Summer Forecast:A Human TragedyHeading West

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.