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From Beirut to 9/11:
When Barbarism Follows Barbarism

What used to be. (© Pierre Tristam / FlaglerLive)

[This piece was originally published in the News-Journal on Sept. 16, 2001. See also: "Since 9/11: A Reckoning."]

We must have missed it by 20, 25 minutes — a car bomb at a busy intersection that left the usual crater rimmed by the usual scattering of body parts. Forty dead or so, as I remember it. A pretty good score for a car bomb, which usually netted 10 or 12 deaths on average. So this one, plus the close call, got our attention for a day or two. Then it was back to driving around as if nothing drastic had happened.

It was the only way. We couldn’t live sanely otherwise. And comparatively speaking, nothing really bad had happened. The odd car bomb was better than daily shellings and sniping all over the place. That was Lebanon in 1977. The civil war, which had started in 1975, was actually on sabbatical that year, giving people the illusion of peace while the gunslingers reloaded and dug deeper trenches. We thought car bombs were just aftershocks, not warm- ups for more.


9/11 on Good Morning America

But more came, from every side. Lebanon is not even four times the size of Volusia County but it became a multiplex of wars, with each little sector featuring one butchery or another. We had the Syrian army, the Christian militias, the Palestinians and their Muslim allies, trigger-happy Israelis and many lesser fanatics still honing grudges. They all looked alike, and they all killed alike in the name of the same God, mostly because some spelled His name slightly differently than others or claimed that their holy book was the older deed to the Holy Land.

It was good to leave. I was 14 when I moved to New York City in 1979. Walking the city streets every day, I took years to get over the fear that any car, any thing, anywhere could blow up at any moment. I got over any lingering attachments for the old country, too. Lebanon wasn’t worth it, plain and simple. Not compared with what I had here. I hadn’t merely left Lebanon. I had escaped it and its lawless mentality. I remember climbing up the World Trade Center for the first time that summer of ’79 and thinking: This is a very good place to be. A much better place.

I had exactly the same feeling six weeks ago when I climbed up the South Tower for the last time so I could show my 7-year-old daughter what it was like. We sat on the tiny metal steps against the windows of the indoor observation deck, our heads against the glass between those steel pillars we now know to have been precisely set 3 feet 4 inches apart, the tower’s sheer cliff of steel below and New York Harbor beyond. She was excited by the Statue of Liberty, which she was seeing for the first time.

I was excited for more arrogant reasons — by the power of the city, which radiates in every direction like its avenues and bridges, that power that had been my first real harbor, seemingly invulnerable and alien to the barbarism I’d come from.

Shards of the Twin Towers

Hazy remains. (© Pierre Tristam / FlaglerLive)

And then Tuesday. The attacks. The collapse of the two towers. My arrogance, and not only mine, humbled. I heard myself checking in with my parents in New York, with my brother who’d flown out of Washington that very morning, repeating those same questions I’d heard in Lebanon after a bomb would go off. “Are you all right?” “Anybody we know that’s hurt?” “Are you traveling again?” Those questions weren’t supposed to be part of the script here. Nor were explosions that made Beirut’s car bombs seem like firecrackers in comparison.

Revulsion over the losses in New York and Washington aside, the attack triggered a succession of fears: That the barbarism I so gladly left behind 23 years ago is here. That those liberties that light up every immigrant’s entry into this country are about to dim, however slightly. (The same liberties light up every American’s life, but those born here are accustomed to the light.) And that it would be open season on Arabs. Incidentally, or maybe not so incidentally anymore, I am an Arab, whatever that means to the average American. Since an Arab is being blamed for Monday’s attacks (and I have only a few remaining doubts that Osama bin Laden joysticked the coup), open season is a surer bet than an economic recovery in the next six months: Americans preach diversity, but they can practice xenophobia with the best of them. It was Mark Twain, after all, who, when confronted with Arabs during his trip to the Holy Land, could only compare their languid demeanor to “that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.” Now that’s American efficiency: two lines, two races, two kills.

