By Anjum Altaf
We have short memories.
Terror did not arrive in America in 2001 when Mohamed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It did not arrive even in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef planned to blow up that very same bastion of American power.
It arrived almost a hundred years ago when, after a spate of bombings in New York City, the abode of J.P. Morgan – then the symbol of American capitalism – was wired up with explosives.
The protagonist was not a Muslim, but a black Christian man. It was neither his blackness nor his Christianity that made him do it – he could just as easily have been white, or any other color or religion. His principal munitions expert was as white as one could be.
And nor was he was poor. Indeed he was quite well off: in those days he was the proud owner of a Model T Ford; he spoke good English, and was courting the woman he looked forward to marrying.
So what happened? Why did Coalhouse Walker give up everything, declare himself President of the Provisional American Republic, and invite certain death by embarking on a suicide mission? Why did others join him in this act of rebellion? Why did Mother’s Younger Brother, a talented youth from an upper class white family, switch his allegiance to Coalhouse Walker? Did all these men, as normal as you or me, suddenly go insane from one day to the next?
You must have guessed by now. It is a fictional account, one of the stories from Ragtime, a novel published by E. L. Doctorow long ago in 1975. But fiction is often more compelling than fact. It is not for a description of events that one reads fiction; it is for the insights into what lies underneath and behind those events.
The insight could not be any clearer. Humiliation: the Negro’s Model T Ford trashed by the arrogance of power, with no amount of pleas, interventions, or recourse to the law able to get it restored; the man himself denied a place in society, denied the dignity due a human being, humiliated again and again with impunity.
This is how Doctorow describes Coalhouse Walker’s reaction:
Even to someone who had followed the case from its beginnings, Coalhouse’s strategy of vengeance must have seemed the final proof of his insanity… Or is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s?
Ponder this. Coalhouse Walker did something so seemingly insane because he was pushed to the point where the laws of logic and the principles of reason no longer made sense. Note how fiction foreshadows fact:
All of this happened over a period of two to three weeks. Later, when the name Coalhouse Walker came to symbolize murder and arson, these earlier attempts to find redress no longer mattered. Even at this date we can’t condone the mayhem done in his cause but it is important to know the truth insofar as that is possible.
I first read Ragtime a long time back, and in 2001 all the talk about poverty being the root cause of terrorism brought it back to my mind. Poverty has always been with us; terrorism occurs in long-separated spikes. The association of poverty with terrorism is very weak; that of humiliation is quite strong.
I had thought of this off and on, written around it, but never explicitly in the context of September 11. As compelling as the story of Coalhouse Walker was, it was fiction. I was seeking a confirmation from real life that was unambiguous, not inferred – one in which the correspondence of humiliation to defiance was beyond doubt.
Then I found it, in an odd place, and, by itself, an incident in a minor key. Here is Yehudi Menuhin, describing in his autobiography how his parents, newly arrived in New York City from Palestine, searched for an apartment in the Bronx in anticipation of his birth:
Obliged to find an apartment of their own, they searched the neighborhood and after several disappointments chose one within walking distance of the park. Showing them out after they had viewed it, the landlady observed, with every intention of pleasing her new tenants and clinching the bargain, ‘And you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.’ History, in New York at any rate, has muffled that voice, but how bitterly in my parents’ ears must have sounded the hostility which, having propelled them to the shores of the New World, had followed them there! Her mistake made clear to her, the anti-Semitic landlady was renounced and another apartment found where in due course they gathered friends about them, fellow students and other young people as poor and light-hearted as themselves, who created a cheerful haven against prejudice. But the landlady’s blunder left its mark. Back on the street my mother took a vow: her unborn child would wear a label proclaiming his race to the world. He would be called ‘the Jew’.
Yehudi Menuhin describes his mother’s reaction: “that an insult to her race should prompt the proud assertion of it [was] a reflex absolutely to be expected.”
Humiliation is a powerful motivator eliciting reactions that can vary from the personal defiance of Yehudi Menuhin’s mother to the destructive vengeance of a Coalhouse Walker. It is a provocation that upends the laws of logic and the principles of reason. And when the humiliation is visited on entire nations the reactions can be even more unpredictable defying the expectations of conventional rationality. They can lead directly to the violence of anger or be tapped into a battle for the restoration of dignity. It matters little whether the battle is real or contrived, whether the end is victory or defeat. The laws of logic cease to hold.
There were times when power could strike in the far corners of the world and the response could not but be localized. But this is the age of globalization – as capital is global, so is vengeance. The arrogance of power could do well to glimpse itself in a mirror, even if it be the mirror of fiction.