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A bike messenger speaks:

You’re in our world now

On September 11 everything changed for all Americans. As SF Chronicle columnist Chris Matthews observed, up until last month America was a country of our own making. Even our catastrophes, such as Vietnam and the Civil War, were of our own making. “This was the first time something was done to us,” he pointed out. His observation is like many that have been made privately and publicly since the mass murders. These statements reflect the anxiety of a new and sudden insecurity felt by many Americans.

There is something I must tell those Americans.

You’re in my world now.

Well over a month has passed since the attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and Flight 93. Many people say these attacks have united us as never before. I believe that’s true. But not just for the reasons we’ve been told.

Before September 11 there were two Americas. One was the America that is well known: wealthy and comfortable . . . and secure. The America that recorded the longest-running economic expansion of its history while increasing the gap between the poor and the rich. The America that believes the corporatist way of life has been approved by history.

That comfortable America is now insecure.

In the other America there was never any such thing as security. The awareness that I may be brutally killed on any day sits quietly in the back of my mind yet subtly pervades my thoughts and even my actions.

I am a messenger. But much of what I say applies to all of us in the other America. My insecurity is dramatically revealed to me, but it is just as real — and usually more so — for too many other citizens of this land. In recent days Americans of Arab and Afghan descent have faced violence. Sikhs, Latinos, and — most ironic — Native Americans face the same violent bigotry because racists are too ignorant and lazy to distinguish among brown-skinned people. And for too many African Americans things are still as they were over 40 years ago, when Norman Mailer wrote that “no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him.” In factories many Americans must work at dangerous and dirty jobs in an atmosphere of lax safety regulations. Gay Americans are assaulted every day in unprovoked attacks all over America — even here in San Francisco. Girls and women of all ages are raped.

No doubt many of these Americans remember that they have never had the security that the comfortable Americans now miss. Their stories must be heard by those who are — or were — comfortable.

But today I will speak about only a few of us — the messengers.

Before you dismiss us as being too few, remember that we exercise influence far beyond our numbers. After all it only takes one of us to anger a whole block or more of frustrated drivers even when we move safely and legally. Before you dismiss us as being too immature, know that we consider you to be the spoiled brats causing our country’s transportation problems. And before you dismiss us as being too arrogant, I ask you to look at yourselves.

Benjamin Franklin stated that those who are willing to sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither. Apparently that admonition doesn’t apply to the comfortable America. The comfortable America wants security AND freedom . . . along with wealth. And for too long the comfortable have gotten these things without paying the bill.

The bill is overdue.

In recent days Americans are asking themselves why a group of fanatics on the other side of the world hate us. To answer that question, we’ve finally begun to examine our foreign policies. While we’re at it, we’d better look at our policies here at home. These policies will not explain why somebody over there hates us, but they will explain something more important: why we’re divided over here and therefore that much more vulnerable to attack by those who hate us.

Each day each bicycle messenger must “share” the road with thousands of vehicles that crowd our space, foul our air, and threaten our lives. And that’s at the very least. By the time a messenger reaches 40 — IF he reaches 40 — he’ll have been to more wakes and funerals than most people in their 70s. The terrorism that drivers inflict on the cycling minority certainly should not be compared to the tragedies of September 11. But we must face the fact that those two terrorisms are related and have helped make all Americans vulnerable to our enemies. The terrorism caused by excess and extreme driving ironically fuels the terrorism of bin Laden and his ilk. Ever wonder where bin Laden’s wealth comes from ? Do the common sense. Bin Laden’s inheritance (estimated at $300 million) comes from his father’s construction contracts in the Saudi OIL fields. Recent news stories report that one to two MILLION dollars are sent to bin Laden each month from his donors in Saudi Arabia alone. You can probably figure on similar amounts coming from his admirers in other OIL states as well. And where do his followers in Saudi Arabia and other OIL states get their money? From American car drivers every time they fill up at the pump. The American addiction to automobiles and OIL which has already caused so much death and destruction literally fueled the attacks on September 11. As Jesus Christ says, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

The comfortable America regrets its lost security. I ask you: Do adults deserve security or do children? If we deprive children of security — and we have — by what right can any adult claim security? Children of the other America are under attack from the beginnings of their lives. In infancy, they have no guarantee of health care. In youth, they grow up in a society that spends more on prisons than on education. In school, they have less chance to learn and more chance to be murdered. In divorce, they have no rights. And it is a stark truth that in neglecting the problems of the other America, those problems — like a cancer — have only grown and have now breached the gates of the comfortable America. Columbine showed us that. As the Biblical prophets emphatically warned: A society that neglects its own children digs its own grave.

The comfortable America must now learn to live with fear. This is a bitter truth, but it is better to live WITH fear than to live IN fear. As Mark Twain observed, courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of it. We in the other America can tell you something about living with fear. First of all, don’t fear what MAY happen as much as what IS happening. Fear of what MAY happen is the first excuse for taking away our Bill of Rights. During World War II many feared what Japanese Americans MAY have done and used this flimsy excuse to imprison the parents, sisters, and children of some of the most heroic soldiers in our nation’s history.

The comfortable America that laments its lost security must realize that it has endangered the other America as well as its own children. Now the comfortable America is also endangered. But as the Chinese teach us, danger is opportunity. The dangers of September 11 united us as the comfortable America joined the other America in learning once again that security in this life will always be an illusion. The martyrs — I refuse to call them mere victims — of September 11 were from the comfortable America and the other America. Let their martyrdom unite us all in one America. Now we must reinforce this unity to end the injustices endured by the other America as well as to find the solution to weaken the terrorist threat. Indeed, one will not happen without the other.

The image of September 11 that I’ll always remember is not of two towers falling. It is of two people walking. One is a white man in a business suit and the other is a black woman. Both are in flight from the destruction. They are covered in ashes and the man is grimacing. But they give me an impression of determination, not defeat. And as they escape the danger, they are holding each other’s hand.

In recent days “God Bless America” has been getting a lot of play — and rightly so. This song was written by Irving Berlin, an immigrant who rose from the slums of New York City to become America’s favorite songwriter. This song inspired Americans to overcome the hardships of the Great Depression and then World War II. But there’s another inspiring song from that era that we should be singing: “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Woody Guthrie’s song still speaks to both America, in the hope that finally at long last we will become one America.

Howard A. Williams is a veteran San Francisco bicycle messenger whose routes cover all neighborhoods in the city and occasionally out of town. He is a member of ILWU Local 6. An earlier version of this article appeared last month in “Cognition,” the newsletter of the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association.