Scattered Thoughts in a Scattered Time

by David Steinberg

I live in Santa Cruz, California. We had a big earthquake here in 1989 that more or less destroyed the center of town, and did serious damage to lots of people's homes as well. Only a few people actually died, but we had the experience of the entire community going through major emotional trauma at the same time, which is what New York, on one level, and the entire country, on another, is experiencing after WTC.

Community trauma is different from personal trauma. When it's just you, or you and the other people in your family that are traumatized, you can turn to some grounded, non-traumatized friend or lover for perspective and support. These days there's no one who's outside of the trauma, no one who's really grounded, so there aren't any outside reference points that offer a comforting sense of stability and orientation. We all have to make it up as we go along, the dazed leading the dazed. We've gone from being on solid ground -- or at least thinking we were on solid ground -- to being on a vast rolling emotional ocean, with no land in sight. Everyone's in the process of getting their sealegs at the same time. Lots of people are throwing up over the rails. As Americans, we're uniquely unfamiliar with this sort of thing. No one bombed our cities during World War II. Not during Korea or Vietnam either. Certainly not during the Gulf War.

Michael Moore puts it well -- war is where we bomb them, then they bomb us, then we bomb them, then they bomb us. That's how it works. That what you sign up for when you decide to go to war. We aren't used to that simple truth. For a long time now, war, for Americans, has been where we bomb them and then it's over and we feel like we've accomplished something. True, some of us die, but very few compared to how many of them die, and besides, all of us who die are soldiers. Now we know, just a little, that this war is different.

I believe you can tell a lot about people by how they drive. Silly maybe, but that's what I believe. Immediately after September 11, people were driving in a fog. Going through red lights and things like that. Everyone was distracted, dazed -- hardly surprising. People were also being unusually courteous in their driving, which I did find surprising. No, you go first; it's OK. Sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off. Michael Moore noted that there was a strange quiet on the streets of New York after WTC: No one was blowing their horns.

It was as if, all of a sudden, anger and aggression weren't quite as chic as they had been before. Like the feeling of being pissed off was leaving a bad taste in everyone's mouth for once, instead of when it had somehow felt more satisfying. I've been looking pretty hard for something to hang a hopeful hat on, so I turned this glimmer of reflexive non-violence into something of a silver lining. Maybe the humility of discovering we were not all-powerful, the humility of feeling our collective vulnerability and mortality, would lead us out of the kind of collective arrogance that got us into this mess in the first place. Maybe something good and useful could rise out of the ashes of WTC.

Three weeks later, I'm beginning to fear that I was just being naive. It's beginning to look like everyone was just in shock for a while there, just not being their real selves. That feeling of compassion and gentleness seems to have been nothing more than a moment of temporary insanity -- sort of like the 1960's.

Now that the initial shock is wearing off, the old behaviors seem to be returning. People are driving more aggressively again, and faster, though not with quite the same certainty as before. Horn-blowing is back, though again not full strength perhaps. Maybe some of that humility stuff will last more than one historical instant. Maybe not. God knows there's a lot of diffuse anger floating around everywhere, looking for some place to land. Under that, what I see is a whole lot of fear.

We don't do well with fear. It's another thing that, as Americans, we're not used to. One cyanide pill in a bottle of Tylenol, and we're all ready to struggle with safety-seal jars for the rest of our lives. If we could put a safety-seal over the U.S., would we do it? Throw out everyone with a Muslim name or look, let the government wiretap anyone they please, divert hundreds of billions of dollars from social programs to the military? It would cost us our way of life, and it could provide a modicum of safety. But a lot of people are thinking it would be worth it.

Several years ago our house was burglarized. We felt violated, angry, afraid. We wanted to make sure it wouldn't happen again. The guy who came by to show us security systems was a terrible salesman, but a wonderful human being. He told us we could install motion detectors, dozens of window and door alarms. He also told us that the alarms were a pain in the ass, going off at all the wrong times, when you get up to go piss in the middle of the night. He encouraged us to wait a few weeks, calm down, and then decide what we wanted to do. A few weeks later, our fear had subsided. We decided we'd be better off without the alarms. We saved ourselves a lot of money. We have not been burglarized again.

I've written a lot, over the years, about otherness. About how people tend to respond to otherness out of fear and distaste -- in contrast, say, to responding out of a sense of intrigue or curiosity. In the sexual realm, otherness tends to be dismissed as perversity. If you like to do sex in a way that's very different from me, there must be something really wrong with you.

Right now, we're all being inundated with radical rejection of otherness, with how different We (the good people) are from Them (the bad people), a blatant appeal to our reptilian feelings of fear and distrust of difference, an attempt to use those feelings as a springboard to galvanize public opinion behind a specific list of policies and priorities. This sort of thing has been known to work very well in the past. In the 1930's, when Germans were exceptionally confused and afraid (they, like us, being unfamiliar and unamused by that sort of thing), Hitler laid the whole problem at the feet of Jews, Gypsies, and gays -- playing on the very same suspicion of otherness. It worked really well for him, and for the priorities he wanted the public to support. It's easy, like taking candy from a baby. Fear is perhaps the easiest of emotions to manipulate.

