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An American Tragedy
Published on Saturday, September 15, 2001 in Dawn, Pakistan's leading English language daily
An American Tragedy
by Huck Gutman
 
A stunned United States, transfixed by images of horror and tragedy, has entered a new era. I write on the day following that tragedy from a country in which, to echo the poet William Butler Yeats, all has "changed, changed utterly." For there is no question that on Tuesday, September 11, America changed, although in which particular directions we do not yet know. What occurred to galvanize that change? I quote the lead story in the September 12 New York Times:

"Hijackers rammed jetliners into each of New York's World Trade Center towers yesterday, toppling both in a hellish storm of ash, glass, smoke and leaping victims, while a third jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia. There was no official count, but President Bush said thousands had perished, and in the immediate aftermath the calamity was already being ranked the worst and most audacious terror attack in American history.

Fifty thousand people work in the World Trade Center; another twenty-four thousand work in the Pentagon. Most of these people exited from their buildings without grievous injury. But it seems clear that thousands will have perished in the catastrophic attacks: building occupants, rescue workers from the police and fire corps, airline passengers. Both of the Trade Center towers, each 110 stories tall, collapsed after intense heat from fires fed by aeroplane tanks filled with jet fuel causing the buildings' steel structural supports to bend like plastic. (The effects are not merely numerical, but personal. I myself have learned that the sister of a colleague, the brother of a student, the brother and sister-in-law of a local cleric have perished in the catastrophe.)

All through the day Americans were glued to their television screens, witnessing again and again films of the second aeroplane crashing into the south tower, creating a sudden gaping hole and igniting a massive explosion in the upper stories; of the two buildings collapsing, totally disintegrated in the space of seconds; of smoke and dust clouds from the wreckage rolling through New York's streets like some cinematic tidal wave. Still photos fill this morning's papers: huge fires in the towers' upper stories, a body plunging downward in consequence of a terror-inspired jump from a fiery floor a thousand feet above the street; ashes and papers strewn in the semi-deserted streets of one of the world's major cities.

Americans were and are stunned. There has not been an attack on the nation's capital since the British-American war of 1812. America's most respected historian, biographer David McCullough, stressed that "we haven't seen this level of destruction on our home ground since the Civil War" of the 1860s. So alarmed were those responsible for the security of the President that Mr. Bush, who had been in Florida when the events occurred, was flown to first one and then another airport in mid-America in the interest of safety, rather than return at once to Washington to reassure the populace.

President Bush did return to the capital later in the day. He spoke to the nation in a television address at night, saying, "Our country is strong. Terrorist acts can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America." That remark both is and is not true. It is clear that Americans are resolved to help one another in this time of crisis. In every city in the country, long lines of men and women have formed at hospitals and Red Cross centres as people seek to donate blood to help those in need. Every major American political figure has indicated that the nation must and will be united in seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the attacks. It seems likely that President Bush's strong statement about a new policy direction, with the United States making "no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them," will be widely supported .

At the same time, more than buildings and individual lives were shattered in the flaming conflagration which resulted from the terrorist attacks. A sense of security, that whatever its shortcomings (and they are many, including discrimination on the basis of race and gender and ethnicity, including high levels of crime and unacceptable levels of child poverty, including pollution and educational insufficiencies and gaping holes in health care), America is a relatively secure country to live in: that sense of security has evaporated. The terrorists have rent the social fabric, ripped apart the traditional sense of life-as-we-know-it.

As a university professor, one thing which surprised me on the day of the attacks was how un-vindictive my students were. Although shock and anger in the US will undoubtedly lead to calls for retribution, the first response of the many young people I spoke with was grief and stunned surprise. Their second response was and has been sorrow for the victims and confusion about what this tragedy means for American society, and for their own lives. Perhaps a thirst for vengeance will come later: I very much fear it may. But, in the young, it is not there now.

There is, of course, a difference between demanding that humans stand responsible for their actions, and even expecting punishment for those who have acted irresponsibly; and demanding retribution to slake a thirst for vengeance, a thirst which can only be satisfied by more and greater violence. There will, in coming days and weeks, be a debate in the United States about the difference between holding people responsible and demanding vengeance.

This is the start of a new era for the United States. As the great American visionary Martin Luther King once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." The same is true of nations. The tragedy of the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center will alter America. In what direction?

It is possible that the United States, seeing the violence inflicted as an "act of war" (Secretary of State Colin Powell used those words, and literally as I write President George Bush has, in a brief speech, used those same words), might respond not with measured action, but with wholesale violence. Such a response is human, for anger and even revenge are human emotions, but it is not the most human of responses. We must, always, strive to be more rather than less, to build peace and security rather than mete out destruction and wreckage. How can the United States respond to this attack on its people - for it was an attack, brutal, savage, indiscriminate - without re-inscribing the brutality which all condemn in the terrorists? The answer to this question will be debated in America in the coming days and weeks.

It is also possible that the terrorist attack might lead to a curtailing of civil liberties in the United States. It goes almost without saying that airline passengers will find more intrusions than ever before: identity checks, searches, surveillance. Police presence in many public places will be greatly augmented. At the same time, Americans must work to assure that the precious freedoms they so depend upon - freedom of speech, assembly, religion, as well as freedom from unreasonable search and seizure - will be maintained.

Five minutes ago I heard the president say on the radio that he too is concerned that the terrorist's actions not curtail the American commitment to personal liberty and freedom. "We will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms." The gradations between providing security and repressing dissent, between protecting a free way of life and curtailing individual freedoms, are not always clear. Americans must make sure that the government, in the name of protecting freedom, does not suppress it.

It is also possible that there might be a rise in ethnic tensions within America's diverse society, a society which richly multiracial and multiethnic. Reason tells us that it is wrong to blame a whole people or group for the actions of a small number of ideologically-crazed individuals who happen to share one of the markers of identity with that larger group. And reason must prevail over the sudden passions which anger can induce. For all their many shortcomings, Americans are a deeply generous and fair people: I am convinced they will turn a deaf ear, responding with understanding and brotherhood instead of vindictiveness, when and if apostles of hatred step forth.

It is clear that things will not go forward as they have proceeded in the past. The trauma of physical injury has its analogue in the psyche, and America and Americans have suffered a traumatic shock. The days ahead will test the United States in many ways. Out of widespread feelings of shock, confusion, anger and sorrow will come major decisions in foreign policy, a review of civil liberties, a test of the nation's commitment to diversity. The American people are strong and resilient. Our hope - the hope of the great, huge majority of Americans - is that we will emerge from this tragic period changed, but not diminished.

Huck Gutman is a regular columnist for The Statesman (Kolkata). He is Professor English at the University of Vermont, USA.

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