October 4–11, 2001
A Political World
Ralph Nader has a saying: "Turn on to politics, before politics turns on you." On Sept. 11, politics turned on you, and me, and my family in a particularly ugly and violent fashion. My oldest brother, James Potorti, had the misfortune of working on the 92nd floor of One World Trade Center and suffered a direct hit from the first airliner. While others wait for traces of their loved ones, we have accustomed ourselves to the reality that even DNA identification will have nothing to offer us.
I continue to watch the sketchy video footage of that first, unexpected strike, unable even now to comprehend what I’m looking at. I watch and watch, and I see an unmistakable terrorist event. But I also see something else: a political event. Beyond the immense crashing and burning that took my brother’s life, I see an immense crashing and burning of American foreign policy: the way we interact with the rest of the world.
My brother Jim was not political. He was a great husband, a hard worker, an aficionado of good food, good wine and the occasional cigar. He and his wife made a handsome, comfortable home for themselves in Princeton, N.J. They biked, took long walks and kayaked. They participated in the stock market and took wonderful vacations. They were in their early 50s, in good health, and active.
But they weren’t politically active. So how is it that a political act has taken my brother’s life, along with more than 6,000 others? The answer, I’ve decided, is that we live in a political world. And we can’t escape it, ever.
But a lot of people are trying. In the weeks that have followed, lots of them have bought gas masks, handguns and anthrax vaccines. They seem to be realizing that, in the words of Loudon Wainwright, "anything can happen when there’s nothing you can do." But there is something you can do. Demand accountability. Take a genuine, thorough and ongoing interest in civic life. And realize that in the absence of a just society, we will never be safe. And never be free.
We’ve been told a lot of things since Sept. 11: We’re at war. Our freedom is at stake. And — let’s not point the finger of blame at our own people; there’s more than enough blame to go around.
I beg to differ. Every action, including terrorism, has a reason. What I hope to see rising out of the unthinkable acts of Sept. 11 is an equally unthinkable act on the part of the American public: demands for a vigorous examination of our foreign policy, particularly as it pertains to the Middle East. We impose the Shah of Iran on his country one day, and find him replaced with a fundamentalist dictatorship the next. We fund Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran one day, and brand him a madman the next. We give the Taliban $43 million in taxpayer funds four months ago, and today identify them as a rogue regime. We fund Osama bin Laden in his war against Russia one day, and today want him dead or alive. Is this a successful, or even comprehensible, foreign policy?
As we freeze bank accounts and figure out who’s on our side, I have a few questions: not who did this, but who might have allowed this to happen? Does our foreign policy breed terrorism? And is it possible that our taxpayer dollars helped bankroll a plan that killed more than 6,000 people, including my brother?
I’d like to see this sort of dialogue begin, but a few things need to happen first. I hate to rain on the president’s parade, but what I’d like to see in America today is less unity, not more. We had one political party in America before Sept. 11; should we be happy today that Democrats and Republicans are closer than ever? We had one media voice in America before Sept. 11; should we be happy today that mainstream networks and newspapers are framing this tragedy in exactly the same ways? We were violently repressing legal political protest — in Philadelphia and elsewhere — before Sept. 11; should we be happy that critics are in the crosshairs even more today?
I can understand the establishment’s desire to move on from the blame game and get into some good, old-fashioned ass-kicking. But this happened on George W. Bush’s watch — shouldn’t he be held accountable? This happened, even though we give nearly a billion dollars a day to the Pentagon for our defense — shouldn’t it be held accountable? And this happened, even though Congress, in receipt of classified data unavailable to the masses, claims to be acting in our best interests — shouldn’t its members be held accountable?
I’m hopeful that we will hear more voices, more outlooks and more options in the weeks to come. I’m hopeful that we will be civil with each other as we share them. And in the end, I’m hopeful that we will love our country enough to look at it, and what it does, honestly, critically and productively.
Unlike President Bush, I cannot speak for my brother, Jim. I cannot declare war in his name. I can only hope that we create a better world than the one he left on Sept. 11.
David Potorti is a writer living in Cary, N.C. If you would like to respond to this Slant or have one of your own (650 words), contact Howard Altman, City Paper interim editor, 123 Chestnut St., Phila., PA 19106 or e-mail email@example.com.