An open letter to America

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Posted by andreas from ( on Wednesday, September 11, 2002 at 1:29PM :

An open letter to America

You gave me, an americano from the Latino South, this language of love that
I return to you

Ariel Dorfman
Sunday September 8, 2002
The Observer,6903,788149,00.html

Let me tell you, America, of the hopes I had for you.
As the smoke was swallowing Manhattan and the buildings fell and the terror
spread into the farthest recesses of your land and your hearts, my hopes
for you, America.

While around the world many of the past victims of your own terror, your
own attacks, were thinking and often saying, saying and more often
thinking, they deserve it, serves them right, it's about time they knew
what it's like to be on the receiving end. Not true, I thought, I said.
Nobody deserves terror. Justice. What we deserve, all of us, is some
measure of justice.

My hopes for America: not that this was good for you. No, not that. But I
have seen suffering before, I have seen widows wandering remote streets
with the photos of their loved ones asking if anybody knows if they are
alive or dead, I have watched men and women and even countries turn their
deepest sorrows into a source of strength, a form of self-knowledge, a
chance to grow.

A chance to grow, America, that was my hope.

Loss turned into maturity.

A chance to understand. Not alone, America, not alone in your grief. A
perpetual valley of terror, that is what most of humanity is born into day
after faraway day. Ignoring if tomorrow we will once again be assaulted and
bombed, humiliated and tormented. America suddenly living what almost
everyone else on this planet has experienced at some point yesterday or
today: the precarious pit of everyday fear.

My hope for America: empathy, compassion, the capacity to imagine that you
are not unique. Yes, America, if this dreadful destruction were only to
teach you that your citizens and your dead are not the only ones who matter
on this planet, if that experience were to lead you to wage a resolute war
on the multi ple terrors that haunt our already murderous new century.

An awakening, America.

Not to be. What did not happen.

Your country, hijacked. Your panic, used to take you on a journey of
violence from which it is hard to return, the men at the controls not
worried about crashing America into the world.

But not just the fault of the men who misgovern you.

They can only do what you have allowed them, responding, those men, to some
of your deepest desires.

Above all, this: to be innocent again, to feel good about yourselves, after
Vietnam. Vietnam? That country you turned into a mass graveyard?

Innocence, handed back to you, America, on 11 September 2001. A terrible
price to pay, but there it is. Those atrocities, that devastation, finally
making you all into victims. No ifs, no buts, no listening to the
naysayers, no patience for those who suggest you look at your own history,
your own interventions across the globe, to understand why so many out
there in the crazed world might detest you. No more self-doubt, America.

Beware the plague of victimhood, America.

The finger I point at you, pointed back at my own self. I know that thrill,
I have sweetly sucked it in, I have felt the surge of self-righteousness
that comes from being unfairly hurt. Anything we do, justified. Any
criticism against us, dismissed.

Beware the plague of fear and rage, America.

Nothing more dangerous: a giant who is afraid. Projecting power and terror
so the demons within and without will not devour him, so the traumas of the
past will not repeat themselves.

Beware the plague of amnesia, America.

Or have you forgotten Chile? Not just a name. Chile? Democratic Chile?
Demonized, destabilised by your government in 1973? Chile? That country
misruled for 17 years by a dictator you helped to install?

And other countries, other names. Iran, Nicaragua, the Congo, Indonesia,
South Africa, Laos, Guatemala. Just names? Just footnotes in history books,
your creatures?

But I do not speak to you only from afar.

How could I not wish you well? You gave me, an americano from the Latino
South, this language of love that I return to you. You gave me the hot
summer afternoons of my childhood in Queens when my starkest choice was
whether to buy a Popsicle from the Good Humor Man or the fat driver of the
Bungalow Bar truck. And then back to calculating Jackie Robinson's batting
average. How could I not wish you well? You gave me refuge when I was
barely a toddler, my family fleeing the fascist thugs in Argentina in the
mid-Forties. One of you then. Still one of you now. How could I not wish
you well? Years later, again it was to America I came with my own family,
an exile from the Chile of Pinochet you helped to spawn into existence on
precisely an 11 September, another Tuesday of doom. And yet, still wishing
you well, America: you offered me the freedom to speak out that I did not
have in Santiago, you gave me the opportunity to write and teach, you gave
me a gringa grand-daughter, how could I not love the house she lives in?

Where is that America of mine? Where is that other America? Where is the
America of 'as I would not be a slave so would I not be a master', the
America of this 'land is our land this land was meant for you and me', the
America of all men, and all women, everyone of us on this ravaged, glorious
earth of ours, all of us, created equal? Created equal: one baby in
Afghanistan or Iraq as sacred as one baby in Minneapolis. Where is my
America? The America that taught me tolerance of every race and every
religion, that filled me with pioneer energy, that is generous to a fault
when catastrophes strike?

So was I wrong?

When I hoped you would rise to the challenge as death visited you from the
sky? When I believed America the just, the rebellious, the unselfish, was
still alive? Not entirely spoiled by excessive wealth? With the courage to
conquer its fear?

America learning the lesson of Vietnam.

Vietnam. More, many more than 3,000 dead. More, many more, than two cities
bombed. More, more, more than one day of terror.

And yet, they do not hate you, America.

The enduring lesson of Vietnam. Not, next time obliterate the enemy. Not,
next time satanise those who dissent.

What the Vietnamese are whispering to you: they remember and yet they do
not hate. Not that easy, America, to forgive the pain. Or can you forget
your own 11 September that easily?

Not that easy, America.

To grow.

Or was I wrong? Have I become contaminated myself with your innocence,
lived too long among you? Do you need 50,000 body bags coming home before
you start to listen to your own voices of peace and dissent?

Am I wrong to believe that the country that gave the world jazz and
Faulkner and Eleanor Roosevelt will be able to look at itself in the
cracked mirror of history and join the rest of humanity, not as a city on a
separate hill, but as one more city in the shining valleys of sorrow and
uncertainty and hope where we all dwell?

Ariel Dorfman has just published Exorcising Terror: The Incredible
Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (Seven Stories Press) and a book
of poems, In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land (Duke University Press). This
article will also appear in the next issue of the US magazine, The Nation.

-- andreas
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