The Green Ocean
Creative Commons License photo

credit: Hamed Saber

For the past week, I, like many others, have found myself returning time after time to Nico Pitney’s live-blogging of the Iranian protests. Pitney’s aggregation of coverage from all the corners of the web – from Twitter to email to blogs to news – has an immediacy to it that can not be captured by television, by newspapers, by magazines. While the whole phenomenon of Twitter is new to many people, to me there’s a very familiar – almost eerily familiar – feel to this way of communicating past the barriers imposed by space, governments and the media.

The night of September 11, 2001, I sat in my living room, a safe distance from New York City and half-watched the coverage of the world’s reaction to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The rest of my attention was on my computer screen where my ICQ icon was flashing constantly and I had a dozen ICQ windows open.

In one, my friend Erika was telling me about her walk home from her office at Rockefeller Plaza earlier that day. Her descriptions were surreal – all the more so because they were flat and emotionless. The only emotion that came through clearly was confusion. She told me about walking past a a bloody foot and seeing a shoe nearby, and then wondered if she should go back and put the shoe on the foot, asked me if I thought that she should. I wanted to make her tea, sit across from her, hold her hands – but the best I could do was reassure her that someone would make sure the shoe and foot were reunited with the body – that it wasn’t her job to do it.

In another ICQ message box, my 18 year old friend Travis was typing from his dorm room in New York City. A freshman at college, just two weeks away from living in a comfortable upper middle class suburban home in Maryland, he wrote about the horror of smelling burnt meat and realizing it was people. He wrote about the noise outside his windows. He wrote about his worry for his Muslim roommate’s safety in the coming days.

In other windows, friends from all over the country reached out. Karen broadcast that Fred – working at the Pentagon – was safe. He’d been on the other side of the building. Thuy had managed to reach her daughter, stranded in Brazil when the planes were grounded, and she was safe.

On the television, they kept playing the infamous clip of people in some Middle East country dancing and celebrating the attack on the American devils. Amid the messages of condolence and support from various countries around the world, commentators kept coming back to that one clip, intoning that “not all of the world is sympathetic to us tonight”. The rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment eventually colored much of the coverage with the message that the entire Muslim world hated us and rejoiced in the deaths of Americans.

But I knew better. On my desktop, ICQ windows kept popping up – and would until well beyond the next afternoon – from Iran, from Iraq, from Saudi Arabia. Dozens of them from people I had never met or communicated with before – and the messages were not messages of hate and condemnation.

Tonight we are cry with you, one read. In Riyadh, we are not dance. We are mourn with your loss. Please tell your friends we cry.

There were many other messages, most of them in far better English, but that was the one that most touched me. I could imagine the writer taking the time and making the effort to search out the words in a dictionary or a translator so that he could reach out across the world and tell a stranger – we are not all one voice. What you see on your television is not the truth. We do not all hate you. We are crying with you. We mourn with you. Please share my message. Please tell others.

Watching Twitter turn green in support of the Iranian people, watching the flood of information that manages to leak around the censors and find the people around the edges of the media coverage, watching the media coverage itself change and respond as the PEOPLE demand to hear the truth, I can’t help but wonder how differently things may have turned out if the “new media” had been more robust in 2001. It’s a flawed analogy, of course, but I still wonder… what if those voices that reached out from Iran and Iraq and the Sudan and Turkey and Syria express their sympathy and solidarity, to give the lie to the media coverage of anti-American demonstrations – what if those voices had been louder in 2001 and 2003? Would we have been so quick to accept the enmity and hate as a given?


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