It’s hard to look deep into our souls. It’s harder still when we feel profoundly violated, when the boundaries of our world have instantly crumbled. But we need to look deep if we want more than revenge for the crimes that killed over 6,000 innocent people. As citizens, we must help prevent these kinds of horrors from continuing, generation after generation, in the United States or any other place on this earth.
Our president has called this “a war between good and evil.” He vows to “rid the world of evildoers.” Overwhelmed with outrage and loss and wanting to feel united, most Americans cheer him on. The attacks were evil, unequivocally so. Nothing could ever justify them. Yet U.S. policies may have sowed some of the seeds for this terrible day. And we can’t afford to fuel the cycles of indiscriminate violence. To help prevent still more innocent deaths, we need to use the lessons of what happened to chart a different path. The future depends not only on our government’s actions, but also on our own, as individual citizens.
For all our anger and sorrow, and for all the monstrous and inexcusable deeds of the hijackers, we still need to ask what made them so bitterly despairing that they were willing to murder thousands in the name of their cause. Even as we work to bring them to justice, it’s not naïve to ask what made them act as they did. It’s essential for breaking the endless cycles of vengeance.
A few months back, I read a newspaper article about a Palestinian terrorist. He crossed the Israeli border and blew himself up along with a group of Israelis. Originally an apolitical man, he worked as a jailor, assigned to guard a top official from one of the militant West Bank groups. The two became friends, but the jailor remained uninterested in politics. Then an Israeli bomb blew up his friend. The jailor lost hope, abandoning everything but retribution. He took his own life-and as many innocent Israeli lives as he could. They could have been my cousins in Tel Aviv.
Just as something turned this man, something turned the hijackers. Maybe it was watching corrupt dictatorships like Saudi Arabia inviting U.S. bases onto their soil. Maybe it was seeing Palestinians shot and bombed by Israeli soldiers with American backing. Maybe it was the Gulf War and the one million Iraqis who have died because the war and our continuing embargo have destroyed their most basic health and sanitation systems. Or our bombing of Sudan’s only pharmaceutical factory, on what turned out to be false charges that it was producing biological weapons and was tied to Osama bin Laden.
There’s more troubling history. Our leaders, including Bush senior, helped create the Mujahideen to drive the Russians from Afghanistan and worked with Osama bin Laden in the process. They backed Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party as a counterweight to Iran, whose Ayatollah came to power as leader of the only force capable of overthrowing the brutal Shah. The United States had supported the Shah since our CIA installed him in 1953, after overthrowing an elected prime minister who’d dared to talk of nationalizing oil. Coincidentally, September 11 was the anniversary of the CIA-backed coup overthrowing Chile’s elected Allende government, launching nearly twenty years of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.
The ordinary Americans whose inexcusable deaths rend our hearts may have died in part because of our own government’s past actions. As always, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the innocents. Unless we create a more just world, desperate men from voiceless communities will continue to destroy more innocent lives, here and abroad.
How then, as citizens, do we respond? In a crisis of this magnitude, people understandably want to unite. I see flags and red, white, and blue ribbons on houses and cars, purses, and bodies. The flags are a way for people to say their spirits won’t be cowed, and to do something tangible, along with donating blood, supplies, and money. But they can also promote a self-righteous crusade of good versus evil.
I saw this on a beach near my Seattle neighborhood, where people had surrounded our local 10-foot-tall version of the Statue of Liberty with an impromptu shrine commemorating the dead. They’d left candles and flowers, crosses and American flags, peace signs, a New York City firefighter’s shirt, and messages of mourning. But then a fundamentalist megachurch descended to hold a rally, overwhelming the original circle of diverse messages with new ones proclaiming “An eye for an eye,” and “Kill a terrorist for Jesus!”
If we feel like wearing or flying the flag, we should. But maybe we need to display it next to banners or buttons asking for true justice, not vengeance. And ribbons of mourning that recognize our common humanity-even with the men who lost theirs by being so tangled with rage that they didn’t care who they killed.
It’s tempting to say that in a time like this, we need to trust our national leaders. They’re probably right that some force will be needed to apprehend the perpetrators of these inconceivable crimes. But our responses need to focus on individuals, not populations. And proceed in a way that gives them the broadest possible legitimacy, including in the communities from which the bombers were recruited. Think of Iran, and the delicate path toward democratization pursued by reformer Mohammad Khatami. Bomb enough Islamic civilians, and his already-beleaguered regime will surely fall, replaced by the Ayatollahs. Think of Pakistan, with its nuclear capabilities. If we don’t proceed with caution, acknowledging past misdeeds, we’ll only incite more terrorists. No one could argue with the trial of the bombers who destroyed the Pan Am jet, near Lockerbie, Scotland. They blew up innocent people. They were tried with full due process. Their jailing created no more martyrs or cycles of hatred.
