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Missing (from Sept 18)

Photograph by Sonya Shah

I went back to Manhattan a few days after September 11 to see my family and to be with my fellow New Yorkers to grieve a little. My partner Greg and I spent some evenings at a sponteneous memorial in Union Square. The temporal farmer's market that envelops the park on Sundays was replaced by makeshift shrines: missing pictures, poems, candles, flowers and drawings made by sixth-grade school children from P.S. 203. Walking through the square we tried to commit to memory each picture of each missing, acutely aware of the impossibility of the task. Last seen on. Please contact. Names. Addresses. Cantor Fitzgerald. Dear Elsy come home we miss you. Nancy Yeun Ngo was wearing a light green jade necklace and a wedding ring with Nick on the inside. A graduation photo of Soo Jin Lee next to a photo of Brian Warner from a Long Island suburb enjoying a brew and BBQ. The World Trade Center is so quientesentailly what New York is all about - internationalism, locality, similarity and difference.

In the same memorial was a long blue banner: "Protect your Arab American Neighbors" written in black marker, and a list of incidents recorded off the record: "U.S.A. Thursday: So far the Sikh council reports over 40 acts of violence and hate crimes against Sikh Americans. Chelsea, NYC: A cab driver is pulled out of his cab and beaten. Virginia: 14 windows broken in a Mosque at Old Dominion University. Queens, NY: An elderly Sikh man is beaten by local youth with baseball bats. Chicago: Arab American children taunted in school for being the "enemy." Two days ago a Sikh gas attendant in Mesa, Arizona, was threatened and then killed. Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times about a man who, on his way to an ATM to get cash to celebrate his 23rd wedding anniversary with his wife, was, without warning, accosted, handcuffed and searched by six officers. He was Roman Catholic, Puerto Rican and an editor for the New York Times. He happened to be wearing a kufi, a small round cap, traditional Muslim apparel. A woman spotted this suspect approaching a cash machine from accross the road and subsequently called the police stating he had a bomb. What year are we in?

I fear for my Muslim friends, my Pakistani roomate whose country is drawn into this conflict, my brother and cousin who fit the terrorist profile in terms of size, weight, hair and skin color even though one is entering a second postdoc in Physics at Columbia University and the other is an Enviromental Technologist in Boston. My gut instinct is to remind my brother to shave every day and my mother not to wear Indian clothing. My ideological foundation contradicting this - no, this is when it counts the most...be yourself. Last night, Saba, a Muslim Indian friend said to me, "The image that comes to mind most vividly is of those four brave African American children from Little Rock who against all odds went to school even though they knew they would be stoned."

On my Saturday morning flight to Providence there was a Sikh man on the plane. I quietly hoped that each person on the flight would not be scared of someone who looked so different from them. I watched people watching him. I am beginning to understand that wishful thinking may not be the adequate remedy for this scenario. Tomorrow when I fly back to Chicago, I hope the Sikh guy is also flying on my plane. I want to sit next to him. Hold his hand. Squeeze it tightly. So be it, if some must hate him well then hate me too.

I fear for the good and evil dialogue that is entering our rhetoric, as though the world is really so black and white, as though the years of struggle for a more complex dialogue can regress to this primitive debate of one versus the other in one day. I fear the current trend of the individual aligning himself/herself along national lines, as though the years of struggle for a complex understanding of self can regress to "my country right or wrong" in one day. I grieve for the missing at the World Trade Center caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I grieve for those innocent Afghan's soon to be missing, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

An American Holocaust?

I was sitting in my first class after the events of September 11 when someone brought up the issue of an artist's responsibility to comment on such a global event, and I realized: for everyone who was personally shattered by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, there are others whose petty need to react will soon generate an endless deluge of near pornographic artwork and canned sentiment. I fear that this has already begun, and that symptoms of this sad syndrome are popping up at SAIC.

September 11 was a milestone day in the history of mass media, as every broadcast network and most of the cable stations were all running coverage of the same event. By that standard, September 21 was an even bigger milestone as all of those same TV networks aired the same program, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts featuring Hollywood stars who wouldn't be bothered to devote an evening of their time to any lesser tragedy. Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and many more A-listers read from teleprompters on a candlelit stage and played our heartstrings without commercial interruption.

Meanwhile, in the back offices and boardrooms of the entertainment industry, terrorism and indeed the World Trade Center itself were and are in the process of being subtly erased from the cultural record. Movies in which the plots hinged around corrupt cops, terrorism, airports or the twin towers have been either scrapped or delayed indefinitely, and will probably be released sometime next spring, historically the time of year when movies, pushed off a plum holiday opening, go to die a quiet death. And as the studios try to erase any potentially traumatic subject matter, Blockbuster is reporting a massive upswing in rentals of terrorism-themed titles. According to one rental clerk, "Anything where terrorists get the stuffing kicked out of them," has been popular.

There is much of Holocaust-themed media that is touching and poignant. There is perhaps more, though, that is pornographic and self-serving, given equal time out of a mealy-mouthed obsession with remembrance. In this kind of climate, the quality of the work or its statement is irrelevant. Its importance is solely that it is about the Holocaust, and for that reason Holocaust-themed works win major awards. A small group of writers and artists win accolades for wallowing in a past atrocity, while those not willing to forget, but trying to move on, are irrelevant.

