer and comfort in what to me are recognizably Christian terms. Deeply disturbing, however, is the way he yoked his Christian prayer to a political rhetoric that divides the world into good and evil and makes those of us held by "the Lord of life" into soldiers in that Lord's army:
…Americans do not yet have the distance of history, but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.… America is a nation full of good fortune, with so much to be grateful for, but we are not spared from suffering. In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom's home and defender, and the commitment of our fathers [i.e., to rid the world of these enemies and their evil] is now the calling of our time.
"We," in other words, already represent what is good and holy in the world, and because "they" represent "our" antithesis, it is "our" responsibility to wipe "them" from the face of the earth.
Granted, Bush's spin doctors and most of the pundits I have seen on TV have gone out of their way to dull the potential divisiveness of his rhetoric - especially Bush's use of the word crusade - as has he, but by framing the war he has declared as a holy war, even without labeling it a war of Christian against Muslim, Bush has at least laid the groundwork for characterizing as an apostate any person who either questions his administration's behavior in pursuit of victory or attempts to give meaningful context of any kind to the motivations of those who planned and perpetrated the attacks his holy war is intended to avenge. You can see the beginnings of this dynamic writ small at the college where I teach: A faculty member trying to use the Internet as a venue for offering solace sent an email message to the college-wide distribution list that, unless one is already a believing Catholic/Christian, is hard not to read as a piece of religious propaganda. The message read, in part, that "the triumph of the Cross is real. He who takes up his cross in Jesus has the Help [sic] of all and the wings of the Holy Spirit. And the Justice [sic] of the Lord." As if those of us who choose not to take up our crosses in Jesus cannot count on, or perhaps do not deserve, such justice.
Several people sent emails characterizing the message as propaganda and asking that similar messages not be sent to the college-wide list, while the original sender responded by saying he was insulted and that he would pray for anyone whose lack of belief in Jesus had led them to understand his message as anything other than comforting. "Oh, by the way," he wrote in all capital letters - perhaps as an example of such prayer - to one person who objected to his original post, "you know what you can do about 'your absolute right to object' [to the type of message that was originally sent]. You and your little group can rot in hell."
Watching the network coverage in the days following the attacks, I was particularly struck by Channel 7's spot on the candlelight vigil in Union Square. At one point the camera showed a young Sikh man - complete with turban and long beard - speaking in unaccented English about how we shouldn't allow "the terrorists" to tear us apart as a country. It was a moving portrayal of what diversity has come to mean here, and yet precisely because the man's English was unaccented, precisely because he was so clearly of the United States - born here or brought to this country at a very young age - the diversity he represented was a narrowly national one, and it brought back to me a conversation about the meaning of the attacks and what the United States ought to do next that I'd had with a friend a day or after the attack. My friend spoke in favor of the military action President Bush was calling for. As a point of reference, I asked him if he'd be willing to live with the consequences of the kinds of sanctions we put in place against Iraq after the Gulf War. He did not know what I was talking about. Equally astonishing to me was that he had learned only a day or so after September 11th that one of the reasons people in Muslim countries give for being so angry at us - and for supporting people and organizations like Osama bin Laden and his network - is our nearly unconditional support of the Israeli government in its policies and actions against the Palestinians.
Now, please note this well: I am not suggesting that Israel specifically or the Jews in general are somehow responsible for the attacks, nor am I suggesting that the United States ought to withdraw support for Israel as a result of the attacks, or that the Palestinians are innocent, or that the motivations of those who commit acts of terrorism are always clearly laid out in their public statements. What I do want to suggest, however, is that ignorance of what Muslim people who threaten and commit acts of terror against the United States say their motivations are - Israel is one; the situation in Iraq is another; and I will say it again: I am not suggesting that anyone should take such assertions at face value - makes it impossible to understand or discuss last Tuesday's attacks and our government's response from a global perspective. We are, increasingly, citizens of the world, and we ignore, or allow ourselves to remain ignorant of, what the rest of the world thinks and feels about us at our peril.
This semester I'm teaching two English as a Second Language (ESL) composition classes and one honors class in advanced composition. The students in the ESL classes are all immigrants, some more recent than others, while those in the honors class are - with one exception - people born and raised here in the United States. In the ESL classes, when we began to talk about the attacks there was an immediate understanding that any discussion of why the attacks took place had to include a discussion of US foreign policy. (Not that my students' understanding of US foreign policy was always accurate, but at least it was there.) In my advanced composition class, on the other hand, the immediate understanding among my students was that the people who committed the September 11th attacks were motivated by jealousy and a desire to deprive us of freedoms that they don't have - a logic best summarized by the old saying "misery loves company" and that is really not so far removed from the good versus evil rhetoric that our president is so fond of using.
