You saw Dunkirk last night, and you liked the film, admired it, and you have many roiling thoughts about it. As you walk to the train you decide to go out of your way to walk by St. Patrick’s, which has become something of a nexus of conflicting emotions for you.
You’re thinking about earthquakes and hurricanes, deportations and camps. Perfect storms. Forgiveness, and if such a thing is possible. Accountability and atonement. When you arrive at the church you see a line of police tape is stretched across the front door. The tourist family who wants to take pictures has to pose in the smaller door to the side, and you sit on the steps out of their way. You think about the fact that, when you have to, you think you’ll be willing to fight in the street for your city. You’ll be begging forgiveness the entire time, and you’re not strong so you won’t last very long, but you’ll still have to do it, but will you know when it’s time?
How did Walter Benjamin know when to kill himself? How did he decide that he was at the nadir of life under the Nazis, that nothing was getting better, and that death under his own power was the best path?
This is what you’re thinking when you pull yourself up and start walking to the train. And you loop through barricades, and you’re thinking about how to recognize enemies, and you find yourself surrounded by barricades, behind a row of garbage trucks.
New Yorkers know what that means.
And when you pull yourself back into focus you realize that at the end of the sidewalk on the way to the train station is a checkpoint. People are being searched to go through. You’ll be searched if you keep walking this way.
You, who have been sexually harassed and assaulted, will be searched to protect someone who confessed publicly to sexual assault. You, who ruined your body working jobs on your feet, and who has never had enough money or health care to heal yourself, will have strangers’ hands on your body. You, who worked beside poor black women to care for rich white babies in Charlottesville, Virginia, will be searched for the comfort of.
There’s a point in Dunkirk when an elderly man hands blankets out to the soldiers, saying to each one, “Well done, boys.” One young soldier, disgusted and ashamed at being evacuated, snaps back: “But we didn’t do anything.” The man replies, “You survived. That’s enough this time.”
Your grandfather with his German last name was a Secret Service agent. He protected Roosevelt and Truman with his own body multiple times in Germany, as they inspected a Nazi machine turned to rubble and ash. His body was the barricade between those two men and death.
He survived that war, and at the end of it his country celebrated the defeat of an enemy. They pulled themselves together and charged into the future convinced they were heroes.
You turn back and walk slowly down the sidewalk, waiting to see if anyone notices you and wonders why you’re acting like a skittering cockroach. You turn the corner and smile at the cops, because you can do that because you’re a white woman, and you loop back through blocks and barricades so you won’t be searched on the streets of your own city, and you think about what you’re willing to do.