Twenty years ago, my husband and I happened to be living in Egypt when we were visiting my family in California. Visiting just in time for 9/11 and what the media described as an “Attack on America.” What a strange time to come home … in time for an attack. Little did I know that in the days that followed Buzz Lightyear would provide me with the best advice.
Buzz Lightyear is the star of the animated feature Toy Story. He has a broad face with a dimpled chin, no neck, and a constant smile. Encased in a plastic space ranger suit, Buzz is equipped with laser beams that can destroy the deadliest enemy (mainly Emperor Zurg), projectile wings what allow him not to fly but to “fall with style,” and a protective bubble helmet.
Buzz’s sidekick is Woody, who is not half as glamorous. Woody is a cowboy who is always losing his hat. Woody is softer, his body being of cloth, which can cause complications like a torn arm. He does not own any high-tech weaponry or protective clothing. Woody does not own a gun. All he has is an empty holster.
Twenty years ago, my two nephews, Frank (5) and Mark (2-1/2), were in love with Buzz Lightyear. Buzz went to bed with them, traveled in the car with them, had long conversations with them. Frank had a Buzz Lightyear costume that he put on daily to replay all the action scenes from the movie. Mark, as the little brother, was relegated to the Woody part and costume. That is, until Frank left for school and Mark would immediately usurp the costume and role of Buzz, laser beam and all.
Both Buzz and Woody have favorite things they like to say. Buzz speaks when you press one of his dazzling buttons, Woody has an old-fashion string that you pull from behind his back. Woody says things like: “You’re my favorite Deputy.” and “There’s a snake in my boot.” Buzz sayings include: “To Infinity and beyond!” and “I come in peace.”
When I asked my nephews if they knew what infinity was and what Buzz meant when he says he ‘comes in peace’, they grew frustrated with me. Why was I asking these stupid questions? Why wasn’t I just playing my part as Zurg and falling to the floor dead?
“Infinity has no beginning and no end. It’s like God.” I said. “So to say that you are going beyond infinity means that you are going beyond a place with no end. It really doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
I was instantly liquidated by a laser beam.
When I told them that ‘to come in peace’ is to come to help people, not to hurt them, they stared at me blankly and soon forgot. I kept asking my stupid questions and Mark soon had the answers, mostly to appease me. Frank, on the other hand, was more interested in having me press his laser beam button after which he would jump back and exclaim, “Don’t touch that! It’s strangely dangerous!” (Unwittingly, the kids had misinterpreted Buzz’s remark of “extremely dangerous” as “strangely dangerous.”)
It all did feel strangely dangerous—Buzz and what he represented that is. What was he teaching my nephews and why was he so powerful an image? What archetype was Buzz for these two small boys? Frankie rejected most food except “power drinks” so he could “grow big muscles like Buzz.” And it wasn’t just my nephews who were captivated by this action hero, but an entire generation of American boys.
When Bush first called the war on terrorism “Operation Infinite Justice,” I had to wonder if the same people working for Disney were writing the President’s military slogans. “Operation Infinite Justice” and “To Infinity and beyond,” what’s the difference? Then America entered “Operation Enduring Freedom,” although I couldn’t be sure whose freedom we were talking about, certainly not the 21 million Afghans whose country we were about to bomb.
After 11 September, it felt as if my American identity was crashing down inside me alongside the World Trade Centers. I felt overpowered by the violent reactions of my fellow Americans, their immediate thirst for revenge, their interweaving of religious righteousness and patriotic fervor into a frightening display of anger. I couldn’t bear to see how my country was responding to the attacks, to listen to rescue workers at the World Trade Center chant “USA! USA!” as if they were at a football match, to hear my president call the war a “crusade.”
Despite being raised as a good Catholic girl and proud American, God and country weren’t connecting for me anymore. I spent most of the week after 9/11 sick in bed. My identity was fractured, unraveling, dissolving. I simply did not know who I was anymore or what I should do.
