"Don't Bury Your Liberalism In The Grave Of Terrorism"
GROUND ZERO, NY, NY, Sept. 12--As I watched the terrorist jetliner bank and slash like a sword through the belly of the World Trade Center (WTC), I hoped it hadn’t mortally wounded New York liberalism. However, my combat experience told me liberal New Yorkers would chose to bury their liberalism in the grave of terrorism.
I came to this magnificent liberal city of New York from Orange County, Calif., eighteen months ago. Orange County is one of the great bastions of Right Wing Conservatism.
I came to New York to learn to be liberal, to open my narrow, bigoted, prejudiced attitudes so I could see the world from a wider, richer viewpoint. To write about the world, you have to see it from three-hundred-and sixty degrees.
Then the bombing of the WTC changed that. War changes softness. It turns hearts hard. It shuts out acceptance of all. It segregates the “good and bad.” It creates “enemies versus allies.”
Most of my conservative friends in Orange County are constantly at “war.” They were the least surprised when the terrorist attacked, for they expect a great revolution in this country, either from within or without. Most of them own unregistered guns, specially hand-made without serial numbers. Some have assault weapons buried around their mansions, just in case. And plenty of ammunition.
They expect the unexpected. They trust no one.
I didn’t always have fierce, conservative attitudes. When I joined the Unified States Marine Corps and the Vietnam War broke out, I became one of the first Marine Corps Combat Correspondents to report the war. I had a peculiar job. First, to fight and kill the enemy. Then to write about the glorification of killing, to promote it.
But as I saw more and more destruction as the result of war, the soft squishy part of me—my liberal side—grew. After the war, I decided to not pursue journalism. I went into business and rose to the top of my profession in marketing. But the soft, squishy side of me remained buried under the cold hearted business disguise I wore.
My liberal and conservative genes live strongest in my two children.
My oldest daughter is a what I jokingly refer to as a “left-wing, bleeding heart, commie-pinko liberal.”
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from U.C. Bezerkely(my spelling), with a degree in Philosophy and Ancient Languages. She has fought for the underdog all her life, traveling to Guatemala and El Salvador and living with villagers to protect them from harm.
She moved from the Paradise of Southern California to New York City to be of service to the homeless, the marginalized, and, to protest violence and injustice. She was managing editor of the Catholic Worker Newspaper, one of the largest publications that advocates peace and attacks injustice. She currently attends New York Theological Union Seminary. She will earn her Masters in Divinity in a year. She has two children, and her husband reflects the same liberal viewpoint as she. He just returned from Jerusalem where he and other Catholic Worker advocates protested the ongoing violence there.
She represents the best of my soft and squishy liberal gene.
My hard and thick-shelled conservative gene lives in my younger daughter. She’s a federal law enforcement agent here in New York City, working undercover frequently. She carries two 9mm Glocks, and often has to shove them in the face of the bad guy.
I joke that I have two children—one who carries the Cross, and the other who carries Glocks and isn’t afraid to use them. They are my liberal/conservative yin and yang.
Relocating to New York last year after more than thirty-five years in Southern California, was a shock.
I wasn’t use to the ethnic mix. I wasn’t used to the foul language people indiscriminately spew on the streets as though children and women weren’t present. I wasn’t comfortable with street people shoving cups in my face or demanding a smoke. I cringed when gays and lesbians marched in parades or walked lovingly down the street in romantic embrace. I bit my tongue when my daughter and her husband remanded my wife and I for taking the grandkids to a military tattoo, promoting the power of physical might. In conversations, I kept my mouth shut when America was being debunked for spending too much on the military, or the benefits of having an abortion were promoted.
I knew to survive New York I must be willing to adjust my narrow, bigoted, racist, pro-life, homophobic, anti-commie pinko attitudes..
If I didn’t, I couldn’t walk down the street. I couldn’t ride the subway. I couldn’t sit in a restaurant peacefully, and avoiding telling the people next to me they were out of their minds with their psychobabble and liberal gobbledygook.
Slowly, I began to assimilate New York’s multi-faceted culture. It wasn’t easy. I clipped my tongue. I didn’t challenge others political, social, religious or sexual beliefs that were in opposition to mine. I even voted for Hillary Clinton, not for political reasons, but because I believed my two daughters needed a feminine model to break through and win the Presidency of the Unified States some day, and she was the best shot. I figured a vote for “Hill” would only help collapse many of the ceilings placed on women both in religious vocations, and in law enforcement.
I even had a weave put in my hair, just one strand, a red-white-and blue one—a patriotic symbol of a red-neck conservative, homophobe, ex-Marine trying to go native. I removed it after six days. But I did it. That’s what was important.
