Notes on a time of crisis

Monday, September 17, 2001

German Americans during World War I were subject to vigilante violence. Laws were passed against the speaking of the German language (some early marketing genius renamed sauerkraut "Liberty Cabbage").

A legacy of the Second World War not much mentioned these days as we look back through the gauzy haze of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers" is the internment of Japanese-Americans, as well as the confiscation of their property and businesses.

According to the AP wire this morning, "An Indian-immigrant gas station owner was shot to death and a Lebanese-American clerk was targeted, but not injured, by gunfire at another Mesa gas station, police said Sunday...The East Valley Tribune reported that (the gunman) shouted, "I stand for America all the way," as he was handcuffed Saturday night."

* * *

It should go without saying that no decent person believes this act should go unpunished, that the men responsible should not be brought to justice. Anyone who confuses a desire to avoid responding to the senseless slaughter of civilians with more of the same--a desire to, perhaps, avoid World War III--anyone who confuses this with a desire to do nothing...sees the world in much too simple of terms.

This is not "appeasement," as some have claimed. We are not at war with a nation state. We are up against a loose network of what is estimated to be perhaps three thousand right wing religious fanatics, spread across two dozen countries on five continents.

Tell me, exactly, who we should bomb to make it all better.

* * *

Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary wrote the following for Salon:

"I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters.

"But the Taliban and bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think "the people of Afghanistan" think "the Jews in the concentration camps." It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rats' nest of international thugs holed up in their country.

"Some say, why don't the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, they're starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan -- a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban.

"We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and healthcare? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely. In today's Afghanistan, only the Taliban eat, only they have the means to move around. They'd slip away and hide. Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans; they don't move too fast, they don't even have wheelchairs. But flying over Kabul and dropping bombs wouldn't really be a strike against the criminals who did this horrific thing. Actually it would only be making common cause with the Taliban -- by raping once again the people they've been raping all this time. "

The full article can be read here:

* * *

When I moved back to New York City a few years ago, I had a loft studio on Reade Street for about a year and a half, seven blocks north of the World Trade Center complex. The twin towers greeted me as I came out of the subway in the morning, and were the last thing I saw before I headed back down at night. It's a beautiful neighborhood of old cast-iron loft buildings, with insanely overpriced rents, of course. I was only able to afford my studio because it was a space which the people who held the lease on the entire floor were not supposed to be renting out. I had no plumbing, I had to traipse through their living space every time I needed to use the bathroom, and I had to sneak in and out of the building each day so the owner would not catch on that I was there. Try sneaking up four flights of stairs in a loft building--which are really more like eight flights--every day. Moving day was a challenge unto itself, but that's another story.

Yesterday, after checking up on a friend in Soho, I walked down to see what my old stomping ground had become. The police line is now at Reade, so I couldn't get near my old building. I walked around, taking photographs, trying to absorb the reality of this quiet neighborhood that is now a disaster area of the first magnitude, overshadowed so horribly by a smoking heap of rubble in the distance where the twin towers so recently stood.

There are soldiers in the street, but they are not noticably armed with anything more menacing than bullhorns. There are impromptu memorials, the patchwork quilt of "Missing" signs on fences and lamp posts, often surrounded by melted candles and hand-written notes of loss, and pain, and anger. Crowds cheer and wave their flags each time a rescue vehicle passes the barricades. On the West Side Highway, I saw the remnants of a crushed and burned fire truck, on the back of a flatbed truck. And because there are, of course, no private vehicles, the streets are simultaneously bustling with activity and eerily empty.

I talked to two young police officers who had been at ground zero, and could only describe it in terms of unreality, likening it to a movie set. This is the only way we can process it, I think.

Vendors were selling t-shirts with a crude drawing of the World Trade Center superimposed over a flag and the slogan "Evil Will Be Punished."

I saw nothing you haven't seen on television, nothing I didn't expect to see, but I was overwhelmed all the same -- it was as if I had set my own clock back to the first day.

* * *

I headed back to Brooklyn in time to join my wife and several friends for a rally and march in support of the Arab American community of Brooklyn, which began along a stretch of Atlantic Avenue which has many Middle Eastern businesses, and headed down to the Promenade, right across the river from the skyline of lower Manhattan, where thousands of people stood in silence and tears throughout a multi-faith prayer service--beginning with a traditional Islamic prayer. I have been feeling alone and isolated on this thing, sitting in my studio, watching television newscasters beat the drums of war and receiving hourly emails from hawks who feel the solution is to simply "bomb the hell out of them all," whatever that means, and it was remarkable and uplifting to see so many of my neighbors, so many people who have been directly affected by this terrible attack, gather together in a vigil for peace.

And as I write this, the tide of email seems to be shifting. For everyone who believes that we should rush blindly in and give the terrorists exactly the war they crave, there is someone else who wants justice, yes, but not vengeance.

