I have been through this before.
During the last twenty-eight years, Tuesday 11 September has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, ever since that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup, that day when death irrevocably entered our lives and changed us forever. And now, almost three decades later, the malignant gods of random history have wanted to impose upon another country that dreadful date, again a Tuesday, once again an 11 September filled with death.
The differences and distances that separate the Chilean date from the American are, one must admit, considerable. The depraved terrorist attack against the most powerful nation on Earth has and will have consequences which affect all humanity. It is possible that it may constitute, as President Bush has stated, the start of the third world war and it is probable that it will be branded in the manuals of the future as the day when the planet’s history shifted forever. Whereas very few of the eight billion people alive today could remember or would be able to identify what happened in Chile.
And yet, from the moment when, transfigured, I watched on our TV screen here in North Carolina that second plane exploding into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, I have been haunted by the need to understand and extract the hidden meaning of the juxtaposition and coincidence of these two 11 Septembers - which in my case becomes even more enigmatic and personal because it is a violation that conjoins the two foundational cities of my existence, the New York which gave me refuge and joy during ten years of my infancy, and the Santiago which protected my adolescence under its mountains and made me into a man; the two cities that offered me my two languages, English and Spanish.
It has been, therefore, tentatively, breathing slowly to overcome the emotional shock; making every effort not to look again and again at the contaminating photo of the man who falls vertically, so straight, so straight, from the heights of that building; trying to stop thinking about the last seconds of those plane passengers who know that their imminent doom will also kill thousands of their own innocent compatriots; in the midst of frantic phone calls that should tell me if my friends in Manhattan are well and that nobody answers; it is in the middle of all this turmoil that I yield myself to the gradual realization that there is something horribly familiar, even recognisable, in this experience that (north) Americans are now passing through.
The end of exceptionalism
The resemblance I am evoking goes well beyond a facile and superficial comparison - for instance, that both in Chile in 1973 and in the United States today, terror descended from the sky to destroy the symbols of national identity, the Palace of the Presidents in Santiago, the icons of financial and military power in New York and Washington. No, what I recognise is something deeper, a parallel suffering, a similar pain, a commensurate disorientation echoing what we lived through in Chile as of that 11 September. Its most extraordinary incarnation - I still cannot believe what I am witnessing - is that on the screen I see hundreds of relatives wandering the streets of New York, clutching the photos of their sons, fathers, wives, lovers, daughters, begging for information, asking if they are alive or dead, the whole United States forced to look into the abyss of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those beloved men and women who are missing.
And I also recognise and repeat that sensation of extreme unreality that invariably accompanies great disasters caused by human iniquity, so much more difficult to cope with than natural catastrophes. Over and over again I hear phrases that remind me of what people like me would mutter to themselves during the 1973 military coup and the days that followed: “This cannot be happening to us. This sort of excessive violence happens to other people and not to us, we have only known this form of destruction through movies and books and remote photographs. If it’s a nightmare, why can’t we awaken from it?” And words reiterated unceasingly, twenty-eight years ago and now again in the year 2001: “We have lost our innocence. The world will never be the same.”
What has come to an explosive conclusion, of course, is (north) America’s famous exceptionalism, that attitude which allowed the citizens of this country to imagine themselves as beyond the sorrows and calamities that have plagued less fortunate peoples around the world. None of the great battles of the 20th century had touched the continental United States. Even the Pearl Harbor “day of infamy” which is being tiredly extricated from the past as the only possible analogous incident, occurred thousands of miles away. It is that complacent invulnerability which has been fractured forever. Life in these United States will have to share, from now on, the precariousness and uncertainty that is the daily lot of the enormous majority of this planet’s other inhabitants.
An opening to humanity
In spite of the tremendous pain, the intolerable losses that this apocalyptic crime has visited upon the American public, I wonder if this trial does not constitute one of those opportunities for regeneration and self-knowledge that, from time to time, is given to certain nations. A crisis of this magnitude can lead to renewal or destruction, it can be used for good or for evil, for peace or for war, for aggression or for reconciliation, for vengeance or for justice, for the militarisation of a society or its humanisation.
There are ways for Americans to overcome their trauma and survive the fear and continue to live and thrive in the midst of the insecurity which has suddenly swallowed them; one of them is to admit that their suffering is neither unique nor exclusive, that they are connected, as long as they are willing to look at themselves in the vast mirror of our common humanity, with so many other human beings who, in apparently faraway zones, have suffered similar situations of unanticipated and often protracted injury and fury.
Could this be the hidden and hardly conceivable reason that destiny has decided that the first contemporary attack on the essence and core of the United States, would transpire precisely on the very anniversary that commemorates the military takeover in Chile that a government in Washington nourished and sustained in the name of the American people?
Could it be a way to mark the immense challenge that awaits the citizens of this country, particularly its young, now that they know what it really means to be victimised, now that they can grasp the sort of collective hell survivors withstand when their loved ones have disappeared without a body to bury, now that they have been given the chance to draw closer to and comprehend the multiple variations of the many 11 Septembers that are scattered throughout the globe, the kindred sufferings that so many peoples and countries endure?
The challenge of empathy
The terrorists have wanted to single out and isolate the United States as a satanic state. The rest of the planet, including many nations and men and women who have been the object of American arrogance and intervention reject - as I categorically do - this demonisation. It is enough to see the almost unanimous outpouring of grief of most of the world, the offers of help, the expressions of solidarity, the determination to claim the dead of this mass murder as our dead.
It remains to be seen if this compassion shown to the mightiest power on this planet will be reciprocated. It is still not clear if the United States - a country formed in great measure by those who have themselves escaped vast catastrophes, famines, dictatorships, persecution - it is far from certain that the men and women of this nation so full of hope and tolerance, will be able to feel that same empathy towards the other outcast members of our species.
We will find out in the days and years to come if the new Americans forged in pain and resurrection are ready and open and willing to participate in the arduous process of repairing our shared, our damaged humanity. Creating, all of us together, a world in which we need never again lament not one more, not even one more terrifying 11 September.