The Price of Vengeance is the Blood of Innocents
Reflections on the Eve of Bin Laden’s Death.
I woke up this morning and read that Bin Laden was dead. It made me remember September 11th. The funny thing about September 11th is that all of us have a story. All of us Americans. “I was in class– my dad came to take me home and I saw the plumes of smoke.” “My teacher told us the English test was canceled because we had to watch the news.” “I was getting my cereal and then I saw the expression on my mother’s face.” Everywhere, normality paused in reverence for catastrophe.
The first thing our family heard of the attacks was Dad calling us to say he was all right. Dad was giving a paper in Washington D.C. Mom was somewhat confused when he answered the phone. “What? Why wouldn’t you be all right?” He said, “Turn on the radio.” I was used to hearing smooth voices on the radio that sounded like they were reading from a script. This time the script was broken. “Reporting live from Washington D.C.” was crackly and full of static. He said, “I’m here at the Pentagon, and there’s just a slice been taken out of the Pentagon…. just a slice taken out of it…. a plane just hit it, and there’s a big piece of the pentagon missing… just a slice missing.”
“Mom,” I said, “Why does he just keep REPEATING himself?” His voice was tinged with hysteria. “Mom, why doesn’t he tell us what’s happening? Why doesn’t he tell us who sent the planes?” My mom shifted her weight, ignored my question. “Mom?” I screeched, and she said, “He doesn’t know.” I was angry. Reporters were supposed to know everything. They were especially supposed to know what was happening to my Dad.
What happened to Dad? Well, all the airports were locked down, remember, so he had to get home from D.C. in a Greyhound bus full of pissed-off businessman. Men who were used to traveling first class. The funny thing was, they were all mixed up with the people who usually ride the Greyhound, the people who had reservations. Single mothers. People out of work, between jobs, students, young people, people like that.
Tempers were high. People were feeling angry and frightened. This is the story my father told me. A young woman of a generally bedraggled and trashy appearance was holding things up settling in her toddlers. A man in a suit and briefcase, puffed up with self-importance, shouted at her angrily to speed things up. Then he bumped into another man in a suit and politely asked, “Excuse me sir, but could I please get by?”
Second suit turns around and says, “Excuse me? Excuse me? That woman holds you up, and you say, move the hell up, bitch. I hold you up, and you say, excuse me sir? What the hell is wrong with you? You think you can treat her differently just because I’m wearing a suit and she’s not? You apologize to this woman.”
“But,” said first suit, and seemed about to argue.
“YOU APOLOGIZE TO THAT WOMAN,” said the second suit in a voice of thunder, drawing himself up to twice his height.
He apologized. That was September 11th, 2001. The airports were shut down. The regular order was disrupted. On most days, there are CEOs riding first class jets up in the air, and stressed-out single mothers hauling suitcases around on the ground. Not on that day. On that day we were all Americans; sharing the same stinky, crowded buses, the same grief, the same fear. The same concern for friends and family members who were doing things like giving papers in Washington D.C. or working in downtown Manhattan.
But then what came next!
It was the next day. A full page of the Des Moines Register was printed up stars and stripes, red white and blue. The paper wrote we should hang their newspaper flag in our window. Mom did it right away. She was excited about it. “Why, Mom?” “To show our support. For everyone who was a victim in the attack. To show we all stand together as Americans.” It didn’t sound sinister then. It sounds sinister now.
I’m writing this because most of you have short memories. Dad no longer remembers the story I just told you. Shoved out of his brain to make room for some important science, I guess. I don’t know if Mom remembers how she felt when she hung the flag. And do any of you remember what it was like then? I know I’ve stood in a room full of Bard students last year and said, “I love my country,” and people have given me funny looks. The kind of looks you get when you say, “I have genital herpes.” But back then it wasn’t weird to say “I love my country.” It was normal.
So how did we get from there– to here? When did we become wary of the kind of people who hang flags in their windows? We were those people, once. At least I was.
I’m trying to remember how it happened. I was just a kid. I wasn’t worried about international politics, I was worried about turning my homework in on time. But some things I do remember. A kid in my Health class told me he got beat up for being a Buddhist. “They told me people like me did the 9-11 attacks. I tried to tell them that being a Buddhist was different from being a Muslim, but they didn’t listen. Then they got me behind the school and beat me up.”
I had no idea then, how hard it was to be a brown person in America in the year 2001. People told me later. My internship boss, Jeevan Sivasubramaniam. “After the attacks, Charlotte, everywhere I went in San Francisco, I got these looks. Everywhere except the Tenderloin. That was the only place people didn’t care what color I was. The Tenderloin is supposed to be SF’s most dangerous neighborhood, but I joked for me it was the safest.”
That’s just in my circle of friends. You don’t need to look hard at the newspapers to find uglier stories, harassment, vandalism, murders. And that’s just on the domestic front. We know there’s been civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Women, children. We just don’t know how many. We don’t count them the way we count our own.
These memories are fresh. These things are still happening. Here’s what you may have forgotten: that moment, that September 11th moment, was originally a moment of love. I remember helping mom tape the newspaper flag in our window and feeling part of something bigger. Feeling that all Americans were connected by this shared tragedy, this shared grief, this shared love for the firefighters that pulled them from the ashes.
And yes, in many ways I do blame President Bush for the way that love turned into hate. He was our leader, the “leader of the free world.” He could have stood up. He could have said, “Remember the Muslims who love peace, before you beat up the kid next door.” Instead he said, “I am going to fight the axis of evil.” And the Ames High kids wanted to fight the axis of evil with the President and the Air Force. So they went out and found a weird Buddhist artist kid who was a little different from the other kids and roughed him up.
It’s easy to blame our former president. But in this moment of midnight honesty I have to ask myself, wasn’t he telling us exactly what we wanted to hear? We were angry. We were hurt. We wanted vengeance. We were crying and there was smoke coming from the towers and we needed someone to be responsible. He won his second election fair and square. He won it on a vengeance platform. We called it defense. It was vengeance.
I don’t remember too much doubt over the war in Afghanistan. Iraq was when people in my town started to get suspicious. Debate club did a good job on it. “Nobody can say the Iraqi people don’t want to be free,” said the beautiful, eloquent girl in the high school multipurpose room. “There’s only one person they hate more than Sadam Hussein, and that’s us,” the other side retorted.
The price of vengeance is the blood of innocents, and though we drink it until it sickens us, we hunger for it again, and yet again. We have short memories. We do not learn from history. How can we, when even history does not know how many we have killed?
At my church in San Francisco they would spend some time every month reading out the names of Americans who were killed in war. A bell after each name, and a pause for prayer. Iraqi names too. I remember thinking, “this is the way death should always be measured. In names, and not in numbers.” But they never knew all the Iraqi names.
I don’t know the name of the woman who died yesterday. I don’t know whether she was Bin Laden’s wife or the wife of a courier. I don’t know whether she was being used as a human shield or whether she was simply caught in the crossfire. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42864507/ns/world_news-death_of_bin_laden/
Most of all, I don’t know why the US military, who shed their blood in Afghanistan to win women the right to vote, couldn’t keep this woman alive. I don’t care whether you rejoice over Bin Laden’s death. But please, tell me that woman’s name.