I arrived in New York City on Friday night, three days after the disaster. I drove all day from Chicago with a friend. As we crossed the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into upper Manhattan we could see that it was really true. Down towards the end of the island, a huge cloud hung, lit yellowish by the lights of the city, above the space where the towers had once soared. It gave the impression of a mouth that had just lost a tooth violently.
We passed through the checkpoint at Canal and Church Streets, escorted by my sister and her family who live in the closed zone beyond. This checkpoint has itself has become a destination. Opposite the barriers on the north side of Canal a crowd of people are standing, some holding candles, looking down Church street at the looming white cloud. Floodlights bathe the scene making everything seem hyper real, or hyper false — like a movie set. Emergency vehicles, trucks and utility vans are waved through. Below the checkpoint the streets are deserted.
Looking south on Church Street in the morning, I can count eight blocks to the smoking remains of the Twin Towers. The only people in the street are rescue workers, walking away from the scene in pairs or resting in small groups. Franklin street is a staging area for diesel generators. I count more than a dozen industrial generators parked where cars used to be. There is a pallet with dozens of hard hats, and other supplies are strewn about. I overhear one rescuer say to another “It’s like Home Depot down there, there’s everything, food, water, tools, masks.” For days the radio has been announcing the items that people should donate. So overwhelming was the response from the public that now they are telling people to stop, and to give money to the American Red Cross instead.
Downtown Manhattan has always struck me as one of the places in the world furthest from the cares and afflictions of the world. SoHo with its art galleries, designer furniture and fashion; Tribeca with its astronomical rents, its restaurants and cafes. Now, it has been transformed. Violence as brutal as anything that afflicted Lebanon or Bosnia has come here, and it interacts with the city in incongruous ways. A cafe on a deserted street in the closed zone featuring delicate French pastries from Balthazar offers them free to rescue workers. The Eden Day Spa has posted flyers inviting rescue workers to use all their facilities and services — the showers, the lounge, the therapeutic massages. The closest store from which we can carry groceries is the Gourmet Garage, offering everything of the rarest and finest from all over the world. Things that mere days ago represented the height of frivolity and luxury have now been enlisted in the elemental struggle for survival as soldiers in combat gear patrol the streets and military helicopters circle overhead.
Above the Canal Street barrier New York city life continues normally but subdued. The Twin Towers were always a great attraction. They still are as tourists now gathered snap photos down Church Street. The souvenir shops along Canal Street are among the few businesses open, and they are doing a roaring trade in Twin Towers T-Shirts and postcards. There is even someone selling postcards of the actual aircraft collisions and explosions. It is a safe bet that the proceeds are not going to the relief effort.
If you look at the lampposts, you begin to understand what five thousand people look like. Everywhere there are flyers with photos of people who are missing. Mark Rasweiler is 53, and weighs 185 pounds. One woman is leaning up a against a car, hand on her hips with a broad smile. Another women is talking on the telephone in her kitchen, a surprised and mischievous smile on her face. Another is holding a fluffy white poodle. A young man is wearing a tux; perhaps this was his wedding photo. Norberto Hernandez is wearing a chef’s uniform. One flyer declares hopefully and heartbreakingly that the smiling, athletic looking man is “one of your unidentified patients.” The marble facade at the United States Post Office at Canal and Church has become a shrine, the wall covered with these flyers, and candles and flowers adorning the steps.
It reminds me of pictures I have seen of the Amariyah bomb shelter in Baghdad. The same photos and flowers line the wall of the memorial to the more than four hundred women and children incinerated by two “smart bombs” that destroyed the facility in a middle class neighborhood of the Iraqi capital on February 12, 1991. Kathy Kelly wrote about an encounter she had when she visited the site in March 1991 with the Red Crescent, in the book “Iraq Under Siege”:
“Single family homes surrounded the cavernous remains of the shelter. Stretched across the brick facade of each house was a black banner bearing in graceful, white Arabic letters the names of the family members from the home who had died in the massacre. Staring at the scene, I began to cry. A beautiful Iraqi child smiled up at me. “Welcome,” she said. Then I saw two women dressed in black cross the street. I thought surely they were coming to withdraw the children who now surrounded us. As they drew closer, I spoke the few Arabic words I knew: “Ana Amrikyyah, wa ana aasifa” —I’m American and I’m sorry. But they said, “La, la, la,” —No, no, no. And they explained. “We know that you are not your government and that your people would never do this to us.” Both women had lost family members to the American Bombs. Never again do I expect to experience such understanding.”
But such understanding does exist and survives even the most colossal catastrophes. The day after September 11, I wrote an essay that I called “A Few Words,” giving my reactions to both the bombing and some of the hate mail and threats that I and other Arab Americans and Muslims were receiving. Never has anything I have written produced such a reaction. To date I have received over seven hundred personal emails in direct response to this essay, the overwhelming majority of them expressing solidarity and the strongest condemnation of any scapegoating of Arabs generally. Yes, there were some serious incidents of violence against Arabs, Muslims and anyone else who appeared too ‘foreign,’ and countless incidents of harassment have been reported. But the overwhelmingly decent side America has let it be known that this is not done in its name.
“I for one will not stand for people making disgusting generalizations and judgements, spreading more fear in the face of this attack. No culture or heritage is clean and innocent. We all carry the burdens of our ancestors, but we are all here because of their sacrifices, good or bad. Life is a messy thing and we must strive to be our best and do our best for everyone and everything. Hate, discrimination, and intimidation will lead no one to freedom.”
