All choked up
From Ground Zero to Iranian arms shipmenmts
January 16, 2002
This has been a season for choking. First, choking up, an emotional moment,
the kind that begins with an irrepressible surging of a lump in the throat,
the kind that will not subside until it has made the lips contort uncontrollably
from a firm outline to a limp droop, a kind of choking grip that will not
let go until it has exacted a squeal or grunt from its victim.
If there is any tear associated with the feeling, it is in great part
for experiencing it. Last December, I visited Ground Zero and experienced
feelings I knew I had but did not know how to define or when to expect them
In the icy morning air, the cab dropped me off on the Broadway side of
the site. The spot apparently marked the place where the huge crowd mills
about and then slowly begins its journey, with each person ending up in
a different place by the end of it all. For one person, this is a part of
a national memorial service, ongoing, where the personal journey mostly
ends with the burial of the sense, forced or genuine, but dutiful obligation
to visit, see, pay homage, and mourn.
For another person, this represents a pilgrimage of sorts, where the
experience is rendered more holy not by an invasive scent of incense but
of a lingering smell of a blend of charred materials, plaster and cement
dust, and mildew. There is much repeat visits, too, by those who have vowed
never to forget, never to rest.
I moved quickly passed the throng of three-man deep walls of visitors
scrutinizing the panels of remembrance cluttering the sidewalks These make-shift
shrines are decorated with messages, flowers, photographs, poems, letters,
banners, flags, t-shirts, helmets, and other tributes to the fallen, the
perished, and a country bruised. With all the solemnity that this engenders,
it is amateur stuff when compared to the greater fix that one can get from
getting closer to the wreckage.
The site itself is many city blocks wide as it is long. It took me more
than one hour to walk around it at an inquisitive and reverend pace, probing
as one might the breaches here and there in the drape-covered fences in
order to catch a glimpse of the goings-on in the pit, where the crew continue
to dig, lift, and haul remains, under the constant spray of water from a
hose above. There is this inexplicable urge to get closer and closer to
the pit, to become a part of the pit itself, the hearth, where there is
I had walked half way around the site, so far unimpressed but for the
geographical size of the devastation. There was no excitement to speak of
other than a black and somber-looking limousine streaking out of the site,
with full police escort. I grimly asked the officer at the gate if the transport
was a hearse, to which she replied that it was not; the motorcade belonged
to the city officials who were checking out the site for tomorrow's mayoral
At this point I realized fully that the site was not a place of worship;
it was a stadium, a place of spectacle, with as little solemnity to it as
a spectator event commands. The waft of steamed hot dogs ... the pretzel
stands ... roasted nuts, and one very rare roasted chestnut stand ... were
all a part of the scene at Ground Zero. The ubiquitous side-walk vendors
too were a part of the scene -- flags, buttons, patches, decals, headbands,
refrigerator magnets, caps, shirts, purses, and wallets.
The commercial crassness that had sprouted around this place had an anesthetizing
effect. It was hard to allow myself to be overcome by the experience when
I was constantly trying to figure out what was the rip-off margin on a piece
of souvenir which I wished I could acquire and take home with me. I decided
against any transaction; instead, I picked up a pebble from the ground and
pocketed it in the memory of the visit.
As I neared the end of my round, I felt a strong urge to go to the bathroom.
The deity of public amenities had provided numerous porto-johns along the
slanted sidewalk; the one that I attended was clean and in working order.
A gust or two of the strong wind however made the experience rather dicey
as the shed began to sway ever so slightly.
I lost many of my human family at Ground Zero, and I knew of some personally
who perished there. I did not own any property that was destroyed, but a
great part of a great City which I love is no more. What was I supposed
to be feeling by now? Still no tears. No lumps in the throat. No rage. Only
a slight understanding of what the people of Beirut or any other shelled
city had felt for decades. This here happened in one day and an eternity.
Still no tears. No choking sensation.
I wondered off toward the world financial center, a magnificent open
air plaza by the water, a few rows of building away from the rubble. Here,
under the blue sky, with the statue of liberty in the distance, the sun
shining bright, I had my first emotional experience of the visit.
I was overawed by how insulated this plaza felt from the digging, lifting,
and hauling that was going on at the site. It just as well might have been
in another city, country, world. Practically deserted. Quiet. Very, very
quiet. Still. I inhaled deep the fresh gentle breeze. And then my lips quivered
and I felt the grip tighten around my throat ... the splendor and majesty
that was still New York ... crass, arrogant, unbowed, had overwhelmed me.
Back in the maelstrom, I kept walking, and made way up Broadway and eventually
crossed to the east side. At one point, I stopped and looked up at the vista
in front of me: tall buildings, very tall buildings, huge buildings, one
after another, row after row .... There was so much greatness and splendor,
marvel of engineering and industry, in this City and elsewhere in this great
land that no two-bit medievalist could ever bring down entirely.
