I used to think that disasters strengthened people’s sense of community. Right after the great Istanbul fires of my childhood and the earthquake of two years ago, my first instinct was to share my feelings, to discuss the disaster with others. But this time, seated facing the television in a small Istanbul coffeehouse near the quay frequented by carters, tuberculosis patients, and porters as the twin towers in New York blazed and collapsed, I felt desperately alone.
Immediately after the second aircraft hit the tower, Turkish television channels commenced live broadcasting. A small crowd in the coffeehouse watched the unbelievable images on the screen in detached amazement, astonished but apparently without being deeply affected. At one point I felt like standing up and declaring, “I spent three years of my life in Manhattan. I lived among those buildings. I walked those streets without money in my pocket. I kept appointments with people in those towers.” But, as in a dream in which one feels increasingly alone, I remained silent.
I went out into the streets because I could not bear to see what was happening, and even more because I wanted to share what I had seen with other people. A short while later I saw a woman on the quay weeping as she stood in the crowd waiting for a ferryboat. From her expression and the faces of those around her, I saw immediately that she was not weeping because she had a relative in Manhattan but because she thought the end of the world was approaching. In my childhood, when it was feared that the Cuban crisis would give rise to a third world war, I had seen similarly distraught women weeping, as middle-class Istanbul families stocked up with packets of lentils and macaroni. I went back to the coffeehouse, and resumed watching the scenes on television with the same irresistible obsession as the rest of the world.
Later, as I walked the streets again, I met one of my neighbors. “Sir, have you seen, they have bombed America,” he said, and added fiercely, “They did the right thing.”
This angry old man is not religious at all. He struggles to make a living by doing minor repair jobs and gardening, and gets drunk in the evening and argues with his wife. He had not yet seen the appalling scenes on television, but had only heard that some people had done something dreadful to America. I listened to many other people express anger similar to his initial reaction (which he was subsequently to regret). At the first moment in Turkey, many spoke of the brutality of terror, and how despicable and horrifying the attack was. Still, they followed up their denunciation of the slaughter of innocent people with a “but,” making restrained or resentful criticism of America’s political and economic power. To debate America’s role in the world in the shadow of terrorism that is based on hatred of the “West” and brutally kills innocent people is both…
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