Tuesday, September 27, 2011


September 29, 2011

It was about time that the Palestinians — half of them, anyway — brought their case for independence to the United Nations. After decades of being treated, and treating themselves, as non-persons, it was an "I-am-Somebody" moment.

Right from the beginning, when the stymied British off- loaded Palestine to the fledgling U.N. to deal with, the Arab peoples of the region were more in the way than on the way. With the exception of six months of deadly skirmishes with the Jewish settlers following the U.N. resolution of partition in 1947, all the wars in Palestine were initiated, or provoked, by outsiders — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq. Refugees displaced by the wars were shunted into camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, where their descendants remain to this day; not even their Arab brethren thought them worthy of integration into their societies.

It took 15 years after the partition for the Palestinians to develop a semblance of leadership of their own, the Fatah or Palestine Liberation Organization, but their terrorist tactics alienated most of the world. Since replacing the confrontational, erratic, and bizarre-looking Yasser Arafat as leader of the Fatah party in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas has nurtured a civilized, sensible, and nonviolent image that has brought international legitimacy and credibility to the Palestinian cause — though his efforts have been sabotaged by the retrograde Hamas party in Gaza, with its misguided (in both senses) rocket attacks and its anachronistic refusal to recognize the Jewish state.

Abbas went to the U.N. to make the rest of the world come clean. He knew, of course, that his application for statehood status would be rejected one way or another, but he wanted a recorded vote. He also wanted to unmask the contradictory positions of the United States. Just four months ago, President Obama called for a two-state solution with borders based on those that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, and "land swaps" to accommodate some of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Abbas's petition resulted in an embarrassing about-face: the threat of a U.S. veto in the Security Council, based on the premises that such recognition would impede the resumption of talks and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be resolved only by the two parties themselves — both rather strange, given the utter stalemate of the so-called "peace process" over the last couple decades.

The whole issue keeps getting thornier, just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any thornier. The "Arab Spring" that is working its way through Israel's neighbors adds even more instability and uncertainty to the region, further heightening the country's sense of threat and making it even more unlikely to engage the Palestinians. The Israeli settlements on the West Bank continue to grow, turning the area into a crazy-quilt of jurisdictions that will make even the most minimal proposals of "land swaps" ever more difficult. And then there is Hamas. Nothing at all can be accomplished until Hamas rejects violence and embraces the two-state solution, impossible to imagine in the near term.

Some observers predict that the likely rejection of President Abbas's bid for full U.N. membership will provoke Palestinian violence and hamstring the role of the United States in the "peace process." Regarding the latter, it may be a signal for America to release its grip and allow other countries to assume the task of mediation, as France has proposed. Regarding the former, Abbas's insistence on nonviolence will, I think, not go unheeded. In his unassuming way, he is giving West-Bank Palestinians a sense of their own identity and integrity — which, as Gandhi and King showed in like circumstances, is the real key to liberation.

We are Somebody.