It was now clearer than ever why the devastation at Ground Zero should
be mourned, but not because of the people and capital that perished there
but because of the shameful waste of it all: an enormous waste of labor,
love, and money that had built it and animated it: people born from acts
of love, relationships nurtured by love, structures born out of the builder's
love ... and love of profit, too. And to mourn it and repair it all, if
at all, ironically too, has become a labor of love and capital.
To prove that flatulence does have a relationship to the throbbing in
one's temple, my next bout with getting choked up occurred in early January,
when news was had that a boatload of Iranian-made weapons destined for the
Palestinian Authority had been interdicted by Israeli commandoes.
You see, for sometime now I had been arguing that Iran should wean itself
from oil as the source of revenue for domestic expenditures and rely on
taxes instead and diversify its exports at the same time [see: "Sleep-walking
economy" and "Just
pretend we have no oil"]. This news was proof positive that
finally the Enlightened Leaders of the Resolute Nation had managed to diversify
and enhance the Motherland's export sector by selling arms abroad. Arms
exports to the Palestinian Authority! This is not exactly at the scale of
Russian military sales to Iran, or American sales to Israel, but it was
Then set in a lousy feeling of despair -- not because the arms were seized
by Israel, or because they were destined to create more suffering in the
region. I choked with pity for an export program that shipped out $100 million
worth of brand new and spanking clean hardware for $10 million dollars!
With this kind of bargain, it will be a very long time before the leaders
of the Resolute Nation can rely on arms exports in order to address the
country's balance of payments problems!
The news of the seizure of the arms shipment met with a general and as
usual adamant denial by the Iranian foreign ministry. Mr. Arafat too denied
any involvement. The Israelis decided that Mr. Arafat must have known about
all this and pointed the finger to Iran, as usual.
Meanwhile, the captain of the ship popped up on Israeli T.V. and sounded
very very helpful to the Israelis. A set up? Maybe. Why not? The U.S. Secretary
of State, on the other hand, tried to react diplomatically. He said the
Authority (not necessarily Mr. Arafat) seemed to be involved in this, and
called on Mr. Arafat to clamp down. Any more clamping down, Mr. Arafat must
have thought, would result in his busting a testicle.
Some commentators were heard saying that all this arms shipment episode
was the work of the "rogue elements" in Iran's security forces.
This is where the tail goes past wagging the dog and bites itself. If Iran
itself is a "rogue nation" then the "rogue elements"
in the rogue nation would have to be a priori straight and mainstream! The
accusation of "roguism" on its own is wearing thin, too, just
as is the nonsense perpetuated by the Clinton and now Bush administrations
that the Iranian government is made up of hard-liners (bad guys) and moderates
Whenever Iran does something to threaten American interests and security,
the administration blames the hard-liners in Tehran. Whenever Iran and the
U.S. get into bed together, the American administration rationalizes its
unseemly conduct by claims that it is dealing with the good guys in Tehran.
All this philanthropy between the U.S. and the Iranian good guys is supposed
to strength the hand of the Iranian good guys so that they one day can choke
the bad guys!
Meanwhile, in Washington, Mr. Bush choked on a pretzel a few days
ago and momentarily fainted. Good god! I gagged on the news and the thought
that the Attorney-General, Mr. Ashcroft, will soon arrest all the pretzels
and indict the pretzel manufacturers on suspicion of links with evildoers.
And what can I say about the twisted evildoers, the al-Qaeda? Nothing, really.
Mr. Bush's attempt to smoke them out has succeeded beyond measure! The smoke
from the bombing and burning got so choking thick that Bin Laden & Co.
had no choice but to run out of Afghanistan, ironically, under the cover
of the smoke itself!
Mr. Ashcroft does not choke, though. He should investigate Mr. Arafat
for violating the Iranian trade sanctions law. Here is a guy who receives
a big subsidy from the United States, and then turns around and buys arms
from Iran. If the Iran-Contra was a scandal, why isn't this one?
What if this whole episode was a set up from the get-go by Israel and
the United States? Here is that angle: because Iran's weapons program had
been so secret and because the United States has no "eyes and ears"
in Iran, the United States and Israel had been pretty much in the dark about
the developments in Iran's arsenal. So they engineered a sale.
Now, with the weapons seized, Israel and United States can assess the
operational capability of some of these weapons, which included rockets,
which may be deployed in western Afghanistan by Iran's allies, who seek
to gain control of the territory through which the Turkmenistan-Pakistan
oil and gas pipelines will traverse some day. And what makes anyone think
that the Iranian government itself did not ship the arms in order to further
embarass Mr. Arafat?
I am done choking.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations
and law and practices law in Massachusetts.