Reaction to the World Trade
September 14, 2001
Distributed by email
Published in Brookline (Massachusetts) Tab
September 14, 2001
Friends, Colleagues, and Anyone Else Who Gets This:
Like many people this past week, I've moved only slowly from stunned
shock at Tuesday's attack on the World Trade Center back toward a semblance
of normalcy. Even now, Friday morning, the TV is still on and the newspapers
mount up as I skim through websites and make my way through comments posted
by others on a few email lists and Internet forums. I'm returning to other
things, but my attention remains diverted.
I found out about the attack when one of my sons called from New York
to tell me he was okay because he was up on 140th Street. A few minutes
later my other son called, his flight from Denver to Dallas diverted to
Amarillo. My parents were here visiting at the time, and we spent much
of the day trying to find out if any of our relatives and friends in New
York, some of whom sometimes work in or near the Trade Center, were victims.
All are okay.
My 8-year old daughter, who has been interested in the news for some
time, has sometimes alternated between false bravado--if she were hijacked,
she would overpower the bad guys--and verbalized fear--especially when
she heard that suspected hijackers were still at large here in Boston.
Mostly, though, she goes to school and plays with her friends and goes
on with her life.
In talking with my daughter, I've tried to reassure her. I've also tried
to answer her questions about who did this, and why, and why the hijackers
flew into the towers and the Pentagon. These are reasonable questions.
I wish I had answers I was entirely comfortable with.
Part of my discomfort, of course, has to do with her age. I don't want
her to misinterpret what I say. And what I have to say does not always
match the images she sees on TV.
Despite expressed efforts to avoid spreading rumors, national and local
news anchors have filled the airwaves with inaccurate reporting. Despite
frequent calls to remain calm and not misdirect justified anger toward
guiltless Arabs or other Muslims, reports have already come in of desecrated
mosques and beaten New York cab drivers. Despite reminders that terrorism
operates around the world and the awareness that terrorism will not end
despite any military response, our political leaders rush toward the kind
of war and the kind of policies that will inspire new generations of terrorists
even if it succeeds in destroying those responsible for Tuesday's destruction.
I understand the rush to retaliate, the urge to kill in response. I'm
not a pacifist. I get angry. Yet I think it's likely that "bringing the
terrorists to justice" and "teaching them a lesson" will increase rather
than decrease the rage that motivates those who now see the murder of
innocents as justified.
One thing that's difficult to understand and convey, I think, especially
perhaps for the mass media and mass politicians, is the distinction between
explaining and justifying. It's not just journalists and academics who
should be trying to explain, beyond easy stereotypes, why people commit
acts of terror. Trying to understand the motives of someone who would
fly an airplane into a civilian target, the rage of so many people around
the world toward western societies in general and the US in particular,
should not be confused with justifying those unjustifiable actions. Without
efforts to understand those motivations, even to consider whether some
of that rage might be justifiable even while the resulting terrorism is
not, no "war against terrorism" can succeed.
It is simply too inaccurate to attribute terrorism to acts of madmen,
or, even more dangerous, to Islamic religion or Arab culture. That is
the easy way out. It would be more useful, more effective in preventing
future horrors, to consider the historical, political, economic, and other
factors that lead normal human beings to see mass terror as legitimate.
When we do that, of course, we run into many problems, not the least
of which is the historical use of terror by those who now condemn it.
This time of raw emotion may not be the moment to dwell in detail on the
United States's own sordid history, from massacres of native Indians through
wartime bombings of civilian populations to CIA-sponsored terrorism and
the intentional destruction of civilian societies as a ruthless tool of
foreign policy. But understanding that history--and the response to that
history by aggrieved people around the world--is crucial to understanding
the actions of those whom our government will soon try to kill. Many news
and analysis resources exist for those willing to explore alternative
views. I'm listing several links below.
I don't agree with everything on these websites--indeed, many sites present
a variety of conflicting views. That variety itself is crucial, I think,
to counter the more traditional reactions seen on the mass media. Please
pass these links on to others.
As I write this, the religious service at the National Cathedral is playing
on TV, on what President Bush has declared the National Day of Prayer
and Remembrance. It makes sense to me that people who find comfort in
prayer would choose to pray today. What worries me is the potential use
of religion to build support for politically motivated action. The sudden
upsurge in flag-waving strikes me the same way. Too much evil has been
wrapped in the American flag for me to take comfort in the use of that
emblem to rally some sense of common purpose.
I might take my daughter outside at 7 tonight to join the national Internet-inspired
effort to express unity by lighting a candle. I may do this despite not
being sure what the organizers mean when they say "We will show the world
that Americans are strong and united together against terrorism." I received
email yesterday from a cousin who said she will light a candle "against
all terrorism--even by Americans." It's that spirit that we need to encourage.