Around noon Monday, I ventured across midtown for some ATM banking and book-buying, the lunch-hour diversions. Emerging in the sunlight, I joined crowds smashed against the walls on 5th Avenue and throngs corralled behind police barricades that lined 50th as far as the eye could see in either direction.
Each individual barricade had its own uniformed police officer, not that anyone seemed inclined to charge.
I had missed it, but President Bush's motorcade had just whizzed by, ferrying the leader of the free world in the direction of the United Nations. The thoroughfare his wheels had graced, however, was to remain closed in his wake for some time, though he wasn't likely to return via the same route.
Alongside hundreds of midtown workers, I was now trapped behind the barricades, waiting for the all-clear sign, twenty minutes after the President had passed. People sighed, fiddled with cell phones and blackberries, and resigned themselves to being late.
Hugo Chavez crossed himself and referred to our President as the devil, adding that the smell of sulfur was still in the air at the podium. If there is a residual odor of sulfur in New York today, it's been around so long I doubt we'd notice it.
Stunned, silent, barricaded in the wake of the gun-spiked motorcade, we don't fight evil in our midst. let alone notice the smell.
By contrast, the streets were open this morning outside the hotel where a conclave of world leaders more associated with conciliation and peace than bombs and domination was gathered -- including President Clinton, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Queen Rania of Jordan at the Clinton Global Initiative.
These three people were gathered on stage to talk about "diversity in a globalized world," part of a three-day series of wonky, forward-looking gabfests organized by Clinton to coincide with the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly and to raise money for his global initiative.
The topics of discussion -- climate change, poverty, religious conciliation and how corporations can become more responsive to human needs -- don't get much shrift in Washington these days, where the Project for a New American Century crowd has turned our considerable national energy towards world domination.
Listening to the panel this morning, my first reaction was a profound sense of the loss over what we as Americans and human beings have suffered in the wasted years since Bush stole his first presidential election.
Karzai shed his lambskin hat, revealing a bald pate, and described how Afghanistan had been suffering under Al Qaeda for years before 9/11. "They killed thousands of babies, they burnt vineyards, vineyards with ripe grapes, they blew up mosques," he recalled. "I came to the West and begged. We knew they were promoting hate in those mosques. And no attention was paid because we were being hurt, not you."
Once America took notice, though, Afghans welcomed us. Karzai described an Afghan man who had lost family members as "collateral" damage in a U.S. bombing shortly after 9/11 saying that he would have given up more children to rid his country of the radicals.
Such good feeling was short-lived, as the U.S. drove into Iraq, welding the bitter remnants of a secular dictatorship with Islamists who, under Saddam Hussein, would never have dared enter Baghdad. Then we expedited missiles to Israel, helping destroy infrastructure, kill people and displace millions in Lebanon.
Rania talked of how many more Arabs were radicalized after the Israeli bombing campaign this summer. "Arabs need to see the dividends of moderation," she said, adding that secular Lebanon was more inclined to be pro-West than most of the other Middle Eastern nations.
To hear these people speak is to be reminded again how words of reason have been absent from the world discourse, and how much has been lost.
Bishop Tutu, wise, self-effacing, one of those men whose mere presence in a room gives us optimism, said he had hope for the future, arguing that Islamism is a political, not a religious movement. We're not seeing a clash of civilizations, no matter what the interested parties tell us, he said. "Was the holocaust 'Christian terrorism,'" he asked rhetorically. "Was the Oklahoma bombing 'Christian terorism'? We won't win the war against terror as long as we live in a world with conditions that make people desperate."
Karzai, Tutu, Rania, and yes, Clinton, who announced the raising of $2 billion in one day for programs to deal with desperate world conditions -- these are people for whom New York city streets deserve to be cleared, and for whom we ought to be asked to give up fractions of lunch hour to help speed on their rounds.
Personal advertising department: The October issue of More Magazine, not online but available on newsstands, contains a story I wrote about taking my Iraqi-born, Assyrian mother to Egypt, and our disparate experiences of Arab culture post 9/11. Readers interested in my developing views on Muslims and women will find an airing of the theme there.