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America Looks at Itself Through Humanity’s Mirror

Ariel Dorfman's most recent novel is "Blake's Therapy" (Seven Stories, 2001). He is a professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University

I have been through this before.

During the past 28 years, Sept. 11 has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, since that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup, that day when death irrevocably entered our lives and changed us forever. And now, almost three decades later, the malignant gods of random history have imposed on another country that dreadful date, again a Tuesday, filled with death.

The differences and distances that separate the Chilean date from the American are considerable. The depraved terrorist attack against the most powerful nation on Earth will have consequences that affect all humanity. It may constitute, as President Bush has suggested, the start of World War III. It is probable that it will be branded in the future as the day when the planet’s history shifted forever. Few people today, however, could remember or identify what happened in Chile.

And yet, from the moment when I watched on television here in North Carolina that second plane exploding into the World Trade Center’s south tower, I have been haunted by the need to understand the enigmatic coincidence of these two Sept. 11s. For me, this is enigmatic and personal because it conjoins the two foundational cities of my existence: the New York that gave me refuge and joy during 10 years of my infancy and the Santiago that protected my adolescence under its mountains and made me into a man.

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I have, therefore, had to make every effort not to contaminate myself by looking again and again at the photo of the man who falls vertically, so straight, so straight, from the heights of that building; had to try to stop thinking about the last seconds of those plane passengers who knew that their imminent doom would kill thousands of their own innocent compatriots. Amid frantic phone calls to see if my friends in Manhattan are well, I yield myself to the gradual realization that there is something horribly familiar, even recognizable, in this experience.

The resemblance goes well beyond the facile and superficial comparison--that both in Chile in 1973 and in the United States today, terror descended from the sky to destroy the symbols of national identity, the Palace of the Presidents in Santiago, the icons of financial and military power in New York and Washington.

What I recognize is something deeper, a parallel suffering, a similar pain, a commensurate disorientation. I still cannot believe what I am witnessing on the screen--hundreds of relatives wandering the streets of New York, clutching photos of sons, fathers, wives, lovers, daughters, begging for information, asking if they are alive or dead--the whole United States forced to look into the abyss of what it means to be desaparecido, disappeared, with no certainty or funeral possible for those missing.

Over and over again, I hear phrases that remind me of what people like me would mutter to themselves during the 1973 military coup and the days that followed: “This cannot be happening to us. This sort of excessive violence happens to other people and not to us, we have only known this form of destruction through movies and books and remote photographs.” And words from 28 years ago repeated now: “We have lost our innocence. The world will never be the same.”

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What has come to an explosive conclusion, of course, is the United States’ famous exceptionalism, that attitude that allowed the citizens of this country to imagine themselves as beyond the sorrows and calamities that have plagued less fortunate people. None of the great battles of the 20th century had touched the continental United States. It is that complacent invulnerability that has been fractured forever. Life in these United States will have to share, from now on, the precariousness and uncertainty that are the daily lot of the enormous majority of this planet’s other inhabitants.

In spite of the tremendous pain, the intolerable losses that this apocalyptic crime has visited upon the American public, I wonder if this trial does not constitute an opportunity for regeneration and self-knowledge. A crisis of this magnitude can lead to renewal or destruction. It can be used for good or for evil, for peace or for war, for vengeance or for justice, for the militarization of a society or its humanization. One of the ways for Americans to overcome their trauma is to admit that their suffering is neither unique nor exclusive, that they are connected with so many other human beings who have suffered unanticipated and often protracted injury and fury. As long as they can look at themselves in the mirror of our common humanity.

The terrorists wanted to single out the United States as a satanic state. The rest of the planet, including many nations that have been the object of American arrogance and intervention, rejects this demonization, as I do. It is enough to see the almost unanimous outpouring of grief of most of the world.

It remains to be seen if this compassion shown to the dominant power on this planet will be reciprocated. It is still not clear if the United States--a country formed by those who have themselves escaped vast catastrophes, famines, dictatorships, persecution--will be able to feel that same empathy toward other outcast people. We will find out in the days and years to come if the new Americans, particularly the young, forged in pain and resurrection, are ready to participate in the arduous process of repairing our shared, damaged humanity; to create, all of us together, a world in which we need never again lament one more terrifying Sept. 11.


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