On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was talking on the phone and looking down on the Hudson River from my southward-facing Greenwich Village apartment window. I heard a concussion, felt it almost. I looked around but saw nothing until my eyes rose up and caught sight of the World Trade Center. The gash on the upper side of the north tower was black and spewing smoke. There was also a trail of smoke down the left side of the building that went all the way to the street.
I was confused about that trail of smoke. I tried to figure out how it fit with the smoking wound. It wasn’t until some time later, when the second jetliner crashed into the southern tower, that I understood that downward trail of dark vapor.
That cascading column came to mean to me everything about the war that was forming in people’s minds around the world. It was a sign that I couldn’t read clearly, but still I knew there were deadly ramifications to its manifestation.
I won’t belabor the story here. We all went through it: our own planes raining death and destruction down upon our nation’s most identifiable and important cities and structures. The towers falling, the heroic struggles, the war being waged upon our one-time allies against the USSR–all of this presaged in that dense black column that dissipated within minutes of its inception.
For months after this event, I, like so many Americans, was lost in a kind of anxiety-ridden daze. I worried about world war, about radical religious extremists wresting the reins of power from some nation with nuclear capabilities. I worried about air travel and subway cars, about doomsday plagues and about my nation falling under the sway of fascist rule. There was a deep disquiet in my heart, and I didn’t know how to get at it except by worrying about nebulous issues far beyond my immediate control.
This is, of course, how the human mind works. When we feel menaced, we try to protect ourselves by considering every possible threat that might arise. The problem in this case, however, was that there was no defense against falling jetliners, religious hard-liners and the resort to unqualified nationalism.
The thing I feared most was the healing quality that time has on the human heart. I knew that after a while I would fall back into complacency–that I would learn to accept that which I knew was unacceptable.
Thousands of dark people are dying daily in the towns and villages and cities of Africa. We in the United States know this, but it doesn’t seem to matter to us any more than a popular television show coming to the end of its run. Millions of people, maybe more than ever in the history of the world, are languishing in slavery and forced labor in Sudan and Haiti and many other countries. There are even slaves here in the United States, men and women trapped in the modern growth industry of private prisons, not to mention those caught in the traffic of forced prostitution.
Every night on every station there is some sitcom that makes a joke about what happens to young men in prison–but still we do nothing. Not only are these men raped, humiliated and emotionally shattered, but they become infected with AIDS and hepatitis C, diseases that they bring home to our communities. And we, literally, just laugh.
War and poverty, disease and hopelessness are ravaging half the world, while the other half wonders how long it will be able to stay out of the maelstrom.
All this is our responsibility. Every child wasting away under his mother’s powerless gaze. Every Muslim burned by a Hindu. Every innocent citizen blown up by a suicide bomber or crushed by an onrushing, revenge-drunk tank. I know we are responsible because US dollars have found their way into, and out of, every battlefield, every hospital bed and every pocket of every terrorist in the world.
We–black men and women in every stratum of American society–live in and are part of an ecosystem of terror. We, descendants of human suffering, are living in a fine mansion at the edge of a precipice. And the ground is caving in under the weight of our wealth and privilege.
All this I saw in that column of smoke.
It is time for this nation to come up with a new program: a new notion of civil rights and peaceful negotiation, an international concept of harmony among the wide variety of humanity extant in the world of the twenty-first century. And who is better qualified than African-Americans for this task?
We know from bitter experience what it is to be shortchanged every day, from cradle to grave. We know the lies propagated by the media, law enforcement and even our own government. We know that the concepts of equality and fairness are actually only commodities distributed by the institutions of capital. We know because when we went to the store for our fair share, we were told, for centuries, that there was a shortage and that we’d have to wait until there was an increase in production.
It wasn’t until we shouted, “No more!” and demanded our share that things began, no matter how slowly, to change.
The world today is caught in a paroxysm of violent upheaval. In order to contain and lessen the chaotic spiral of carnage and bloodshed, we must make a commitment to peace. We must declare what it is we feel that all people in the world should expect and conversely what we all deserve.
