So we set out, with cameras at the ready, for New York, another city of my dreams assaulted on another September 11, again a Tuesday morning when fire fell from the sky. Though by 2001 very few people in the world recalled the existence of that remote Chilean date, I was besieged by the need to extract some hidden meaning behind the juxtaposition and coincidence of those twinned episodes bequeathed to me by the malignant gods of random history. There was something horribly familiar in that experience of disaster, confirmed during my visit to the ruins where the twin towers had once reached for the sky.
What I recognized was a parallel suffering, a disorientation that echoed what we had lived through in Chile. Its most turbulent incarnation was the hundreds of relatives roaming the streets of New York after 9/11, clutching photographs of sons, fathers, lovers, daughters, husbands, begging for information, are they alive, are they dead?, every citizen of the United States forced to look into the chasm of what it means to be desaparecido, with no certainty or funeral possible for those who are missing. The photographs were still there in 2006, pinned on the wires separating the ogling spectators from the abyss, encouraging me to use the unique perspective of my own life to forge a message to the citizens of America lost in a labyrinth of pain.
Call it a gift from Chile to the nation that did so much to destroy our democracy, the nation that was also mine, the America where I thrive and teach and write, where my granddaughters, my Isabella and my Catalina will grow.
We Americans – yes, we – received that day all of a sudden the curse and blessing of being able to look at ourselves in a way habitually denied to most of our citizens, the chance to distressingly imagine ourselves as part of the rest of humanity. Never before had they – yes, they – been ripped apart to this degree by the ravages of guilt and rage, the difficulties of memory and forgiveness, the uses and abuses of power, the true meaning of freedom and responsibility. And consequently never were Americans more tempted to apply amnesia to their yesterdays and innocence to their tomorrows, never was it more perilous and easier to sweetly, vindictively rid themselves of the complexity and contradictions of their newly naked predicament.
Chile, for all its imperfections and failures, found a way of responding to the terror inflicted on us (yes, us, we Chileans), a path of peace rather than war, a path of understanding rather than retribution. A model that the United States, wrestling with the mirage of its imperial ambitions, did not have the immediate wisdom to follow. And yet the complacent invulnerability of this nation where I now abide has been fractured forever, as the gash in that site at Ground Zero reveals. We citizens will have to share, whether we wish to or not, the precariousness and uncertainty that is the daily lot of the majority of this planet’s other inhabitants. A crisis of this magnitude is one of those opportunities for regeneration and self-knowledge that are granted, from time to time, to certain nations. It can lead to renewal or destruction, used for aggression or for reconciliation, for vengeance or for justice, for the militarization of a society or its humanization.
One of the ways for Americans to go beyond the insecurity that has been swallowing us since 9/11 is to admit that our suffering is neither unique nor exclusive. If we are willing to look at ourselves in the vast mirror of our common humanity, we may find ourselves connected with many apparently faraway men and women who have trekked through similar situations of injury and fury.
A message I was able to deliver with more forcefulness because I had, in 2005, recently become a US citizen.
I had resisted taking that step with as much passion as I had put into trying to remain in Chile during our unfortunate six months in 1990. My wife, the implacably practical Angélica had decided to seek naturalization soon after we resettled for good in the States, and then hauled our two sons to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the interviews and swearing-in ceremonies.
I was a tougher nut to crack. I had already switched allegiances twice before – from Argentina to the States and from the States to Chile – and damned if I was going to relapse a third time, especially now that physical absence might weaken my ties to Latin America. Though my obstinacy had more intricate reasons.
No matter how much I might proclaim my mission to be a bridge between the Americas, the voice I had created for myself, the persona I projected, was that of a Latino from the South. I derived authority, power, credentials from that outsider status, relished being a sort of unofficial spokesperson for those who could not make themselves heard from our derelict lands. I had grown comfortable with that tone and viewpoint. It served me well on television and radio, in my op-ed columns and interviews, in readings at bookstores and commencement speeches, a deepening of the perspective I had discovered that morning in Bethesda watching the snow that was and was not mine fall silently. It had crusted into a second skin, become a home away from home, struck the right balance by allowing me to intervene in both Chile and the States from a middle point of intersection and detachment. And each time after 9/11 that I faintly contemplated reconsidering Angélica’s arguments in favour of nationalization, something would flare up, in Santiago or Mexico or some neglected corner of Latin America and the words would come flying, in English and in Spanish, and I didn’t want to squander that – there is nothing more difficult to abandon than a voice.
And then had come the arrest of General Pinochet in London in 1998, and his year and a half of captivity, and all of a sudden my public persona was more valuable than ever, on the BBC and Charlie Rose and Chilean TV. You see, I said to my wife, ya ves, if I were an American citizen, how could I possibly write publicly to Pinochet and tell him that this was the best thing that could have happened to him, that he has been afforded an implausible chance to repent. It is only feasible to write words like those as a Chilean, that’s why I could write to an unknown Iraqi dissident in the Washington Post and say that I understood why he wanted to be rid of the tyrant Saddam but not at the price of an intervention from abroad, explain that I would have rejected such a solution for my Chile in the days of our dictatorship, even if it had meant that friends were to die. I felt that my role as a public intellectual depended on keeping my distance from any official association with a United States misruled by George W. Bush, that Chile was more relevant than ever, the glass darkly through which I saw torture and the erosion of civil rights and ‘extraordinary rendition’, again the outrageous familiarity. I had grown accustomed to the idea that the United States, with all its blemishes and shortcomings, was a haven against persecution, at least for someone like me, and now it was threatening to turn into a police state, foreigners were being rounded up, permanent residency was no guarantee against abuses and Guantánamo, my Lord, and Dick Cheney, no longer a congressman receiving my copy of Widows in 1983, was churning out real widows all across the oil homelands of the planet twenty years later.
Angélica would hand me clippings, as if I couldn’t read, as if I didn’t know: Listen to this provision of the Patriot Act, no, Ariel, I want you to listen. And also: You want to be effective? Then break out of the snug cocoon, say we when you speak to Americans, include yourself in that we.
And she was worrying, my wife, Escúchame, Ariel, if they expel you, I’m not leaving, this time I’m not following you, you want to never see your granddaughters again? Angélica would not give up. It was absurd, there was no chance of anything of the sort happening to me, not with my contacts, not with my profile, not with — it can’t happen here? Wait, wait, hadn’t I written, just last year, that it can happen anywhere, make people afraid enough and they’ll let the government do anything in their name?
This is an extract from Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile by Ariel Dorfman, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt