We now know what to name the thing in the closet that goes bump all night long, disturbing our sleep. It is the Taliban, up to no good. The Taliban rules more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, keeping women the powerless, propertyless, uneducated captives of their fathers and husbands, covered from head to toe. Now the Taliban-those destroyers of ancient Buddhist statues-has decided to force Hindus to wear a special cloth to distinguish them from Muslims, supposedly to prevent the religious police from bothering them. Never mind that the men are already distinguishable by their lack of facial hair, the women by their own tradition of veiling. Except for their costume, these holier-than-everyone rulers could be members of any Christian militia group in this country. They could be part of the anti-immigrant, right-wing movement in Austria, Italy or France. The mind-set is similar: These are folk that the Enlightenment passed right by.
The stage is set. The yellow star upon the sleeve makes a comeback. Another ethnic cleansing waits in the wings. There is no reason to believe that a people so certain that their code and their way to God are the only ones will not find genuine virtue in creating a new human tragedy. What fun is there in smashing statues when flesh and blood is available and conveniently marked? There is no reason to believe that the Taliban will respond to the calls of prime ministers, presidents and diplomats to cease and desist. It is tempting to think of the Taliban as a primitive group, Lord of the Flies writ large, a fun-house distortion of the human capacity to live a moral life. But there is a little bit of Taliban in every country, perhaps a little bit of Taliban in every living soul.
We desperately need a “Springtime for the Taliban” before the event that threatens us all. Perhaps we could laugh them off this planet. Otherwise, prepare for tragedy.
Here in New York City, summer is upon us. Jitneys ride the road high and proud, like elephants carrying rajahs, delivering us to the Hamptons. Fire Island ferries toot and whistle. Oils and beach towels move to the front of the store. Traffic steams and stalls. Electronic signs above the Long Island Expressway read “Steer Clear of Aggressive Driving,” as if anyone could steer clear of anything. We are so far away from Afghanistan, from Kosovo, from Gaza that it seems as if we can wrap ourselves in personal worries and carry on: Dow Jones dips and sings, our children’s grades arrive, a romance or two absorbs our attention. Our Mayor might make a fuss about some version of the Madonna hanging in the Brooklyn Museum, but on the edge of his divorce, he is hardly a frightening defender of the faith. So far, he hasn’t asked artists to wear a special piece of cloth on their T-shirts so the police can spot a potential blasphemer a block away.
Here in New York, we can pretend that Texas is in another warp zone. We can wonder about people who have guns hidden in shoeboxes and people who want to chew up the ground to make Dick Cheney richer. We can take a moment to shudder about nuclear power plants and their waste products. And we can calmly consider what America will be like when the rich are so much richer and the middle is still strapped and the poor have no health care or pension funds. But what will happen when the Texas crowd has its way and the safety net has great, gaping holes in it, and the schools have plenty of tests but fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms? What will happen when the surplus has metamorphosed into Taj Mahals for C.E.O.’s, leaving the rest of us to pray-in public schools-for a reversal of our fortunes? Here in New York, we can content ourselves with our lack of responsibility for what is going to happen. We voted for the other guy! But that will be little comfort in the days ahead.
This summer, more than any other summer I can remember, I feel like a failure. Everything I had hoped would be will not. The candidate who lost the popular vote is in the White House, planning to fill the courts with judges who will do me and mine bodily harm. Israel stands on the brink of something so terrible, I won’t name it in public. The peace movement in Israel came so close to success and then lost everything-at least for now. The nuclear-war fears of my youth, which had been put to rest, have been reawakened by missile-defense systems rattling their threats around the globe. The rest of the world is uneasy with our nation’s arrogance and frightened of its power. What will they do in response to right-wing posturing? This summer, I will try not to think of it.
Every now and then, one of my children asks me why I take the world drama so personally. This is a good question. I know many people do not. They read their papers without trembling and keep their emotional distance from earthquakes and upheavals and political disasters in the making. Perhaps extending the instructions of the yearly Seder to feel as if the exodus happened to me, I have grown accustomed to imagining myself in many tight spots. The first pictures of Auschwitz that I saw as a girl told me it could have been my body burned in the ashes, and that I was obligated ever after to feel the flames, fight the injustice, protect the weak. That was pure childish bravado. I have protected no one, changed nothing, lived a most ordinary, selfish life, but imagined a good deal. That may make me ridiculous, but it’s true.
I once had a friend who told me that when she was a 9-year-old child in Vienna, the Nazis hounded her and 30 others into an apartment. Sitting on the window seat with furniture from seven families piled up around her, she wondered if anyone in the world knew what was happening to her. If they knew-really knew-she believed, they would stop it. So I feel this obligation to keep on imagining what is happening outside the perimeters of my own life. I don’t know how to stop anything. My imagination doesn’t change anything. But it seems to be the least I can do.
It is in the act of imagining the experience of others that politics become humane, and it is in the abstractions and the absolutes and the God-given truths in which particular faces disappear that politics become monstrous. The Taliban that lives within our minds is always ready to cut off someone else’s hand for some sin or other. I counter my Taliban with inner protest. I do take it personally. Therefore, I expect a hard summer, with no relief in sight.