This crisis would daunt any national leader. Yet the president who now commands our responses has spent his life sheltered by wealth, indulged by friends in high places, and scripted in his every public appearance. With few exceptions, his appointees have done everything possible to sunder common responsibilities and common ties: a Vice President who repeatedly voted against Head Start, school lunches for low-income children, and even the mildest sanctions on South Africa; an Attorney General who’s repeatedly attacked African-American voting rights; a Secretary of the Interior who’s scorned our need to protect the earth; and a Secretary of Defense obsessed with missiles that do not defend. Already, Bush has turned his back on our interconnected world by rejecting, or proposing backing out of, so many international treaties: on banning chemical, biological, and toxic weapons; prosecuting war crimes; banning land mines; limiting the international small arms trade (where weapons we sell as the world’s largest arms dealer have already been turned against us); and beginning to address global warming. His missile defense system would shatter 25 years of arms control treaties.
I cite this history not to encourage self-righteousness among those of us who question our government’s response (God knows we all need humility now), but to describe the real context in which we act. For it’s going to be up to ordinary citizens to raise the hard issues, including which crises we consider urgent.
Congress just authorized $40 billion to rebuild New York and beef up anti-terrorist security. Much of this investment is appropriate. But why have we chosen not to make other investments addressing crises equally real? According to Bread for the World, six million children die every year of hunger-related causes in developing countries-the equivalent of three World Trade Center attacks every day. For an annual appropriation of $13 billion-that’s a third of what our Congress just authorized, or five percent of our existing $260 billion dollar defense budget-we could meet the basic health and nutrition needs of the world’s poorest people every year. Yet we’ve chosen not to. Nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance, but we’ve chosen to be the only advanced industrialized country not to provide it to our citizens. Guns kill 30,000 of us a year, yet we choose to do little to control them or address the poverty and rage among our own desperate and marginalized. I cite these examples not to diminish the horror of these unjustifiable attacks, but to stress that all shattered lives are just as real, and to ask why some cataclysms disturb us so little.
I fear that this tragedy will pave the way for needless and provocative military buildups and interventions that will spawn further spirals of vengeance. Already, the Bush administration is using the crisis as an excuse to despoil the environment, to starve our every human need except physical security, and to erode the very liberties that let us challenge destructive actions of state.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine if these terrible events inspired us all to take on the difficult work of creating a more just world, and making the necessary common investments so indiscriminate violence and needless suffering do not prevail.
The crisis has already produced a wealth of individual acts of courage and compassion. We saw tremendous heroism in the firefighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens who gave their lives trying to help others live. We’ve seen an outpouring of personal generosity: people giving blood, comforting their neighbors, collecting supplies. American Christians and Jews have held vigils to help protect threatened mosques, and a Jewish family volunteered to walk with a Muslim woman who felt threatened just stepping outside. For the moment, we’re common mourners: People seem careful, vulnerable, and extraordinarily kind to each other. These events just might be able to break us away from our gated communities of the heart.
But by itself, individual compassion won’t create a just world. To do that requires asking what common choices would respect the humanity of all human beings-and then working to make those choices a reality.
This means acting in common, raising our voices, continuing to speak out no matter how hard it becomes. We need to be kind to ourselves, and nurture our souls while we act: whether through walking in nature, playing with children, dancing to music, or communing with our God and the people we love. We also need to take public action-including reaching out to those who disagree with us on how to respond to this brutal cataclysm. Because from what I’ve observed, there’s ample common ground once we make clear we share the goal of preventing these horrors from continuing to be visited on innocent humans again. We need to act with enough faith and strength to keep on raising the difficult questions, demanding paths that are both just and wise.
If we really raise the hard questions, we’ll probably take some heat and be called some names. It might help to carry flags at our vigils and protests, since true patriotism requires taking responsibility for the choices of our nation.
We can never know every facet of this situation. We will not know every detail of how our government responds. We may not know whether our actions will prevail. But we need to speak out, whatever the obstacles or costs, for our own human dignity. And also because this is the only way that the cycles of vengeance have a chance of finally ending.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time [St Martin’s Press, www.soulofacitizen.org] and three other books on citizen involvement with war, peace, and social justice issues.
Copyright 2001, Paul Loeb