Then the terrorist attack struck. My new life trying to liberalize my thinking and actions, suddenly came to a halt.
On the morning of Sept. 11, I rushed to Ground Zero to witness the carnage, to feel and taste and smell the Beast of Terror, and its effects on humanity. I had seen so much terror in my experiences in Vietnam, that nothing I saw or would see phased me. I had already seen people slowly tortured to death, and felt pieces of flesh smack against my face as kneeling prisoners were machine-gunned to death a few feet from me. I also knew what it was like to feel the blood of a buddy gushing out his throat onto my lap as I rocked him to death and heard his last words gurgle a profound message: “Why me, why not you?”
But Ground Zero New York City, wasn’t like that—at least not yet. It was like Hiroshima, dazed people walking in the ashes of destruction, unsure what had happened, but sure their lives would never be the same again.
As I walked around the rubble, the dust coughing up as my feet plowed down, I knew New York would never be the same. I sensed the seed of the Beast planted in the ash, sprouting up out of the rubble, holding hate and suspicion and revenge in its claws. New York’s “peaceniks” were dead. In their place had risen the warriors of Peace, those victims of attack, those angered that their nirvana had been invaded, ravaged, spoiled.
Peace is a fragile flower. I knew. I had trampled on it most of my life. And I’d always linked “peace” to “liberalism,”—the idea of not fighting, letting everyone do their own thing, toleration, acceptance, and, in my mind, complacency.
But the most peaceful among us changes when he or she is forced to kneel upon the ground, and a terrorist with a mask shoves the barrel of a revolver against the temple of a child, cocks it, and puts his finger on the trigger. Something terrible but basic happens to liberalism in that instant. It dies.
Acceptance, tolerance, complacency evaporate. Replacing them are prejudice, anger and revenge. No matter how much I believed in my daughter’s and her husband’s right to protest violence, I knew if their child was the one at the gun barrel of a terrorist, their liberalism would evaporate too.
But what happened to New York was not isolated. The City herself was violated. Every child, every grandchild, every baby in a mother’s womb, and those yet to be conceived, were at risk. When would the next attack come? When would they use biological or nuclear weapons? To what lengths would any parent go to protect their children, regardless of their social or political convictions?
The answer scared me.
As a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent in Vietnam, I had seen the hearts of boys harden virtually overnight. I witnessed their innocence die so fast one might never think it ever existed. It did in me…my innocence died a slow, painful death. I fought it, but I could not win. After so much death and destruction, the most peaceful grabs the sword and starts slashing at anything that moves.
My first combat experience in Vietnam taught me how quickly one can turn from a bleeding heart to a cold-blooded killer. I was on patrol with a young Marine, maybe nineteen or twenty. We flushed out a Vietnamese farmer from the bushes. He was maybe seventy or eighty, a desiccated fig of a man, with leathery hands, black pajamas and teeth almost ebony from chewing beetle nut. We searched him and found nothing. Then the young Marine whom I call Kabeller The Killer, made him kneel and beg for his life. I didn’t understand what he was doing. I thought he was joking at first. Then he told him to run, “di-di-di-di,” and as the old man made a mad dash, Kabeller put his weapon on full automatic and shot him in the back until he didn’t move.
I accused him of murdering the old man. He sneered and reminded me this was a “free fire zone.” Then he said: “When you’ve seen as many of your buddies die as I have, you’ll know the only good gook is a dead gook. One day you’ll feel the same way.”
I thought of Kabeller’s words at Ground Zero.
Would the terrible violence that had killed thousands of innocent people harden the soul of New Yorkers?
Would the easy, live-and-let-live attitude New Yorkers were famous for, shift to one of suspicion, hatred, prejudice, violent anger?
My gut instinct told me it would—at least in degrees, slowly, insidiously. Never again could New York feel invincible. No longer was it a sanctuary of liberal, free, safe life.
Millie reinforce that thinking. Millie is a young woman I occasionally talk to at Starbucks near Astor Place where I spend my mornings writing. As I was walking up from Ground Zero toward my apartment in the East Village, I saw her busily taking pictures.
She was in the “safe zone,” up past Houston Street where people were not covered with dust and debris and walking through the chilling ugliness of a city whose soul had just been raped. She took my picture and then began to scream her hatred and anger toward the terrorists. Every other word seemed to the “F” word, a complete shift from her modest, ladylike demean at Starbucks.
Her anger was vitriolic. She told me she was from Serbia and had seen terrorism. She told me even though she was a liberal, she wanted to hunt down the terrorists and kill all of them, and their children, and anyone who might promote more violence.
