Novel responses

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Sept. 11 was less than six months ago, but the shelves of bookshops, discount stores and supermarkets already are full of material on the tragedy of that day. Many of the volumes are "rush-to-market" efforts that exploit both the events and inquiring readers. Photojournalism with minimal text and narratives of "tribute" and "remembrance" are prominent. Journalistic accounts and personal testimonials are popular. A number of books are religious-spiritual in tone; there is even an astrological guide to 9/11.

Indeed, many of the titles employ what have quickly become stock phrases for the "new era": "America Under Attack," "The Day America Changed," "A Time for Heroes," "One Nation." But most of the books fail to consider the consequences of U.S. power for people around the world. In fact, events such as the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon make it less likely that many Americans will reflect on the international behavior of their country. Failure to do so, however, runs the risk of what historian Chalmers Johnson terms "blow-back": retaliation by those who perceive themselves to be victims of American foreign policy.

There are alternatives to the mainstream publishing-industry's approach: small presses that offer critical perspectives on politics, economics, culture and society. In addition to established periodicals such as Common Courage, Monthly Review, South End and Verso, there are a multitude of obscure "guerrilla" efforts like those of the Chicago-based Subway and Elevated Press, which trumps the better-known progressive publishers with its new anthology, "Another World is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror. (Subway and Elevated Press)" Somewhere in between the mainstream and the guerrilla publishers is Gainesville's "niche" publisher Alternative Comics, which has released "9-11: Emergency Relief, (Alternative Comics)" a collection of more than 80 cartoonists' personal reactions to the attacks. Both "Another World" and "9-11" merit a closer look.

"9-11"'s comic-book format is a novel addition to what is already in print on the subject. (Really, how many photo books do we need after endlessly seeing the images on television?) The volume would have benefited, however, from a firmer editing hand. That so many cartoonists signed on to the project is commendable. But since many of their accounts and experiences are not especially compelling, the varied quality of the work makes this graphic presentation tedious at times.

While some readers will welcome the absence of a "slant" -- political or otherwise -- the resulting lack of focus diminishes the book's impact. Proceeds from the sale of "9-11," which benefit the American Red Cross, might present a different kind of problem for some folks, given the criticism heaped upon that organization for its initial distribution of only a small portion of its "Liberty Fund" to victims' families.

A more successful approach is that of "Another World," edited by six young multicultural political activists (one of whom lost a father in the WTC collapse). For one thing, the book is laid-out as hypertext; photographs, poetic verse, bold-face quotations and snippets of e-mail conversations sometimes appear on the same page. For another, the book gives voice to people personally affected by the horrific events but who reject the popular consensus about why the terrorism happened and what the U.S. response should have been.

Amber Amundson, who was widowed in the Pentagon attack, issues a call to the "nation's leaders not to take the path that leads to more widespread hatreds that make my husband's death just one more in an unending spiral of killing." Dave Portorti asks if the brother he lost at the World Trade Center matters, stating that "in the hands of biased pundits posing as objective journalists, the framing will always be the same: pro-military, pro-government, pro-war."

Usman Forman, a Pakistani Muslim who worked at the Trade Center and narrowly escaped the building's collapse, expresses fear for the well-being of his family in the aftermath of the attacks. Forman says that "violence only begets violence and, by lashing out at each other in fear and hatred, we will be no better than the faceless cowards who committed this atrocity." Phyllis and Orlando Rodriquez's son perished, yet they demand that war not be waged in their son's name. Instead, they urge that "our government ... develop peaceful, rational solutions to terrorism, solutions that do not sink us to the inhuman level of terrorists."

Included also are commentaries by public figures and critical intellectuals: among them, new-age psychologist Deepak Chopra; Marxist philosopher and academic Angela Davis; novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and Uruguayan activist and author Eduardo Galeano. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) explains her lone congressional vote against a resolution of war. The editors also let the past words of establishment-types speak for themselves, printing quotations that often show their narrow world views. In one example, from a 1998 interview, former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, proudly asserts that U.S. covert activities in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet Union's invasion of that country successfully lured the U.S.S.R. into its own Vietnam War.

"Another World" is more than a book. An accompanying video ($15; produced collaboratively by Paper Tiger TV, the New York Independent Media Center and Big Noise Films) and a hip-hop album ($15; on Freedom Fighter Music and featuring Dead Prez and The Coup) are available.

But Another World is also more than a multi-media project. The editors unabashedly state that they want their work to spark political action. The message is: Organize. From crisis springs hope! Demand the impossible! There's a world to win!

Michael Hoover, co-author of "City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema," teaches political science at Seminole Community College.

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