Across the Sept. 11 Divide

New York! New York!

New York
Photo: Pictor/AFP

"Vast, unspeakable show and lesson,” the self-appointed American bard, Walt Whitman, remarked of his beloved New York, as he cataloged its “hurrying human tides....Curious questioning glances—glints of love.” I thought of that, and much more, as I sat in London watching television on Sept. 11, 2001.

I was born and raised in New York, and though I left America years ago, I still have family and friends there. Inevitably, anxieties and memories hung heavily in the air as the eerily crystalline images beamed into my home from across the Atlantic.

I was only one of the many millions scattered around the globe who felt some personal link to the unfolding horror. For me, the first meaning of Sept. 11 was and remains simple: It was a soul-quaking reminder of both the preciousness and the interdependence of all human life. For a brief moment, in New York itself, that meaning seemed to have floated in the wind with the dust and the ashes. Spontaneously, Union Square filled with wreaths, bouquets, and handwritten messages calling for “peace not vengeance.”

The incessant televised repetition of the images of the jets smashing into the towers may have brought home the horror to some, but the main impact was to reduce the tragedy to a packaged spectacle, easily assimilated and highly malleable. Without context,  the images of Sept. 11 lost their deeper meaning.

In lower Manhattan, a woman emerged from a billowing smoke-cloud, her distress palpable. How could anyone perpetrate such a horrendous crime, she asked, then added in a bitterly bewildered tone, “America doesn’t kill innocent children.”

Many of her fellow New Yorkers could have disabused her of this illusion. Some 3 million of them were born outside the United States. Not a few could have told her of the hell that was Central America in the 1980s, thanks to her government. Others could have told of the countless child victims of U.S. policy elsewhere in South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Their voices, however, are rarely heard in America’s popular media. And in the wake of Sept. 11, they became harder to hear than ever.

Americans are not the only people whose vision of other lands and cultures is cartoonlike, but in the wake of Sept. 11, Americans’ widespread ignorance of the larger world and their country’s role in it did take on a peculiarly tragic weight. The most fearful irony of Sept. 11—that a force that the United States itself had constructed and sponsored perpetrated this atrocity—was quickly and easily bypassed.

Visiting the city in mid-October, I discovered that a gang of white Americans had assaulted a friend from Pakistan, a journalist resident in New York for many years, shortly after Sept. 11—because he “looked like Osama bin Laden” (he’s cleanshaven and short of stature). One reason he had settled in New York was to escape the unwelcome attentions of the U.S.-backed fundamentalists at home. Through broken teeth and bruised cheeks, he ruminated on the irony. Meanwhile, the New York Post reported the defeat of the New York Yankees with the banner headline “Yankees slaughtered in desert.”Above it was yet another photograph of the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center.