She related the horror in her country, where terrorists raped, the pillaged, the plundered her family and friends.
She was a volcano, erupting bile, spewing hatred. I stepped back. She stepped closer. Her eyes flared. Her mouth snarled. The Beast of Revenge had taken hold, released itself without restraint. She wanted justice, now, not tomorrow. I excused myself to escape.
This morning, walked toward Starbucks at Astor Place and Cooper Union to see if it was open (it wasn’t), two street people were engaged in a major verbal and physical battle. One had a piece of wood and swung it at the other. The Ray’s Pizza crew restrained them as they screaming at one another in a language I couldn’t understand. Both were older men, one skinny, one fat..
The skinny man grabbed an iron pipe. The fat man took a knife from his pocket and opened it, hiding it in the palm of his hand. The two challenged one another again in the middle of the intersection of St. Mark’s and Cooper Ave.. People watched. No one tried to stop them. They were animals, symbols of the unleashed violence stewing in the blood of people.
A police cruiser pulled up and shooed them away from each other, then crawled up the street.
There’s nothing new about a couple of street people fighting. It happens all the time. But with weapons? Knives. Steel bars?
Was this the beginning of New York’s shift to conservatism? Was the mindset of violence creeping up into society from the bottom of the social rung?
Already, the deli owners were putting up American Flags over their establishments, reminding everyone their accent and color of their skin, and the strange music they listened to didn’t mean they were members of the terrorist cell. Or were they?
War creates hate. It always has. War means killing the enemy. And, if you hate them, despise them, think of them as inhuman creatures of Hell, it’s easier to kill them. It’s easy to not feel guilt or shame or remorse when they die. After all, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Right?
The deli owners didn’t think so.
Neither did anyone who might be linked by accent, skin color or name to what people were supposing might be terrorists.
In World War II we interned the Japanese Americans. We took their land. We “kept an eye on them.”
If we were at “war,” how could we trust anyone associated with the enemy, by birth, by ancestry, by name?
New York was facing some tough times. Its liberal viewpoints were going to have their feet pushed onto the grill to test their resolve..
It bothered me to think prejudice and hatred start chipping away at New York’s wide screened liberalism.
Slowly, over the past eighteen months, I had come to respect liberalism. When I jumped on a subway, or walked down the streets, I didn’t seek out the differences between people and cast myself as either higher or lower than they. I even stopped trying to find differences, and instead sought similarities.
I began to enjoy the comfort of knowing human beings are human beings, whether they are a bum begging for a smoke or a quarter, or the rich man walking around in a floor- length sable coat while people are chattering their teeth in a snowstorm, wearing a North Face from K-Mart.
My biggest concern about the death of liberalism was my grandkids.
When they were first born, I considered New York a terrible place to raise children. They would be exposed to the worst of humanity. But after visiting here many times before relocating, I have grown to realize the greatest asset a child can enjoy is the acceptance of all people. When a child learns that principle, he or she can go anywhere in the world and be comfortable with themselves and humanity, for they have seen it all here, in this city. In Orange County they would learn solely how to be a red-necked, Republican, conservative, homophobe, pro lifer. And, of course, have to be white. New York taught them they could be anybody to be accepted—a much richer and healthier way of shaping one’s life.
But as I went to the checkpoint at 14th and 2nd Avenue this morning, and didn’t have anything with my address or picture on it, I realized the “easy-go” attitude of New York had been suspended. A police state exists. The question is, once the police remove theirs, will the citizenry create their own?
I fear the hardening of New York’s liberal arteries. I see great danger in such a shift, not only its impact upon my grandchildren, but upon the world. New York City is still a Mecca of differences, and if those differences are limited by prejudice, bigotry, fear, anger, resentment or retaliation, the doors to the “Mecca” will close. The “my way or the highway” attitude will prevail. Liberalism will suffocate under those conditions.
This idea that America is a war is dangerous for New Yorkers. It gives us license to hate, to applaud the hatred of those even remotely associated with the “enemy.” But who is the enemy? Is the deli owner who puts up an American Flag in hopes I won’t think he is the “enemy?” Is it the swarthy looking guy in the dark suit, whose eyes flick menacingly? Is it the MTA driver? The cab driver? The owner of the restaurant? Who is the enemy?
Will my grandchildren start to get suspicious of someone just because of their name, or accent, or looks? Will the most innocent, the children, be blamed for the acts of their parents? Grandparents?
Will people start buying custom guns and burying them, hiding them in their apartment?
Will New York City eventually evolve into Orange County, Calif.?
I hope not.
I came here to thaw out my heart—not to learn to hate again.
I pray New York doesn’t bury its liberalism in the grave of terrorism.