The size and number of American flags numbers overwhelmed me. During the week following September 11, more than 800,000 U.S. flags were sold and gun sales doubled. Nearly every other day the local paper would have an article carefully describing the proper way to display an American flag.
Flags were flying everywhere in my sister’s neighborhood, providing people with comfort and expressing unity. My mother took the boys around her neighborhood to “count the flags.” Flags waved from car antennae, rose in popularity at tattoo parlors, and quickly became fashion jewelry.
One day the local paper came with a full-page flag that you could display in your front window and a smaller one for your car. My sister humorously told her husband, “Don’t be putting up any flags around here. I don’t want Osama bombing our house.”
The Friday after September 11th, a vigil was held in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Bush climbed to the church pulpit, and declared, “The warm courage of national unity is evident in the American flags which are displayed in pride and wave in defiance.”
In the Catholic church that my family attended, the American flag stood next to the altar, its red-and-white stripes carefully wrapped around a statue of the Pieta. These displays of religious imagery were literally intertwined with the symbology captured by the country’s flag.
At the end of the last mass I attended in the US, Father Wallace announced the need for catechism instructors followed by the news that the U.S. and U.K. had just begun bombing Afghanistan.
The news made me feel sick and I longed to sit in silent prayer, but instead we moved right into the final hymn, a joyous melody whose lyrics were full of Alleluias. How could this be? As the congregation sang the hymn, my soul wretched itself around the words.
“Lift your voices joyfully as one.”
(We are bombing poor starving people.)
(Our country is at war.)
“He brings good news.”
(Only American lives matter.)
“We are redeemed.”
(We will soon drive away in our big vans and go somewhere to eat too much.)
(God Bless America.)
Meanwhile, anomalies kept appearing. Oprah Winfrey jumped into the fray with a show examining the question “Is war the only way?” Sound bites by political experts were interrupted by commercials selling herbal essence breast enhancers.
I felt alienated from my country and estranged from myself. What kind of American am I? I kept asking myself. Why don’t I feel like everyone else? I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere and kept hoping my voice would appear somewhere.
There were a few. Barbara Boxer, the only member of Congress to vote against war (420-1). “Let us not become the evil that we deplore,” she urged her colleagues in a dramatic address on the House floor. Rita Lasar who lost her brother Abe Zelmanowitz on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center. She wrote a letter to The New York Times urging Bush not to bomb Afghanistan. She wrote:
“It is in my brother’s name and mine that I pray that we, this country that has been so deeply hurt, not do something that will unleash forces we will not have the power to call back.”
As our time in California was nearly finished, my husband and I both struggled with our eminent return to Egypt. Then one morning I heard a woman call into a radio talk show. “What can we do?” she pleaded with the panel of experts. “What can we do in the short run?” And then I knew. At least, I knew what I could do in the short run. And oddly enough, the answer came from Buzz Lightyear.
I could go in peace. As a Christian American woman, I could go and live with Arabs and Moslems and Egyptians. I could shop in their street markets, ride their buses, walk by their mosques, and visit their homes to drink tea. And I could say, “I come in peace.”
I left for Cairo the day after the United States and U.K. started to drop Tomahawk cruise missiles, peanut butter, and flyers of assurance on the people of Afghanistan. Less than two months later, I and my husband would be sharing an iftar meal with Mohammed and his family during Ramadan.
These are the countries who contributed troops or financial backing to the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, UK, USA, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, North Macedonia, Switzerland, Sweden, Ukraine, Australia, Bahrain, El Salvador, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Tonga, UAE
 The US flag must never touch the ground, but be received by waiting arms and hands. When putting the flag at half-mast to show mourning, you must first raise the flag to the peak of the flagpole, and then lower it to the half-mast position. Never fly another flag above the U.S. flag. Never wear a flag, or a piece of a flag. When wanting to dispose of a flag, call the American Legion so it can be done properly or retire it by burning.