Imagine that sort of innocence unleashed abroad for the last century. Other nations haven’t had to imagine it, of course. They’ve been living it, as have various races at various times here at home. Arabs — or should that be “Muslims”? — are only the latest candidates. In this case, xenophobia and etymology are tied together.

The word terrorism as it is used in the United States is a racist word, almost synonymous with Arab, itself synonymous, though quite wrongly, with Palestinian (when the news is about Israel) or Muslim (when the judgments pan over the entire Middle East). There are millions of Arab Jews and millions of Arab Copts. There are a few million Arabs, mostly Lebanese, who pretend not to be Arabs. And the majority of America’s 2.5 million Arabs, most of them Lebanese and Egyptians, are Christians. I, for example, am an Arab Roman Catholic, not to mention a Yankees fan.

The finger-pointing at bin Laden has the effect of slightly upgrading America’s awareness of certain distinctions from insulting to merely ignorant. It is also forcing the factoid brigade at CNN to look at an atlas to prepare for Bush II’s light show over Kabul. Afghanistan is neither an Arab country nor a Middle East country, nor is bin Laden himself an Afghani. He is a rich Saudi exile, hiding out in the craggy hills of Afghanistan with his satellite television and his millions (in dollars, not in followers), and running a school of terrorism for all takers — Bosnians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Algerians, Tamil rebels, and whoever else cares to ante up shards of hate.

9/11 Vigils of Union Square

Vigils of Union Square (© Pierre Tristam / FlaglerLive)

Look a bit closer and you discover that the biggest concentrations of the world’s Muslims isn’t anywhere near the Middle East. They are in Pakistan, in India and in those southern formerly Soviet republics whose guttural names Twain would have punned into prejudice, and a snorkel away from Australia in Indonesia, home to 200 million Muslims. Look closer still and you discover that Islam is as varied as Christianity, as noble in its historic achievements as it has been murderous in its con quests. True, nothing tops Christianity in the breadth and consistency of its genocidal crusades, its inquisitions and holocausts. But nobody’s counting because nobody is interested in looking back too far.

In that case, look around. Terrorism — as Oklahoma City and Columbine so cruelly proved, and as America’s gun-ridden streets prove every day at lower ebb — is not an Arab specialty. Nor is fundamental- ism a Muslim creation. Some Southern Baptists speak the language of ayatollahs. A few are winning elections. Tuesday’s body count aside, American civilization as we know it (as we immigrants crave it) is under attack more from within than it is from without.

All of which should make the job of lynching Arabs quite a bit more complicated than looking for the nearest olive skin, although I fear it won’t. Not many voices are rattling olive branches on talk radio’s combustible tribunals. Guests on a talk show on KSFO-AM in San Francisco a few years ago wondered if Americans should be paid a bounty for shooting illegal immigrants. I’m sure many Americans would gladly shoot Arabs for free.

I have been fortunate enough to be called a sand nigger or a towel head many fewer times than being called worse for being a liberal, which I take to mean that my assimilation into the American melting pot, searing and badly salted though it may be at times, has been relatively successful. But I embraced liberalism as a college student because — to return to synonyms — it is the language of pluralism and tolerance, better known these days as “diversity.” More than English, it is a language without which the United States cannot survive.

Beginning with the Sedition Act of 1798 the country has been through waves of repression that make a mockery of pluralism and tolerance, from the Red Scare to the drug war. It is impossible to predict how severe the reaction to Tuesday’s attacks will be. History suggests that it will be severe, and that it will once again test the nation’s principles. History also suggests that the country generally comes out of these waves stronger than it went in. I’m hopeful. But like most immigrants — and unlike most Americans — I take nothing for granted. Not anymore, anyway.

While waiting with my daughter in an endless ticket line to go up to the observation deck of the Twin Towers a few weeks ago, we listened to the voices around us — Italian and Spanish, some German, some Far Eastern languages, some Arabic, but not much English.

The variety of faces and the dearth of white ones reminded me of that December day in 1986 in Federal District Court in Brooklyn when I was part of a similar group — a couple of hundred of us — bunched up in a courtroom, reciting, in accented English this time, the oath of citizenship.

