Last Tuesday morning, we gathered around our televisions and were bathed in fear and horror. At the Mid-City offices of Gambit Weekly, we ran from our cars into our conference room, where the television played out the tragedy before us. Instinctively, we reached out to co-workers who knew people who might be among the dead or missing. We hurried to our telephones and called our own loved ones, even if they were only across town, just to hear their voices. In the days since, video images of the tragedies in New York and Washington have played before our eyes again and again. The sickening specter of one tower sinking into the ground, followed by its twin. The buckling of an entire wing of the seemingly impenetrable Pentagon. Flame, ashes, smoke, death.
More personal scenes of terror remained -- and will forever remain -- off-camera. In our imaginations, we see handicapped workers trapped in wheelchairs, parents holding onto their children on a plane being hijacked, frenzied people trapped in stairwells.
We talk about symbols destroyed, of American vulnerability newly exposed in blasts of concrete and steel. To the world, skyscrapers symbolize New York City, and New York City symbolizes the United States. Wrote Brendan Gill in the New Yorker a decade ago: "In those days when most visitors from abroad arrived by sea, skyscrapers were not simply marvels of engineering, called into being by the high cost of land on a tiny island, but also metaphors, leaping up against the horizon like so many beckoning gateposts to the city."
Those fallen towers now symbolize something else, something horrible. Last week, the World Trade Center, filled with workers, beckoned to the monstrous tacticians who struck them. Little else in America, when toppled, would have equaled a physical force so enormous that it seemed to have spewed up from the core of the earth or to have been hurled down by an angry god. Human beings created these structures, but human beings also destroyed them. And it will be a long time before we will recover from this.
Meanwhile, many are channeling their anger, fear and sorrow into positive action. Among the many moving images from last week was the sight of people across America -- from New York to New Orleans, from Washington to Los Angeles -- taking the time to help in a most personal way by lining up to donate blood. Maintaining the national blood supply remains a priority. Anyone who would like to assist, either by giving blood or volunteering, can contact the local Blood Center at 524-1322.
The local chapter of the American Red Cross also saw the best of New Orleans last week when it received an outpouring of calls and donations. The Red Cross, aided by WDSU-TV, collected more than $500,000 from local residents and visitors. At press time, that number was still increasing. NBC's coverage of New York and Washington was spliced with scenes of New Orleanians -- young children, old people, a procession of motorcyclists -- emptying their purses and piggybanks into the community coffers. The local Red Cross chapter also held training sessions for dozens of "spontaneous volunteers" who were taught to answer phones and help run local Red Cross offices should longtime members be summoned to the aftermath of the attacks. Those interested in volunteering or donating supplies or money can call 833-7556.
In addition, the Salvation Army this week will likely ask for items such as plastic gloves, cleaning supplies and bottled water, says regional spokeswoman Pam McCaffrey. Anyone seeking to donate supplies or money can contact (800) SALARMY, or visit the organization's Web site at www.salvationarmy.org.
Last week's attacks have cast a shadow over our hearts and souls, but lights of hope still shine through. As we fear for the safety of the country and the future of our children, we have anxiously followed the stories of people who escaped death -- and we marvel at the few who were rescued from beneath tons of debris.
The events last week produced unforgettable heroes. Firefighters, police, paramedics, nurses and doctors risked their lives -- and many gave their lives -- to help strangers. Emergency workers saw hundreds of their colleagues disappear in the rubble when the Twin Towers collapsed, yet did not flinch from re-entering the dangerous wreckage to continue aiding victims.
News reports tells stories of victims who refused to allow their hijacked airplane to become a weapon aimed at even more victims. Summoning courage from untapped sources, they fought their attackers and, it is widely assumed, forced their plane to the ground.
As we examine how our security was breached, we also acknowledge that our national leaders and law enforcement offices have moved with unprecedented speed and zeal to identify those responsible for the unspeakable carnage. Equally quick were our international allies who gave early indications that they understand that this was not just an attack on America, but also an assault on the global community.
Yet as Americans respond to this horror in a unifying sense of cooperation, drawing together in our faith and sense of compassion, we must also be cautious. Impatient for justice, we might seek mere retribution -- and in the wrong places. We risk assuming that our enemies might also be our neighbors. During the past week, some have vented their outrage at the suspected Middle Eastern attackers by impugning Americans of Arabic heritage -- as well as those Arabs among us who have legally chosen to live and work in our country.
We all are angry. Our blood boils. Our rage is palpable. But directing hatred at innocent civilians, particularly fellow Americans, only adds to the cycle of violence. One goal of terrorists is to destroy our society's values and institutions, not just our economy, our government and our sense of security. Those who committed last week's attacks may have temporarily accomplished some of that. We must not give them any further victories. If we now turn against each other, we strike even harder at our own foundation.
We must not allow that to happen.
George Andrews, a mental health counselor and an organizer of the local American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, acknowledges that many Americans of Middle Eastern heritage feel afraid these days. They relay stories of threats to mosques, businesses and other Arab-American gathering places. Some, including Andrews, have been confronted by hostile New Orleanians. Local schools reported race-based skirmishes.
Last week, we asked Andrews to visit Gambit Weekly. "We can understand how adolescents can get carried away, but we are not adolescents," he told us. Much of the tension, he maintained, is fueled by "a lot of misinformation about Islam and about Arab Americans."
He reminded us: "Islam has the same conservative and liberal elements as any other religion. You cannot just, in one sweep, attack a whole group of people.
"Scapegoating perverts itself in many ugly forms," he continued. "When you call the United States a great Satan and great evil, and you bomb a country, that's scapegoating. Those victims were the ultimate scapegoats. When we stop scapegoating, we will have true peace in the world."
The word "scapegoat" itself comes from an ancient ritual described in the Old Testament. In it, the sins of Israel's people were symbolically laid all on the head of a goat, which was exiled into the desert to die. Ironically, it is a ritual designed to achieve forgiveness -- not retribution.
Many still harbor a tendency to punish one person for the transgressions of another. Such senselessness lies at the core of the horror we witnessed last week. It has to stop.
The United States possesses a moral core that is not readily apparent to others, sometimes not even to ourselves, until tragedy strikes. At its best, it is the natural inclination of our diverse people to band together as united citizens, united cities, united states, to solve our common problems and to overcome great odds. We must work together to honor the victims, heal the survivors and seek justice. This will require patience as well as courage.
We are devastated by losses of this magnitude. At the same time, we realize that America has recovered from adversity before and will do so again. Let us begin by remembering that it is our diversity that truly unites us, and from it we will always draw extraordinary strength.