September Lightning


When lightning flashes on a stormy night, the world is lit up for a brief, frozen second. You see
the shape of the land, the path you have traveled. The lightning that struck on September 11
sent a hot, bright blaze across the political and cultural landscape, revealing things that we
may rather not know—or want each other to know. In the brutal honesty of the moment, we
stand with all our strengths and weaknesses exposed to the world.
The flash has dazed the left—we who fight the empire. Our people have been attacked by
people who oppose the people who oppress our people. This is heartbreaking, angering and
frightening. Understanding the complexity of the world is not a U.S. strength. We prefer our
plots Hollywood-clear, our struggles a simple us-vs.-them. We’re not prepared to know that
our memories of simple struggles are false.
In the days following the flash, I heard despair expressed a thousand ways, all telling us that
we are powerless, that solidarity is an illusion, that our world is beyond our ability to repair.
The paralysis of despair is a form of collusion with oppression. This may seem harsh. The
feelings, after all, are real. They also reflect how we’ve been manipulated and our complicity in
that manipulation. It’s a political matter: How we feel informs how we act. The antidote is
detaching ourselves, strand by strand, from the debilitating web of cynicism.
A cross section of U.S. demographics is buried in the rubble. The grief, anger and confusion
touch every community. The question is widespread and heartfelt: We’ve always been so
good. Why would anyone hate us so much?
Revenge! The call comes mostly from a part of the community known as the mainstream, a
peculiar U.S. euphemism for white people. Their self-esteem is high only when they can claim
the mantle of victimhood. In their selective memory the wars of conquest on the plains are
crystallized in a single moment called Custer’s Last Stand. The dismemberment of Mexico is
recalled as the Alamo. Slavery is forgotten. The long war in Indochina can be summarized in
the attack on the U.S.S. Mayaguez in the war’s last hours. The history of racism is reduced to
reverse discrimination. They celebrate the moments when “we” were outnumbered and
attacked. The present moment can be added to the list. It will not be connected to a million
Iraqi deaths, colonial wars, death squad armies, torture centers, drug-dealing mercenaries or
terrorist dictators. What matters is this moment, they insist. If we listen with care we might
notice that the passion for vengeance, the love of victimhood, has its roots in a deeply
repressed shame.
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Real crime in real time. The liberal politicians stumble over each other to salute their
commander. Soon they must ransack their districts for the $40 billion they gave him. Later
they will lose sleep over the images of collateral damage. Those who sign the death warrant
of the innocents will protest that the punishment was too harsh. Like weather vanes they
point the way the wind has gone.
The nation’s managers appear gripped by rabid war frenzy. In reality it’s pure calculation. They
have seized the moment to move agendas that were biding their time. “You side with us or
you are with the terrorists.” The terms for a new Cold War, so much like the old: If you
oppose us, you are the enemy. They have mistaken sorrow and anger for a groundswell of
support, and the miscalculation will cost them. Beyond the rippling flags runs deep unease. Old
images of endless war, draft cards and body counts were never truly erased. They lay
dormant until needed. Now, they reawaken. The days of a unified, loyal rearguard for the
empire are gone forever.
The brutal attacks of September and the unfolding aftermath will change the cultural
landscape in ways we cannot foresee. But they will not have changed everything: The dead
must be mourned, oppression is the fruit of greed, and hope is a revolutionary act.
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