Geoff from Mississippi sent a message typical of hundreds I received:
“Of course, I am filled with rage and hatred at whoever carried out the attacks on Tuesday, but I am also very concerned about the anger that some people in the United States have directed against Muslims, Arabs, and Arab-Americans all over the world. Please understand that most of us Christian and Jewish Americans have no negative feelings toward you, and we deplore the scapegoating and violence that some of our stupid countrymen have perpetrated in response to the tragedy.”
The media says that America wants retribution. I am sure that sentiment is out there, but I personally have not encountered this, and many of the messages I got displayed a thirst for understanding, not a desire for blood. I sense that many people are asking questions and searching for answers that CNN is not equipped or willing to give them. Karen from Illinois wrote
“I don’t know what kind of military response would be appropriate and just, but I firmly believe that any U.S. response MUST INCLUDE a sincere and concerted effort to reach out to our Arab and Muslim brothers. It is all well and good for politicians to stand up and instruct Americans not to type cast Arabs as terrorists, but if we don’t start looking each other in the eye and listening with our mind and heart to the stories of injustice our Arab friends have to tell, we will always remain US and THEM. Without this effort, we will never be able to stand united against terror and injustice.”
“I don’t understand a few things about Islam. How is it these guys like bin Laden think of this as a holy war. What in Islam suggests to suicide bombers that their acts will deliver them to Allah or make Allah smile on them? I have heard that Islam encourages revenge. I know in the Bible there is the passage about an eye for an eye… is there something like this in the Koran that these fanatics embrace? I suppose it is as if the weird fundamentalist Christians of Ruby Ridge and Waco were to get control of a country, but I got tell you that if these things about Islam aren’t true, honest Muslims aren’t doing a very good job telling the rest of the world what Islam is really about.”
These are honest questions from honest people. This decency and sense of fairness is America’s greatest strength, but it has also been a weakness. Americans want to think of themselves as a benign nation that stands for the downtrodden against the strong, and for right against wrong. This has sometimes made it much harder to make people see the distortions that their government’s policies have produced over decades in the Middle East and other parts of the world; that the America that they believe in and strive for —the America of decency and freedom — is not the same America experienced by millions of people whose lives are ruined by US-backed dictators and despots, who see their loved ones incinerated by “smart bombs” and wasted by sanctions. People are sometimes unwilling to see an image in the mirror that they do not like. The America that wrote to reassure me and other Arab Americans that I am safe at home here is not the same America that with unconditional support sentences my cousins to a life of brutality and violence under endless Israeli occupation. But it is the America that can and must act to stop it.
There is nothing on earth that the United States could do anywhere that would ever justify or excuse what was done on September 11. Whoever did it, if they did have links to the Middle East, did not do it in the name of peace or in the name of Arabs and Muslims. It was an act of pure, unremitting evil. But this horrifying act must not now be used to silence or delegitimize criticism of US policy in the Middle East. It will be more important than ever for Americans to interrogate and understand their relationship to a region of the world of which many of them have little knowledge or interest but in which their government is deeply mired. Arab Americans and Muslims must be ready to be a part of this discussion and with patience and forbearance face increased hostility from some quarters and increased questions from others.
Nothing will ever be the same after September 11. That can be for good or bad. I do not expect the coming “war” being advertised by President Bush to be the conventional type. If Ussama Bin Laden and his followers are indeed behind this outrage, sending an American army into Afghanistan would be both useless and suicidal as well as a gift to those who would welcome the opportunity to kill more Americans on their terms and terrain. Listening to President Bush ratchet up his promises is worrying. Unless the goal is simple retribution against anyone or anything, there is no obvious conventional war scenario that would be anything but counterproductive, do anything but feed a cycle of death and violence with no logical end.
Bombs and cruise missiles raining on Kabul will likely do nothing but cause suffering to more innocent civilians and may simply radicalize many more people. If there were any targets to hit that could effectively damage the ability of people like Bin Laden to operate, the United States would not have resorted to bombing an entirely innocuous pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in August 1998 in response to the bombings of two US embassies Kenya and Tanzania. That bombing likely contributed to thousands of civilian deaths in Sudan, one of Africa’s poorest countries, as a population struck by an epidemic of meningitis and other diseases lost half of the country’s supplies of medication. It may be less satisfying for some, but there will have to be an aggressive law enforcement effort to pursue the perpetrators and those who supported them.
There are enormous dangers ahead. In such a charged atmosphere, law enforcement could stray into violating civil rights at home, especially of immigrants and citizens with ancestry in the Middle East or South Asia. Abroad, the US may repeat its policy mistakes of the past rather than learning from them. “Friendly” countries under pressure from the US to stamp out “fundamentalism” and extremism may be rewarded for even greater repression of their citizens’ rights.
Americans will need to look their government squarely in the face and recognize that many of the most demonized foreign figures against which America has launched all out wars — General Noriega of Panama, Saddam Hussein, and now Ussama Bin Laden — were once close allies if not actual creations of the United States (For more on the US role in supporting Bin Laden and his ilk, see The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; Blowback; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 24 - 36, by Mary Anne Weaver.)
The secret government agencies that helped create what is now apparently the greatest threat to US security are the same agencies that failed to detect and prevent the biggest non-governmental crime in history. Americans need to ask whether these same agencies —probably showered with more money and even greater powers — ought now to be in charge of fighting this threat.
On the shoulders of the decent America that emerged from the destruction of September 11 is an enormous responsibility to this country and to the world. It is a responsibility made all the harder to bear when the smoke literally has not yet cleared from the skies of Manhattan, the grieving has barely begun, and the hounds of war are straining at the leash.