A fifteen year-old lesson from New York

Reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road gave me many treasured lessons. Many are relevant on election years. One is especially relevant on the heels of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and particularly during an election year where fear and Islamophobia are on the ballot.
As a large portion of Americans react to fear of terrorism and religious-inspired radicalism with Islamophobia and an anti-immigrant mentality, I remember this.

Steinem recalls a conversation with a cab driver in New York city “only ten days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks”. “Downtown streets were covered with surrealistic gray ash and debris,” she says, “and gutters were filled with the bodies of birds that had been incinerated in flight.”
But then she rides in this man’s cab.

My driver was a quiet young white guy with a gravity that I sensed as soon as I got into his cab. We drove past construction fences covered with photos and notices posted by people who were still searching for missing relatives or friends or coworkers. There were also anonymous graffiti that had appeared as if by contagion all over New York with the same message: Our grief is not a cry of war.

“That’s how New Yorkers feel,” the driver said. “They know what bombing looks like, and they know the hell it is. But outside New York, people will feel guilty because they weren’t here. They’ll be yelling for revenge out of guilt and ignorance. Sure, we all want to catch the criminals, but only people who weren’t in New York will want to bomb another country and repeat what happened here.”

“He was right,” she says, “Even before it was clear that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 […] 75 percent of New Yorkers opposed the U.S. bombing of Iraq. But a national majority supported it.”

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a (widely misreported) claim that no major terror attack struck the U.S. after the passage of the PATRIOT Act. Giuliani is making the implication that the empowerment of the surveillance state, especially on Muslims, was related to a failure of major terror attacks to take place after 9/11 on U.S. soil. Perhaps it was related (there is mixed evidence on whether the PATRIOT act worked). Also related, perhaps, is George W. Bush’s refusal to empower Islamophobic rhetoric, Instead stating, less than a week after 9/11, “Islam is Peace.” Perhaps, I add, that a compassionate, understanding state is more equipped to handle terror threats, to empower communities to self-monitor and self-report, to empower communities to teach, affirm, and re-affirm peace, when it refuses to paint these communities with a broad brush.

Excerpts in this post are taken from Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, pp. 72–3, Chapter III. The chapter is entitled “Why I Don’t Drive”. It describes insightful and perspective-changing experiences Steinem had by talking to cab drivers and public transit passengers over years of traveling around the world.