The experience, and the politics, of living in the aftermath of terror.
Published in the November 2001 issue of the New Internationalist.
Shortly after 9 AM last Tuesday, when we still thought the attack might be a freak accident, I walked down the street in my Brooklyn neighborhood to Fort Greene Park. There, from on top of the hill, you had a clear view over the river to where the World Trade Center stood. On this day, that meant you clearly saw one, then two flaming Towers, perfectly framed. I thought of bringing my camera to document the unreal scene, but I soon found that the view was hardly unique. In fact, it was identical to those shot by hovering helicopters and shown everywhere on TV.
Only by turning around did I see the more singular and arresting photo. Already early that morning, a crowd of people had gathered on top of the hill. No one talked much; it was not a social affair. They all stood facing the same direction, eyes locked. With the low-angle morning sun illuminating their bodies, they glowed, looking as if they watched a Martian saucer touch down in lower Manhattan.
That first morning, facts led fluid and unconfined lives. The television news reported bombing on Capitol Hill, fire on the Washington Mall, eight separate planes hijacked. These assertions would stand for some time, then fade away without proper correction or disavowal. The accepted version of events that emerged from this confusion simply asserted itself by strength of repetition, and not by contrasting itself with previous reports.
Some confusion results naturally in trying to make sense of bewildering events. Other confusion is political.
During the earliest speculation of who and why, television commentators mentioned the demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank, scheduled for the end of the month in Washington, DC. In doing so, they insinuated that protesters might be responsible for the terrorism. This infuriated me: The warped security mythology about violent protestors in places like Seattle had fully reversed reality. It was as if the police officers had been the ones who dressed up like butterflies and choked through clouds of tear gas. As if the protesters had been shooting the rubber bullets and pepper spraying riot troops, troops locked together and seated cross-legged in the middle of the street. As if the Italian protester, 23-year-old Carlo Guiliani, had delivered a bullet, rather than taking one in the face.
As I calmed down, I realized that perhaps I overreacted to the passing implication of global justice protesters. Nevertheless, this served as my first inkling that now, amidst the bipartisan declarations of war, words would bear a different relation to the truth.
In the official response to the attacks, as on TV, information would go missing and specifics would shift. The point that holds steady is the war.
Friday’s New York Times featured a biographical profile of Osama bin Laden. Astonishingly, while it describes his Cold War guerrilla efforts against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it all but excises any ties to the United States — erasing past CIA support for bin Laden’s activities. A story on the same page talks of President Bush making diplomatic calls in preparation for his own potential attack on Afghanistan.
These items recall Orwell’s descriptions of the shifting alliances between Eurasia, Oceania, and Eastasia; in the states of 1984, who one counts as friend or foe may reverse abruptly, but officials eliminate any inconvenient history by never making “mention of any other alignment than the existing one.”
According to the Times, whose “deep knowledge” of Afghanistan will President Bush consult in his invasion? Russia’s, of course.
My partner Rosslyn organizes for the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 100. Members of the union include the employees of Windows on the World, the restaurant that sat atop Tower One of World Trade Center, famous for its majestic views of the city.
On Wednesday, when much of the city was shut down, Rosslyn went in to work. Throughout the day, people filled the union hall. Workers from Windows who had not been scheduled to work Tuesday wept alongside families who were missing a loved one. After a few hours, everyone came together to begin a painful reckoning.
Members worked slowly through a list of employees on the disastrous morning’s shift. As they read each name, they shared any information they had about their co-workers: who had called in sick that day; who had been running late to work; who might be in the hospital. Eighty workers are still missing.
In the following days, people from other union shops in lower Manhattan also came into the office, worried about being out of work and being able to support their families when the building that housed their cafeteria had suffered structural damage. As they met the grieving families, or learned that a fellow activist had not been accounted for, these initial concerns no longer seemed as important.
Among the missing workers, one had acted as a key leader in the struggle to organize a restaurant elsewhere in the financial district. As the fight wore on, he had been fired — some say because of absences, others say as punishment for his union activism. The local was able to help him find another job shortly after his dismissal: He was hired at Windows.
“None of our members who was working that day walked out of the building,” organizer Juan Galán said to a New York Daily News reporter present at the Wednesday meeting. At the time, Galán thought that three or four of them might have been dug from of the rubble and taken to the hospital. “But no one got out on their own two feet.”
On Friday evening I went to a vigil on 14th Street, in Manhattan’s Union Square. As the sun set, more and more New Yorkers pressed into the square. I knew some friends intended to come to join with a South Asian arts organization and with other groups calling for peace. I looked amongst the people carrying signs saying, “Islam is not the Enemy” and “Justice not Revenge.” But it was impossible to search out individuals, or even to determine where the group ended. The density of the square merged everyone into a single mass.
All around people held lit candles, and a choral group nearby began leading songs, beginning with “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” Where I stood, some felt uneasy, fearful of the direction in which this patriotism might lead. I remembered Rosslyn telling me of her train ride home on Tuesday, when an apparently drunken man on the subway ranted incessantly: “They’re fags. They’re a bunch of fags. Their women are whores. I fought in Vietnam, for the USA. One hundred percent American. Those Palestinians are a bunch of fags.”
But at the vigil, the tension quickly broke. The choir also sang peace songs: “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” It became clear that the content of the songs was not as important as their familiarity, their place in a shared musical canon. Indeed, people responded perhaps most enthusiastically as we joined in singing “New York, New York.”
I live in a house with seven other people, where we can gather and discuss the unfolding events. Many others have come to join us, beginning already on Tuesday morning. Because our neighborhood is not far from the water, people who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge from the enflamed financial district stopped here to rest, carrying reports from the scene and bits of the morbid ash on their clothing.
Hearing their many stories, I appreciate the rare and fortunate nature of the exchange. I learn how easy it is to be isolated in front of the television, and how difficult to escape settings in which everyone seems to be calling for blood.
The vigils are important for this reason. People experience a form of public response distinct from the Washington politicians’ fevered reactions. They engage in a dialogue about varied experiences of tragedy, and thus resist moves to reduce these into a vicious form of nationalism. Mayor Guiliani has helped to establish this alternative as a form of official response, showing a remarkable humanism with statements focusing on the effort to save lives and denouncing acts of hatred.
In our house, fear of anti-Arab violence is not an abstraction. Thursday morning I sat at the breakfast table as one of my housemates, a columnist for Midday in Bombay, lamented having an Arabic last name: Ansari. In writing his column Tuesday, he contemplated how, amidst a rising tide of xenophobia, he would have to strategize to “keep his face and accent from the streets.” He began that same day, by shaving off his beard.
A few years ago I served as a speechwriter for Oscar Arias, the former President of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate, who toured regularly to lecture on issues of demilitarization, arms control, and globalization.
At one point, I was working on a speech for an upcoming event at a college with a conservative reputation, where faculty members migrated between the campus and the Department of Defense. We knew that, even in the best of circumstances, there would be some unsympathetic listeners in the audience. But to compound the problem, the event came on the heels of one of our frequent bombings of Iraq.
I remember that the environment felt hostile, filled with clamorings of war. I wrote into the speech a quote by Martin Luther King, which I had recently read in his 1967 work, Where Do We Go From Here?
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate… Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
When Don Oscar and I sat down to read over the material, he quietly reviewed the quotation. To my surprise, he grew angry and turned toward me accusingly:
“That passage is very important,” he scolded. “Why haven’t we been using it before?”