The neighborhood that I live in is situated in the zone just below Chambers Street and immediately north of the World Trade Center site. Over the years, most of the old industrial lofts have been converted to residential family homes. Many of the buildings are only 4-5 stories tall, so the Twin Towers organically affected the lighting and temperature of the immediate area. The people who live down here are a typically quirky New York mix of the art and financial communities. Schools had been built recently, sadly within collapsing distance of the Towers. The daily street scene is as lively, diverse and exotic as any Third World bazaar. Just on my block, without crossing a street, North Africans, Orthodox Jews, Chinese, Pakistanis, Hispanics, Indians, Palestinians, Koreans, Jamaicans and more, are among the owners of numerous local businesses and there is even a mosque a few doors away. I often marvel at the harmony of it all, especially given the potential for internecine conflict. Rather, against New York stereotypes, people are friendly and actually know and talk to each other. For years I have joked “it’s like Mayberry down here.”
It was hard to imagine the change in my own life over the next few months. Before the attacks on 9/11, I would rarely miss a peace march, dating back to 1967, when at age 10, I snuck-out of the house to protest the Vietnam War. One year later, I was a committed volunteer for the Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. I have observed moratoriums, protested against nuclear weapons for FREEZE, been civilly disobedient and taken many uncomfortable bus trips to Washington, D.C. After the 2000 election, I often joked, “I don’t feel that bad about Bush winning: at least I’ll get to see more of my friends in Washington.” After the attacks, when friends of mine were talking about protesting against the impending U.S. action in Afghanistan. I was completely surprised and also outraged by their position. My activism in the past had been against what I saw as interventionism and militarism, not self-defense. It also never bought into the ever-popular rationale that U.S. foreign policy somehow provoked the attacks. I believed that the nation had no choice but to respond to the 9/11 attacks with great force. In fact, I had never felt prouder about being an American. The much-anticipated wave of anti-Muslim reprisals never happened. Au contraire, while our president was making speech after speech preaching restraint and religious tolerance it was Europe that was erupting in anti-Semitic violence. In so many ways, the country had already responded with great courage and spirit; I understood that in a way that only one who lives at Ground Zero can.
Fast forward to May of 2003. The neighborhood has somewhat recovered and normalcy has prevailed for over a year. I was walking down the street on my way to the gym and passed the local Tribeca Playhouse. I picked-up a flier for the current performance entitled Voices of Peace and Dissent from Ground-Zero featuring an appearance by Kate Mulgrew, the star of Star Trek Voyager (and wife of Cleveland Democratic politician Tim Hagan). It’s funny how we can see things through a very idiosyncratic filter sometimes. Being an artist, living in lower Manhattan, I initially thought “Dissent” referred to those voices that supported forcefully prosecuting the war against terrorism, perhaps even the recent war in Iraq. My own, completely unscientific, polling indicates that more than 99 percent of the downtown arts scene opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom and use “Bush” as a kind of pejorative shorthand for everything bad. Perusing the playhouse website for further information I read the following
I was intrigued by the way A.N.S.W.E.R. looked because the periods after each capital letter reminded me of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., so I decided to see what their website looked like.
IFCO/Pastors for Peace
Free Palestine Alliance - U.S.
Partnership for Civil Justice - LDEF
Bayan - USA/International
Korea Truth Commission
International Action Center
Muslim Student Association of the U.S./Canada
Kensington Welfare Rights Union
Mexico Solidarity Network
Middle East Children's Alliance
As I delved deeper into cyber-space, scenes from the recent terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Israel filled my television. Those images provoked a visceral reaction within me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the handful of people that I knew who were killed in the Twin Towers. One person in particular, who - it always sounds saccharine when others say it of murder victims - was the nicest guy in the world! Also, I was told, that he had been going back into the burning buildings to save others when he was killed, and having known him, I have no doubt that this is true. I will openly admit that rage was replacing reason as my primary analytical mode.
When I reached a representative of the playhouse and voiced my indignation, they ultimately denied the connection to A.N.S.W.E.R. “But you are basically boasting about your support for A.N.S.W.E.R. on your website!” I said. By that afternoon their promo had been changed. Proceeds were now going to “Peace Fund.”
My initial reaction to peacefund.org was “A.N.S.W.E.R.-lite.” Photos of happy children might lead one to think that Peace Fund was somehow intervening in their lives with food or housing, but apparently, most of their funding is directed toward organizing conferences to mobilize to organize more conferences. Reading on, I found a web of numerous inter-connected organizations, seemingly funding each other, as if it were an extended jobs program for the organizers. The accounting labyrinth seemed Enron-like in its complexity. One of my favorite Peace Fund grants went to the New York City group "We Interrupt This Message," which has dedicated itself to "documenting anti-youth and racist New York Times coverage of youth and crime"! Exploring Peace Fund’s prison-reform programs was particularly chilling, and I began having negative fantasies of violent criminals being transformed into Islamic militants with funding from the Tribeca arts community.
You’ll call the police?” I replied.
"No, I'll beat the sh#t out of you," he said.
"Why don’t you just call the police?” I suggested, “Call 911. They’ll be here in minutes. If I am doing something illegal, I’ll either stop or get arrested.”
This is around the point that I became a completely different person – someone totally consumed by anger. Returning home, looking forward to relaxing and watching reruns of The Simpsons, the anger became overwhelming. I could not stop block out the vision of police and firemen racing to the Twin Towers to rescue others, unwittingly speeding to their own deaths. A year and a half of barely bottled-up rage reached critical mass and was now focused on the little, local, lefty theater company - and there was a performance that very evening!
Occasionally, other members of the company took turns yelling things at me like, "George Bush is a terrorist!" (I am a registered Democrat and voted for Gore, by the way.) At one point, Bluto came back out to threaten me again. "You really want to get your ass kicked, don't you?” I started screaming, "This peace activist is threatening me with physical violence!" A police car actually drove by to investigate. Then everyone left me alone and went on with the show.
In the past, I would always have sacrificed security for civil liberties and would still rather err on the side of openness and freedom. However, it is now painfully clear just how much the terrorists, who attacked our Tribeca neighborhood on 9/11, truly despise our civil liberties and would like nothing more than see those precious freedoms eroded. They will lose that battle as well. In its history, the United States has overcome the Sedition Act, the appalling internment of Japanese-Americans and even “McCarthyism,” and come back as an ever freer and more open society. Our national libertarian impulses are instinctive and powerful. And after looking behind a particular curtain of the anti-war movement and finding an eager embrace of totalitarianism, John Ashcroft seems, if ever-so-slightly, less terrifying.