The Common Good
January-February 2002

Eyes Wide Open

by Kathleen Norris | January-February 2002

Apocalypse grabs us by the shoulders and says, 'Look at what matters in life.'

It is tempting to believe that Americans were truly changed after the horror of Sept. 11, that we are now less likely to lose ourselves in the contemplation of either Jennifer Lopez's navel or our own. It is tempting to believe that the deaths of so many ordinary people—workers, parents, business travelers, couples returning from family reunions and weddings—has led us to take the words of Psalm 90 to heart: "Lord, make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart." But only time will tell.

For a few days, shock and grief made us people under a spell. The relentless noise and clutter of advertising was silenced, and when we turned on our televisions we saw unaccustomed images of people at prayer. Amazingly, we were more likely to hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah than those of the latest teen idol. Our celebrity culture all but vanished in the light of apocalypse, a word that comes from the Greek for "uncovering" or "revealing." In my book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, I said of apocalypse, "we human beings learn best how to love when we're a bit broken, when our plans fall apart, when our myths of self-sufficiency and safety are shattered. Apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses, allowing us a sober if painful glimpse of what is possible in the new life we build from the ashes of the old."

Apocalypse grabs us by the shoulders and says, "Look at what matters in life." And suddenly, we see. But both common sense and the biblical narrative remind us that it is difficult to hold on to our new, unencumbered vision. On Sept. 12, it seemed imperative to sit in the silence of a church, or to seek the company of others to light candles and offer prayers. But as we returned to our normal routines, the imperative faded. Road rage has re-emerged, and incidents of domestic violence are said to be increasing in the face of new economic uncertainties. I suspect that we will prove ourselves to be, in the ancient biblical phrase, a "stiff-necked people," remarkably good at forgetting both our own mortality and God's eternity.

And what of change? Advertising is back, in full force, along with the vapid celebrity interviews that constitute modern offerings of bread-and-circuses. Americans are being avidly encouraged not to change their ways, but to fight terrorism by buying more stuff. If our spendthrift way of life comes at the expense of others in the world, we don't want to hear about it. And we won't hear about it, not from the media.

IN THESE FRIGHTENING times, I am especially discouraged that what has not changed since Sept. 11 is our resistance to information that threatens our ideological stance, be it "America can do no right" or "America can do no wrong." These positions may make people feel good about themselves, but they don't do much for the common good. Judging from the news, the mean and divisive spirit of the Vietnam era is alive and well, asking "Whose side are you on?" Is it the professor who told his students, on Sept. 11, that he would support anyone who blew up the Pentagon, or the college secretary who was ordered to remove an American flag she had placed on her desk in memory of a friend who died at the Trade Center? The professor received death threats; after a public outcry, the secretary was allowed to reinstate the flag. Is this a liberal-conservative issue? A middle class-working class divide? Is there a "side" to take?

I was in high school and college during the Vietnam war, just naive enough to be surprised when people assumed that my interest in the history of the region—my reading of Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake, Bernard Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, or Graham Greene's The Quiet American, for example—meant that I was a commie sympathizer. Like most Americans of my generation, I had very little exposure to Asian history in school. It had been treated as a part of the world we could ignore with impunity. Willful ignorance was a safer path, but was it truly patriotic not to want to know any more than our leaders or Time magazine were telling us?

It saddens me now that so little has changed. Now it is Afghanistan and the countries of the Middle East that are terra incognito, and Americans again are proud of their ignorance. By that I mean that we are still self-righteously resisting those who would give us information we need in order to understand the world around us. The Oct. 7, 2001, issue of The New York Times Magazine contained what I found to be a straightforward and useful article by a professor of Middle Eastern studies, Fouad Ajami, titled "Nowhere Man." I had been wondering how an educated young man, Mohamed Atta, could have turned from the pursuit of urban studies and become a terrorist willing to destroy a vibrant urban neighborhood. Ajami's article provided some answers, offering a view of the Egyptian society in which Atta was raised, in which tensions between traditional culture and modernity had led many young people to embrace what Ajami terms an "an anxious, belligerent piety."

A few weeks after the article appeared, The Times published two letters that were extremely critical, one complaining of "sentimental explanations for [Atta's] actions." There have been other incidents in which people providing background information on the Arab world have been attacked as unpatriotic, or worse. Is it really true that we don't need a better understanding of the conditions that have allowed criminals such as Osama bin Laden to flourish—the aftermath of European colonialism in the Middle East and the arrogant and often self-defeating foreign policy that the United States has pursued in the region for the past 50 years? Does seeking to understand how the terrorists came to be really mean that we are excusing their actions or suggesting that America somehow deserved the horrific attacks of Sept. 11? How we cope with these questions will, I believe, tell us whether or not we have been changed.

Kathleen Norris was an essayist and poet whose works include Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and The Virgin of Bennington when this article appeared.

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