I fear that the events of September 11 are fast becoming an American Holocaust, one which will be tapped for cheap sentiment for decades to come. There is much of Holocaust art that is excellent, and there will be excellent statements about the WTC attacks as well. There will also be tall twin papier-mache matchsticks and performance pieces incorporating news footage of the planes hitting the towers as the artist speaks some text about fire, collapse and asphyxiation. Pieces that appropriate not only the imagery of the attacks, but our shock and sadness at the sight of them, in a way that makes them little better than pornography.

These pieces will be created, and I, for one, have no wish to stop them. Nor can we deny that these attacks happened, and that we live in a new age as a result. What is necessary is for everyone to never forget that life is richer and more valuable than a tragedy, and in our rush to commemorate this devastating attack, we cannot afford to become myopic.

The War Against Apathy

I'm lying on my back, feeling numb, watching the smoke from my cigarette spin lazy circles above my head. I'm thinking about all the problems in my life, all the little things I have to solve. Amidst all that clutter, the tragedy in New York floats in and out. There's all this talk of patriotism and war and when it comes right down to it, I don't care. I've pushed the event back into the surreal and unimportant category of my brain to a place where it doesn't really matter anymore. But shouldn't it? There are so many reasons to be filled with love for my country. Why do I remain so unaffected?

I should think of the deeply moving tragedy of the events. I should think of the thousands of children who were orphaned, or the people who were so convinced they wouldn't make it out they chose to plummet to their deaths instead of burning. I should think of all the people who wake in the middle of the night, sweating and haunted by some vaguely terrifying dream, and call out to their loved ones for comfort, only to find the loved ones are no longer there. This alone should make me want to fight back.

After all, this is probably the most personal and noble cause America has fought in practically 100 years, with the possible exception of WWII. This isn't Korea; this isn't Vietnam. We are no longer asserting our superiority by sticking our nose into other people's business. We are defending our way of life; we are reacting to a personal attack made on us. Even given the anti-war, tree-hugger status I've clung to so tightly throughout the years, I have to respect that.

I should look around at all the people I share this country with who have looked so desperately to the head of our nation for leadership these past weeks. I should look at the world's reaction to our tragedy, to the newly discovered vulnerability of the United States. I should see all this and realize that everyone is watching for a reaction; they all need us to make a move. When all is said and done, this is probably the only road America has to go down.

I think about all of this and hope it will affect my disinterest. I'm smoking my cigarette and wishing I could feel more toward what everyone else is so up in arms about. But I don't care. I'm thinking that what America means is not just the right to a way of life, but also the right to not care about that way of life. And now I'm feeling justified... but if no one cares, who will be there to fight?

A Different Sort of Reaction

As I prepare myself to write, I find that I am again and again repelled by the idea of writing about the events of September 11. My responses are so mixed, layered like an unshuffled deck of cards, all in the same vein yet following no orderly pattern. This recent attack has left me horrified, but it is a familiar horror; it is one I have felt before many, many times. Terrorism, unfortunately, is a scenario I have become accustomed to, and as an Israeli, I have experienced the aftermath enough to become numb to the full range of emotions that death and destruction play on.

It is because of this that I have no urge to write, no urge to even be a part of the American propaganda machine that has been spewing out enough God Bless America's to make the bald eagle bury its head in the ground. No urge to be reminded with every turned head that thousands of people have died again. It's too much.

It's hard, though, not to notice the abundance of stars and stripes, or the buildings proudly displaying their patriotic red white and blue. There was even a building downtown that had USA displayed with illuminated office windows. Security guards are everywhere. In Israel, the security guards who stand in front of malls hold machine guns. As a matter of fact, everyone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one holds machine guns because they're in the army. Terrorism is a reality, a way of life the Israelis have, by force, adjusted to.

I remember one time, specifically, when my mom decided we'd take the bus from our town Holon to the capital, Tel Aviv. The two of us boarded the bus and I swear I thought it was the last time I'd ever ride on one. I kept looking at each person getting on, and almost pulled my mother's hand off when an Arab man settled quietly into the seat behind me. She began stroking my hair in short nervous jerks as I stared at the red and orange pattern of the seat in front of me until we got to our stop. Each time the bus hit a bump or a plane outside broke the sound barrier I thought the bus was going to explode.

I think this is the sort of fear that people in the U.S. are just starting to come to terms with. After priding themselves on living in an impenetrable superpower, I can understand how the new sense of threat is wreaking havoc on the collective American consciousness. The illusion of the Great Safe Haven isn't standing anymore, it was blown away to bits leaving a void that people are not quite sure how to reconcile.

Since I wasn't alive when the struggle in Israel began I wasn't able to witness the country's first confrontation with its own vulnerability. I'm not sure if the streets were littered with Israeli paraphernalia, or if months after the first attacks the newspapers were still wrapped tight around the horrific events. I was brought up in a society that was aware of its vulnerable, controversial position and was accustomed to dealing with a nationwide sense of anger and grief.

Maybe this is why I am feeling apathetic to the hype surrounding the terrorist attacks. I'm still not sure. Now that I've laid out my cards, face up on the table I might be able to look back at some point and make sense of it all. As for right now though, I'll continue to turn my gaze away from the mammoth USA on that building in downtown until the country realizes that it's only built of humans, after all.

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