Written Sept. 20, 2001.
A “funny thing” happened to me on the way back from the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Only nobody’s laughing.
The world, as I’ve known it, was turned upside-down, by two airplanes which were deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and a third which was crashed into the very symbol of American military authority—the Pentagon.
More than a week later, thousands of people are still missing and presumed dead. It’s no laughing matter. Quite the opposite is true. There has been much gnashing of teeth, as Americans come to grips with their enormous losses.
There is the massive loss of life, the deadliest terror attack in American history. But there is also the loss of a certain naivete, that came from America’s isolation from the rest of the imperial world. There was also a huge loss of prestige.
Protected from potential European or Asian adversaries by Planet Earth’s two largest oceans—The Pacific and the Atlantic which total more than 100 million square miles, more than half the planet’s entire surface—Americans saw their little corner of the world as an impregnable fortress. Politically, the power of the United States “fortress”—isolated from Europe—was stated in 1823 when President James Monroe invoked the “Monroe Doctrine,” which said in effect, the U.S. would be the sole “colonial” or “European” power in the Western Hemisphere, and that the crowns of Europe’s monarchies were unwelcome in Latin America.
The bloody World Wars of the 20th Century were fought on someone else’s soil, in the skies above other countries, never in Fortress America. And as much a defeat as the Vietnam debacle may have been to the image of American invincibility, the napalm, the Agent Orange defoliant, the chemicals, the bombs, the land mines, were all left behind to wreak havoc in someone else’s land.
But this World Trade Center thing, hit Americans literally “where they live.” In New York, the nation’s most populous city, at its tallest buildings, packed with innocent workers at their places of work. The buildings and a great deal of America’s pride, crumbled in a fiery heap.
How could anyone get away with such an audacious attack against fortress America, and in broad daylight at that? Who would dare perpetrate such a hateful act against the world’s only remaining superpower? Who would dare do in the real world, what movie special effects artists have been doing for years?
Why “Islamic fundamentalist terrorists,” of course. We could explain away all lapses in security, all provocations we might have committed against the world’s poor and downtrodden which might have provoked a horrible retaliation. In the blood of the innocent dead, men women and children of all colors, nationalities, religions, those who would be responsible for our safety could wash their hands of every hint of culpability. We could blame radical Muslims and there would be no political price to pay: no important constituency to offend.
In 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, when America’s previously worst terrorist incident took place people in this country leaped to condemn Muslims right off the bat. But when Timothy McVeigh was discovered to be the culprit, we never pointed a finger at crew-cut white Christians as dangerous, suspicious, seditious characters in our midst.
But then as now, Muslims were singled out and attacked all around the country by the cowardly types who prowl at night in drunken mobs hunting unsuspecting targets, defenseless targets who fit the “profiles” in their xenophobic minds, of the objects of their rage.
In Mesa, Arizona, this blind hatred, this lynch-mob mentality—targeted at Muslims, Arabs, “towel heads,” “camel jockeys”—killed not an innocent Muslim man, but a member of the Sikh faith. Sikhs also wear facial hair, and turbans, as do some Muslim believers.
In 1813 after the Battle of Lake Erie, ten years before James Monroe articulated his doctrine that was as much a casualty of the murderous attack on the World Trade Center as the thousands of innocent lives that were lost in that horrific onslaught, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry sent a message to his Commander General William Henry Harrison after his victory over the entire British fleet: “We have met the enemy and they are ours!”
The other casualty that may result from this sneak attack on America, may be American civil liberty itself. In the past, for example: the targets of this same lynch mob mentality have been African Americans who fought for this country in World War I and World War II only to come home and sometimes be hung while still wearing their military uniforms; and Japanese-Americans who had their land taken and were sent to concentration camps during WWII.
More than a century after Commodore Perry, cartoonist Walt Kelly who drew the “Pogo” comic strip, modernized that famous quote in a way that can be applied to the bigots who have used the World Trade Center crime as an excuse to lash out at people who are different—this time Muslims and Arabs in more than 400 attacks around the country.
“We have met the enemy and they is us,” said Pogo in the comics. Funny thing though. I’m still not laughing.