Since then, visiting the World Trade Center has been as much pilgrimage as pleasure, a reaffirmation of what it’s meant to belong here. There is a relief in becoming American that never abandons you afterward. Like a faith of sorts. It’s strange to feel — to have felt — from 1,400 feet up such an immense sense of security. That much I had taken for granted.

Washington Square Park After 9/11

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21 Responses for “From Beirut to 9/11:
When Barbarism Follows Barbarism”

  1. kurt says:

    great article pierre i enjoyed it!

  2. emile says:

    Thank you, Pierre. This was just as good the second time around. I remember reading this in 2001, and marveling at your eloquence. I’ve been a fan ever since.

  3. EMPM of palm coast says:

    9/11 reopened old wounds.
    May 22 1986 a car bomb exploded in busy middle class town just outside Beirut town called ” Sin El Feel ” ( word to word translation is the tooth of the Elephant) leaving over 275 injured or dead, my 47 year old mother( mother of 9) was one the dead ones.
    at that time I was living in NEW YORK, Group of friend, neighbors, clients of mine asked the local catholic Priest to perform a memorial mass for my mother. Walking into the church I was overwhelmed, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Muslims and jewish where their, filling the church wall to wall, tears rolled down my cheeks,, all those American Citizen are here for me and my family and at that time I am not American citizen yet.
    It was very emotional afternoon, the mass ended with joke from the Priest ” your lucky day, we let you in the catholic church even you are an orthodox”. On the way out my sister and I got approached by the same group asked us about the rest of the family knowing we are 9 siblings, we informed them that the concern is my Father and 2 teenage siblings the rest are adults and have families. that afternoon, the same group asked some of top officials of New York state for help to bring my Father and teenage siblings to live in New York under my care to ease things on the family. In short period of time got them here by boat from Beirut to Greese then on the plain to New York, even they offered the money for the travel expense I said no thanks ( thanks God for Credit Cards).
    Years went on, that support my family and I got, and the success of my siblings put me at ease, remembering my best friend my mother in my prayers. life went on , moved to Palm Coast, kids, larger family made things easier specially after I got my first girl and named her after my mother.

    Then that morning 9/11/ 2001 watching the news enjoing conversation with my Bride sipping on my coffee killing time for an business appointement @ 11 am, the first plain hit, my wife looked me saying you look like the day you got your mother bad news stop it, it is only an accident, bad one, stop it. My response was no honey it is way more then accident another one going to happen,” don’t be negative” she said, and all of you know the rest and what happen that day.

    since that day the old wounds opened up, shivering and stuttering on the phone looking for my brother, calling his office located in the world trade center, after many hours got hold of him that day he had bussiness to take care of up state, he never went to his office that morning.

    9 years later those wounds still open and bleeding too keeping live memory of 1975 the begining of the war in Beirut, my Mother death,sept 11, I don’t think it will ever go away neither I will let it go away for the sake of children and my grand children, and for USA and the Citizen of the US , I will be looking over my sholder to protect this country for the rest of my life. and I hope from all of you to do it too.

  4. Pierre Tristam says:

    I feel for you EMPM. Whether it’s 1977, 1986 or 2001, it might as well be yesterday when the sound of those bombs is still ringing in our ears and their memories making our hearts still skip. That’s still more bearable than the loss you suffered.

  5. EMPM OF PALM COAST says:

    thanks Pierre.

  6. Greg says:

    Save a soldier, burn a religious extremist.

  7. Ken Dodge says:

    “The word terrorism as it is used in the United States is a racist word, almost synonymous with Arab, itself synonymous, though quite wrongly, with Palestinian (when the news is about Israel) or Muslim (when the judgments pan over the entire Middle East). There are millions of Arab Jews and millions of Arab Copts. There are a few million Arabs, mostly Lebanese, who pretend not to be Arabs. And the majority of America’s 2.5 million Arabs, most of them Lebanese and Egyptians, are Christians.”

    Two thoughts:
    1) Had George W. Bush made it clear in his first post-9/11 address on September 20th that it is not “terrorism” we fight, but “Islamic terrorism”, this ‘racist’ thing would hardly exist.

