This is more than most of my essays a catharsis after the devastating tragedy of 11 September. It helps me to get these thoughts written down. If you're so inclined, you can talk to me about these at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our tragedy is felt through the world ... it has become a link with all of humanity ... we can repudiate the goals of the terrorists!!
Perhaps the most compelling need all of us share is the need to feel important, that our lives have meaning, that our presence in the world mattered in some way. Time and time again, we find that mass murder and terrorism are associated with people who have had their lives shattered and who blame others for that, thereby (in their twisted minds) justifying the pain they cause in retaliation. Consider:
What do all these have in common? It seems to me that all these murderers and terrorists are associated with a need all of us share: to feel important. When a person's personal life falls apart, it seems that some choose violence as their means of coping with their problems. Individual men can lash out violently against the women who left them, despite the fact they left for due cause (domestic violence, among other reasons). Disgruntled employees murder the employers who fired them. Failing students murder their professors. Alienated students go on rampages in their schools. And those who choose violence often take innocent bystanders, as well.
Who are the people who perpetrate the bombings and assassinations, usually ending the deaths of the attackers? They typically are "victims" of various perceived repression of their aspirations. In the case of the terrorists, such people, especially the young and idealistic, are being used by cynical, evil people whose sole means of feeling important is to perpetuate conflict. It is these who are the truly evil people ... usually they are not the actual perpetrators of the crimes. The leaders launch the disaffected and disillusioned like missiles into the societies they are seeking to terrorize, while hiding in some safe haven themselves, ready to launch new attacks when the smoke clears.
Consider Hitler. He convinced virtually an entire nation to further his personal vendetta against the Jews, whom he blamed for Germany's troubles. He fostered the notion that Germans, as "Aryans" were superior to other races ... that is, he appealed to people's notions of self-worth and importance. He demonized the Jews in order to justify virtually any crime committed against them. And he enlisted many within his nation to offer their lives to the cause of what we now call "ethnic cleansing" of the Jews (and other supposedly "inferior" races, like the Slavs and the gypsies, as well as the mentally incapacitated). Christian values were subverted to the inhuman suppression of non-"Aryan" races. Examples abound in the history of the world: Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Mussolini ... the list goes on and on ... . The fanatics of Islam are no different from Hitler. They are willing to murder and destroy anyone who stands in the way of their perpetuation of hatred and violence against the western nations that have interfered in Middle Eastern politics ever since oil was discovered there in abundance. However, they really don't care about the legitimate aspirations of downtrodden people. These evil leaders pretend to care, but that's not what matters to them. Their means of feeling important involves only fanning the flames of racism and ethnic hatred. They recruit from the ranks of those disaffected by injustice (real or perceived) to carry out their agenda of creating still more conflict and violence. Without that conflict, these evil people have no "job", no justification for their existence, no reason to feel important. Peace, tolerance, and prosperity are the only enemies these evil men recognize. They have no real concern for the real and perceived injustices they pretend to be punishing.
Who killed Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who first negotiated a peace with the Israelis? Was it an Israeli? No, it was a group of Arabs who did not want an end to the conflict. Who killed Itzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was seeking peaceful resolution of the Palestinian problem? Was it an Arab terrorist? No, it was a fanatic Jew who did not want an end to the struggle with the Palestinians. The fanatics on both sides of this struggle actually have more in common with their opposites on the other side of the struggle than they do with their own people. In their twisted view, they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from a peaceful resolution of this conflict, so they can't be negotiated with or talked out of violent acts of terrorism. Negotiating with terrorists is simply not a useful option.
Terrorist acts stimulate the racism and ethnic hatreds within the nation that was attacked. Violent responses to terrorism are the policies of the same sort of hate-driven people as the terrorists themselves. The reprisals make martyrs in whose name continuing violence is perpetuated and add new recruits from the naïve idealists upon whom these evil leaders prey. Vengeance simply breeds more violence, which plays directly into the goals of the malevolent leaders of violence.
