On September 11, 2001, we Americans lost our sense of invulnerability and joined in the universality of human suffering. Not only for a moment did the world become America, as so many noted, but America became the world.
As we mourn our dead, let us also mourn the frailty of the human spirit and humanitys incapacity to be consistently humane. As painful as our agony is here, what America has just suffered is what others throughout the world have experienced, sometimes with even more devastating impact, and sometimes at the hands of Americans. People around the earth are caught up in a complexity of hatreds as both victims and victimizers: in Ireland, in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in South Africa, in Afghanistan, in Cambodia, in Vietnam. The list is endless.
Given the enormity of the barbarity America experienced, the Government will certainly exact vengeance. The destruction of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were veritable acts of war against the United States. While we plan our vengeance, however, let us also be aware that from the point of view of our enemies, we are guilty of horrendous crimes against them; thus their hatred against us. To plan such acts as what occurred on September 11, with such a high degree of sophistication and precision, are not simply the acts of madmen bent on a binge of random destruction. They were calculated deeds deliberately conceived, meticulously planned and methodically executed by men and women of such deep conviction that they were willing to give their very lives as instruments of the success of their mission.
President Bush has rightly declared war against such terrorism. We must know that Osama bin Laden is a warrior dedicated to more than just war; he is leading a holy war against the United States and Israel. He is not a diplomat; he is not a negotiator; he is not a compromiser. He is a man of war who, ironically, was an ally of the CIA in the 1980s during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. He has been building his army and his tactics for decades with an absolutism that only elevating war to the realm of the holy can instill. He will kill until he himself is killed. When we eventually do this, as I assume we will, we must understand that in his place will arise myriad new Osama bin Ladens, equally committed, equally impassioned, equally ruthless. When one fights fire with fire, fire is not always vanquished. It can lead to a conflagration that burns beyond any borders, particularly if one is fighting a fire that is considered holy.
As we seek his demise, it is perhaps worth reflecting on some truths provided by the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, now upon us. At the core of this commemoration of the Jewish New Year lies the story of Deborah, a woman judge of ancient Israel, whose leadership included the mourning of Sisera, the General against whom the Jews of the time were fighting. At the moment of victory against him and also in the midst of their grieving for their own dead, Deborah intuited that the pain of the mothers on the other side was just as intense as that of her own people. In this, she understood one of the great truths of all religions, that we are all one, which, if we can bear to think the thought, means that Osama bin Laden is us, and we are him, and we are all made of the same dust.
Bush and bin Laden are caught up in the act of co-origination. In a deep and mysterious way there is a deep synchronicity of opposites coming together between them with a force that, if we can endure and live through it, can potentially redeem us. Bin Ladens attacks came against the two icons of American power: global capitalism in the World Trade Center and U.S. military might in the Pentagon. Adding insult to injury, the hijackers used American technology to destroy American symbols, transforming American civilian airplanes into guided missiles against American institutions. Underestimating the enemy, American intelligence was caught completely unprepared.
More deeply, the attack came against perhaps the most conservative administration in modern American history which has been systematically withdrawing from all multilateral agreements and treaties with the exception of those which increase American economic power. Paradoxically, the actions of September 11 were taken against the son of the man who organized the coalition of nations to fight Desert Storm, the catalytic point at which bin Laden turned his armies against the Untied States. History has bestowed upon George W. the task of organizing a coalition against the man that his fathers coalition turned into the enemy. The President who is withdrawing from the world in order to maximize Americas freedom for unilateral actions in the world has been met by the ultimate unilateralist: bin Laden. The superpower has met the super-empowered individual.
To succeed, Bush the unilateralist must become the premier multilateralist. He must forge a coalition of nations against world terrorism like the world is trying to forge to deal with global warming, nuclear disarmament, trafficking in small arms, chemical and biological weapons, all coalitions and treaties from which he has disengaged. Perhaps the ultimate irony of this complex set of interactions is that this Administration might learn that global cooperation and global governance, meaning the alignments of nation states around rules and norms for international priorities, deliberation and commerce, actually serve the national security interests of the United States rather than threaten them.
Working within the complexity of coalitions might enable us to tackle another complexity: that the war against terrorism can only be truly won when we also declare war on the roots which cause such acts of barbarity: poverty, illiteracy, injustice, and disease. Terrorism does not arise in a vacuum but has it roots in historical, political, social and economic dysfunctions so deep, so cruel, so systemic that they create and sustain discontent until it spills over into a desperation that sees no recourse other than wanton destruction against those perceived as responsible for the plight of the terrorists. Unless there is an equally dedicated attack on the causes of terrorism, there will never be victory in the war against terrorism.
Let us meet our measure of vengeance therefore with an equal measure of mercy. In so doing, perhaps we can come to realize that the world is not simply a rough terrain that needs to be made flat in order to enable the global corporations, financial interests and entertainment industry to have a richer harvest. While good for business, free trade zones may not do justice to the complexity of the world ecology with all its voices, cultures, histories and traditions, all of which have their own unique legitimacy and all of which must be given their rightful place of honor.
While at the level of politics we seek victory over terrorists, at the level of healing our redemption might come with our willingness to grapple with the complexities occurring around us: that when opposites collide, they co-create; and it is precisely our ability to hold the opposites in a spirit of empathy and humility that generates the capacity for the redemption we seek. If out of the present crisis the United States emerges more connected with the rest of the world, more willing to compromise national sovereignty within the context of the needs of the larger community of nations, more willing to live cooperatively within coalitions than outside them, then light will have truly come from out of the darkness and redemption out of the recesses of hatred and war. In one of the deepest paradoxes of contemporary history, the present crisis might compel America to reconnect with the wellspring of values the rest of the world intuits it needs Americas leadership in order to achieve.
If we can attain this level of understanding, we will have learned the wisdom of limits, that in an increasingly complex and interdependent world, no country is an island unique unto itself; and, since there are no longer frontiers to war, the only sustainable solution to hate is to stop the underlying causes that produce it, working within the community of nations to achieve goals that benefit the poor as well as the rich, the south as well as the north, the developing nations as well as those more advanced. Achieving this, America will fulfill the deepest yearning of one of its founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that he believed the real destiny of America would not be about power; it would be about light.
These thoughts I pass your way, keenly aware that many might disagree. I am deeply sensitive to the fact that wisdom is a very elusive thing. We often have the experience but miss the meaning. It invariably comes slowly, painfully, and only after deep reflection. This is to say that my thoughts now will change as my subjective interaction with the event itself changes, as they will with the passage of time and the constant ebb and flow of the world situation. In a year we will all look back on September 11 and view it completely differently than we do today. Let us all be humbled by this and modulate our certainties accordingly; and let us engage with each other with deepened empathy and compassion.
Jim Garrison is the president of the State of the World Forum
and the author of Civilization and the Transformation of
Copyright 2001 by Jim Garrison