    2) I know of Arab Israelis, but I had not heard about Arab ‘Jews’.

    • ryan says:

      It is unfortunate how much hate and violence is incited against Arab Christians and Arab Jews. It is especially sad how that Coptic Christians have to live in Cairo.

  8. Anita says:

    This excerpt was taken from Jason Linkins’ 09/12/2010 blog, Talking Heads, featured in the HuffingtonPost:

    ‘”Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. . . ” Colin Powell

    “I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

    And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life.” __Jason Linkins.

    To see the picture of this Muslim-American mother mourning her soldier-son, visit HuffingtonPost.com

  9. Liana G says:

    Thank you Pierre, thank you Anita. When terriorist activities are carried out by our gov’t it’s called ‘spreading democracy’. When it’s Americans upon Americans, it’s gets brushed over and very little is spoken in rememberance. And when it’s Americans in a foreign land, they are called ‘activists’ or ‘missionaries’. Is it any wonder we are confused!

    What is very disheartening is that the poorest demographics of Americans are the Native Americans to whom ALL this land belongs. Shameful isn’t it?

  10. Geezer says:

    My younger brother was in the north tower that morning, having just arrived for work.
    He was running late that day, and almost missed being killed that morning.
    He was thirty-five years old, and left behind three little girls, and his wife.

    I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was an exquisite fall morning with the bluest skies I ever saw.

    I also recall vividly my father’s screams that morning on Long Island, NY.
    He was watching TV at the bedside and witnessed the murder of his son and three-thousand others.
    I was his caregiver, Dad was terminally ill with cancer. Can you picture that scene?

    I can’t begin to tell you how we have suffered as a family – I can’t begin to tell you how we continue to suffer to this very day. I have grown numb, I have seen the towers collapse on TV hundreds of times.
    It’s all very surreal to me, and I awaken every day hoping it was just a bad dream.

    I lost my brother who was my best friend, six weeks later my father died in my arms.

    Now I care for our elderly mother, she has dementia and PTSD,
    It hurts me when those images are repeated on TV, and how she screams out eleven years later.

    My brother’s crime? He went to work that day. This was a man who helped in soup kitchens,
    who volunteered for charity work, who would give you the shirt off his back.

    All that remains of my brother is a fragment of his jaw, buried in Holy Rood Cemetery in Long Island.

    To all of those who have lost a loved-one to murder: My heart goes out to each and every one of you.
    May we all one day, learn to respect each other, and live in peace.

    We are truly fragile beings.

    Peace.

  11. JL says:

    May we always remember 9/11 and those that lost their life to hatred. And may we never succumb to the same. We should all fill our hearts with love. It is hatred that brought down those towers, and killed all of those innocent people. If we want to heal and have a better world, we need less hate, more love. Even of those that we disagree with. God Bless America and the families of those lost 11 years ago.

  12. w.ryan says:

    Great writing Pierre! It’s amazing how my visuals to your words moved me. I remember clearly when I was told about the first plane that I looked out into the Bluest northwest sky to see the billowing smoke from the first plane. I had just dropped my kids off to school. I raced home to get my things to get down 1 Police Plaza to be deployed. Richlin, my wife, worked right down the block from World Trade. I was also concerned about her. I got to the foot of the bridge. I saw the injured crossing the the bridge. Horrifying. Some walking and some being transported by Ambulance. It was awful. We lost a good friend P.O. John Perry and many co-workers. John was turning in his retirement papers that morning. Good devoted Cops. We mustered at the rear of 1PP after all the commotion ad settled. They wanted a sketch artist to sketch some suspects to get out to the media. My partner, Steve Mancusi handled that job. I was deployed to Mott street to Houston. The air was acrid. The fear was real. But America came together like never before in my memory. Blessed be all f the victims and their families and to all the commenter above that suffered such great loss.