I’m not sure that there should be one set of expectations, however. All of us have a different view of the world, but I would like to put forward the following universal ideas as the rules of fair treatment that I personally would like to live by:
§ First, I cannot be free while my neighbor is wearing chains.
§ Second, I cannot know happiness while others are forced to live in despair.
§ Third, I cannot know health if plague and famine thrive outside my door.
§ And last, but not least, I cannot expect to know peace if war rides forward under my flag and with my consent.
I believe the institution of these simple statements would halt the rampant onslaught of the haves–in whose numbers many of us are counted–against the have-nots. Murdered and enslaved children, no matter what their color or gender or faith, suffer because of our failings. Starving millions go hungry so that we may dine in comfort, creating new enemies.
How do we know that someone is our enemy?
This is the first question we must answer. Who poses a threat to us? Who hates us to the degree that they are ready to do us harm? Who has contempt for our security and peace of mind?
For many people, the answer is quick and easy. It’s the secret terrorist, the suicide bomber, the foreign religious radical who whips up the masses into a frenzy of hatred for America, its citizenry and all who ally themselves with us.
And certainly there is some validity to this answer. When innocent American blood is shed upon our streets, when intricate conspiracies are being hatched, even as you read these words, that are aimed at disrupting, disabling and even destroying the American way of life, then we have every right to consider these schemers our enemies.
I would push this definition even further, however. Not only are those who plot against us the enemy, but any assassin, any murderer is our enemy. We represent civilization and sophistication, while they stand for chaos. We cannot say that murder is wrong only within our borders or if committed against our citizens. If some Peruvian woman or Nigerian child is assassinated by political zealots, then that assassin is also our foe. He has to be because once we accept, condone or excuse the wrongful death of any human being, we have negated our own right to expect justice and respect. This is why there was an executive order that America cannot participate in the assassination of foreign leaders. If we can kill them, then they have the right to kill us.
Our enemies are the lawless dregs of a world gone half-mad. It doesn’t matter if they feel in their hearts that the crimes they commit are somehow justified. It doesn’t matter if they are exonerated by their peers or religious leaders or by the moral interpretation of some government official. Murder in our realm is wrong, and anyone committing this crime is The Enemy of mankind–no exceptions allowed.
The Enemy is the same to all people, all nations. He is not a soldier, a law unto himself, or, sadly, unknown among our own number. He lives here among us and over there with them. He is a man, or woman, who has denied the common morality accepted by people everywhere in the world. He is not just my enemy, but The Enemy of everyone, everywhere.
If you accept this argument, then identifying those with whom we are allied is simple and straightforward: Our allies are those who do not accept murder, terrorism and assassination as valid political discourse.
Our enemies are all persons involved in causing the death of others–either actively or from a consciously passive posture–for political, nationalistic or economic ends. If Osama bin Laden ordered the deaths of the Americans in the tragedy of September 11, then he is The Enemy. If our agents caused the deaths of innocent Kurds, Panamanians or Guatemalans, then they are The Enemy. We can’t have it one way and not the other. We can’t say that an American life is worth more than a Sudanese life. We can’t condone the violent actions of our armies and secret police if we condemn the actions of others who use violence, torture and intimidation to obtain their ends.
Human life is sacred. We African-Americans know what it is like to be treated as less than human, as inferior to our white counterparts. We know the extent of abuse that can be heaped upon people because they are not seen as part of the human race. How can we stand by as our nation, while claiming peaceful intentions, wages war on people who may not have played any part in the crimes against us?
Even if we condone military actions, we might at least claim some culpability for the havoc visited upon a mostly innocent population. The death of innocent children is not “collateral damage.” The wartime death of children is the murder of innocents. And if we commit these murders, then we are also The Enemy of civilization.
This is a tough argument, because it runs against the grain of present-day American nationalism and fear. America has clearly identified its enemies. They are mostly the dusky-skinned or black zealots of the Islamic religion. They are almost all Arabic and, coincidentally, they sit on some of the greatest oil reserves in the world today. We believe they are a threat because their religion is different from that of most Americans, because their religion is the fastest-growing faith in the world today, because their population tops the billion mark and because many millions of this billion hate us.