It took these students an hour of discussion before the possibility occurred to them that more than jealousy was at stake, but once that possibility occurred to them, they were curious and interested and they cared, and I believe that our discussion shifted their perspective on what happened, even if only a little. The fact that it took them an hour, however, the fact that they - like my friend, who is a caring and compassionate individual deeply committed to an inclusive world view - did not already know that much of the rest of the world is not happy about many of our foreign policy positions, or why, meant they were living in a radically different universe from the one inhabited by my ESL students. I don't care for the moment what you think of US foreign policy or the complacency of middle class existence in the United States; the gap of knowledge and understanding separating these two groups of people should be cause for no small alarm. For when people become deaf to each other's most deeply held convictions - and my honors students' self-involvement and my friend's ignorance and the appalling ignorance among people nationwide about basic geography, much less our national and international policies, are nothing if they are not a kind of deafness - when people become deaf to each other's most deeply held convictions, violence between them is almost inevitable.
"There was a feeling that the all-powerful America is vulnerable," Azmi Bishara, an Arab Israeli Member of Parliament, is quoted as saying in the September 24th issue of The New Yorker. He was explaining the jubilation after the attacks shown by some people in Nablus on the West Bank and of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and in East Jerusalem. Bishara is also quoted quoting a friend who called him shortly after the attack, "At last, a new balance of terror has been struck. After a decade in which America could do as it pleased anywhere in the world, from Iraq to Serbia, the poor and disenfranchised are finally rising up against her."
Israeli voices have been making a similar point, although perhaps from the opposite side of the coin. Here is the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld in the same magazine: "In modern Jewish mythology, America is the father figure who saved many Jews from the cruel Bolsheviks and Nazis by granting us a home. Now the loving father is united with his sons in a Jerusalem coffee shop, in grief over the evil that refuses to disappear from the world."
And here is Bishara again, "If the attack was indeed carried out by fundamentalist Muslims, it was an attack on modernity: a modernity that excludes them - a modernity that opens a McDonald's in Cairo but does not provide them the means to eat there. Most people in the Arab world feel that they are not partners in the process of globalization but victims." "America must understand that if it turns its back on the world's poor it will get stabbed in the back." (65)
And here is a quote from the "Report of the second panel established pursuant to the note by the president of the Security Council of 30 January 1999 (S/1999/100), concerning the current humanitarian situation in Iraq" (http://www.un.org/Depts/oip/panelrep.html). The purpose of this report was to assess the impact on Iraqi society of the sanctions imposed by the US and United Nations after the Gulf War:
In marked contrast to the prevailing situation prior to the events of 1990-91 [the Gulf War], the infant mortality rates in Iraq today are among the highest in the world, low infant birth weight affects at least 23% of all births, chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under five years of age, only 41% of the population have regular access to clean water, 83% of all schools need substantial repairs. The ICRC states that the Iraqi health-care system is today in a decrepit state. UNDP calculates that it would take 7 billion US dollars to rehabilitate the power sector country-wide to its 1990 capacity.
And here is one more piece of information contained within the report: the UN World Food Programme "indicates that according to estimates for July 1995, average shop prices of essential commodities stood at 850 times the July 1990 level."
Now, confronted by this kind of devastation among your own people - and the Islamic concept of umma does define a unity among all Muslims that makes them one people - and facing the cruel and deadly indifference of most of the rest of the US-led world, how would you respond? What would your desperation - and how could you not be desperate when, according to some estimates, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are dead as a result of the sanctions - what would your desperation lead you to?
I am not saying that the situation in Iraq in any way justifies the attacks we witnessed on September 11th, or that desperation is somehow exculpatory and that the people who planned and committed those attacks should therefore be forgiven or excused. But not to understand that desperate people will take desperate measures, not to comprehend that people who feel kinship with the Iraqis - religious, ethnic or otherwise - might take personally the inhuman conditions in which we have forced the Iraqi people to live, not to take those conditions personally ourselves, is to go to the other extreme of absolute guilt by association. Which brings me back to two other troubling things my friend said. When I told him about the sanctions against Iraq, he said he wanted know what Saddam Hussein had done to require us to be so strict with him. Think about that last word: My friend perceived the sanctions as being directed against Hussein himself, not the people of Iraq, as if the evisceration of Iraqi society were a form of individual punishment, not collective suffering.
