'The Enemy Within' | The Nation


'The Enemy Within'

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If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I'd tell him to get out and make a few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out for himself that we're not as scary as all that. I'd urge that course, I guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly closer to my own--perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in reviewing Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park, in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard:

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

Also by the Author

From Ferguson to France, pliable racial categories are used to mark who counts as fully human—and who does not.

More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses on the island.... Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers, listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of things--the uniform.

This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has, I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain old human beings than the reverse. It's impossible not to: Black people work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person. I'd never be able to say at a cocktail party, "Who's that wonderful white entertainer? Oh, you know the one." And everyone there would have such a narrow range of reference that they'd all answer in unison, "Oh yeah, Steve Martin. He's great."

And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman's readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that--do they wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight if he'd been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge and no lawyer?

Do Timmerman's readers really write off all the disparities of black and brown life in America--from housing to healthcare, from schooling to employment--as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social resentment so many blacks endure--yes, even well-educated and wealthy black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just extremely knowledgeable but rather "besotted" with knowledge. Sometimes it's in the large things. When Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an expensive car.

Does Timmerman's book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?

How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down based not only on specific information but by employing broadly inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political spectrum--from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman's brand of vulgar overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured as the enemy within--indeed, the enemy "wherever."

There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has offended him with some imagined trespass. "But I didn't do it," protests the lamb. "Well," sighs the lion, "it must have been your brother"--and digs into his dinner.

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