Starvelings on Our Doorstep

By Leonard Fein

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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Jake, the hero of Mordecai Richler’s underappreciated 1971 novel, “St. Urbain’s Horseman,” “had expected the coming of the vandals. Above all, the injustice collectors. The concentration camp survivors. The emaciated millions of India. The starvelings of Africa…. The demented Red Guards of China are going to come, demanding theirs, followed by the black fanatics, who live only for vengeance. The thalidomide babies, the paraplegics. The insulted, the injured.”

I read that passage soon after it was published, on a lovely spring day while sitting on the porch of my home in Brookline, Mass. When I raised my eyes from the book and glanced about the street, it came to me that I was barely a mile from the then-seething neighborhood of Roxbury, heart then as now of Boston’s black community. And I felt a twinge of sodden recognition: Would these, too, not come? Was their arrival, seeking vengeance, not long overdue? How long before they spilled beyond their boundaries, the boundaries imposed by tradition, by real estate practices, by appalling discrimination and persistent segregation?

Richler had the broader and more fervid imagination. I imagined what was near at hand, he what would take 40 more years to burst upon us, and with a rather different cast of characters. He was prescient about globalization, as it were, even if it wasn’t the starvelings of Africa or, for that matter, any starvelings at all that suddenly appeared on our doorstep — or in our living rooms, in our nightclubs, in our buses and soon, perhaps, as we’ve now been informed, on the ferries in our harbors, and not just or even mainly in the American homeland but also in Afula and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Haifa, and in Madrid and in Qatar, in Mosul and in Bali, in a subway in Tokyo and in a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and in a theater in Moscow, and in Colombia — 20,000 victims a year; a year! — and on and on.

Now you might say that in all those other places, save for Buenos Aires, the terror was homegrown, the local demented operating within their own societies. Even in Israel. But here in America the terrorism we have learned to fear comes from faraway places, comes for reasons we only dimly comprehend. Go to the home page of the Department of Homeland Security, and there you will find that on this first day of spring, the “threat level” here is “elevated.” It has been elevated (or higher) every day since September 11, 2001, and there it will doubtless remain until the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So how can we, as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said just last week we must, refuse “to be overwhelmed by fear or paralyzed by the existence of threats”? How can we learn “to live mindfully but not fearfully”? (This he said a day after his department released an elaborate analysis of terrorist targets and threats across the nation, and a day before we were told of the threat to our ferries, as also the threat of scuba diver attacks in our ports and harbors. The Coast Guard seeks now to develop sonar systems that will distinguish between humans and porpoises.)

Speaking at George Washington University on March 16, Chertoff put forward a strategy for his department — and our security. It is an entirely sensible strategy but, at least in part, it is at odds with the administration Chertoff serves. He observed that “It’s in our mutual interest to strengthen relationships with other countries” — this in the same week in which President Bush announced his appointments of John Bolton as our ambassador to the United Nations and Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank. As has been widely observed, both these appointments were predictably offensive to our principal allies, let alone to most other nations. They are definitively not designed to strengthen our relationships with other countries.

There is no reason to doubt Chertoff’s sincerity in speaking as he did. There remains every reason to suppose that Vice President Richard Cheney and the president himself have a rather different agenda. On this, the second anniversary of the launching of our war in Iraq, one hardly needs to be reminded of that other agenda. This war, the war in Iraq, the war that is consuming so large a part of our resources and claiming so many lives, which is ongoing and may well be for years to come, diminishes — and does not enhance — our security.

America’s larger war on terrorism, as Bush has chosen to define and pursue it, is a brilliant political stratagem, whatever else it might also be. It is a war that by its nature cannot be conclusively won. It is a war in which every defeat raises the level of fear, in turn increasing support for our defender in chief, and in which every day that passes without an attack against us can be and is defined as a victory.

Yet who, save for a loony professor in Colorado, would deny that the terrorists must be defeated? Iraq is at best a diversion from the real work that awaits. Is it really so hard to understand that as the deficit balloons, educational achievement stalls, the income gap persists, the health care system careens out of control, Congress loses all sense of dignity and comity, and the administration continues to appoint the likes of Alberto Gonzales to high office, the homeland becomes increasingly insecure?

America’s image in the world, a critical component of the war against terrorists, is in largest part a function of America’s reality. But the war subverts and tarnishes that reality at every turn.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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