Bouncing Back From September 11th
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
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.