The Price of Vengeance is the Blood of Innocents

The Price of Vengeance is the Blood of Innocents

May 3, 2011 Political Change Social Change 10

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.

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.


10 Responses

  1. The first half of this mornings paper was about the Canadian election, the second was about Bin Laden. Apparently a burial at sea for a Muslim is not kosher. The hope, according to the Canadian editorial writers, was that the Americans could now put the fear and paranoia behind them.

    I also a completely with the deranged idealist in wondering about the woman in the room with Bin Laden.

  2. Peter says:

    I was ten years old on September Eleventh, 2001. My school didn’t have a lot of TVs, so each class was called up to the music room, one by one, to watch the coverage. I remember the music teacher’s face: She was staring at the screen, unable to look away, shock and hurt shining clearly from her eyes.

    Our reaction was less reverent. It was Derek’s birthday that day, and we were making a lot of jokes about how it wasn’t going to be a fun birthday from hereon out. Me and my little boy friends were talking about how America was going to go to war. It wasn’t a question, it was a given. We were trying to figure out who our allies would be (I thought Russia was a good bet. I hadn’t really learned about the cold war yet).

    Then, as we were filing back to class, a teacher took me aside. They said there was a phone call for me in the office. I went, and it was my Mom, telling me that Dad was fine, that there was nothing to worry about. My little brother filled in behind me and I handed him the phone and set off down the halls. It was then that I started crying: See, I hadn’t remembered that Dad had been giving a paper in DC, I hadn’t been paying close attention to what was hit, and the coverage was frantic and kept bouncing back and forth between different cities–I hadn’t remembered, or noticed, that my family could have been affected. And that made me cry. I’m still not sure why that is–and I’m sure if I try to figure it out then I’ll make up some explanation and it’ll become remembered truth.

    There’s one more story that I think needs telling: I heard it from my brother who heard it from a teacher who read it on the news, so I’m only half-sure it actually happened, but it’s one of those stories where it doesn’t matter so much if it actually happened or not, because it so perfectly managed to capture the emotions and events of a big happening in a little tiny narrative.

    In the wake of the Great Pacific Quake, there was a man in Northern Honshu whose entire village was destroyed. His house, his family, his neighbors, his city hall–Everything. He was the only one left. The media caught wind of this and, being vultures of spectacle, came to the ruins to try to get him to say something, to make him a face of disaster. The first question they asked was “What are you going to do now?” He turned to them with steely eyes and said only “Ganbarimasho”: “My Best”. Then, he walked away.

  3. Susan Hickam says:

    “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” — DR MLK

    Charlotte- I have never read your blog before but Gretchen Cole who I’ve known most of my life posted a link on facebook and I came over to check it out. Thanks for your articulate and heartfelt posting- every time I see an American waving the flag over this it reminds me of others rejoicing over the deaths of Americans- I wish the news would report that not everyone is dancing.

  4. goddess says:

    This is a really beautiful story thank you for sharing. I had no idea a woman was killed during the operation. I hope they do release her name, they owe her that much. I highly doubt she was one of the armed men”fighting to the death”.

  5. markcole says:

    On NPR tonight they said that in all the excitement they got the story wrong and that the woman was just wounded, not killed, and that Osama did not have a gun. But we still don’t know what the woman’s name was.

  6. markcole says:

    Her name Amal Ahmed Abdul Fatah, Osama’s youngest wife (he had 5). She was shot in the leg as she rushed a Navy Seal. She was given to Osama as a gift when she was a teenager.

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