An inescapable element of the spectacular haunted Tuesday’s tragic course of events. Most stomachs turned in disbelief before the gross visions that streamed across our televisions sets starting just before 9 a.m., when the first of four hijacked airplanes crashed through the side of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Worse was to come. As the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed upon themselves, windows and walls exploding outward stack by stack, as white clouds of debris unfolded with preternatural speed across the streets of downtown Manhattan, it was hard to hold onto a sense of the situation’s reality.
We, a distant but not unaffected audience, slipped into slowness. America entered a state of shock.
I watched these events — as I’m sure many others here did — in a packed but silent room. The television screen flashed upon faces that failed, temporarily, to register feelings. If we felt anything, perhaps it was a palpable, acrid confusion through which we moved, offset only by a dim certainty, somewhere far away in us, that we were living through history.
The morning wore on. On the television, a video of Palestinian children in the West Bank cheering and waving flags appeared. Then a close-up of a young man, eyes bright with an ecstasy so foreign to benumbed Americans, explaining something in Arabic into a reporter’s microphone.
“This is a sweet,” the translator said. “A sweet from Osama bin Laden.”
In the room where I sat, across an ocean and in a different language, our silence was at last broken.
“Get those f–ing people out of our country,” someone said.
No one will say, now or in the future, that the morning was without its shocks.
A diverse range of motives animates the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East, and a diverse set of images and stereotypes governs Americans’ perceptions of Arabs and other ethnic groups who profess the religion of Islam. But certain generalizing attitudes — even if provoked during a time of emotional stress — transcend political arguments in the measure of their wrongness. Certain feelings, and certain thoughts, are acceptable neither in the dialogue of our nation’s policy making nor in the dialogue of our dinner tables.
Later Tuesday, when the same video footage played again on television, another one of my friends, who had not been in the room earlier, submitted her own feelings.
“They should shoot all those people,” she said quietly. Without further comment she lowered her eyes to continue her class reading in the open copy of Dante’s “Vita Nuova” in her lap.
Both of the quoted individuals are of dispositions I would confidently classify as gentle and humane. They vote Democratic. They volunteer. I would summarize them, if I had to, as industry-standard, liberal-minded Yalies.
Given this social liberality, which defines the political valence of our university, the reactions to be witnessed across campus Tuesday were still more surprising by way of contrast. Everywhere — in dining halls, in dorm rooms, on the lawns of Old and Cross Campus — the talk persisted. Bomb Afghanistan. Bomb the Palestinians. Bomb indiscriminately.
These wishes can even be read between the lines in our national news coverage. I have no doubt that everyone who expressed outrage over Palestinian celebration did so in reaction to the same video footage that occasioned the comments of my friends. Because it was the only such footage broadcast all day. The tape played again and again. Again and again the same man in the same truck honked his horn and the same goofy adolescent gushed his sentiments into the microphone.
American hatred was touched off routinely every 11 minutes by television journalism that seemed inspired by the regular “action beats” of George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy.
Desires to punish the Palestinians — or any other Islamic ethnic group or predominantly Islamic nation — for today’s events only reveal a residual streak of racism in the American mind whose persistence is hard to account for. No one would speak of punishing the citizens of Scotland for an IRA attack on Buckingham Palace.
Tolerance of today’s crimes is equally ridiculous. America must stand up and demonstrate, in the sight of our allies and of our enemies, that the most powerful country in the world will not react lightly to terrorism analogous to an “act of war.” Retribution is necessary not only to satisfy the loss of all those personally affected by the tragedy — it must stand as demonstrative of the seriousness with which America takes national defense and, more importantly, its citizens’ sense of security within our borders.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, speaking admirably Tuesday afternoon on behalf of his stricken city, remarked on the composure with which New Yorkers handled themselves in the midst of the crisis. He noted the speed and calmness with which citizens saved their own lives and the lives of those dear to them when disaster hit.
“These are the greatest people in the world,” he said.
Americans, if we would continue to say the same of ourselves, must prove on the world stage that the trajectory of our actions from this point forward will not be determined by racism or in ignorance. And the spirit of moderation should most especially govern the conduct of students at the world’s greatest university, where perhaps a few still remember an Italian poet who remarked that “haste denies all acts their dignity.”
Peter Jamison is a senior in Pierson College. He is Arts and Living Editor for the Yale Daily News.