News: The View from Brooklyn

Considering our desperate drive to re-establish certainty and security

Sep 20, 2001 at 2:06 pm

On the morning of Sept. 14, we were awakened at 5:30 by a toxic stench that had us jumping up and closing windows, bleary-eyed and naked, mumbling about chemical warfare. Then rain began to fall, and the air turned unseasonably cold.

I pondered nuclear winter and whether Tank Girl wears Polarfleece. A friend called to ask if I thought there might be anthrax in the tapwater.

Now the smoke plume from Manhattan has lessened, and it seems safe to let the air in again.

Perhaps in avoidance of the water, lots of my friends have responded by drinking themselves into a weepy stupor every night. I tried to calm down by sharing a joint with a friend, but it only intensified our paranoia. The canned oratory of the talking heads was more disturbing than ever, and it seemed they were only pretending to know what was going on.

It doesn't help that I went into this disaster feeling so negative about American culture, especially TV and our desensitization to violence. Now I worry that we'll become even more numbed to violence, even more willing to hurt each other when we're angry or when we don't agree.

Remember all the hype about how there would be no more real wars, that new-world militarism would be conducted like a video game, that only the bad guys would get hurt? Talk of strategic targets sounds just fine when we're imagining a distant enemy. But it's human life that's always left broken and bloody beneath the rubble.

Now it seems foolish to have thought that our generation was going to escape the realities of war.

Like the majority of people in New York, I was lucky. No one close to me was lost in the flight-bombing of the World Trade Centers, and after the initial shock and scramble to make sure my family and friends were OK, the strange truth is that my life could go on, nearly as normal. But in the days since the flight bombing, I've visited pits of fear far beyond what I thought myself capable.

As the wretched stories began to filter out from downtown — bodies everywhere — I kept losing myself in paralyzing obsessions. What was the end like for those trapped in the highest floors? What was it like to know you were going to die, to feel the heat and smoke become unbearable and to want to escape from certain (horrible) death to certain (horrible) death? Would I have jumped?

I spent an entire afternoon figuring out exactly how I would prefer to die, just in case.

This state of hypervigilance makes you notice things most people would rather not dwell on: how little we trust some news sources, how much we depend on others. How deeply, how inevitably we are connected. How alone and isolated, how desperate and destructive people can be.

You need not have been a victim of direct violence to be reeling from a profound loss of security and a pervasive sense of threat or entrapment. My way to cope is to remember what others have suffered and survived. I keep thinking, for example, of how aboriginal Americans must have felt when faced with the realities of European conquest, or how it must have felt to have been enslaved. I want to believe that it's possible survive this tragedy in ways that make future generations more healthy and free and not more hateful and shut-down.

A comforting truth is that new experiences — even awful ones — can provide new insights. This is why, through our monumental grief and anger, it's crucial to stay awake, to notice the new knowledge we might find, to talk about what we're seeing and thinking and feeling and to pay attention to the perspectives of others.

There is no more important time to mobilize our critical thinking and our dedication to the most core aspects of our membership in the American community: democracy, freedom and sisterly/brotherly love. There is no more important time to be loving with each other, especially with children. They are the most convincing reminder that this world is still a beautiful, precious place.

It's also time to discuss the deep contradictions between democracy and fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are people who cannot bear the thought of a world that does not conform to their desires.

Given that fundamentalism was a source of last week's violence against the U.S., I found it almost comical when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reopened their own Talibanesque attacks against feminists and queers, claiming that we must have inspired God to allow the attack (and therefore, in a characteristically twisted way, blaming God for the attack)!

Brace yourself, I thought, in the coming months we're going to see scores of commentators who will attempt to relay the Truth about the recent tragic events and about where we should go next, without bothering to consider history, especially the history of U.S. involvement in global politics.

But I also realized that it's time to eradicate the fundamentalisms inside myself — my own propensity to reject people who are different from me, my own complicity in cultures of violence. There is a crucial difference between striving for a better world, on all levels, through respectful, democratic processes, and battering at reality until it conforms to your own desires.

I'm not a pacifist, and I am not a proponent of war. I do not know exactly how governments ought to address terrorism, but I do know that when we take seriously the preciousness of life, when we remember that peace is always a possibility and war isn't inevitable, we arrive at more sound and effective strategies.

The hunger for war is not simply a desire for revenge — it's a desperate drive to re-establish certainty. But now we know: Our security was not as certain as it seemed.

On what did our illusions depend? On what does true security depend? What forms of security matter most, here and now?

CHRIS CUOMO is Associate Professor of Philosophy and member of the Women's Studies Program at UC, where she teaches courses in ethics and political theory. She is currently on leave and living in New York.