It's been two months since 9/11 and Michael is on a crosstown bus reading Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century when a man wearing a turban gets on and sits down in the seat next to him.
Michael though is a liberal. Michael always believed that he identified with the plight of oppressed people all over the world even though he grew up in an upper middle class suburb incorporated into a town specifically to keep the adjoining lower class population out. He feels tremendous guilt over being afraid of that man in the turban.
"He's just a regular guy," Michael tells himself, "just probably going to work at his job and earning a living for his family. He's not a terrorist and you have no right to be afraid of him and treat him as if he is one. You're acting the way Grandpa does when a black man sits near him."
Still as the man in the turban sits calmly watching the shops and delis pass by, Michael cannot rid himself of the gnawing fear. Worse than the fear itself is that it is a fear that undermines his self-perception as enlightened, tolerant and liberal. The Michael who is afraid of a man in a turban on a bus is a stranger to Michael's own values, yet it is undeniably him.
Even after the man in the turban has gotten off at the next stop, the conflict continues to churn inside him. His fear of a Muslim makes him a despicable racist in his own eyes. Either the fear or the liberalism must go. This is the conflict between liberal values and the changing post 9/11 world that millions of Americans were processing in the weeks and months after September 11th. Even as Michael rode that bus, many others who had thought themselves liberals were undergoing their own journeys into the tangled hearts of their own value systems and the moral shadings of their political philosophies.
As the bus drives on, there are two routes that Michael can take still sitting in his seat. He can wake up to the reality that America is at war and that his fears are not unreasonable. That his basic moral compass was good but that it has its limitations, and that while being born a Muslim does not inherently make you evil, no more than being born a Russian under Communism or a German under Hitler did, continuing to identify with Islam, Marxism or National Socialism is a choice that aligns you with a constellation of brutal philosophies bent on the conquest of all they consider their enemies and as such makes you reasonably open to suspicion. Islam is not a race but a creed and in the aftermath of 9/11, a creed whose followers had proven themselves to be ruthless and dangerous.
There are liberals who indeed take that route. Who support the War on Terror, do not weep for the terrorists imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and do not believe that Abu Ghraib was on a par with the Holocaust. They support the troops and while they may have doubts about the War in Iraq, they do not align themselves with the shrill hysteria of the Cindy Sheehans or Ward Churchills. When they hear the news of another terrorist being killed, they smile a little and turn the page.
That is not however the route most take. It is not the route Michael takes. As Michael struggles with his fear, his fear turns to anger directed at the man in the turban, at the bus driver, at the government and at himself. He is angry at all these because he is afraid and because they are all responsible for his fear. That anger focuses and narrows. Over and over again Michael cannot ignore the fact that he should be angry at the source of his fear, at the source of the betrayal of his own values, at himself.
Yet Michael is far too egotistical and too subsumed in a sense of entitlement stretching back to his privileged childhood to stay angry at himself for very long. He calls on that anger, the anger of the privileged to quash his fear and self-hatred by first denying the fear and then finding someone to blame for making him afraid. Not the terrorists. Not even himself. But the government.
"The government is out to terrorize us," he thinks, "this is just like Nuremberg or Heidelberg or something like that where Hitler set up a bombing and used it to take power. The people in power always want us to be afraid of the minorities so they can keep us afraid and voting for them. They're the ones we should really be worried about."
He leaves the bus headed off to work at the silicon alley dot com. During his lunch break at the Starbucks downstairs, he talks it over with his co-workers, most of whom pretend they came to that same conclusion right away.
They quote slogans from left-wing progressive sites to each other all with the same comforting message.
"Millions of people die of cancer every year, but do we go around being afraid of every smoker."
"When Tim McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City, did we bomb Idaho?"
"The real threat isn't the terrorists, it's that the government will use this to suspend civil liberties, declare martial law, initiate the draft and turn this into a fascist dictatorship."
"It can happen here."
The entire exercise of warped logic, twisted reasoning and paranoid delusions may seem crazed, but actually represents a safety blanket for Michael and his co-workers. A comfort zone allowing them to maintain their liberal values and direct their ire right back at the same target they had been directing their ire up until September 10th.
