Suffering the World's Pain

[The following excerpts are from a blog I posted on the 6th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks].

In Milan Kundera’s novel, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” a character named Mirek struggles to recover his lost letters. He comes to associate his personal quest with his country’s struggle to reclaim its history. Mirek sums this up with the following observation: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion." For us, the struggle for our memories is about reclaiming complex feelings and reflections on the events of 9/11/01 from the oversimplified official stories that seek to define 9/11 for us.

How do we reclaim the meanings of 9/11 in a way that honors those who lost so much without turning it into an excuse for curtailing civil liberties here while intensifying instability elsewhere? We could start by reclaiming the moments of collective confusion, of wanting to understand better the conditions that gave rise to such an unthinkable act of brutality against civilians.

I remember people of all political persuasions asking: what do we need to understand, about our own history and the histories of those who are sympathetic to the attackers? What can we learn from others who’ve suffered similar attacks, so that we can prevent this from happening again? No doubt, there was a moment when we as a nation wanted to raise the drawbridge and disengage from the world. There also was a moment when we realized that we now share something with the rest of the world: a vulnerability that we had not noticed before. It seems that we all are affected by growing instability and inequalities around the globe.

It was during those days of questioning and wondering that I read an essay by Ariel Dorfman called “America Suffers the World’s Pain.” A distinguished writer and political refugee from Chile, Dorfman wrote about his outrage and sadness at the horrific violence against his adopted country, the United States. But he also reflected on his memories of another September 11 that he lived through. It was September 11, 1973 in Chile, when the CIA-backed coup against a democratically elected government succeeded in ushering in an era of state-sponsored terror. It was a day filled with death and destruction, with long-lasting consequences for Chileans.

As Dorfman noted, there were two significant differences between the violence many in the world experience in their homelands and the violence we experienced here. First, we had never seen that kind of terror up-close before 9/11, a fact that made us unique among the nations of the world. Secondly, an attack on the most powerful nation on Earth was bound to have consequences that would envelope the whole world. And so, as people around the world sympathized with us, they also worried about how we would respond. Would we start to see that we are all in the same big boat, that our own security and wellbeing is linked to theirs? We might have, but we lacked the necessary leadership. Instead, we thumbed our noses at the world and attacked a country that posed no threat to us.

It is not too late to have critical, thoughtful discussions about the meaning of the attacks, and everything that has come after. I see more signs of critical thought and analysis these days. Perhpas now we can share memories with the Ariel Dorfmans of the world.