Some Americans, reeling from the New York City and Washington terrorist attacks, are eager to blame all Muslims. Is there something inherent in the teachings of Islam that turns its followers into fanatics? No. The teachings of Islam are rather similar to the teachings of Christianity. Most Americans have little understanding of Islam, and no idea of its history. I make no claims to being an expert, but I do know that during the Muslim (then called Moorish) occupation of Spain, the culture of Spain flourished at a time when most of Europe was deep in the so-called "Dark Ages". This was arguably because the Moors were a benevolent, tolerant society. In fact, they were much more tolerant than the Christians of that era, many of whom were preoccupied with holy wars (jihads) of their own, called the Crusades! It was the Spanish Christians, after all, who led the Spanish Inquisition, a sort of state-sponsored religious terrorism (not unlike that seen in Iran of today, for example), not the Moors. There is nothing I know to be inherent in Islam that creates terrorist fanatics ... at least no more than what creates fanatics among Christians. All fanatics are fundamentally the same!
What makes America so great is that this nation was founded on the premise that everyone's aspirations could be recognized as legitimate if they did not trample on the rights of others. All of the people that came here to escape repression in their homelands have a right to achieve their goals. That's why people came here!! With the exception of the "native Americans" (who seem to have conducted their immigration thousands of years before the European settlement), we and our ancestors were all immigrants and minority citizens at some point. And our history is filled with the positive contributions from those immigrants. We are blessed with their productivity and their diverse cultures, which add both diversity to our views and richness to our unique, American culture.
What makes the democracy that we Americans embrace so great is not majority rule. Rather, the key to democracy is the protection of the rights of minorities. If the majority of citizens are prejudiced against a minority, then majority rule unfettered can yield terror and violence inflicted on that minority. This is not what America is about! Prejudice is, literally, pre-judging. If you believe, in advance of knowing a person, that every person belonging to some group, on whatever basis (race, religion, or whatever) has some trait, then you are pre-judging. Everyday, we see the evil of prejudice and hatred based on bigotry, around the world ... in Bosnia, and Serbia, and Iran, and Iraq, and Turkey, and Africa, and Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and Russia ... virtually everywhere. Including right here in the USA. Regrettably, we have more than our share of it, with our own, home-grown religious right, and the American Nazis, and skinheads, and militant black groups, and urban gangs, and so on. But our founders had the wisdom to add the Bill of Rights to our Constitution. That Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of all that is good and right about the United States of America. Its enduring value is to be the basis by which we Americans (as a nation) repudiate any act that violates the rights of minorities within our national boundaries, no matter who is the object (or source) of that prejudice. Like many other human traits, prejudice and bigotry know no ethnic boundaries ... no race, color, or creed is immune. Not just the white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants (who never were a majority and who, thankfully, no longer are allowed to trample on the rights of others).
In our anger over the acts of these fanatics, who find their source of power in hatred and bigotry, if we lash out at those of Middle Eastern ethnic descent, or Muslims, we are carrying out the program of the terrorists. If we fan the flames of blind ethnic hatred in our own country, we are providing aid and comfort to our enemies. If we give in to fear and make our society "safer" at the price of the freedoms we have long enjoyed, we have validated the cause of the terrorists. Erosion of our rights is already under consideration!
Most Americans are genuinely puzzled over why so many people around the world hate us. In our minds, we are only driven by a desire to foster democracy and prosperity around the world. And, in some way, that is absolutely true. Yet, we must look our actions honestly and, especially, through the eyes of downtrodden people world-wide.
We have participated in imperialism, capturing territory around the world for our aggrandizement. The Philippines became an American Protectorate after the Spanish-American War. We've repeatedly invaded Latin America, including annexing the Canal Zone. We've aided and abetted dictatorial regimes around the globe, who perpetuated terrorism against their own citizens. We've waged wars against Korea and Viet Nam (both of which were subsequently recognized as not truly in our national interests) that included devastating acts against civilians, both legal and illegal. And, of course, the Europeans who came here waged a genocidal war against the aboriginal peoples of America. We are not so pure as some of us would like to think. Our hands are not clean.
