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.
At the World Conference itself, there was so much more than what was reported in the general American media: the Dalit protested the caste system in India, Japanese untouchables did the same and Roma peoples presented claims of human rights violations. North, Central and South Americans expressed concern about the socially destructive and racially divisive consequences of police profiling and the drug war. The Maori of New Zealand, the Inuit of Canada, the Twa of Rwanda, Han ethnics from China and Tibetan exiles–all these and more sent representatives and concerns to the World Conference.
Back home in the United States, in weird counterpoint to this roiling competition for land, resources and respect, the Bush Administration spoke of the virtues of a new, global US dominance, or world American empire. While media within the United States celebrated this as though it were a cultural inevitability rather than a stated political plan–the appeal of Hollywood movies, the delights of McDonald's burgers and the liberating influence of L'il Kim were often cited–much of the world beyond decried it as a breathtaking and untimely proclamation of executive hubris.
That all seems very distant now. "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them," says the President as I write. He means Afghanistan, explains a commentator. But someone else mentions Pakistan, and someone else, a suspicious Korean jet that has been forced to land near Seattle. A little while later, the announcer says that some of the hijacking suspects may have been harbored in Broward County, Florida, of all places. Someone else points to Canada, or Maine, or Boston. Two of the suspects, according to officials, rented a car with a New Jersey driver's license. Although there is not yet any clear person or place against whom to retaliate, 90 percent of the American people want revenge, according to call-in polls (for not even in so great a tragedy as this can we seem to dispense with call-in polls). There are reports of bombs exploding in Kabul, although the State Department denies any involvement, and some Arab-Americans fear becoming targets.
On the ground there are rumors of hundreds dead at the Pentagon and anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 unaccounted for in New York, but no authority has provided an official estimate. Who knows? Who knows anything anymore? As during the Gulf War, I sense that we're facing a great paralyzing white wall of not knowing.
There is an eerie absurdity to the landscape in this moment, as I sit writing and waiting to hear the fate of friends who work downtown. It is as though someone planned not just to terrorize America but to do so by scripting a scenario straight out of Hollywood's own lexicon of scary movies. In slow motion reversal of all those scripts of guts and glory, the Emmys have been canceled, the Latin Grammys have been canceled, baseball and Jay Leno have been canceled, and throughout the tri-state area, cosmetic surgeries have been rescheduled to free hospital workers for the victims of an altogether different kind of fantasy made real.