Where were you when it happened? Over and over one hears this, the question always asked when time stands still.
I was sitting at my computer pondering an inquiry posed by a friend regarding the conference that had just ended in Durban, South Africa, "How did a meeting on racism end up so side-tracked by the Middle East?" Everyone was using that word, "sidetracked." Anyway, a moment later, the world had turned upside-down, and I was on the phone with another friend who was asking, "Who on earth would do this?"
The first of these questions was easier to answer than the second. Few newspapers devoted space to the full title, but it was, after all, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. It had been titled broadly for the explicit purpose of being as inclusive as possible–an ambitious agenda, and therefore perhaps something of a lightning rod for all the world's wars and discontents. But both questions are swirling in my mind right now, linked because of horrible happenstance, and I suppose that anything I write will be wrong, skewed by fear, drenched with terrible foreboding in a moment of pure chaos. But given chaos, my mind draws a line between the only two dots I have been able to retain: the point before and the point just after. And so I connect the degree to which Americans dismissed the world conference and the degree to which the newscasters to whom I am listening seem almost surreally naïve about resentment of American policies in various places around the globe.
Just last week in the old world, in the other time zone, thousands of delegates were engaged in an unprecedented struggle to communicate across a dizzying array of cultures, laws, linguistic divides and histories of hostility. The American press dismissed the meeting as a Tower of Babel. "Doomed to irrelevance," is how a front-page story in the International Herald Tribune described it. In the margin, I had written with what now rings with grimmer and greater irony than I could have anticipated: "Not doomed to irrelevance–rather invisibility. And invisibility dooms us all."
As I write this, a terrified voice on the radio I have kept on for hours now asks, "Why now, when the world is basically at peace?" Perhaps it is because I follow world news more obsessively than most, but I find that sort of statement deeply unnerving. The last several weeks have been marked by a war in Macedonia, a fight for land in Zimbabwe, and Protestants' lobbing missiles at small Catholic schoolgirls in Northern Ireland. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a French lycée in Jerusalem, his head landing in the playground as children arrived for classes. In Congo, old-fashioned mercenaries, reborn as global corporate armies-for-hire like Executive Outcomes, used high-tech weaponry to obliterate angry, destitute villagers so as to protect the interests of mineral and metal merchants. In Israel, leaders defended a policy of "surgical" assassination. And in Fiji, tensions continued between its indigenous and its ethnic Indian populations.