As I drove into the parking lot of the mile-long walking trail at the San Leandro Marina yesterday, I was greeted by the sight of hundreds of schoolchildren, each with plastic gloves and green recycling bags, picking up litter in the park and shoreline. It was an emotional moment for me -- in this week of highly charged moments – watching the children do their task, hearing their lively chatter, oblivious (at least for that hour) of the tragedy that had befallen the nation and the war clouds hovering in the horizon.
This is my America, I thought, a land of peace and responsibility, where everyone pulls together to do what has to be done, whether in searching for survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or in making our immediate environment cleaner. Juxtaposed with the horror that we had all witnessed in the days just past are images and tales of so much goodness, unity and selflessness.
I saw my America in the words of that farmer who was asked on TV what he was praying for and quickly, without hesitation, he said he was praying for the souls of those who perished in the terrorist attacks and their families. “Are you praying for yourself too?” he was asked. “I don’t have problems,” this man who faces a difficult road ahead replied, “those are the people with problems.”
My America is evident in the people who stand in line in blood banks for hours, in the exhausted firefighters in New York who were energized after pulling out five people who were alive after being buried for two days in the rubble, among the seniors in the grocery stores dropping money in collection boxes, in the sad faces of students in Berkeley listening to a poet speak of the ascendance of love and justice over blind revenge and hatred.
I admit that I’m frantically ferreting out these instances of a united America amidst the increasing shrillness of the rhetoric of war that is now dominating the airwaves. I cling to these stories and images because deep inside me I am scared and saddened by an America going berserk in its rage and its single-minded quest for punishing the guilty.
Just as I grieve for the missing and the dead in New York, I lament the senseless deaths of two Arab-Americans in Texas, lynched by lunatics who think that the American flag and the patriotic slogans that they have wrapped themselves with have given them the right to set free their bigotry and their hatred.
I cry as I listen to this beautiful third-generation Arab-American woman who can no longer take her two small children to the park for fear that they will be harmed by people who judge them by their looks. “My parents were born here, I was born here, my children were born here – how much more American do I have to be?” she asks.
I ask my 13-year old daughter Maia how she feels now that the terrorist attacks seem to have subsided. “Scared,” she answers. Not so much because of the possibility of another attack but because the president talks so much about going to war, she explains. Without any prodding from me, Maia – and many American children –understand instinctively that war will hurt many innocent people just as much or even more than Americans are hurting now. “And nobody should get hurt anymore,” she adds.
But that is not the mood of the hour in this America still reeling from the unspeakable terror that has reached its shores. Everywhere you look there are American flags waving, and even rock stations are playing patriotic songs. Which is quite a change because democratic America has always prided in the First Amendment, the freedom to speak out, and most of the time people speak out against the government. But scratch the surface of these collective proclamations of love for country and you’ll find a thirst for the blood of others as retribution for Black Tuesday.
We have a cheerleader president who mouths platitudes when he should be explaining the context of this tragedy in terms of history and the role of America in the international community; a president who leaves the discussion of substantial issues to his cabinet (come to think of it, this is actually a good thing).
Reserve troops have been called to active duty, the sabers are rattling in Washington and the dogs of war are about to be unleashed. Be ready for a long and costly conflict, we are told over and over, as if the constant repetition will blunt the fear of someday seeing the young men of this country sent to slaughter in pursuit of an elusive enemy.
I am tempted to bury my head in the sand and just pray that I am wrong about this other America. But I take heart from the many email messages that are circulating from people all over the world suggesting caution and providing information about the real state of the Afghan people and the Pakistanis, who are about to bear the brunt of American military power.
I write my friends whose opinions I regard highly and am heartened that they too feel the same way about the horror of the impending war. Already groups of concerned citizens are banding together to advocate peace, but cautiously, lest they trip the war fuses of the majority who support massive retaliation.
There are long dark days ahead for a changed America and I can only pray that the slivers of light that I see peeking through the anger and despair will eventually overpower the gloom.
First published in Newsbreak, September 2001.