SOME THOUGHTS IN THE AFTERMATH OF 9/11
First disbelief, then horror, shock, anger, grief have shown in the faces of everyone in New York since Tuesday morning. Words? There are no words. Yet we talk endlessly, trying to climb back out of the numb place we dropped into. We talk of hope for survivors, recalling famous earthquakes when people were dug out alive after 7, 8, 10 days under rubble. We want to help and are frustrated we can do so little. We speak of our inability to understand the mind of a man who would do this its tactical brilliance combined with an unimaginable moral void. We want to look into his face to find out if we still live in a human world.
All this talk, especially that of the t.v. anchors, comes too fast to be well-considered. We toss around terms like "tragic" and "mad". The media repeats endlessly that this is the worst act of terrorism in history, but no one at least no one with media access stops to consider whether this is indeed history's worst act of terror, and if not, what is? There's Guernica, which might be considered the worst for the shock of its being the first to come instantaneously, from the air, and because as Dylan Thomas said, "after the first death, there is no other." But then there's Hiroshima, which also came instantaneously, from the air and without warning, and remains the biggest in numbers and scope, and which, like Tuesday's attack, changed the whole world forever. So we must say, if we are to be honest, that the World Trade Center terror is only the worst such act not sponsored or carried out by us.
Let us run a gruesome balance sheet: Hiroshima, Nagasaki; Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia; Panama; Iraq. Well over a million civilians killed. Add the terror we have sponsored and funded (and sometimes helped to carry out): the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala in 1954; tortures and disappearances throughout Latin America from 1964 on, carried out by military and police personnel usually trained and often directed by us; Chile in 1973; Reagan's "contra" war of terror against (mostly) the civilian population of Nicaragua. All these together killed tens if not hundreds of thousands. Then there have been our economic embargos of Cuba, Nicaragua, Iraq, which have led to the deaths of more hundreds of thousands. Add up all these civilian deaths and it is quite clear that when it comes to acts of terror, we are far ahead of whoever is in second place. If we would truly understand the face of terrorism, we must also look into the mirror.
Perhaps we can try to soften this ugly fact by saying we were at war when we did these things. (Though actually only Hiroshima and Nagasaki came during the course of a declared war.) But surely the hijacker terrorists thought they too were soldiers carrying out a war mission. If war justifies acts of terror when we do them, it must justify such acts equally for any terrorist. As Gandhi said and many placards remind us at the moving daily vigils for peace in Union Square, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."
So war can justify nothing. Yet the talk from our "leaders" now is war, war, war. And if we do bomb Afghanistan and Iraq back into prehistory, with all our high-tech ability to rain fire from the sky, we will kill civilians in numbers to dwarf those at the World Trade Center. We will "justify" yet another cycle of terror. We will keep it from our own door only by the sacrifice of our freedoms of speech, assembly, and even thought. The terrorists will have won because we will have become, as so often happens in war, the very enemy we think to fight.
To really rid the world of the terrorist mentality, we have to change the world, and that starts with us. We may think that is harder than changing others, but we cannot in fact change others, only ourselves. What can we do? For starters, we can begin to think about these forbidden topics, like our own part in perpetuating terror. As Amos Oz said in a Times op-ed piece, for example, there is no excuse for the fact that the Palestinians still have no home and no self-determination.
Our government says it is using diplomacy, not military action, to build a coalition of nations against such acts. Good. But that it at the level of government. As Seattle and Geneva have shown us, and also NAFTA and GATT, the world has moved beyond governments. Globalization is a reality, for us of the non-corporate movements as well as for big money. What we must do is to build a coalition of peoples against the very idea of terrorism. Which means we must demand a cessation of terror by all parties governments and "fundamentalist" organizations. Not just Muslim fundamentalists, but fanatic organizations everywhere, from the abortion clinic bombers to those who bomb in the name of "left" ideals. We must be very clear about this: killing civilians on a mass scale by the use of terror weapons is to be condemned, no matter what the reason. The corollary to this is, no amount of suffering, experienced by the terrorist and/or the terrorist's people, can justify mass killing of civilians who are, if at all, only indirectly and distantly responsible for that suffering. We may understand, but we do not excuse, murder if the murderer was an abused child; when the scale is multiplied, we must not excuse it on political grounds, even if we agree with the murderer's politics. This has to be an absolute.
More concretely and closer to home, let us not rebuild the Trade Center. Let us rather leave an empty space, perhaps even part of the wreckage, and invite everyone and anyone to leave messages and mementos, like at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in D.C. Let us not rebuild in overweening pride a symbol of defiance, which will be seen by the world's vast masses of poor as a pair of gilded middle fingers thrusting an insult at the sky; let us instead keep a place to remind us of our fragile humanity, to humble us.
And let us work to change a system which rewards greed and regards money as the first measure of a person's value. A system which requires us to protect property more than life, in which poverty and starvation are regarded as the faults of the poor and the starving. A system that allows one of us to have so much money that he must hire consultants to determine what he should do with it, while millions haven't even a coin for a meal. This is easier said than done, I know, and I have no formula, being an artist and not a Marx. Anyway I don't believe in formulas; I hope, with Seamus Heaney, that "the longed-for tidal wave / of justice can rise up / and hope and history rhyme."
Some, shaking their heads at my naivita, ask, "How can we combat terrorism, this shadowy, slippery, merciless thing, except with deadly force?" Perhaps we cannot in the immediate instance, but whatever force is used must never be directed at civilians. And clearly, we can work to remove the causes and the breeding grounds of terror in hellholes of injustice, like the Palestinian refugee camps, and in other, more private hellholes like abusive families. How we do this must be the result of deliberation by many; we can find the way, if we will. What I know for myself is that I would rather die, even by an act of terror, than live in a world where murder is the only answer to such an act.
Also, I have been feeling the need to reach out wider. What do you think of this? Could someone who has good computer and net skills set up a website where people could endorse a simple declaration that terror actions are never justified. Certainly not when they are carried out by powerful nations against other countries' civilian populations, as we have done, at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and SE Asia (to name only the most obvious) and the Fascists did at Guernica, the Warsaw Ghetto, London in the Blitz, etc. But also not when carried out by the weak against the strong, no matter the subtlety or even the correctness of the political analysis that links the terrorist's target country to the misery he would avenge, for whatever the terrorists target, his victims are not it. Further, that terrorists are not "left" or "right"; they are simply terrorists. And finally that we pledge to work to eradicate the conditions of misery and poverty that serve as breeding grounds for the terrorist idea. I'm sure that can be said better, clearer, but what if something of the kind were on a website that was easy to access, attractive, well designed, etc., and millions of people logged on to endorse such a statement. Do you think, a) that that is possible, and b) that governments would listen? Am I being naive? Best to all of you,