September 15, 2011

Early last Friday evening, my friend Judy and I were walking down Tenth Avenue near 23rd Street in Chelsea. We passed a U-Haul van pulled over to the curb with a police car, lights flashing, behind it. The driver stood next to his vehicle, being questioned by the officers.
"See that?" said Judy. "It's 9/11 paranoia. I had to drive around the city all day today, and the traffic was snarled everywhere by all the searches. I lived downtown ten years ago, and I saw the towers fall. All this stuff just brings back the horror, and I don't need it. What good does it do? Why can't we just move on?"
It's like scratching a scab.
"This whole thing is just what happened right after the attacks," she continued, "the orange alerts and stuff. Today I heard the government had, quote, ‘credible evidence' that Al Qaeda was planning to bomb the tunnels and subways and the police were looking for two American Arabs. Then in the same breath they said they had no specifics. It's all done to keep us fearful."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a similar point on his Friday radio show. "We've got to make sure we don't let the terrorists take away our rights without any terrorism," he said. "If you lock yourself in your house because you're scared, they're winning. If you don't let somebody else pray or say what they want to say or you deny any rights to certain people — that's exactly what they want. I don't think we should do that."
A word of good sense. Of course, he and his police chief Ray Kelly ordered the searches. As one anonymous law enforcement official told the New York Times, the plot "could all be one big fabrication, but no one wants to take any chances."
I suppose you can't be too careful, and I myself had mixed feelings of revulsion and relief watching the NYPD deal with the man in the van.
That's the nature of terrorism. It's like those poltergeist movies: Your skin crawls because you never know when and how the killer will strike; you don't even know who or what the killer is. No matter how strong you are or what actions you take, you feel impotent in the face of the unknown. You want to direct your seething rage, but there is nowhere to direct it. You want to protect yourself from another attack, but the enemy is a phantom.
Just look at the government's responses to 9/11 over the last decade: Another bloated bureaucracy with the still-eerie name of Homeland Security (Fatherland and Motherland having already been taken); two military invasions with loss of innocent life exponentially greater than that on our shores; practices of torture that got no results and only defiled America's sense of decency and integrity; a monstrous airport security apparatus that keeps the country in a constant low-level state of anxiety and fear.
Whether or not any of these actions, costing trillions of dollars and untold damage to body and spirit, has been effective, we'll never know. How many of the rumored plots were real, and how many were "fabrications"? Most of the ones we know were real, like the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and that goofball who set his truck on fire in Times Square, were thwarted by the bumbling perpetrators themselves.
Unlike the movies, there is no ending, no resolution. Even the assassination of Bin Laden last May, shamelessly gloated over by our President, brought no relief, only a momentary release of frustration and a shallow burst of flag-waving. No V-J Day here.
It's to the credit of the American people, imbued with the spirit of freedom and equality and chastened by memories of lynchings and interments, that this anxiety, fear, and pent-up rage have not, except at the fringes, been released on the Muslim community. The angels of our better nature, up to now at least, appear to be winning.
The tenth anniversary ceremonies, and the telling and re- telling of stories of tragic loss and unparalleled heroism that occupied the media in the weeks preceding, were acts of catharsis, a form of therapy for our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. The focus of most of it was not against enemies, whoever they were and may be, but toward the resilience of the human spirit in the face of disaster, no matter what the cause.
Now it is over for a while again, but it is never really over. What we must do, as Judy said, is move on.


September 8, 2011

The terrorist attacks of ten years ago left untold scars on the American psyche. When the towers fell, whole worldviews fell with them.
My friend Jim first heard the news when he returned to his office at a small college here in New York after his class on Buddhism. The study of comparative religions had been good to Jim; twenty years in the academic saddle had allowed him and his wife Sarah to buy a big apartment on the Upper West Side before the area became desirable and to give their two children a privileged education. He'd turned 54 the day before; another decade or so of grading papers, updating his syllabi, and grumbling about the administration would bring him a happy retirement — maybe a farmette in the Poconos, where he could grow masses of vegetables and write the book he never had time for before.
He'd majored in religion not in hopes of a career but in hopes of a revelation. He'd been a skeptic from his youth, yet he was drawn to religious ideas; somewhere in that tangle must lie the key to self-discovery.
What he loved was the Big Questions, from the existence of God to the existence of evil to existence after death, and as a teacher he performed more like a lawyer in a courtroom or Socrates in the Agora, confounding every facile argument and prodding his students to think, damn you, think.
His own quest for God was never fulfilled. "Religious systems have a lovely symmetry," he told me years ago, "but I'm not sure they have a referent."
Before grad school and before his marriage, he'd spent a year in a Zen monastery in upstate New York, seeking satori, that flash of enlightenment where the mind, as one master put it, is as clear as a polished mirror. But of course, the more you long for satori, the less likely it will come.
A type of satori hit him that day. In his course on Buddhism he had been discussing the "Four Passing Sights" which would eventually turn the young Siddhartha Gautama into the Enlightened One: an aged person, a diseased person, a corpse, and a peaceful ascetic. He had taken his students into the hallway of the building, where photographs of graduating classes dating back almost a century were displayed. "Look carefully at these faces," he told them. "They're just like you. Work backwards: Class of 2000, 1970, 1940, 1910. Where are these people now? In fact, who were they at all?"
Pleased with the sobering results of his presentation, he returned to the faculty building to find his colleagues huddled around the television in the history chair's office. "This is the end of America as we've known it," she prophesied. "The ceremony of innocence is drowned."
Jim knew no one who worked in the Twin Towers, but many of his former core-curriculum students had taken jobs around Wall Street. Where are they now? Later he learned that the husband of one of them had perished in the collapse.
Like many of us that night, he and his wife lay sleepless. Their children, both away at college, had called to ask if everything was all right with them. "Physically, yes," he told them. "Spiritually, I don't know."
"In all my years of teaching," he confided to me some years ago, "I never painted a pristine picture of religion. From the Book of Joshua to the crusades to the jihads, I felt students needed to reflect on the dark side of religion. It was a contradiction I could not solve, but to me then it was just another intellectual question. I'd became something of a Manichean, thinking that there must be a fixed quantity of evil in the human collective; when it's tamped down in one place, it erupts in another, like vulcanism.
"That night, my uneasy peace with religious violence began to unravel. When my students asked me next class what I thought of the disasters, my rhetorical skills vanished. All I could say was ‘I don't know.'
"That semester was literally horrible for me. The questions that had fascinated me all my life became absurdities. I kept thinking of that line by the devil Nickles in J.B. by Archibald MacLeish — his free-verse play on the Book of Job: ‘If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God.'
"The only thing that made sense were the syllables of Hindu mystics. At the end of their journey, all they could say about God was ‘Neti, neti' — ‘Not this, not this.' How can you teach a course when all you have is one word?"
Jim quit teaching two years later and bought a half-interest in a neighborhood wine shop. He and Sarah travel to Europe at least once a year, picking up bargains.
Except on rare occasions, he never mentions religion.


