Fact, Fiction and Reflection on 9-11

An odd sort of surrealness has glazed over the events of the past two weeks as I continue my relatively peaceful existence on my college campus. Having spent most of my life in Lower Manhattan, my response to the attack on the World Trade Center has been incongruously detached, even disturbingly calm. The media blitz throbbing at me through the television screen has delivered harrowing images of death, destruction, and rabid displays of nationalism on both sides of the conflict. I've received messages and reports from friends and family, some concerned as to whether I had been directly affected, others describing the situation in my hometown -- the debris contaminating the air, the panicked masses in the streets who invoked scenes of twentieth-century warfare.

"Somehow, in the midst of all this, the realness of the incident has eluded my senses."

And somehow, in the midst of all this, the realness of the incident has eluded my senses. Maybe it's suspended disbelief that an act so incredibly inhuman could have taken place. Or maybe the constant bombardment with sound bites and corporate news reports reiterating our "national resolve" has numbed me with bafflement at the paradoxes underlying our apparent unity, which President Bush's inspirational proclamations so proudly extol.

In the media portrayal of public opinion, I've witnessed a curious mix of humanitarian compassion underscored by militant nationalism. The public pressure on our military to decimate nations that shelter terrorists reveals the ironic egocentrism behind pacifying the pain of personal tragedy with a call for state-sponsored violence. Don't the motives of terrorists often result from the same complex amalgam of mass mania and personal rage?

The alternative press and activist community are also showing resolve, united in their desperate calls for patience and reminders that peace requires more national strength than the cowardly bombing of an economically and socially destitute country. A few enlightened observers have emerged with sharp criticism of the Bush Administration's unilateral and culturally insensitive attitude toward Islamic nations. The stark truth is that I'm not alone in my detachment from the reality of September 11: Political forces beyond our control, forces scarier than any terrorist action, are sweeping the entire country into a conflict that is absurdly vague and to some extent, constructed by our own misperceptions. It is a battle with no clear enemy and no potential for any victory, only more loss. The unfathomable distance between our society and the rest of humanity has manifested itself in the government and media's responses to the incident. September 11's horrendous assault on our way of life has spawned antipathy for -- not sympathy or solidarity with -- civilians in the developing world who live with tragedy of this scale every day.

That Tuesday, it seemed that America‚s perceived political reality had taken on a cruelly unreal quality for us. In one instant, our self-fashioned invincibility crumbled into dust. Then, before we even took the time to reflect, the profound hypocrisy of the nation's role in the international arena was rationalized away with hyper-patriotic rhetoric that hemmed us back into the protective fiction of American idealism. And so we march blindly on, doing things the way we've always done it, because that's the way it's always been done.
"Maybe the attacks of September 11 haven't hit home yet because I'm distracted by trying to envision what home must be like for the thousands of civilians in Afghanistan now stranded at closed borders."

There's a perverse obliviousness to the fact that we equate our national security and welfare with foreign policy that deprives others of the liberties we supposedly cherish. And this ignorance is evidenced by blatant violations of international law in our covert military operations in the Middle East, arrogant rebuffs of the United Nations, and most recently, grandiose plans to streamline our military technology with space-based weapons more suited for science fiction.

Maybe the attacks of September 11 haven't hit home yet because I'm distracted by trying to envision what home must be like for the thousands of civilians in Afghanistan now stranded at closed borders. They face the peril of a brutal ruling militia on one side and a superpower's military attack on the other. It's actually exceedingly difficult for me to envision this, because from the perspective of an American cocooned in media hype and missile shields, those perils seem so, well, foreign to me, so impossibly distant, despite my desire to come to some sort of resolution over the situation. The ravaged homes of Afghanistan could not be further from the insular, vulnerable cityscape of New York, but two weeks ago, a sweeping terror simultaneously blasted apart and thrusted together these two spheres. Gnawing at me from within is the knowledge of the cruelty of a world in which I, a citizen of the planet's dominating regime, am somehow complicit. And two weeks ago, this knowledge turned into a shameful, unforgiving reality that lies beyond what Americans are able to grasp and beyond what we are willing to believe.

Michelle Chen is a junior at Yale University and works with the War Resisters League in New York City.

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