Post-election ’08: Picking the scab off a jagged wound
After the fog of euphoria lifted in the days following an extraordinary election, one American abroad realizes what it really means.
Yes we can − yes, we did: As the world celebrated the victory of Barack Obama, it was so easy to be swept away on that tide of optimism, to be bewitched by those magical words: change and hope.
And in the days that followed Nov. 4, it was easy to accept the congratulations of my European friends, the smiles and thumbs up of German colleagues, neighbors and even waitresses.
Initially, it was also easy to initially think of this momentous event in terms of race, of oppression, of the vindication of a people and the transformation of another. But actually it was about so much more, something Europeans − and those who haven’t lived in the US in the past seven years − can only begin to understand: We got our country back.
It was a long time coming. After the September 11 attacks, we got lost. I think I didn’t even understand how much until last week.
I was a frontline responder, covering the Pentagon (and Shanksville, Penn.) for a year from the day those planes became missiles. I was charged with translating chaos and pain into a language people across the nation could understand. I saw how people came together in the early aftermath. Later, I saw them break apart.
We as a people went a little numb and it only became worse. And because of that, we let our leaders repudiate who we are in the successive years by not protesting loudly enough when prisoners were denied lawyers or trials, when our own citizens came under questionable surveillance, when our government tried to justify torture and ‘extraordinary renditions’ with legal acrobatics − in our name.
And it didn’t stop. But what happened was a series of increasingly erratic actions as our outrage turned to resignation. I remember some Americans saying in despair, “Where is my country?” Others told me they wanted to leave. Some I know did leave and didn’t want to return, a political refugee of sorts. It was as Judith Warner said in the New York Times a few days ago:
“The election brought the return of a country we’d lost for so long that it was almost forgotten under the accumulated scar tissue of accommodation and acceptance.”
Accommodation and acceptance. That’s it. We put our head in the sand and played along as one indignity after another happened, to us, and to the rest of the world.
In late 2004, I remember seeing a famously liberal and usually very thoughtful newspaper columnist speak at a lecture. He spent an hour justifying why he had believed Bush when the president pushed the illogical theory in 2002 and 2003 that al Qaeda was then operating in Iraq and why he had previously supported the war there: He spent most of that talk in a defensive crouch, talking about how he felt on September 11 as a witness in New York.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
But that was the climate in the US for the past seven years: The charges of not being patriotic enough when reporters questioned the president’s initiatives or didn’t wear flag pins; The accusations of ‘not supporting our troops’ when questioning strange Halliburton contracts or conduct by American soldiers at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The atmosphere of paranoia, fear and cynicism.
Many of us helplessly accepted that this is just the way things were going to be from now on even as there was a realization that this is not how we do things, this is not who we are.
And that is what got shaken Tuesday. We said, decisively, no more.
Speaking about Obama, Will Smith told Oprah after the election: “I get this, this is me, this is someone speaking to us that matches my sensory perception,” and started reciting the preamble to the Constitution, crying, laughing, sobbing.
That is why John McCain lost. He had a good chance of winning – until he picked Sarah Palin. She was a symbol of the past seven years of fear and anger, of the ‘real’ America, the divisive bitter America, something that even the red strongholds of Ohio, Virginia, Indiana and Nevada rejected. And it is sad for me to admit that I was shocked over that result because if the past years cost me anything, it cost me my tendency toward hope and a lot of faith in my country.
That is what was momentous about Tuesday. It was a historic day that we chose a black man as our new president. But more important, more significant, is that we chose a way back.
“Look what we did,” Colin Powell said choking on Nov. 4. What we did was shirk off a mantle of divisiveness and despair. What we did is pick off the scab of an jagged old wound and allow it to heal fully and in doing so, we got our America back.
That’s why days after the election, many of us are still so weepy.