September 1, 2011

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took no chances this time, for reasons as political as practical. Last winter, his administration was roundly ridiculed for doing too little and too late when a major blizzard swept through — streets unplowed, cars stranded in snowbanks, subways snarled.
That was the cold memory on the hot nights of last week, as citizens and city officials watched Hurricane Irene march toward the Atlantic coast. Irene was nothing like her name; hardly irenic, she portended to match the most damaging hurricanes of the past. The trajectory projected a direct hit on the city, the fulfillment of all those Gotham-gothic cinematic scenarios. Bloomberg's third-term poll numbers were lower than the air pressure in a hurricane's eye; to save himself, he had to do things right this time.
So in moves unprecedented, he ordered the entire metropolitan transit system shut down, and people living near the ocean, the rivers, and the sounds — some 280,000 of them — to evacuate. All events were canceled; Broadway would be dark on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the usual Mondays, anticipating the inundation of the Great White Way by the Great White Wave. Those outside the evacuation area were told to stay inside; those living above the tenth floor in buildings throughout the city were admonished to seek shelter with their neighbors below. Media meteorologists advised taping windows so if they broke, the glass would more likely fall into the street, not the room; if your bed is near a window and can't be moved, they cautioned, sleep with a sheet up over your head to protect yourself from shattering glass. Stock up on drinking water, flashlights and batteries, and canned foods; while the occurrence itself would be short, the effects might be very long.
Pre-hurricane Friday was beautiful — sunny, warm, and calm. Gardeners at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx came by to harvest their cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes. I asked them if they were ready. "It's just a hurricane," said a man from the Dominican Republic. "We get them all the time at home." One native New Yorker in his 70's just shrugged. "Forget about it," he huffed. "Nothing'll happen. I've been through lots of these. In the days before satellite pictures and all the media hype, we just used our common sense. When I was a boy, hurricanes didn't have names. Now they're like the personification of evil, some Greek goddess, Medusa or somebody."
Many others were taking the threat seriously. The local supermarkets were clogged with customers Friday and early Saturday, denuding the shelves of bottled water and batteries, carts piled high with provisions, including frozen foods — strange things to buy, I thought, in the face of a power outage.
The actual event was more of a non-event, at least to those on high ground, like around here. As the hurricane approached the city Saturday night, it was already deteriorating into a tropical storm. The rain came down in sheets, but the winds were much weaker than predicted, and there was no loss of power. When the eye of the storm passed overhead in the early afternoon on Sunday — indeed a direct hit — the sky cleared and a few of us neighbors drove around to survey the damage, which amounted to just a couple of downed small trees. We ended up in a little coffee shop on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx's Little Italy, the only establishment in the area brave enough to open. "I'm disappointed!" one person at the table said over his plate of silver-dollar pancakes. "I was hoping for some drama."
Actually, the comparatively worst was yet to come. As the remnants of the storm moved north, the winds came up the rear. By early Sunday evening the gusts were approaching frightening; the lights flickered momentarily, shingles flew off roofs, trees swayed mightily — they're built for wind — but everything seemed to hold. In the morning I went to the garden and found its huge plum tree toppled. It was old and unproductive, and I'd long thought of cutting it down. Mother Nature did it for me.
Many people, before and after the hurricane, were quick to criticize the mayor for taking measures they considered disproportionately severe. I didn't, and I don't. What the city undertook was an exercise in preparedness and prevention, and to me it was a beautiful thing to see. New York tried out its disaster plan in real time and brought most of its eight million people, imagine that, together in common defense. Not a single life was lost. Were the trains kept running and the warnings more lax, who knows what troubles we'd have seen?
With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the back of every New Yorker's head, this was a dry run, shall we say, for emergencies to come, both from nature and from man.
Plus, now everybody's got a story to tell.