An Open Letter to America
Ariel Dorfman, USA (Chile)
September 8, 2002
Let me tell you, America, of the hopes I had for you.
As the smoke was swallowing Manhattan and the buildings fell and the
terror spread into the farthest recesses of your land and your hearts, my hopes for you, America.
While around the world many of the past victims of your own terror,
your own attacks, were thinking and often saying, saying and more
often thinking, they deserve it, serves them right, it's about time
they knew what it's like to be on the receiving end. Not true, I
thought, I said. Nobody deserves terror. Justice. What we deserve,
all of us, is some measure of justice.
My hopes for America: not that this was good for you. No, not that.
But I have seen suffering before, I have seen widows wandering remote
streets with the photos of their loved ones asking if anybody knows
if they are alive or dead, I have watched men and women and even
countries turn their deepest sorrows into a source of strength, a
form of self-knowledge, a chance to grow.
A chance to grow, America, that was my hope.
Loss turned into maturity.
A chance to understand. Not alone, America, not alone in your grief.
A perpetual valley of terror, that is what most of humanity is born
into day after faraway day. Ignoring if tomorrow we will once again
be assaulted and bombed, humiliated and tormented. America suddenly
living what almost everyone else on this planet has experienced at
some point yesterday or today: the precarious pit of everyday fear.
My hope for America: empathy, compassion, the capacity to imagine
that you are not unique. Yes, America, if this dreadful destruction
were only to teach you that your citizens and your dead are not the
only ones who matter on this planet, if that experience were to lead
you to wage a resolute war on the multiple terrors that haunt our
already murderous new century.
An awakening, America.
Not to be. What did not happen.
Your country, hijacked. Your panic, used to take you on a journey of
violence from which it is hard to return, the men at the controls not
worried about crashing America into the world.
But not just the fault of the men who misgovern you.
They can only do what you have allowed them, responding, those men,
to some of your deepest desires.
Above all, this: to be innocent again, to feel good about yourselves,
after Vietnam. Vietnam? That country you turned into a mass graveyard?
Innocence, handed back to you, America, on 11 September 2001. A
terrible price to pay, but there it is. Those atrocities, that
devastation, finally making you all into victims. No ifs, no buts, no
listening to the naysayers, no patience for those who suggest you
look at your own history, your own interventions across the globe, to
understand why so many out there in the crazed world might detest
you. No more self-doubt, America.
Beware the plague of victimhood, America.
The finger I point at you, pointed back at my own self. I know that
thrill, I have sweetly sucked it in, I have felt the surge of
self-righteousness that comes from being unfairly hurt. Anything we
do, justified. Any criticism against us, dismissed.
Beware the plague of fear and rage, America.
Nothing more dangerous: a giant who is afraid. Projecting power and
terror so the demons within and without will not devour him, so the
traumas of the past will not repeat themselves.
Beware the plague of amnesia, America.
Or have you forgotten Chile? Not just a name. Chile? Democratic
Chile? Demonized, destabilized by your government in 1973? Chile?
That country misruled for 17 years by a dictator you helped to
And other countries, other names. Iran, Nicaragua, the Congo,
Indonesia, South Africa, Laos, Guatemala. Just names? Just footnotes
in history books, your creatures?
But I do not speak to you only from afar.
How could I not wish you well? You gave me, an americano from the
Latino South, this language of love that I return to you. You gave me
the hot summer afternoons of my childhood in Queens when my starkest
choice was whether to buy a Popsicle from the Good Humor Man or the
fat driver of the Bungalow Bar truck. And then back to calculating
Jackie Robinson's batting average. How could I not wish you well? You
gave me refuge when I was barely a toddler, my family fleeing the
fascist thugs in Argentina in the mid-Forties. One of you then. Still
one of you now. How could I not wish you well? Years later, again it
was to America I came with my own family, an exile from the Chile of
Pinochet you helped to spawn into existence on precisely an 11
September, another Tuesday of doom. And yet, still wishing you well,
America: you offered me the freedom to speak out that I did not have
in Santiago, you gave me the opportunity to write and teach, you gave
me a gringa grand-daughter, how could I not love the house she lives
Where is that America of mine? Where is that other America? Where is
the America of 'as I would not be a slave so would I not be a
master', the America of this 'land is our land this land was meant
for you and me', the America of all men, and all women, everyone of
us on this ravaged, glorious earth of ours, all of us, created equal?
Created equal: one baby in Afghanistan or Iraq as sacred as one baby
in Minneapolis. Where is my America? The America that taught me
tolerance of every race and every religion, that filled me with
pioneer energy, that is generous to a fault when catastrophes strike?
So was I wrong?
When I hoped you would rise to the challenge as death visited you
from the sky? When I believed America the just, the rebellious, the
unselfish, was still alive? Not entirely spoiled by excessive wealth?
With the courage to conquer its fear?
America learning the lesson of Vietnam.
Vietnam. More, many more than 3,000 dead. More, many more, than two
cities bombed. More, more, more than one day of terror.
And yet, they do not hate you, America.
The enduring lesson of Vietnam. Not, next time obliterate the enemy.
Not, next time satanize those who dissent.
What the Vietnamese are whispering to you: they remember and yet they
do not hate. Not that easy, America, to forgive the pain. Or can you
forget your own 11 September that easily?
Not that easy, America.
Or was I wrong? Have I become contaminated myself with your
innocence, lived too long among you? Do you need 50,000 body bags
coming home before you start to listen to your own voices of peace
Am I wrong to believe that the country that gave the world jazz and
Faulkner and Eleanor Roosevelt will be able to look at itself in the
cracked mirror of history and join the rest of humanity, not as a
city on a separate hill, but as one more city in the shining valleys
of sorrow and uncertainty and hope where we all dwell?
Ariel Dorfman has just published Exorcising Terror: The Incredible
Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (Seven Stories Press) and
a book of poems, In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land (Duke University
From The Observer,, September 8, 2002. © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002. This article will also appear in the next issue of the
The Nation magazine.