Wars, naturally, are a special case, where violence is permitted but under the appearance of "rules," which we have felt free to bend whenever it suited us. In vengeance for terror bombing by the Germans and Japanese in WWII, we engaged in terror bombing of our own. In response to unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, we conducted unrestricted submarine warfare on the Japanese (and we succeeded, whereas the Germans ultimately failed). Because we wanted the knowledge they had, we "rehabilitated" German rocket scientists and Japanese specialists in biological warfare, allowing terrible crimes to go unpunished. We argued that "carrying out orders" is no excuse for crimes against humanity in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals and in similar trials of Japanese war criminals ... but it is clear that we Americans perpetrated atrocities and crimes during the conduct of all our wars. Innocent civilians were killed by our bombs in many wars around the world. No Americans have ever been tried for war crimes in an international court ... because we've won most of our wars. And our superpower status makes us immune to such things, of course.
We Americans have also perpetuated various forms of economic "warfare" against various peoples, sanctioning the plundering of resources in third world countries with little or no repayment for the riches we've accumulated. We've shown virtually no regard for the environmental impacts on the third world of this plundering to support our technological, advanced lifestyle.
Why have I provided this partial listing of our failures and misdeeds at a time when what is good about America has been attacked ? I could go on, after all. Let me say that nothing we have done in the past can be used legitimately to justify the recent terrorist acts against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Two wrongs, it is generally agreed among rational people all over the world, most definitely do not make a right. These are criminal acts perpetrated on America foremost, but perhaps on all of the rational, peace-loving world, as well. America symbolizes the aspirations of downtrodden peoples around the world, so what better target for such an attack? Please understand that I am not saying that our actions have made it legitimate to seek vengeance through terrorism, but I am simply giving examples of why we are not universally loved and honored. There are those who will take our actions as equivalent to those of a terrorist state, rightly or wrongly. Some groups, even within our own country, have justifiable grievances against the actions of the nation as a whole (Japanese-Americans in WWII, blacks, Hispanics, native Americans, etc.), and there are those within these groups willing to support terrorism. Some young idealistic Americans even support terrorism against us with their own actions ... witness the young American who fought for the terrorists in Afghanistan. Remember Timothy MacVeigh?
If we fail to live up to our own ideals (And what nation truly does?), our failures, combined with our status as the world's only remaining "superpower," seem to impose a heavy price. Great power is said to require great responsibility. If we are to comprehend rationally why Palestinian children dance for joy at our misfortune, it must be in the context that we are not a perfect examples of how to behave! It's easy to be angry at such demonstrations, for those of us who (by an accident of birth) were privileged to grow up in a nation where most of our aspirations could, in fact, become reality. It is hard for us, the privileged, to understand the despair and anger that many people around the world feel as a result their not being born into privilege, but rather into poverty and despair ... being born into nations and societies and ethnic groups where legitimate aspirations are routinely trampled. Dictatorial national regimes that suppress their own citizens often try to deflect the blame for the people's poverty and repression toward some external source (e.g., the United States), wrong as that may be in many cases. I don't believe that terrorism can ever be justified on the basis of misdeeds ... two wrongs don't make a right ... but at least we Americans need to understand why many around the world rejoice at our misfortune.
It is often said the the enemy of my enemy is my friend. History is replete with examples of this. The IRA in Ireland actually worked with the Nazis during WWII. The United States formed an alliance with the Soviet Union and the Communists led by the world's worst butcher, Iosef Stalin, against the Nazis. At one time, we collaborated with Iraq and Saddam Hussein against Iran. We supported the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Regrettably, we (as a nation) and others around the world seem never to grasp that two wrongs never truly make a right. Any alliance, no matter how repugnant, is apparently acceptable. Were we right to ally ourselves with the Soviets during WWII? Probably. But we paid a price for it later. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows ...
However, if we are to have any chance of defeating terrorism around the world, if cannot be only through acts of violence. We must be careful to follow high standards of justice in the pursuit of terrorist criminals and their supporters. We must go to extremes to avoid "collateral damage" in the pursuit of that justice, since it tends to recruit new followers faster than we can eliminate the existing fanatics. We must not tolerate acts of prejudice against any group if it is at all within our ability to prosecute those acts of prejudice. We must seek to find solutions to the problems of poverty and injustice around the world, to dry up the pool of recruits for the evil men whose terrible goals terrorism serves. All rational people need to embrace the tenets of all the world's great religions: mercy, tolerance, forgiveness, and concern for the innocent victims of repression and violence.