  13. Jim R says:

    Two things never mentioned in relation to 9/11 are the fact that it was a classic example of Blowback, and we as a nation do not recognize the concept of ” innocent civilians”. Examples are the massive bombing of cities in Germany and Japan during WW2, including the firebombing of Dresden,and the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many will say that those acts were necessary to end the war, maybe that’s true, but its certainly debatable.
    We were very careful when drawing up the Nuremberg principles how the Crimes against Humanity section was written because we didn’t want the bombings of civilian targets to be considered a crime.

      • Geezer says:

        I clicked on your link. I found it interesting that a Catholic priest would speak positively about
        the vaporization of 200,000 human-beings. Maybe that fellow didn’t get the memo of the 16,000
        Catholic Japanese women and children that were reduced to charred corpses in Nagasaki.

        All this talk from a guy that I wouldn’t permit babysitting my dog, much less my kids.
        A so-called man of God. I want to puke.

        “Thou shalt not kill.” Isn’t that one of the Ten Commandments?
        A man of the cloth – ha ha. He’s a whore – that’s what he is.

        You have a right to YOUR opinion, look elsewhere for rationalization or justification
        for the American Japanese atomic bombing. Don’t let some priest tell you it’s OK to mass-kill.
        Look to CREDIBLE voices for opinions, not Father Wilson Miscamble.

  14. Clint says:

    If the earth was to be invaded by an extraterrestrial life form that was hostile and wanted all human beings extinguished would all countries and religions join together and fight for the right to LIVE ? Or maybe a huge asteriod hurdling thru space on a collision course with earth. Maybe that’s what its going to take for humanity to become one race…The Human Race !

  15. Deep North says:

    Awesome article Pierre. It really show how the mentality of an immigrant’s perspective on the problem we faced today: terrorism. It is only sad to see how few evil people can captivate a nation, a group, or a nation, to use religion, whether it be Christianity, Muslims, Hindus, Jewish, Buddhists, to support a radical movement. Terrorism doesn’t have to be someone of a different color or belief. We should be afraid of some Americans advocating for radical changes than foreigners.

  16. ryan says:

    Good article. Good to call you an American, Pierre. I just hope we dont make the radical muslims sound like victims, because just like with street gangs, they make ethnic minorities look bad, and it is necessary to publicly acknowledge the difference. I just wish we would help only the Liberal Muslims around the world who want to live free and peacefully, not ensure that radical ones are given compassion. That is what has happened in Egypt, unfortunately. I have been very fortunate to have had black, hispanic, christian, jewish, buddhist, and hindu friends in the past, and we need to fight intolerance that tries to hide behind religion or political ideology, like radical Islam and racial supremacy, both nothing but poison.

  17. jespo says:

    I wonder, and maybe you could enlighten me as I always relish a good discussion: are those muslims who are now attacking US Embassys in the Middle East over what they perceive to be blasphemy of their prophet in a movie…are they fanatical extremists? All of them? Or are they simply muslims who have been ‘wronged’ or ‘insulted’? I find it hard to believe that that many fanatics, extremists, and possibly terrorists can come out of the woodwork that fast, and in that many numbers, be filmed rioting and burning and killing in several nations…and no one does anything to stop them? I find that incredulous that they’re all extremists.

    What I do find credulous, however, is the belief that they are all just muslims and were all offended at the movie. So, and probably without much internal gut searching and thoughtfulness decided that the blasphemy deserved death and destruction. All extremists? Not by a long shot.

  18. Dorothea says:

    @Jespo

    The only killings were in Libya, where, in addition to the four Americans killed, 10 Libyans who were injured or killed trying to save the Americans inside the Consulate. Don’t confuse the Libyan crisis with the other protests (like Romney did when he sent out his completely misinformed and politicicized message). The Libyan attack is now being investigated as planned and executed by terrorists.

    As for “coming out of the woodwork” as you say, the United States is not the only place in the world that has social networking that can bring people out in minutes.

    Maybe you are watching the wrong TV network, but I am watching the police forces of these countries trying to stop the extremists and hooligans who are protesting. They are protecting the American Embassies as they are required to do.

    [Dorothea, as of Thursday, there's been at least one killing in Lebanon, in the northern city of Tripoli, related to the rioting over the movie.--FL]

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