Sunday, April 15, 2007

Remember the Past, Prepare for the Future

What constitutes regret? The wish to undo or reverse an action? What if someone would instead choose to do something differently today than they had done in the past? Does that constitute regret? I have a tattoo. If I could go back, I probably would not have gotten it, but I would not say that I regret getting it. I hope that does not appear to be specious reasoning.

Today, I witnessed two very strange, yet very different things on the New York City subway. These two things happened within minutes of each other, although they were both totally unrelated to one another.

Late this afternoon I rode a packed subway car from 50th street to 34th street. The C train was running late, no doubt due to the severe flooding that has effected the entire region. Standing with my back to the subway car doors, I faced dozens of pairs of eyes, the young, the old, people getting off work, and people out touristing for the day in the rain. Everyone showed signs of the weather; umbrellas, damp hair, soggy shoes, chilly pink cheeks. Despite the crummy weather, it was strangely enjoyable to jog down Manhattan streets, jumping puddles, ducking umbrellas and feeling the wind and rain with an iPod blaring Interpol in my ear.

I was too lazy to retrieve an umbrella from my car in the morning. The rain wouldn't be that bad I thought, the weathermen and women are always wrong, right? Wrong.

Mulling these thoughts over in my head, cognizant of my squishy shoes and drippy hair, I noticed a young woman standing in front of me, her left arm clasped around a metal aluminum bar attached to the subway car, which provides riders with support while the train naturally jostles in motion.

The woman, perhaps 20, perhaps 24, was black, with light creamy skin, long curly hair, big brown eyes, a colorful red and blue T-shirt, and a gray zipper-down hooded sweatshirt. As I scanned the subway car during my train ride, my eyes passed over her a few times, finally noticing something odd about her wrist. Below the palm of her left hand, which was grasping the metal bar, I saw a tattoo. The placement of the tattoo did not strike me, however. Rather, the words etched into her skin puzzled me and I questioned myself. Without trying to be too obvious, I fixed my eyes closer to her wrist to get a better look. On closer inspection, I confirmed to myself that the tattoo was written in Arabic, as I suspected on first glance.

Looking back upon the young woman's face, I questioned her ethnicity. Was she black? Or Egyptian? Maybe Persian? Possibly. But she was with a tall black young man. And below her wrist, she also wore a rainbow colored bracelet that looked like the yellow "Live Strong" bracelets Lance Armstrong popularized, only hers read "Diversity".

The train had just left 42nd street, and I knew 34th was at best two minutes away. As my mind raced, I questioned whether or not I should speak to her. With each passing second, my stop crept closer, and the window for opportunity was closing. I'm not one to intrude on people's conversations, and this woman was deep in discussion with her friend. However, I couldn't help myself. I broke in:


She kept talking, unaware I was speaking to her.

"Miss? Excuse me, Miss?" I repeated.

She paused, halting her conversation, and turned to me - a sloppy, somewhat dejected-looking white guy holding his iPod earphones in his hand.

"Yes?" She asked questioningly, but curious at the same time.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but your tattoo - is it written in Arabic?"

"Yes, it is."

"Would you mind if I asked what it means?"

She pulled her left hand down from the bar, and pointed to her wrist:

"This one means 'Remember the Past,' and this one" she pointed to her right
wrist, "means 'Prepare for the future'"

My mind raced, trying to process this, but just then the train stopped and the doors opened. This was my stop.

"Thank you" I said to her, and exited the train.

Which brings me to the second strange occurrence of the day:

Before I could process the woman's tattoo, which left me incredulous, I got a cold shower. Walking out of the subway car, I was doused with frigid water that spewed unseen from an area above the train car. Apparently, the deluge outside overwhelmed the city subway's irrigation system, leaving gallons of rain water to fall in huge sheets along the station's ceiling, directly parallel with the subway car doors. I managed to snap two pictures with my camera phone, which do not do it justice.

Shortly after, Tool's Aenema rang out in my head as I walked and listened:

Some say a comet will fall from the sky... followed by meteors showers and tidal waves... followed by fault lines that cannot sit still... followed by millions of dumb-founded dip sh-ts...

And some say the end is near, some say we'll see Armageddon soon... I certainly hope we will.. I sure could use a vacation from this...

Stupid Sh-t...

