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Bouncing Back From September 11th
Gabe Thompson

Upon seeing the images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, my thoughts were a jumbled mess. What seemed clear, above all, was that this was bad and that one didn't need a left or right-wing perspective to understand that the tragedy was inexcusable. Everyone was on the same page, with the unthinkable images running through their heads, trying to make sense of the unfolding scenes. George Bush came on television, looking heavily sedated and on the emotional cruise control that unanticipated disaster can bring. At that moment, the first in my life, I was interested in what he had to say.

But as the days passed, my initial shock wore off, not to be replaced with a strong sense of patriotic duty but sickening dread. With this dread as a backdrop, my emotions followed no rational blueprint. My mood would swing from disappointment to anger to apathy in minutes. I was constantly second-guessing myself: Is this how I should be feeling now?

By the third day of watching the news, I finally realized what was causing all the confusion: I was having an entirely different reaction to the terrorist attacks than the people I saw on my screen. If we began with the same horror and disbelief, my path and that of the collective American psyche (or at least the collective American television psyche) quickly diverged dramatically. I heard that Wal-Marts were selling record numbers of American flags. I watched an interview with a man who had taken black tape and spelled out a message on his back windshield: TIME TO USE THE BOMB. People would read this message and honk in celebration, demonstrating the new unity that the TV networks kept mentioning. The armed forces were reporting a sharp increase in enlistment. One marine recruiter marveled at the idealism of the younger generation, volunteering to fight this new kind of war and keep American soil safe.

The big disconnect is that, for me, patriotism lost any positive connotations years ago when I first wondered why no one ever seemed to die during the endless GI Joe battles. There wasn't any anti-war activity in GI Joe because there wasn't any war, really. Grenades and machine guns were enjoyable as aesthetic creations that felt good, looked neat, and blew up wonderfully. No one can deny the wonder of painless destruction; whole industries are based upon it.

But painless destruction is itself a fiction, at least when it comes to nation-states fighting it out. I don't know when I first realized this elementary fact, but it must have been early. In sixth grade, I remember babysitting the five-year-old son of my next door neighbor. We were playing army but at one point I called time out and we huddled up around the large tree house we were using as our headquarters. I explained in absolute seriousness (we often forget how serious we can be as children, an unfortunate development) that it was okay to play army but that one must not join the army in real life because they fight wars and wars are bad. I remember feeling proud of myself for explaining the world in such terms, which I still believe to be roughly correct.

And so it is not only the 20-something radical who feels ill when reports come in of marches on mosques and people chanting "USA! USA!" It is also, and most profoundly, the sixth grader who recoils in fear and sadness. I cannot embrace patriotism because human emotions are too complicated and interconnected and nationalist sentiments can only occur within an anti-others framework. In a strictly logical world, it might be possible (though I would still argue that it would not be preferable) to separate the good aspects of patriotism from the deadly. However, patriotism throughout history has been, regardless of its understandable origins, too volatile an ideology to create more good than harm. It is rooted in fear, not hope, and so its proponents must make themselves appear strong because they cannot afford to look weak.

Democracy, on the other hand, is rooted in the hope that people can and will rise above their base instincts and work for a greater purpose. It requires that independent thought and critical reflection never be sacrificed for some abstract notion of unity. For this reason, in times of war principled democrats become the enemies of the state. They refuse to give up their hopes and replace them with patriotic fear. They refuse to sacrifice the ideals that patriots are itching to fight for and so must be squashed so that their dissent does not affect the prerogatives of the powerful (who have the most to fear).

