At the Times Square subway station yesterday afternoon, an African-American woman was striding up and down the platform, shouting angrily, ‘Repent for your sins! Repent for your sins!’ She might have been mad, the way people moved away from her. ‘You thought your dollars would save you’, she went on. ‘You were laughing! Laughing! Go to the hospitals! Look where it got you!! Look for yourself!’ She got into a Bronx-bound train and left.
In another corner of the platform, an unshaven African-American man began. ‘This is about racism, it’s about discrimination,’ he said. His tone too, was accusing. ‘It’s not out there, it’s in here. You have to look at yourselves!’ He too might have been talking to himself, for all the attention he got.
Like the fool in Shakespearean plays, they dwelt on another plane of discourse, poor and ignored individuals acting as unanswered moral commentators.
Meanwhile, the U.S. drifts into a state of emergency without any public self-examination or debate. An increasingly authoritarian state gains its long-sought carte blanche to guard against all real and imagined enemies. At such a time, there is a striking absence of engagement with the moral and political consequences of the U.S.’s own past and present.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has declared that to swerve from ‘the American way of life’ would mean giving in to the terrorists. Which or whose American way of life?
‘Attack on America’ is indeed network news’ favored headline for this unfolding story. In fact, the attacks were strategic, aimed at financial and military nerve centers. But the distance between common people and the citadels of power on Wall Street and the Pentagon is erased in that title. ‘Freedom was attacked,’ George Bush announced. ‘But freedom has survived,’ Attorney General John Ashcroft reassured a press conference.
Innocent people have died. But the nation they worked within is the world’s presiding superpower. Innocence is a quality of individuals, not of governments or economies. Will this event reinforce or disrupt the paradoxical image of the innocent superpower?
Glittering and once seemingly invincible, Manhattan’s fame itself now feels a liability. The skyscrapers that were its most visible symbol, were precisely what made terrorists choose to attack it. After decades of impassively viewing the tragedies of other countries, the U.S. suddenly has to confront violence at home, of a scope and daring never witnessed before.
It was instructive to visit the scene of the disaster on 11 September. People were streaming away from the downtown area. Many were talking on their cellphones. One man was screaming into his phone, ‘I was supposed to be in that f***ing building!’ Four-wheel drive vehicles came out of the barricaded downtown area laden with a whitish ash, and the plume of smoke and dust behind them extended for fifty yards, like a ghostly visitation from the netherworld. Every now and then, someone would jump off the building to escape the fire. From the height they were at, and with the fire raging beneath them, there was no chance of rescue. Each time someone fell, a sigh would escape the crowd - Awwwww! Then silence. And again, Awwwww! It could have been any of us up there. At first glance it was hard to tell the difference between the falling debris and the falling people, but I noticed some were spread-eagled, some kept their legs together but bent and swayed in the wind, graceful to the end.
A young African-American girl near me was doubled up and weeping inconsolably, crying, ‘All those people! All those people!’ An older woman was trying to hold her and comfort her, in vain.
How could a disaster of this magnitude be comprehended? Each person had to struggle to make sense of the event, erupting as it did without warning, in the midst of an ordinary day. Some people scooped up pieces of debris or ash to gain some palpable hold on what had happened. In an undeclared war waged by an invisible enemy, the sense of danger is all-pervasive. The extraordinary is made ordinary, the intangible is rendered tangible.
People who were weeping became a magnet for attention, expressing what others could not. There was a new sense of intimacy amongst strangers. We had all been reminded of how close we are to death.
Two men in suits were talking, speculating on what road they could use to exit Manhattan. I tried to join the conversation. But with my entry, the topic changed. ‘It must have been Bin Laden who did it,’ one of them said, cocking an eye at me to see if I would confirm or deny this idea. Suddenly, something about my appearance made me an authority on terrorism for lay Americans.
Here was a delicate reflection of a response to the disaster. My foreignness became the pivot of the interaction, and a familiar enemy was being invoked. This was an all-too-popular way of making an extraordinary situation ordinary again.
One immediate reaction to the 11 September attacks has in fact been to suspect foreigners and immigrants. A rhetoric of patriotism is growing, and tests of patriotic virtue, including witch-hunts for culprits, will likely follow. But there are threats not only to citizens, but also to prevailing ideals of citizenship in the U.S.
The U.S. is the most open society in the world: nowhere else are immigrants allowed to make themselves at home to the extent they can here. Yet this pluralism could not exist if those at the center of power did not feel confident and assured of their stability. When confidence is replaced by fear, the character of the society itself changes.
Against this seeming inevitability, and the shutting down of any space for reflection, it is important to ask what levels of coercion are appropriate and in what context. This is a deeply paradoxical nation, wanting to be the super-cop of the world, but intolerant of any criticism of its self-image of pure virtue. This impossible desire to be both omnipotent and blameless deserves the same degree of examination the media are directing at the immediate events of the disaster.