Stupid sh-t...


F*ck all these gun-toting hip-gangster wannabes

... f*ck your tattoos, f*ck all you junkies and f*ck your short memory

Cause I'm praying for rain, I'm praying for tidal waves...

The music was oddly cathartic given the situation. Waiting for the train back to Jersey, my thoughts remained on the young woman's tattoos. After twenty minutes of deep thought (perhaps I was over-thinking), I came to a conclusion. Without the ability to question the woman about her motives, I could only speculate as to the reasons why she chose to permanently scar a very visible part of her body with Arabic writing. I fell back on three possible reasons...

Reason Number One:

(This is certainly a possibility, and plausible). The young woman, in perverse, but perhaps noble reverence, tattooed her body with 'Remember the Past' and 'Prepare for the Future' to pay tribute to a mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, aunt, uncle, or friend who died as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks. This constant reminder to Remember the Past and Prepare for the Future was a promise she kept to herself, enshrined in the Arabic language of her fallen comrades' killers.

Reason Number Two:

The young woman is an Islamic fundamentalist sycophant, possibly entranced by the fashionable America-hating, death to Israel crowd. Her tattoo serves to ensure that she has a daily remembrance to the accomplishments of the martyrs she worships.

Reason Number Three:

She is blissfully ignorant of the geopolitical implications of 9/11. She is further ignorant of the steady march of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. She also doubts and downplays the impact of Western culture on the mindset and psyche of the terrorists. The presence of Muslim radicals and theocratic nihilists, as Christopher Hitchens calls them, is as foreign a concept to her as planes piloted by radical terrorists smashing into American buildings. All that matters to her is that she has two cool-looking tattoos in Arabic on her wrists, and so what if they contain somewhat idealistic, innocuous, jingoistic, or even profoundly religious language? People ask her about them all the time when she's, say, riding on the subway.

It was unclear to me which category the young woman fell under, although I feel she qualified for one of the three possibilities that I laid out. Personally, I favor the third option as her modus operandi. Upon further reflection, it further occurred to me that this woman in a way represented the present dichotomy among Americans and 9/11.

I have discerned two distinct reactions to 9/11, neither of which will appear a shocking analysis to the well-informed reader. I have been guilty of both reactions, and currently suffer? from the latter.

Firstly, many Americans reacted to 9/11 with not only horror and disgust, but also contempt for America the victim. It was the reckless government of the United States that brought this ghastly act upon itself. How dare we have military bases in Saudi Arabia? How dare we support Israel, which has snubbed its nose at the United Nations? The United Nations! Why should the U.S. export its hedonistic, superficial culture via Brad Pitt movies and Snoop Dogg gangsta rap? As horrible as these attacks were, America undoubtedly brought this upon itself. The continued failed policies of successive American administrations has fostered this hatred upon the western world.

Secondly, many Americans felt an opposite emotion equally as strongly. Who the hell were these base cowards? How dare this stateless entity, this 'al Qaeda' perpetrate such violence upon so many innocent people? The United States is a benign great power that can annihilate its enemies if it wishes, let alone a rag-tag group of fanatics. These masochistic zealots picked the wrong fight, and now they need to be taught a lesson.

The first reaction is commonly seen among the left of center audience. The second, among the right, naturally. Neither is entirely accurate or righteous, for we cannot lay down our arms and apologize any more than we can bomb the region into the stone age.

But I hold one particular conviction with certainty. Any fashionable trend that purports to convert Islamic hate into materialistic chic is a dastardly perversion of the principles we are fighting, bleeding and dying for right now in the Middle East. It is far too simple for us to latch on to a popularized notion that the expression of commonality alone will suffice for world peace. That is a naive, distorted and overly simplistic view of the world. A view that is not backed up by history past, present, or future.

Enemies do not lay down their arms after a victorious attack, which 9/11 was for terrorists. Similarly, our enemies will not go away if the same environment which fostered their creation continues to foster chaos and religious insanity with impunity. We will suffer these attacks in perpetuity unless left and right, restraint and force, courage and conviction, are brought to the table.

This is not what we see now from Washington, certainly not in the deep divisions among our nation's leaders. A house divided will not stand, a great American once said. Republicans and Democrats alike need to pick up the pieces and work out their differences before the enemy renders all judgement moot.

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