There is a photo on my desk of a man falling to his death from one of the World Trade Towers. There are stories in my head of last-minute cell calls made from hijacked planes. There are cries, there is smoke, there is forced death. To know that most Americans share the burden of keeping these memories with me is only the smallest consolation.
Many of us who’ve argued for peace in recent weeks have been met with the same question again and again: If we don’t kill them, what, exactly, do you want us to do? Lay still, wait for the next attack? The issue for me has never been whether or not to take action. It is the type of action, its costs and real, long-term benefits I’m interested in. I don’t want to quell our anger, I don’t want to bury it. I want to turn our anger into something else, something useful. When I was a California college student during the early ’90s we experienced the Rodney King race riots, Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and several state ballot initiatives that attacked immigrants, bi-lingual education and Affirmative Action. As a way to cope, my friends and I–all first-generation, working-class immigrants from Cambodia, South America, China, Jamaica, Mexico, Vietnam and Central America–would tell a joke which went something like this: When a white acquaintance entered the scene and conversation turned toward current events we’d pick our moment and one or another of us would lovingly pat our friend on the head and say, “Don’t worry sweetie, when the Revolution comes, we’ll put a star on your forehead to let everyone know you’re one of the good white people; don’t worry, you won’t die.”
In order for that joke to be funny it needed two things: 1) a clear sense of who was and was not white and 2) a clear sense that white people were in no real, immediate danger, that no real revolution was coming and that all would remain peaceable in the land of the free and the brave.
Times have changed and that joke is no longer funny. The terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11 have, for the first time, made many Americans feel vulnerable. They have made some wonder if maybe, just maybe, a real revolution, one based on the somewhat undefined specter of anti-Americanism, is on its way.
In an odd turn of fate the same mainstream America which made us immigrant kids feel so much fear and anger has now taken up the cowering and mistrust of the world which we young students held so dear. And, like in our old joke, America has begun to scramble for clear distinctions, for clear differences between the guilty and the innocent, the fanatic and the reasonable, the us and the them. Racial profiling, anti-Muslim hate crimes and war itself are now America’s awkward little jokes. They are all ways of anger, ways in which we are trying to feel safe in a world that no longer cares to keep us safe, privileged or innocent.
I’ve been angry with white America for a very long time. I have been angry at its parochialism, its philistine tastes, its faith in corporations and neglect of citizens, its racism, its sexism, its classism, its general ignorance and incapacity for public joy. My anger has kept me taut, wired, ready. It has bred a vigilance that has kept my eyes open to the bigotry in almost all human groupings; it has kept me from indulging in entitlement, belonging or patriotism. My anger has been stupid, my anger has been useless.
I suspect entropy–the tendency for all matter to fall apart into its most basic elements–must extend its reach from the physical toward the human because the rigid racial and political differences on which my anger fed have done nothing but fall apart. Though the various “isms” still merit anger, I’m learning that categories like “white,” “middle class,” even “Arab” or “Muslim” are so reductive as to be almost totally useless. And this is what I want to warn America, all America, about. At a time when we are so concerned with protecting national security, keeping the terrorists, the fanatics, the zealots out, we need to remember that, eventually, all walls come tumbling down.
Earlier this summer I found myself at Los Angeles International Airport’s immigration checkpoint at about two in the morning. I was back from a trip to Eastern Europe where my budget restricted my travel to national transportation systems in which the ability to scramble ahead of the sick, elderly and the very young meant the difference between a night’s sleep on the hard floor of a train or ferry and a night of much worse accommodations.
So with bleary relief and passport in hand I joined the crowd of travelers waiting for the INS officials to man their stations. Roughly two-thirds of the people milling around the “U.S. Passport Holder Only” sign were of Latino origin while the rest were an amalgam of Asians and Arabs that left the remaining white folks in a clear minority. Thirty minutes later the officials arrived and the ropes were dropped. Everyone scrambled. It was like traveling somewhere else, in some other, less orderly nation. I did not expect the chaos and neither did one of the few middle-aged white men in the group. Completely flustered, he admonished the crowd for cutting in line, for losing order. Ignored, he finally let out a desperate cry of, “Hey, I was born in this country!”
Incredible, but I was on his side–sort of. Though his final appeal was pathetic, I agreed with him. I wanted order. I wanted process. I wanted ease; I wanted America. And in a sickening moment of self-awareness, I knew I wanted those Latinos and Asians gone. I wanted their passports revoked. I wanted it to be just us, the ones who knew how to line up without causing a mess. To write this shames me even now.
In a way the revolution I had talked so much about had quietly begun to happen and, for that moment, I found myself on the losing side, the wrong side, the white side. After the 2000 census it is no secret that the Los Angeles metropolitan area has experienced an influx of immigrants in such numbers that the acculturation process is happening in reverse. The dominant culture is having to get used to the ways of the newcomers, and that includes something relatively petty like scrambling for a place in line.
Now the joke was on me. I was forced to admit that the walls of anger I had used to order my own world were coming down. My airport story is only one such experience. Lately I’ve begun to realize what every immigrant eventually learns. When you’ve set yourself afloat in the world, when you’ve opened yourself up to other cultures, a day comes in which you no longer recognize yourself; you change. Long before September 11th, mainstream America has been in the throes of change. Though this has long been the leitmotif of the American experience, immigration patterns of the last 20 to 30 years have catalyzed that change into something radical. Walls of difference–the “us” and “them” we rely on so much–are fractured and falling. We are becoming a nation of global citizens; we are becoming, in a sense, open, vulnerable and naked.
Consider the flawed logic of racial profiling as a measure of airport security. If it is extreme Islamic fundamentalism that we should fear, then how will racial profiling help us screen out Muslim extremists hailing from the Indian subcontinent, Asia and Southeast Asia or, for that matter, the black Americans or Latinos or Anglos that follow the Islamic faith and might, according to our worst fears, answer a fanatic call at any moment? Inversely, how will we keep from wasting time on the thousands of Arab Christians or Arab Jews that may match the feared race but not the feared faith?
Recently our President has been unanimously praised for his foresight in opening the Office of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, his team of advisors seems to lack the insight available on most any street corner in the many immigrant enclaves (soon to be urban centers) that have taken root across this country. Many of us left lives filled with the daily threat of terrorist violence. Almost all of us left countries suffering economic crises caused for the benefit of the first world. We, the children of immigrants, have seen our parents take the jobs nobody wants, the abuse nobody deserves and, at times of mainstream American crisis, the suspicions nobody can support. Yet we have seen our parents, these immigrants, these people, turn indignation into dignity even as they have soothed their children’s anger into love.
Imagine the tenacity of a love that convinces a Cuban suffering the U.S. embargo, or a Central American or an Iraqi suffering U.S. invasions, to actually flee to the United States, to work for the United States and to ultimately teach her children to love the United States. It is our burden to remind each other that, for better or worse, the entire world is now our homeland and that our fates rise and fall with the fates of all nations. Perhaps then, the Office of Homeland Security should be restructured as the Office of Global Stability. It is time now for Americans to recognize themselves.
After all, we immigrants are a people who know that if your project is to build a better life for your family and your neighbors, that if you really care about giving your children a world free of terrorism, then national borders are small hurdles to cross and the sweet romance of a homeland is a small thing to give up. We are, in a word, Americans. It is time we recognized ourselves.
Farid Matuk is a poet and freelance writer of Peruvian and Syrian descent. A long-time resident of California, he currently lives in Austin.