"He stole the election with the aid of the Supreme Court and his daddy who bought it for him. There's nothing those people won't do."
By those people "they" no longer refers to the terrorists who killed 3000 people as "they" did in the days after the attacks. By "those people" they now mean once again Republicans, Conservatives and whatever nebulous forms drift into the zone to the right of theirs. Those who were their political enemies before 9/11 and now can be again.
By hating them and directing all the blame and venom at them, Michael believes he has finally managed to heal himself of the psychological trauma of September 11. But as is often the case when a patient is left alone to deal with a trauma, rather than healing himself, he merely redirects it creating a new obsession. He has displaced his fear of the very real threat of terrorism into an imaginary one over a Republican dictatorship and resolved his conflict over his own values and sense of self by projecting them onto those very same Republicans whom he will ceaselessly accuse of being racists and of hating Muslims.
It is a topic he will become very passionate about and will become a regular accusation he will wield aimed at conservatives. Like most accusations it is actually a Rorschach inkblot revealing more about Michael than it does about his targets.
In a later blog post Michael will write about his bus encounter. In his fictionalized version of events he will talk about how he overcame his fear and talked to the man in the turban, whose name he learned was Mohammed and who had a wife and children back in Pakistan whom he was working to support through menial jobs in Queens. At the end Michael will write that this human contact gave him the revelation that it wasn't Mohammed who is his enemy, but the government that wants him to believe that.
Of course the government has said no such thing. Indeed the government at all levels has gone to great lengths to emphasize that Islam is a religion of peace, that Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans are our neighbors whom we should embrace with open arms.
When Michael writes and says that it is the government that wanted him to hate Muslims, he really means that it was a part of him that he denies and represses which feared and accordingly hated Muslims. Whenever he writes venomously about the crimes of the US government and the racism of conservatives, Michael is really chronicling an inner conflict. A struggle within himself to put down those parts of him which are still angry and afraid. He has given labels to those parts like 'government' and 'republicans' and 'warmongers' and 'chickenhawks' to externalize them and set them apart from himself and outside himself. His passionate political activism is just an engine that drives that delusion.
He reads Dailykos daily, participates in the Democratic Underground and has even flirted with denying 9/11 even happened in the form of the so-called 911 Truth Movement. Yet all this only leaves him more frustrated than before, because it itself is a form of denial. Rather than addressing the real source of his worries and neurotic behavior, he has displaced them and they continue to gnaw at him. His growing obsession with the War in Iraq (and if he is Jewish the conflict in Israel too) is an attempt to rebuild a shattered self-image with crazy glue. And sometimes during the long nights he can see the cracks.
His parents put down his increasingly angry attitude and constant monopolizing of any conversation with his views as youthful enthusiasm. His friends who feel much the way he does describe it as passionate advocacy. The therapist he briefly visited couldn't see it for what it is either, because his therapist is trapped in the same box.
On that bus Michael had a choice between childhood and adulthood. Between growing up and realizing that the real world had impinged on his ideals and that as a consequence they had to be modified to acknowledge reality and between childishly clinging to his values at any cost by creating and living in a fantasy world in which the real enemy is his own government and his own people.
No Michael has not come to love Big Brother. But then few have. Michael has instead come to love Little Osama. To subsume his fear of terrorism by shouting loudly that the real terrorists are the government. By engaging in a daily two minutes of hate that usually stretches into two hours ranting about the War on Terror. By believing fervently that his enemies are not those who changed the world on September 11, but those who chose to grow up and shoulder the burden of the real world in response to it.
It does not matter, nor has it ever mattered to them what Che or Osama or the Black Panthers really stand for. To the troubled infants of the West believing themselves eternally secure in their cradles, they represent the freedom of the irrational, the liberation of the purest anarchic childhood. They eternal student. The eternal angry activist. The eternal bicyclist. The eternal child of the West, the progressive Peter Pan, fiercely determined to never grow up.