September 21, 2001

A Glossary For Our Times

By: Richard Rodriguez

During situations of extremity—in great grief or fear, shock or joy—words are inadequate. Which is why, during situations of extremity, rather than speak, we more easily weep or scream or turn stone silent.

After the morning of September 11, words tumbled at us from the media until we could listen or read no more. And politicians and civic officials gave speeches, most of which we forgot or only half-heard.

And yet we need words, now that numbness fades.

But the old words fail us. Foremost among the misnomers of the last week is that word "terrorism." That noun has filled the air, like the acrid stench from the sites of carnage in Washington, Pennsylvania, and lower Manhattan.

But anyone who has been listening to America has not heard voices in terror. On that terrible Tuesday morning, the so-called "terrorists" did not send the nation into a panic. Rather, people I know spoke of a psychological state closer to shock.

Friends told me of first watching the images of destruction, and feeling nausea. People talked of shivering for hours on that late summer day. And feeling faint.

As the days followed, many people spoke of a listlessness that came over them. Not terror, but an inability to concentrate. And a dull doubt that the matters that normally preoccupy us—deadlines, errands, petty quarrels—matter at all.

Now from the Middle East, from crowds of men and boys, we hear the name of "Allah" eagerly invoked to celebrate suicide and rejoice in the murder of the innocent. Every religion, through history, has similarly blasphemed against the name of God.

In the United States, from pulpits and from government offices, there has been a remarkable and admirable refusal to blame Islam or to implicate American Arabs in the crimes of recent days.

The American majority has not been so careful and free of jingoism in generations past. But that is only to say: Something is different now.

More often than the mindless chant of "USA, USA," one hears Americans speak quietly, resolutely, of the future. And with a sense of the tragic.

By a huge majority, polls indicate that we Americans support severe military retaliation. But most Americans I hear say they recognize the Middle East as a quagmire. And facing us is always the example of Israel—its failed policy of retaliation.

The tragic sense—as the Greeks taught us and Shake-speare, as older cultures understand—recognizes that there are times when a person has to act, not because he wants to or even believes his action will settle anything, but because he must.

Tragic history leaves humans no choice.

There is wisdom in tragedy, I think; but tragedy is not a sensibility that has come easily to us as Americans. We traditionally have tended toward optimism and a belief that action can be decisive. These days, one hears from Washington, particularly, a new American language of the long haul, of difficulty ahead, years of sacrifice.

Clearly we have entered a new phase of American history, and we are in need of a new glossary.

In this new era the word that has been so roughly taken from us is the word "normal." (Who can imagine getting onto a plane or taking an elevator in a high-rise or sitting in a crowd at a baseball game without a momentary shudder, the aftershock from September 11?)

Without a sense of the normal, we are destined, I think, to become a more cautious people in our daily lives.

But, as we've been inching away from September 11, I have been struck by the desire of Americans for the mundane—to water the lawn, to finish the crossword puzzle, to get back to work, to watch a baseball game. It is not that we want to "get back to normal." Rather, we hunger now for the everyday, precisely because we know that the normal is lost.

So-called terrorists, through all the terrible decades of the twentieth century, never understood their fellow humans. The Nazis, for example, never understood that by bombing London they were actually making Britons more resolute.

People who are daily under attack from so-called terrorists behave counter-intuitively. People do not cower. Rather they insist on having sex, and going to movies, and listening to music, and playing soccer.

So-called terrorists continue in their dark folly. They do not attack tanks or an opposing army. Instead, they put bombs in pizza parlors and hospitals and subway cars. They try to disrupt the everyday.

But, clearly, there is a hunger in America now, in all of us, for the everyday. We find our lives, not in the extraordinary, but in the mundane. Which is why, a week after September 11, Americans are renting videos and running red lights and talking about Barry Bonds.

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