If we are to survive as a species, we must move toward a world where acts of violence are never seen as justifiable and vengeance is never viewed as a solution to anything. Until we humans can find a way to avoid being seduced by demagogues ... exploited by evil leaders ... justice and the rule of law will need to be enforced, perhaps with violent responses to violent provocations. I'm not so naïve as to believe that we should not be ready to take on the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden, using force if necessary. But force used without care typically begets more force, used in vengeance. Which provokes more force, in what can be an infinite cycle of violence, hatred, and despair. Consider the success of violence in dealing with the Balkans, or northern Ireland, or the Middle East. Isn't it time for us to learn from history and try another way?
Of course, there is no way that we can simply ignore the terrorists, and in no way am I proposing that we not bring them to some sort of justice. More terrorism is being planned, regardless of our response. If they don't provoke a response, they'll just up the ante with the next attack. If they do provoke a response, they'll use that to continue to paint us as evil, anyway. What I'm hoping is that we can avoid as much harm to innocents as possible. For instance, if we invade Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden, we just add ourselves to the list of people causing harm to the Afghan people, who will see us as foreign invaders and fight us ... the Russians, the Taliban, and then ... us?
Certainly, some application of force will be needed in this conflict between terrorists and decency. It's just that I hope that it will be minimized, in a multifaceted effort to fight this assault on all of us. Use of force can easily become routine ... it's an "easy" answer that can become too widely applied. It's a weapon that often leads to harm for innocents as well as the guilty.
And we must not use the fear of terrorism as an excuse to restrict the freedoms that Americans have fought and died to preserve. There is a tendency in the "conservative" political agenda to choose violence and repression as an easy response to those who would challenge our nation's beliefs. If our real freedoms are eroded in the face of terrorism, then the terrorists have succeeded.
Osama bin Laden can't take on the U.S. military in a conventional way. That would result in his being eradicated instantly. Terrorism is his only recourse for engaging in conflict. When he (and others like him) can appeal to an idealist's need to feel important, to the extent that such "troops" are willing to die for the "cause" they think they are supporting, there is no way to guarantee there will be no more such attacks. If anything, it is easy to see that terrorism will continue for some time to come. We are going to have to learn how to deal with it, and do our best to prevent it, even as we realize that it will be impossible to eliminate in its entirety.
To try to understand these acts is to see that there is no way to kill terrorists without creating martyrs to their causes and enlisting new recruits to those causes. We must seek to attack the root causes for the perception of injustice if we are to destroy the real base for the power wielded by such evil men. We Americans need to be using our influence to force the Palestinians and Israelis (and others around the world) to find compromise solutions that work. The United States needs to use its wealth and power to eradicate the centuries of hatred and vendettas, through programs seeking to get both sides in a conflict to recognize the legitimacy of the other, as a necessary prelude to seeking solutions, not violence and reprisal.
Humans around the world have so much in common, it is awfully depressing to see them seemingly bent on magnifying trivial differences upon which to focus, as a basis for feeling superior to someone else. All of us, famous or unknown, powerful or weak, rich or poor ... we are all important through the examples we set, the acts we commit, and the legacy we leave, even if those deeds are never known outside of our immediate circles. It's impossible to be human without having an impact on others, and it is through that impact on others that we achieve meaning in our lives. We don't need to have TV cameras recording our every word, or national medals of honor, or fabulous wealth, or whatever else seems to indicate importance. As Arlo Guthrie has said: "Important people are not always famous, and famous people are not always important."
Look into the eyes of your children. Do you think you're not important to them? Look at your friends and acquaintances around you! You are going to influence others, positively or negatively, no matter what you do. Will your influence be positive or negative? What legacy do you want to leave? Was your importance achieved only through the misery you created in the world? Only a very twisted person would want that to be their legacy. Osama bin Laden will be famous, and he will be important. The mass murderers will be important and famous, too. But at what cost is this achieved? What cost is your importance going to impose on us all? Must someone suffer for you to feel important?