Apr/May 2001  •   Salon

Contrast in America

by Tom Dooley

September 20, 2001

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. —Charles Dickens

The classic opener to Dickens' novel about humanity's struggle in the face of societal upheaval does a great job of describing what is occurring in the US right now. In the wake of this previously unimagined series of tragedies, Americans' capacity for good and evil is being tested and exposed.

In New York, while thousands of people were standing in line for six or more hours to give blood, prank callers were telling police they were trapped beneath the rubble.

While priests, firefighters, policemen, and countless others were risking their lives to find survivors, people a continent away were using the occasion as an excuse to loot stores in Los Angeles.

While the grieving husband of one of the victims pleaded for restraint in launching military reprisals, saying he did not want more innocent people to die, a talk radio host was calling for us to "nuke" middle eastern countries, and two of our supposed "spiritual" leaders were blaming the whole thing on homosexuals.

Students at the school where I was substitute teaching on the day the towers were hit laughed and made jokes about what had just happened. They were not Arabs, by the way, but corn-fed, Camaro-driving, Midwestern white males.

Firefighters everywhere are being saluted, candles being lit, flags being flown, "America the Beautiful" being sung, but meanwhile, all over this country, people who even look like they might be of Middle-Eastern descent are being beat up on playgrounds, harassed in the streets, and terrorized in their homes. East-Indians have been murdered in 7-11's, despite the fact that they're characterized by an entirely different race, nationality, religion, language, and history than the Islamic fundamentalists who perpetrated the terrorist attacks on September 11th.

Children in Milwaukee are emptying their piggy-banks and giving their allowances to the United Way, helping to raise more money than any other city in the US, but at the same time, scam artists are calling up the elderly and asking for "donations."

Millions of Americans are viewing the news with tears in their eyes as the heart-wrenching stories of victims and survivors are told, while one of my wife's University students complained the day after the attack that he was "sick" of not being able to watch his regular television programming, that he was "tired" of everyone talking about "all this."

In the days since September 11th, acts of cowardice, ignorance, greed, hatred, and pure evil, when they have occurred, have appeared even more heinous than they would normally, because they stand in such stark contrast to the many beautiful things that have happened. We have witnessed heroism in many forms, from the airline passengers who sacrificed their lives in preventing the fourth airliner from reaching its target, to the secretary of the armed services who refused to leave the Pentagon after it was hit, instead personally helping to pull survivors from the wreckage. Some of the heroism we've witnessed has been remarkable as much for its humanity as its bravery, like the non-Catholic fireman who gave last rites to a dying priest and then asked the Cardinal if he had done the right thing.

These people, along with the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Colin Powell, stand in sharp contrast to the radio "personality" who has been promoting anti-Arab sentiment and spreading the rumor (one vehemently denied by every credible source) that some Arab-Americans were celebrating when the towers were hit.

This is the time for all of us with the capacity to do so to appreciate that contrast, and, to paraphrase Senator Joseph Biden, determine which side of the line we are on.

America is still the greatest country in the history of the world. Our responses to this crisis thus far have shown that. But some of our responses have also shown our home is in dire need of maintenance. Complacency and inattention have allowed far too much dry-rot—in the form of ignorance, prejudice, and selfishness—to spread. Still, the situation is far from hopeless.

It's my hope we're able to punish the people responsible for the events of September 11, 2001, and to prevent further such attacks. I hope we are able to do so without bringing the world to war, and our leaders conduct themselves with the dignity and strength we have seen from most of them thus far. And I hope the American people as a whole will take these events as a wakeup call. That the good in all of us will be celebrated, but also the bad will be taken notice of and appropriately punished, admonished, or dismissed.

It's a proud time to be an American, but we should always be proud to be Americans. We should know our history, accept responsibility for our mistakes, and believe in the ideals for which we have strived. The triumph of these times is we as a people have been made more patriotic, but the tragedy is we needed an event like this to bring about a greater sense of who we are.