And the second thing my friend said was this: He told me he valued my perspective on what has happened because as a person married to someone from "that part of the world," I bring both a different set of insights and a level of personal involvement to the discussion that would otherwise not be there. As if the love I feel for my wife and her family were the only possible motivation one could have for taking these things personally. As if the events of last Tuesday did not demonstrate beyond any doubt that personal involvement in "that part of the world" is already an inescapable fact of our lives.
Today is the first day of Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, a day I have not observed in any religiously significant way for many years. Still, there is something fitting in finishing this letter on this day. For what is usually called in English the High Holy Day season is a time set aside in the Jewish calendar for contemplation and personal stock-taking, a position very different from the one the Bush administration has taken in looking at the events of September 11th and their aftermath. How, we are supposed to ask ourselves during this time, did we live our lives during the past year, in moral and ethical terms? From whom must we seek forgiveness? For what? How do we plan to earn that forgiveness? In this context, the question my friend asked me at the end of our conversation - "What do you think we should do, Richard?" - takes on particular significance.
President Bush is preparing this nation to go to war in defense of "America's freedom" or "the western civilized world" or "civilization" or "what is good and wholesome in the human spirit" or any of the other catch phrases I have heard repeated by the myriad of experts that have paraded back and forth across my television screen, and I understand exactly how they feel. I too want the people responsible for this shattering to be found and held powerfully and ineradicably accountable. I too want democratic ideals to be affirmed in that accountability. Here's thing, though: in the rage that I feel, in my desire to strike back, I know that I am capable of negating everything those ideals stand for. I oppose the death penalty, and so if Osama bin Laden - who, it seems pretty clear, is the guy we're going to go after first - is somehow brought to trial and found guilty, I would oppose a sentence of death against him. Right now, however, I am so angry that if he were killed in the process of being captured, I could very easily look the other way. Which means I am endorsing vigilante justice, and so I do not trust my rage and the fear that fuels it, or anybody else's rage and fear for that matter - and please do not tell me that President Bush and his cabinet are neither afraid nor enraged - to be the guide of what we should do.
The fact is, every time in the past that we have girded our national loins to do battle in defense of our freedoms, we have done those freedoms as much damage as anything else. The internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II is one example, the excesses of McCarthyism and the war against drugs provide others. And what about the totalitarian and oppressive governments we supported during the Cold War, governments that terrorized their own people far more thoroughly than we have been terrorized by last week's attacks? Were we not in those instances - to borrow President Bush's phrasings - giving a kind of safe harbor to terrorists, were we not feeding them and giving them comfort? Have we not been, in other words, in our own way no different than the people against whom we are now planning to move, militarily and otherwise? And so while we absolutely have to respond as a nation to these attacks, and while I do not rule out the possibility that our response might require the use of force in bringing the perpetrators to justice - though I disavow and will resist the prosecution in my name of anything that resembles a war - it also seems to me necessary that we enter into this response with a degree of humility and self-awareness that our country has rarely if ever shown, either in the arena of international politics or on the home front when we have felt that home front to be threatened.
I don't believe such humility will come, except perhaps as rhetoric, from government, corporate leaders or their spokespeople. Though there are exceptions - Representative Barbara Lee's single vote against the measure backing Bush's use of force because she was "convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism" against us, and Representative Bob Barr's letter to Attorney General Ashcroft stating, "Before we begin dismantling constitutionally protected safeguards and diminishing fundamental rights to privacy, we should first examine why last week's attacks occurred" - both government and big business have too much power and money invested in the status quo for them to look at the current situation from any other perspective. No, the kind of humility I'm talking about will come when ordinary people are willing to ask difficult questions, confront difficult answers and make the difficult decisions that those answers require.
To put it most starkly, we need to decide whether or not we want to be a nation that does what it wants in the world regardless of how our actions affect others and without caring very much, or even caring to inform ourselves about, what those others think and feel. If we decide that we do not, then we need among other things to look again at how we educate our children about the world around us, we need to identify, nominate and elect a very different kind of leadership than we've had to date, and we need to let network executives know that we will not continue to allow so-called "infotainment" to take the place of news. If, on the other hand, we decide that we do want to be that kind of nation, then I'm afraid we've just been given our first lesson in learning to live with the consequences.