A book I just finished reading was Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. It was a document in miniature of a nation that was paralyzed by a national trauma, trying to come to grips with what had been inconceivable. Terrorism was something that happened on small scales of street corners and car bombs. The incredible scale, force, and the power of the symbolism of Sept 11 was like no other terrorist act before or since. It was an act with a purpose few people could understand. National traumas of a similar scale in the United States like Pearl Harbour or the Civil War at least had reasons that people could comprehend. The politics of an act like the destruction of the World Trade Centre, at the moment of its happening, seemed to transcend reason for the American people.
The first reaction of such an incomprehensible act is fear, and resolve in the face of fear. Yet that fear also encourages irrationality, a fear of self-doubt, the inability to think through one's actions. I do not mean to say that the Iraq occupation that began in 2003 was an entirely irrational act. The neo-conservative policy-makers in the executive branch (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz chief among them) had entirely rational plans. But these plans were written in the 1990s, under the think tank Project for a New American Century, and not in the chaotic national mood of the years after Sept 11. Dick Cheney and his ilk hijacked the American people when they were still too traumatized to understand fully what was happening to them. The lie was swallowed so easily because, with the ability to think critically still paralyzed in many Americans, people believe what they are told, what is suggested to them.
Throughout the immensely, unbelievably long campaign for the Presidency in 2008, the Republican party has returned again and again to fear. In the primary season, it was the fear of women, of a reversal of sexual traditions; then the fear of the black man, of the mysterious dark race that, in the words of Rev. Wright, damns America. And there was the return to fear after the candidates were chosen: fear of Russia, fear of economic collapse, fear of terrorism, fear of socialism and communism.
But Barack Obama asked Americans to put aside their fear. I first understood how special he was when I listened to his speech about Rev. Wright, A More Perfect Union. Instead of the easy denunciations that were coming from the Republicans, and from Hillary Clinton (who, progressive as she is, gendered as she is, remains a traditional American politician), Obama asked Americans to listen to each other, listen to themselves, and understand. Instead of hiding behind denunciations, he accepted the complexities and paradoxes of his own life. When we are overcome by fear, we seek simplicities to reassure us, to return us to easy security. Obama never offered people that.
He continues to offer a way forward for America out of its trauma, out of a political discourse based on fear and aggression. Instead of lashing out at enemies wherever they are perceived to be, he offers calmness, calculation, and understanding. The American people have cowered under the rubble of Ground Zero for too long, fretting about the next attack, their perspective dominated by the terror seared into their bodies. Obama offers no easy answers. He extends to the American people the opportunity to face the paradoxes of their lives, to understand their lives, their society, and their country. He calls this the perspective of hope. I see him offering an opportunity to heal the wounds that have been bleeding into the eyes of the American people for over seven years. He offers the opportunity to live again, not in ignorance of their trauma, but because of their trauma.
That is why Barack Obama must win Tuesday night.