By What Right?
by Mina Hamilton
April 3, 2003
By what right do I pick up the New York Times, thumb through the Weekend: Movies, Performing Arts Section, look up the nearest theatre showing The Hours, walk out of the house, catch a bus, slip my $20.00 bill through the square opening in the cashier's Plexiglas window, count my change, consider buying popcorn (I don't), sit down on a seat with slightly sprung springs, and watch an extraordinary performance by Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman?
The theatre is not bombed. No tomahawk cruise missiles sever the roof with a roar.
After the film I walk up Third Avenue. It's 9:00 PM. The streets are wet from a brief downpour. Shiny, mostly new, automobiles stop and start. Traffic lights follow their orderly sequence of red and green and red again. Walk signals flash. At a cross street a car pauses. The turn signal neatly clicks on and off. By what right does the driver flick on his turn signal, scan for pedestrians, and slowly proceed into the intersection?
His car is not a target. He does not writhe in sheets of flame, screaming frantically.
There are shops selling lacy confections of lingerie. A corner grocery store displays brilliant red tomatoes and freshly sprayed Boston lettuce. Two Mexicans scramble to pick up grapefruits that are rolling over the pavement.
There are shoe stores, T-shirt stores, bathing suit stores, eyeglass stores. There are ice-cream customers leaning over a glass counter. They ponder their weighty options of 31 flavors. One points to her selection.
Great sides of beef hang from hooks at a butcher's where a walk-in freezer has a window facing the street. A Sushi store is closed for the night. In the brightly lit window is a tasteful display of plastic sushi bits - tuna, shrimp and eel. At an Italian restaurant, a waiter waves a young couple to a table.
Plate glass windows everywhere! By what right are all of us without the imminent hazard of an ordinance slicing through the window at 400 mph spewing lethal shards of metal and glass in all directions?
By what right do I smell the too-sweet hyacinths at the florist, the gritty, nostril-grabbing odor of wet asphalt, the pizza wafting from Joe's Pizza? A muscular jockess, a yoga mat tucked under her arm, ducks into a gym. As the gym door swings open a whiff of sweat and disinfectant joins the olfactory bouquet.
By what right are my legs, arms - and nostrils intact?
An almost empty bus is halted by traffic. By what right is that woman sitting by the window, holding a cardboard cup? The way she leans forward and cautiously sips tells me the liquid is hot. The flecking of light brown on the cup's lip says coffee, perhaps a cappuccino?
Her bus is not wracked by an explosion. Neither she nor the bus is rendered into charred bones or a hulking frame of grotesquely twisted metal.
An ambulance careens by. The person inside is going to an intact building. Not only is the hospital standing; it has a sterile operating room, oxygen tanks, anesthesia, equipment for testing blood types, enough blood for transfusions, morphine, a large freezer packed with drugs, several working X-ray machines, a CAT-scan, a MRI, bone splints, crutches, wheelchairs, bandages, millions of miles of gauze, beds with clean sheets, nurses, anesthesiologists, doctors - in short everything needed to save lives.
It's not a hospital where nothing is sterile. It's not a hospital where the one ancient X-ray machine is about to conk out. It's not a hospital where a water shortage means patients begging for a drink and unmopped pools of blood on the floor. It's not a hospital shattered by agonizing screams.
By what right is that woman getting her nails done?
By what right is that man giggling into his cell phone?
By what right are none of us confronted with the unspeakable horror of chunks of human bodies scattered on the pavement?
By what right do I walk home knowing that my apartment building will still be standing when I get there? It won't be smoking ruins. By what right do I know my partner is cozy and safe, reading in bed?
By what right do I put the key in the lock of my apartment and enter, grope down the dark hallway (I have to change the light bulb), and slowly reach for the lamp in the living room, all the while knowing with absolute certainty that the light will turn on? The electricity has not been knocked out by a 5000-pound "bunker buster."
By what right can I walk into the kitchen, turn the faucet, and clean water gushes out? Nobody has bombed the water pipelines. Nobody has forced me to drink sewage-contaminated water from a river in Basra.
I am unscathed because I happen to be a New Yorker instead of a resident of Basra, Nasiriya, Kut, Samawa, Kalak, Qush Tapa, Basra, Baghdad or other cities the US/UK military is bombing.
I am unscathed not because of any particular merit or worth or goodness on my part. I am unscathed not because of the color of my skin, my religion, my nationality, my culture, my economic status, my gender.
Unscathed. Nothing explains this astounding accident of fate. But the right is fundamental.
Like every other being on the planet, whether in Rio de Janeiro, in Peshawar, in Johannesburg, in Cairo, in Calcutta, in Nasiriya, I have the right to live in a world where I can walk down the street and not be blown to smithereens.
I have the right to live in a world where the behavior of nations is governed by international law.
I have the right to live in a society where we respect the utter preciousness of each and every life on the planet and in a society where those who infract upon the rights of others are dealt with, not by self-appointed policemen, but in terms of agreed upon, carefully formulated, ethical codes.
I have the right to a society that agrees we must not kill each other.
With any and all non-violent means, I will fight for these rights.
I will still fight for these rights when known or unknown persons decide to revenge themselves upon my city, my loved ones and me.
Mina Hamilton is a writer in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.