My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I’m wrong–the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we’re both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now. In New York City, it decorates taxicabs driven by Indians and Pakistanis, the impromptu memorials of candles and flowers that have sprung up in front of every firehouse, the chi-chi art galleries and boutiques of SoHo. It has to bear a wide range of meanings, from simple, dignified sorrow to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has already resulted in murder, vandalism and arson around the country and harassment on New York City streets and campuses. It seems impossible to explain to a 13-year-old, for whom the war in Vietnam might as well be the War of Jenkins’s Ear, the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age. I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that’s hers, but the living room is off-limits.
There are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs–equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence. The red flag is too bloodied by history; the peace sign is a retro fashion accessory. In much of the world, including parts of this country, the cross and crescent and Star of David are logos for nationalistic and sectarian hatred. Ann Coulter, fulminating in her syndicated column, called for carpet-bombing of any country where people “smiled” at news of the disaster: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.” What is this, the Crusades? The Rev. Jerry Falwell issued a belated mealy-mouthed apology for his astonishing remarks immediately after the attacks, but does anyone doubt that he meant them? The disaster was God’s judgment on secular America, he observed, as famously secular New Yorkers were rushing to volunteer to dig out survivors, to give blood, food, money, anything–it was all the fault of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People for the American Way.” That’s what the Taliban think too.
As I write, the war talk revolves around Afghanistan, home of the vicious Taliban and hideaway of Osama bin Laden. I’ve never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, but it is a fact that our government supported militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The mujahedeen were freedom fighters against Communism, backed by more than $3 billion in US aid–more money and expertise than for any other cause in CIA history–and hailed as heroes by tag-along journalists from Dan Rather to William T. Vollmann, who saw these lawless fanatics as manly primitives untainted by the West. (There’s a story in here about the attraction Afghan hypermasculinity holds for desk-bound modern men. How lovely not to pay lip service to women’s equality! It’s cowboys and Indians, with harems thrown in.) And if, with the Soviets gone, the vying warlords turned against one another, raped and pillaged and murdered the civilian population and destroyed what still remained of normal Afghan life, who could have predicted that? These people! The Taliban, who rose out of this period of devastation, were boys, many of them orphans, from the wretched refugee camps of Pakistan, raised in the unnatural womanless hothouses of fundamentalist boarding schools. Even leaving aside their ignorance and provincialism and lack of modern skills, they could no more be expected to lead Afghanistan back to normalcy than an army made up of kids raised from birth in Romanian orphanages.
Feminists and human-rights groups have been sounding the alarm about the Taliban since they took over Afghanistan in 1996. That’s why interested Americans know that Afghan women are forced to wear the total shroud of the burqa and are banned from work and from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative; that girls are barred from school; and that the Taliban–far from being their nation’s saviors, enforcing civic peace with their terrible swift Kalashnikovs–are just the latest oppressors of the miserable population. What has been the response of the West to this news? Unless you count the absurd infatuation of European intellectuals with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of fundamentalist warlords (here we go again!), not much.
What would happen if the West took seriously the forces in the Muslim world who call for education, social justice, women’s rights, democracy, civil liberties and secularism? Why does our foreign policy underwrite the clerical fascist government of Saudi Arabia–and a host of nondemocratic regimes besides? What is the point of the continuing sanctions on Iraq, which have brought untold misery to ordinary people and awakened the most backward tendencies of Iraqi society while doing nothing to undermine Saddam Hussein? And why on earth are fundamentalist Jews from Brooklyn and Philadelphia allowed to turn Palestinians out of their homes on the West Bank? Because God gave them the land? Does any sane person really believe that?
Bombing Afghanistan to “fight terrorism” is to punish not the Taliban but the victims of the Taliban, the people we should be supporting. At the same time, war would reinforce the worst elements in our own society–the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists. It’s heartening that there have been peace vigils and rallies in many cities, and antiwar actions are planned in Washington, DC, for September 29-30, but look what even the threat of war has already done to Congress, where only a single representative, Barbara Lee, Democrat from California, voted against giving the President virtual carte blanche.
A friend has taken to wearing her rusty old women’s Pentagon Action buttons–at least they have a picture of the globe on them. The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that’s wanted now.