* * *

I was strangely comforted to see Dick Cheney alive and well on Meet the Press yesterday morning. I may not like or trust or support the man or what he may do, but at least our fate is not solely in the hands of George W. Bush, but rather people who privately understand exactly what is going on, even as the public is whipped into a lather about the incomprehensible evil which has somehow sprung fully formed from the void to visit such madness upon us.

The painful truth we must face here is that they understand the nature of this enemy because they helped to create it (and spare me the "blame America first" stuff--we will never understand what has happened here if we are willfully blind to history). Osama bin Laden was our surrogate in Afghanistan during the Cold War. It has been reported by many credible, mainstream news organizations that he was trained in the art of terrorism by our very own CIA. And in words that will certainly come back to haunt him, Orrin Hatch--a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee--said in 1998 that even knowing what would come later, it was worth it to support these men because it helped to destabilize the Soviet Union.

And of course, the Bush Administration recently gave the Taliban $43 million dollars as an incentive in the war on drugs.

This is what is known as "blowback."

* * *

This is from my friend Deborah Thomas at FAIR:

"We are all fine, but both Ben and James were very close to everything that happened. Ben's school was four blocks north of the WTC and he heard the plane go over and crash. He's been going through a six month obsession with airplanes so was at first trying to explain what might have happened. When the second plane hit and people realized it wasn't an accident he wept. He was evacuated to the West Side Highway and describes the way the WTC fell and then they all ran for their lives. I got to him an hour later after running from one school to another to find the one he'd been sent to. There was no transportation and no communcations at that point. Meanwhile James was sitting in his building a block and half from the WTC watching the fire and being told not to leave, finally after the first building came down to within a half block of his building they were evacuated just as the second building came down and they had to run for it. We all met at home and basically stuck together for the next five days solid. We went to the country on Wednesday night because of the air quality. We spent most of Sunday with the Ross family whose 14-year-old daughter saw even worse. We have one family staying with us since their apartment might be uninhabitable for a long time. We also have a family staying with us in the country with the same story. FAIR was without email until this morning so I'm just getting back in touch with folks."

When Beverly and I had dinner at their Bowery loft not long ago, Ben showed me the flight simulators on his PC as well as his collection of toy airplanes. He's a smart and wonderful kid, and I wish him the best in getting through this.

* * *

Bush gave the military permission to shoot down that plane over Pennsylvania, but they're claiming they didn't need to--but what if the plane crashed, not in response to the heroism of passengers, but because our own fighters had to shoot it down? I wonder if we will ever know the truth.

* * *

In the face of this tragedy, it is hard to know what any of us can do. But in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Squad 1 is missing more than one-third of its 30 firefighters, all of whom were lost after the collapse of the World Trade Center. If you would like to make a contribution directly to help their families, please make your check out to Squad 1 Benefit Fund and send it to: Squad 1/ 788 Union Street/Brooklyn, NY 11215

* * *

This one speaks for itself.

> Not in our son's name
> (letter of parents of son missing at World Trade Center)
> Saturday, Sep 15, 2001 8:35pm
> [Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez's son Greg is one of the
> Trade Center victims.They have asked that people share
> these letters this copy of letter sent to NY Times as
> widely as possible.]
> Not in Our Son's Name
> Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World
> Trade Center attack. Since we first heard the news, we
> have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair,
> fond memories with his wife, the two families, our
> friends and neighbors, his loving colleagues at Cantor
> Fitzgerald / ESpeed, and all the grieving families that
> daily meet at the Pierre Hotel.
> We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we
> meet. We cannot pay attention to the daily flow of news
> about this disaster. But we read enough of the news to
> sense that our government is heading in the direction
> of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons,
> daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying,
> suffering, and nursing further grievances against us.
> It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son's
> death. Not in our son's name.
> Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our
> actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us
> grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a
> rational response that brings real peace and justice to
> our world. But let us not as a nation add to the
> inhumanity of our times.
> Copy of letter to White House:
> Dear President Bush:
> Our son is one of the victims of Tuesday's attack on
> the World Trade Center. We read about your response in
> the last few days and about the resolutions from both
> Houses, giving you undefined power to respond to the
> terror attacks.
> Your response to this attack does not make us feel
> better about our son's death. It makes us feel worse.
> It makes us feel that our government is using our son's
> memory as a justification to cause suffering for other
> sons and parents in other lands.
> It is not the first time that a person in your position
> has been given unlimited power and came to regret it.
> This is not the time for empty gestures to make us feel
> better. It is not the time to act like bullies. We urge
> you to think about how our governement can develop
> peaceful, rational solutions to terrorism, solutions
> that do not sink us to the inhuman level of terrorists.
> Sincerely,
> Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez

(continued here)