Susanna J. Sturgis    

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A Writer Describes One Way to Avoid Defeat

Dear, dear friends,

I'm afraid, and proud, and disgusted, and angry, and sad. I don't have a television and I haven't read the daily papers regularly in about 20 years. I get most of my news from public radio, and today the saturation coverage disgusted me so much that I ran away from it. The news itself was horrible, but my disgust was at the commentators who seemed so determined to inflict their own hyperbole on the people they interviewed.

What I heard from some of the interviewees made me cheer. One commentator averred that this was "chaos." His interviewee, who lectures in counter-terrorism at Georgetown University, said she didn't think it was chaos. "But, but, the government buildings have been evacuated!!" "The government," she said calmly, "isn't the buildings."

You know me well enough to know that I don't think much of George W. Bush, or of the Republicans, or of most of the Democrats. You know that I came of age in the anti-Vietnam War movement, that my fascination with the Arab world began before I was in double digits, that feminism is my second skin, and that I make my living in the word trade. You know that I left Washington, D.C., more than 16 years ago, and that I'd work for minimum wage before I'd work 9 to 5 in a 110-story building. I am trying to put all this together.

Ten years ago, during the Gulf War, I happened to be on the road a lot, promoting my science fiction anthologies, going to science fiction conventions. It was a scary time to be on the road. Suggest that you weren't 100 percent behind "the war effort" and you got very, very ugly looks and comments. Every yellow-ribbon poster in a window said "Freedom of speech? Only if you agree with me." Yellow ribbons were everywhere.

This afternoon I finally ran away from the repetitive, uninformative news and went to the barn. I wanted to go for a ride in the woods with my horse and my dog. As I got ready, I thought how lucky we USians are that, however shell-shocked and horrified and grief-stricken we may be, we don't have to fear an invading army. Earlier this summer I proofread a memoir by a woman, Ruth Kluger, who was a 12-year-old Viennese Jewish girl when the Nazis invaded Austria. Eventually she was sent to Theresienstadt, and then to Auschwitz. She survived, with a compassion and clarity of perception that had me weeping while I read her words. For most of us life tomorrow will look pretty much like life today. Three of my barnmates had the same impulse, to go for a ride in the woods. We all went together.

I struggle to combine all of this. An idyllic ride in the woods. A horror beyond describing. A fear of my countryfolk's intolerance that combines with an awe of my countryfolk's generosity and compassion. And a lifetime devoted to communication, spoken and written. Some of you also make your living as writers or editors. All of you are adept in expressing yourself in our English language (some of you in other languages as well). What can I say? That the skills of the writer and editor -- clarity, curiosity, compassion, the ability to listen with care, a commitment to check "facts" before passing them on -- will be much in demand during the next few days. Please, please, please, do whatever you can. If you hear someone generalizing unfairly about Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians, have the courage to point out the untruths and distortions. If you hear someone say, "We must agree to a curtailment of our freedoms," say, "If we do that, they have won."

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