That hatred, we believe, has led to terrorist attacks on us and our allies. Maybe this is true. Maybe their hatred is being expressed in religious terms. Maybe there are even those who believe in the sanctity of their violent acts against us. But the gods are put in place to protect their acolytes. If Middle Eastern religions speak out against America, I doubt that it is because our women don’t cover their faces or that we practice another religion. They have been pressed into poverty and ruled by the whims of the almighty dollar; the cult of hatred against us is founded (I believe) in capitalism, not upon ancient texts or cultural differences. We Americans are seen as economic invaders who attempt to control everything that many people elsewhere in the world see as sacred.
The Middle Eastern populations are our neighbors, our fellow human beings. It is paramount that we make peace with them if it is at all possible. And not peace on our terms, but a just and equitable peace.
In order to do this, we have to look beyond the TV shows and the newspapers, past our fears and doubts. We must redefine our notion of The Enemy, taking into account the role and actions of our own political and economic systems.
The entrance of the United States into the global struggle, which includes terrorism, has caused some permanent changes in our national psyche. One of these changes is the dawning realization that we are hated by so many people in the world at large.
We African-Americans have been living with people who have hated and despised us since the day we were first taken from our homelands and carted off to the plantation. The White Citizens Council, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, the Supreme Court and many others have taken venomous swipes at our inherent rights. We’ve been kept out of neighborhoods, voting booths, country clubs and educational institutions because of our skin. No one person had to do something wrong in order for us all to be vilified and hated.
But all that time, we only wanted to be free members of the American society. You could hate us all you want, but just let us have freedom and equality!
African-Americans know how to live with hatred. We’ve been stopped for walking in the wrong neighborhood, lynched for looking up the wrong skirt. We never liked the mistreatment, but we never gave up the dream, either. We know in our hearts that all people are equal and essentially good. We hold that goal to our breasts and move ahead without hesitation. Let’s keep that up during this crisis. Our backs are strong enough to bear up under the weight of the hate people have for us. And let’s critique the fainthearted other Americans who feel they can’t bear living in a world where they are despised.
The problems the world faces today cannot be solved by superior strength alone. We Americans must use our hearts if we want to face the hatred confronting us. And we must be able to look critically at our own actions and motivations if we want to understand our enemies.
This kind of empathy comes hard for most Americans, because we have such a fuzzy understanding of our own history. Our past has always been depicted by images of upstanding white men conquering nature and “heathen foes.” From the so-called primitive red man to Adolf Hitler, we’ve always seen ourselves as standing strong against the enemies of freedom and modernity. Sometimes our cause has been just, and often it has not. But never has an American campaign been so complex. Today we need more than John Wayne and the Winchester rifle. Today we need the subtle compassion of Black America, with its fine-honed attention to the etiquette of liberation.
Our collective freedom, fellow Americans, depends on our ability to defend the rights of others. All Americans should understand this concept, but I fear that it might only be Black America that has the historical perspective to move this notion from an idea into action. We, of all Americans, know what it’s like to lose everything in order to come into alignment with the American Dream. Not only do we have a moral stake in protecting the innocent victims of the present war against terrorism, but we stand to profit, spiritually, from the process of working for peace.
Some of the greatest ambassadors representing American culture in the twentieth century have been black people. Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Josephine Baker and many others have gone abroad, with or without our government’s blessings, to show the world the beauty they have found here. They were men and women of peace. For more than a century, African-Americans have represented America’s culture and its high moral ideals, not its penchant for economic domination. While the American government was selling arms to the world, we were delivering jazz. While US Presidents waged war on foreign ideals, African-Americans spoke of peace.
Today is just a continuation of that history. We have to get out there and work for peace. We have to reject the fearmongers and the profiteers. Certainly, we have to protect America. Certainly, we have to arrest and monitor those who have made it their express desire to harm our nation. But we must also remember that there will be no defense if the whole world hates us.
We must remember, the only true defense is peace.