Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with essayist Richard Rodriguez about his thoughts three weeks after the attacks.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Welcome, Richard.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Three weeks after the attacks, what are you thinking, hearing, seeing?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, I'm listening a lot. At some level, you know, it's so hard to take the temperature of a country. But one has to take the temperature of this country several times a day already as an indication of just how uneasy we are with even the mundane, with the routine that's going back. You go out in the street, people are running red lights, people walking down the street with cell phones. When you ask people, how are you feeling? Or how are you doing?
People understand that question to mean something now. If they have time, they will tell you stories. They will tell you stories of feeling depression. They will tell you about grief that they felt, these sobs. A woman told me this week that her children are weeping in the middle of the day suddenly and without reason except that there are reasons. I said to you the last time we were talking that I thought that the word "terrorism" is a misnomer.
What we are feeling as a country is not terror but this other strange wash of depression and fear and anger and sadness. I think those all wash. There are mornings when I forget it. I forget September 11. I wake up. I have a day ahead of me. And then it comes back to me and then I feel should I have for gotten it or should I get on with it? There are friends who say we are getting on it. We're leaving it behind. But what we also know, of course, is it's ahead of us. It's not simply behind us - that we have entered a new phase, a new age, a new, very dangerous world. It's that uncertainty I think that one feels right now in the country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that there's tolerance for various voices, all the voices that are speaking about what happened, how to interpret it and what should be done next?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think in some general way, there is, except that, you know, the country is very, very edgy right now in a political, humorous makes a point about whether or not the terrorists were brave or not and he's called down. This is a moment at which, you know, this country is beginning to feel its liberty, its freedom as its vulnerability. So there is this tightening of the voice and this sense that the country should speak with one voice.
All the stories in my neighborhood have this same sign: United we stand when I think to myself, that isn't America. America has always struck me as a country that has its energy, its strength within the variety of voices that it sounds. So that I worry about that but I also understand that this is a moment at which the country feels this intensity of focus and we are very uneasy with the freedom we give ourselves.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The President and others, we just Tony Blair say it, have made a real effort to distinguish between Islam, the religion, and the terrorists who pretend to represent Islam. Do you think that's been successful, that differentiation?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think at some level that's the smartest thing that President Bush has done is to distinguish the terrorists and that errant Islam, that blasphemous Islam, the men who are speaking the sacred name of Allah as they plow those planes into the side of buildings from true Islam, which is beautiful and humane and a magnificent religion.
That said, however, it seems to me that we are faced with a crisis in America about religion, that we haven't wanted to face until now. This is a country formed against religion in some sense. Our public life has accepted the secular as the way we get along. We agree to have our private faiths and to worship privately on Sunday.
Suddenly we are accused by these men that we don't even know of being a Jewish-Christian country or alternately we are accused of being a godless country, a pagan, sensual country given to only the pleasures of the flesh. And we hear ourselves placed within this religious context and it is puzzling to us. It may be the most terrifying prospect we face that we are now beginning to feel again all of the European nightmares that our ancestors felt, some of which of Europe was carved by religious war, sectarian war between believers of God in so many ways as Tony Blair said today, you know, the Crusades was an offense against true Christianity of these behaviors of the terrorists is an offense against Islam.
But, nonetheless we now know as a secular society there are these religious energies in the world. . I'm not sure our politicians are going to be able to address them. This may be a moment where our religious leaders have to become part of the conversation about the way we enter this new century.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Rodriguez, it's always good to see you, thanks.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Elizabeth.