The A.N.S.W.E.R. to War-Mongering: Take Action

The only remedy to feelings of powerlessness is to take action, so on the morning of September 28, I got on a bus in New York City and headed for Washington, D.C. The much anticipated World Bank and IMF meetings had been disbanded, but some organizations, led by the International Action Center, decided to transform the anti-IMF/WB rally into an anti-war and racism action under the title of A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). Although many activist organizations had pulled out of the D.C. mobilization after September 11, I felt the need for protest was greater than ever. That evening, my friends and I gathered around the television and heard local newscasters predicting large numbers of pro-war counter-protesters, then going on to list the times and locations of the actions of the weekend. To us, it felt like an invitation to all patriotic citizens who felt like beating up some granola-eating hippies. I began to hope that there would be a large police presence, if only for our protection against any flag-waving violence.

Reading the Washington Post only added further to my anxiety. Michael Kelly's op-ed on September 26 went the furthest in denouncing the pacifist position. "If the Americans do not fight," he wrote, "the terrorists will attack America again. And now we know such attacks can kill many thousands of Americans. The American pacifists, therefore, are on the side of future mass murderers of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist."

Now I've been accused of many things, from naivete to radical leanings to being inappropriately socialized, but I've never been labeled an objective friend of terror. My stance against US-sponsored military aggression has always been rooted in an absolute hatred of pain and terror, the same sort of pain and terror that was visited upon the people of Washington, D.C. and New York City. But here I was, being labeled an accomplice of terror for all to read. I went to bed uneasy.

The next morning was bright, a good omen for any protest. When we arrived at Freedom Plaza, a large crowd had already gathered and as numerous speakers came forward, the numbers swelled dramatically. By the time the Anti-Capitalist Convergence group joined us, after being detained for some time by police at the headquarters of the World Bank, we numbered well over 10,000. Most incredibly, it seemed only 25 to 30 patriots had shown up to criticize our lack of courage and resolve. Of these, my favorite was the obsessively pacing man with cigar in mouth and sign calling for some sort of nuclear retaliation to kill "fuckin' Bin Laden." A pretty crude worldview but he expressed it with civility, a fact we all appreciated.

Around three o'clock, the group began its march to the Capitol which went off without a hitch. Contingents of pro-war demonstrators stood on the margins of the march, but they were so outnumbered that they did little but watch and give the occasional finger. It was beautiful, after weeks of listening to our media's drumbeat for war, to momentarily be in a position of peaceful strength. The following day, another march was conducted, this time sponsored by the Washington Peace Center, embarking from Malcolm X Square. Fewer people turned out for this event but it was still empowering and added momentum to the peace movement. Upon heading back to my home in Brooklyn, there was a sense that something important had taken place. During a time when dissent was not being tolerated in the major media, thousands had recovered from their fears and voiced an opposition to more civilian deaths in any country. A spirit of liberty and peace was emerging from the wreckage of Lower Manhattan.

Organizing for the Future

What ultimately makes the unity of hawkish leaders and citizens so sickening is that the phenomenon of working together and reaching consensus can also have inspiring, humane ends. With every uncritical demonstration of patriotic uniformity I wince. Groups of people coming together can dull normally alert nerves and can convince others to stifle legitimate concerns in unconscious acts of self-censorship, but, as the anti-war demonstrations in Washington D.C. showed, groups of people coming together can also open avenues of discussion and liberate instead of confine. As the wartime hysteria continues to heat up, we as peace activists must strive to communicate our ideas to people not already committed to our cause. It is not the time to prance around in pseudo military garb and hurl invectives at fascist America. Juvenile games of revolution can be satisfied in private. For now, real lives are at stake, and we must remember that the public will be a much more receptive audience if we communicate our ideas in a peaceful and compassionate manner.

Finally, what must be foremost in our minds is that throughout history, our nation has had only one effective restraint when it comes to the killing of civilians in foreign countries – domestic dissent. We cannot allow the terrorist attacks to become a blank check for whatever actions our government decides to take. There is never, in a democratic society, a need to support our President, or maintain unity, or any other duty often cited, unless one believes that doing so will lead to justice. Activists must now demand that no more innocent civilians be killed and lay the groundwork for a more humane US policy in the Middle East. Let the horrors of September 11 renew the call for international justice and peace. The citizens of the world need it, now more than ever.

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