A friend of mine recently said, “I miss the people of September 12, 2001.” She quickly pointed out she DID NOT want another 9/11. But in context of the deep divisions in our country right now, what she missed was the solidarity among Americans the day after 9/11, when there was not the factionalism and tribalism we see now. “Where are those people?” she lamented. “I know they are still out there.”
I thought of her words when I came across the op-ed in the Washington Post this week by Chesley B. 'Sully' Sullenberger III, the airline captain who successfully made an emergency landing on the Hudson river January 15, 2009 saving 155 lives with the help of his crew. Link to the op-ed below.
Captain “Sully” poses a similar quandry as my friend, albeit in terms more familiar to military officers and leadership consultants. He asks where our “unit cohesion” has gone and points out that when a team, army, or community loses such cohesion, defeat and dissolution quickly follows. He goes on to say that as a country, [W]e are in a struggle for who and what we are as a people . . . The fabric of our nation is under attack.”
Both these observations take me back to a dinner I attended New Year’s Eve, 2001. As the final hours of a traumatic year ticked down, the meal, of course, turned to the tragedy still fresh on everyone’s mind. One relative at the table expressed his desire for a more aggressive stance on terrorism, insisting upon an eye for an eye approach. He asked those of us seated around the table, “If someone broke into your house, shot your family, wouldn’t you want to go out, find them, and shoot them back? Wouldn’t you be justified?”
My father was at that dinner—a former Catholic priest, retired federal judge, and my lifelong spiritual mentor. Dad answered him, “Well, yes, I probably would want that, but whether or not it would be ‘justified,’ who am I to say? That is why I, as an aggrieved party, should not be judge, jury, and executioner. I think—I hope—I would first try to understand why this person committed this act of violence against me and my family. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Was someone holding his family hostage, someone with a grudge against me, or whom I had wronged? I think I’d like to know all this before I contributed to perpetuating the cycle of violence.”
It was my father’s piety and his time as a priest, traveling to some of the poorest parts of the world that inspired me to move to Kenya and live and work at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in 2002—the story I chronicle in my memoir Two Years of Wonder. I left on that trip with my own biases, prejudices, and presuppositions. But I think my dad’s words December of 2001, planted a seed whether I knew it or not. Because in the subsequent years in Kenya and in a myriad of other countries after, I learned that the story was never about me. Reflecting on only myself, as a writer and as an activist, just leads to navel gazing, solipsism, and shitty writing.
The real story (or stories), were the stories of the people I met. The children I met while at the orphanage, not to mention the friends I made in rehab years later: the “junkies” and “drunks” who poured love and wisdom into me when the suffering and deaths of the children I witnessed in Kenya brought me close to suicide.
What does any of this have to do with today’s news cycle?
I’d say, everything.
I’ve seen wall to wall coverage of this migrant caravan in the past weeks leading up to this midterm election. I’ve listened to the breathless commentary from news hosts speculating about the “diseases” these people carry into our country. Consistently, in television coverage I see wide angled aerial shots, from helicopters or drones, showing the column of people moving north. Inevitably this leads the “migrant caravan” to be treated as a monolith. Individuals are lost in that river of bodies and when that happens, we can’t hear their stories.
And it’s those individual stories—I know this from experience—will transform us.
Some journalists have endeavored to cover the people, the individuals. Those profiles, those people, their stories stand out to me. There is José Luis Hernández, who, as Jonathan Blitzer points out in the New Yorker: “[T]ried three times to come to the United States. When he was sixteen, after gangsters in Honduras threatened to kill him, he made the trip with two other boys, but they were attacked by extortionists at the Mexican border, robbed, and eventually apprehended by Mexican authorities . . . Two years later, he undertook the journey again, this this time with a slightly larger group. In Mexico, he fell from a moving freight train and lost an arm, half of one leg, and part of his left hand. Once more he was deported to Honduras. When he finally left the hospital, after a two-year recovery, Hernández began planning another trip . . . In 2015, he joined a group of disabled Honduran asylum seekers who called themselves the Caravan of the Mutilated, and together they reached Texas.”
There is the story of Chantal and Stefani, as profiled by CNN. Chantal, from Honduras, and Stephani from El Salvador both identify as transgender. As such, they face high rates of violence and persecution in many Latin American countries. They are traveling north in search of safety, as well as jobs as climate change (an overlooked actor in all this) has altered the labor landscape throughout Latin America.
In the same CNN story we encounter Iris, a twenty-one-year-old woman fleeing violence and endemic poverty with her siblings, nephews, and nieces, who rest by the side of the road with her sleeping or playing with dirty stuffed animals. Iris said she would take the first job available that she could find in the States. The risk of being captured by sex traffickers in transit (a real risk to women her age) does not deter her.
A caravan is a thing. As such it can be painted into something threatening, a menace that we can project our deepest fears and insecurities onto to. But seeing these people as a threat is akin to that relative of mine at the dinner table New Year’s Eve 2001, the one who proffered that he would be justified executing his hypothetical home invader. Judge, jury, and executioner.But I feel compelled to try to live up to my father’s proposal: to understand, to comprehend, before I act. This was all the more striking to me since my father actually was a federal judge. His forbearance makes sense though. After all, lives are at stake. It’s only when we draw in closer, take the time to read profiles like the ones in the New Yorker and CNN that the humanity of Jose, Chantal, Stefani, and Iris comes through. These are not some abstract home invaders. They are human beings. As Emmanuel Lévinas, a Jewish philosopher once said, the only thing we are ever converted by is “the face of the other.” The stories of others will transform us. If we let them.
This was what I learned Kenya and it was, ultimately, why it is the children’s stories that make up the lion share of Two Years of Wonder, not my own.
What is hardest for me to comprehend is that embracing the unknown was once such a defining feature of the American character. “The US is a country of immigrants,” teachers told us in school. “A place for every culture, creed, and ethnicity. Where everyone has a voice.” America (supposedly) is (was?) a country that pushes against boundaries and barriers, whether it was reaching the Moon or Mars, or diving into the realms of science, math, engineering and the arts. Innovation, exploration are supposed to be in our national DNA. But we can’t take a step towards either without facing and embracing the unknown, trying to comprehend what we don’t understand, even if what we don’t comprehend is another human being. That said, with their souls and our own at stake, isn’t the imperative that much greater to comprehend, to understand, to not shy away from the unknown, the unfamiliar, the alien?
I think my father realized that, seventeen years ago, on New Year’s Eve.
So today, in November 2018, on the eve of another divisive election, as we’re challenged to choose between fear or facts, ignorance or understanding, I DO wonder, where are the people of September 12, 2001? Did they all turn into my relative who wanted to chase down “invaders” with their guns? Or are they people like my father, who seeks understanding even today as he asks “Why are these people in the caravan migrating in the first place? What can we learn from their stories?” I learned in my travels that these questions, inevitably, lead us down a path of compassion and transformation.
That is a place I would rather make my destination.
 Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, ed. Jill Robibns (Stanford University Press: 2001)