We're hearing lots of dismissive words -- like "evil," "fanatic," and "extremist" -- these days, words that play on our total ignorance and fear of something called Islam and something else called Islamic radicalism. These dismissive, ultimately misleading words encourage us not to take otherly people -- people who see the world very differently from the way we do -- seriously. One particularly offensive ditty that's been circulating on the Internet, talks in the style of Dr. Seuss about weird people who have their turbans wrapped too tight (ha-ha). Ah, yes, those weird Muslim fundamentalists with their funny dress habits, long beards, and crackpot notions of going to heaven.

We have racial/racist notions about Muslims that are lodged in our collective Judeo-Christian unconscious with all the power that a thousand years of reinforcement offers. Do you know, by the way, that the Crusades (the original jihad) was basically about consolidating the political power of the church of Rome over Europe? Millions of people throughout Europe were whipped up about the heathen infidels as a result. The consequence was that Rome solidified its power in Europe and hoards of crazed Europeans visited wave after wave of previously unheard-of brutality throughout the Middle East. It's too much to go into here, but it's a story with consequences that we are very much dealing with this very day. And Bush instinctively used the word "crusade" before his advisors jumped on him and told him to can that particular word.

Robert Bly has noted that it's only by dismissing other human beings as other, only by convincing yourself that other people are entirely unlike yourself and therefore somehow less than fully human, that you get to the point where you can bring yourself to kill them. It's easier to kill a fish than a dog, easier to kill a dog than a chimpanzee, easier for a white guy from Kansas to kill a Vietnamese than a Canadian, easier to kill an Afghan with a long beard than someone who looks like the boy next door. The farther away from us the target appears to be, the easier it is to destroy it/them. We destroyed the profoundly beautiful city of Baghdad, with all its centuries of history and tradition, without so much as batting an eye. Not to mention 113,000 innocent civilians directly killed in those bombings.

Here's what I think: I think that people on the other side of the world, people with cultures so different from our own that we can barely comprehend how they conceptualize the world, that these people are, in many ways, also very much like us. They love their children, are proud of their traditions, are angry when they feel they are being treated unjustly, are extremely angry when someone they know and love is unjustly hurt or killed. If millions of Americans are now so angry that they are ready to go to war to avenge the death of several thousand innocent strangers, how angry must the millions of people be who have witnessed -- year after year after year -- the violent, premeditated killing of their own innocent children, parents, spouses, brothers, and sisters?

I am not saying this to justify in the least what happened at WTC. I know that some people who read this will actually have lost someone they knew or loved in the World Trade Center buildings. One person in my own family is alive today only because he happened to be late for work that day. But Osama bin Laden is no more of a madman than Ariel Sharon. He is rather, like Sharon, a person who believes that his people have been treated like dirt and that the only way to fight injustice is through retribution, through making the price of continued injustice more than the perpetrator will be willing to bear. I don't like bin Laden's political strategy any more than I like Sharon's, but I think it's important to acknowledge that they are just that -- political strategies -- rather than insane rantings. You treat political adversaries differently than you treat crazies. For one thing, you treat them with respect.

My friend Michael Hill once picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be from Guatemala. Since Michael had traveled in Guatemala, the two of them got to sharing stories about the Guatemalan people and countryside. Michael liked this man very much, found him to be a person of generous spirit, humor, and insight. As it happens, he also had been a right-wing terrorist in Guatemala -- one of those guys who visit unspeakable horrors on leftists, suspected and real, as part of Guatemala's continuing, brutal civil war.

How could it be that this man full of good cheer could also torture and kill people fighting for freedom and justice in Guatemala? Well, it happens that the leftists had themselves killed most of the people in this man's family right in front of his eyes. Who knows why? Maybe they had their own rage about injustices they had witnessed. Maybe it was part of a larger political reality. Whatever the underlying politics may have been, this man was understandably enraged after witnessing the slaughter of his family. Of course, committing acts of terror as a way of working through understandable rage is not acceptable. Not for him; not for us. But if I had any illusions about the otherness of right-wing Guatemalan terrorists, those illusions pretty much evaporated when Michael put a human face on this man's story.

Human faces are much harder to dismiss and demonize than abstract stereotypes. That's why CNN will give us the political biographies of the people involved in the WTC attack, but we will never get to hear their personal stories, the horrors they witnessed that led them to get involved in the organizations they joined, that led them to embrace a politics of retribution, that led them to take what turns out to be a substantial place in world history.

If we feel outrage at what happened at the World Trade Center, let that be outrage at the condition of the world that understandably, even inevitably, leads to days such as September 11. Much, perhaps most, of the world lives with much greater outrage than this every single day. People who live and breathe and love and fuck and suffer just like we do. America, in its way, has been as isolated from the real International Community, from the real condition of the human race, as Afghanistan. Perhaps if we understand that otherly people are just as human, just as intelligent, just as worthy of respect as we are, we will begin to understand more clearly, and more sympathetically, why they feel and act as they do.

©2001 by David Steinberg

David Steinberg's columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's David Steinberg Archives . He is the editor of two books -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self.

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