Ariel Dorfman: Americans must now feel what the rest of us have known

'One way for Americans to overcome their trauma is to admit that their suffering is not unique'

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During the past 28 years, 11 September has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, ever since that Tuesday in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup, that day when death irrevocably entered our lives and changed us forever. And now, almost three decades later, the malignant gods of random history have wanted to impose upon the same country that we blamed for the coup that dreadful date, again a Tuesday, again an 11 September filled with death.

The differences and distances that separate the Chilean date from the American are, one must admit, considerable. The depraved terrorist attack against the most powerful nation on Earth has and will have consequences which affect all humanity. Whereas very few of the six billion people alive today could remember or would be able to identify what happened in Chile.

The resemblance I am evoking goes well beyond a facile and superficial comparison – for instance, that both in Chile in 1973 and in the United States today, terror descended from the sky to destroy the symbols of national identity: the Palace of the Presidents in Santiago, the icons of financial and military power in New York and Washington.

No, what I recognise is something deeper, a parallel suffering, a similar pain, a commensurate disorientation echoing what we lived through in Chile as of that 11 September.

It's most extraordinary incarnation – I still cannot believe what I have been witnessing – is that on the screen in the weeks past I have seen hundreds of relatives wandering the streets of New York, clutching the photos of their sons, fathers, wives, lovers, daughters, begging for information, asking if they are alive or dead. The whole United States has been forced to look into the abyss of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those beloved men and women who are missing.

Over and over again I have heard phrases that remind me of what people like me would mutter to themselves during the 1973 military coup and the days that followed: "This cannot be happening to us. This sort of excessive violence happens to other people and not to us, we have only known this form of destruction through movies and books and remote photographs." And words reiterated unceasingly, 28 years ago and now again in the year 2001: "We have lost our innocence. The world will never be the same."

What has come to an explosive conclusion, of course, is (North) America's famous exceptionalism, that attitude which allowed the citizens of this country to imagine themselves as beyond the sorrows and calamities that have plagued less fortunate peoples around the world.

In spite of the tremendous pain, the intolerable losses that this apocalyptic crime has visited upon the American public, I wonder if this trial does not constitute one of those opportunities for regeneration and self-knowledge that, from time to time, is given to certain nations. A crisis of this magnitude can lead to renewal or destruction, it can be used for good or for evil, for peace or for war, for aggression or for reconciliation, for vengeance or for justice, for the militarisation of a society or its humanisation.

One of the ways for Americans to overcome their trauma and survive the fear and continue to live and thrive in the midst of the insecurity which has suddenly swallowed them is to admit that their suffering is neither unique nor exclusive, that they are connected – as long as they are willing to look at themselves in the vast mirror of our common humanity – with so many other human beings who, in faraway zones, have suffered similar situations of unanticipated and often protracted injury and fury.

The terrorists have wanted to single out and isolate the United States as a satanic state. The rest of the planet, including many nations and men and women who have been the object of American arrogance and intervention reject – as I categorically do – this demonisation.

It is enough to see the almost unanimous outpouring of grief of most of the world, the offers of help, the expressions of solidarity, the determination to claim the dead of this mass murder as our dead. It remains to be seen if this compassion shown to the mightiest power on this planet will be reciprocated.

It is still far from certain that the men and women of this nation, so full of hope and tolerance, will be able to feel that same empathy towards the other, outcast, members of our species.

We will find out in the years to come if the new Americans forged in pain and resurrection are ready and open and willing to participate in the arduous process of repairing our shared, our damaged humanity. Creating, all of us together, a world in which we need never again lament not one more, not even one more terrifying 11 September.

The author, a Chilean writer, has just published a children's book, 'Blake's Therapy'.

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