I am a Palestinian and I am an American. But today, the title I cherish most is that of a human being. On September 11th, 2001, I was supposed to be in NY for a meeting. Instead, I sat red-eyed in front of my TV screen in disbelieving horror. Treachery was engulfing innocent and unsuspecting mothers, fathers, sons and daughters before my eyes. Menacing clouds hovered above screaming souls desperately reaching out of the windows of the World Trade Center. Some jumped. It was too much to bear. I didn’t even realize that my four-year-old daughter was behind me watching a symbol of our privilege collapse upon itself. “Why did that building fall down?” she asked. Then the phone rang. Six hang ups in a row. Another one: “die” said the voice at the other end. Shortly after, the local newspaper called for a “reaction,” the reporter wanted to know whom did I think did it.
It was too much to bear. I didn’t even realize that my four-year-old daughter was behind me watching a symbol of our privilege collapse upon itself. “Why did that building fall down?” she asked. Then the phone rang. Six hang ups in a row. Another one: “die” said the voice at the other end. Shortly after, the local newspaper called for a “reaction,” the reporter wanted to know who did I think did it.
Reactions on TV from people across the country were similar. Many echoed the sentiment of graffiti written in dust on a New York street: “Kill Arabs.” One C-SPAN caller recommended that we seek out Arabs and Muslims wherever they are and bomb them. The outcry is for vengeance. That is normal. I have seen and heard similar sentiments from Palestinians whose sons and daughters are shelled, shot or caught inside their homes while Israeli bulldozers rip through them. And I have heard it from Israelis whose loved ones were killed in acts of violence by Palestinians.
I have read calls to vengeance from Iraqis who have watched millions of their children die of starvation, diseases of the dark ages and strange cancers from radiation of bullet cases. The lifeless people, airports and malls with which we are now faced have lasted ten years in Iraq. These feelings of rage, despair, vulnerability, I think, are the very feelings that helped create the rancid act we witnessed yesterday.
I was appalled to see Palestinian children celebrating in the streets, but I also know how deep and enduring has been their suffering at the hands of Israel, the chief recipient of our money and arms. I remember Qana, and how the world fell silent to protect Israel and left them to sort through body parts for their loved ones.
Yet despite the escalating aggression against them and the fingers wagging in their faces, hundreds of Palestinians crammed into Gaza hospital to donate blood for American victims. It seems cynical that CNN did not show those images. Most of those people are refugees and all of them have, at one point or another, been the victims of aggression from weapons made in and supplied by the USA. Most Palestinians interviewed reached through their pain to condemn the act and expressed sorrow for the victims. “We know how they feel,” said one Palestinian, “we bury our dead day by day.”
Today we are suffering the fear, insecurity and bloodshed that many nations have been experiencing for decades. We can lash out indeed. We can destroy Afghanistan. We can round up all Arabs and Muslims in this country. We can follow Israel’s example of extrajudicial killings, as my local TV announcer hinted, or collective imprisonment and aerial bombardment.
Perhaps we can step outside of our labels and pull together as human beings, all of us, for the victims, whom I’m sure are as diverse as America. Awful gut-wrenching stories are emerging. The little girl who hasn’t heard from either of her parents yet. The man who lost his brother but isn’t sure on which plane. The woman sifting through rubble and tears looking for her fiancé. The wife who pledged her love to her husband on a cell phone moments before crashing into the Pentagon. The valiant firefighters who gave their lives to save others. We are all touched, indeed shaken. We are all horrified by our collective nightmare that came true.
Perhaps we can use our pain to understand the suffering of the world around us, be it in Palestine, Rwanda, Vieques, Puerto Rico, Iraq or Bosnia. I pray that we will reach beyond the pain to find the stuff that will make us stronger and wiser. I pray that our leaders will find the courage to reexamine our foreign policies and the use of our weapons that shed innocent blood all over the world, in corners where there are no cameras to capture the horror, which we now know.
As I look to answer my daughter, I know we can make no sense of this. But I pray that we can breathe reason through ominous clouds of rage. “Something bad has happened,” I say to her. “But you needn’t worry because you’re perfectly safe.” I pray that I am correct and I pray for the parents and children who lost each other yesterday. This day of endless grief will live until eternity. May God touch all of humanity with his infinite Grace to come together and not turn on one another.
Susan J. Abulhawa is a Palestinian who resides in Pennsylvania. She is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, a non-profit organization dedicated to building playgrounds and recreation areas for Palestinian children living under military occupation. To find out more about this vital project, visit: http://www.playgroundsforpalestine.org/
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