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Journal: The American Tragedy: A Response

Note: This Journal entry was written on September 16th, 2001, as I walked on the Old Tokaido. Take a look at that day's Logbook for more.


Less than a week ago, disaster struck on a cataclysmic scale.

Never in my lifetime has America experienced such a shocking event on her own soil.

Before I talk about the future, I want to make one point clear: This was inexcusable. It was cowardly. It was pointless. The responsible parties should be brought to justice. Taking the high road, I think they should be brought to justice as a lesson to others that this sort of thing will not be tolerated. On a lower plane, as a blood-and-flesh human being, I want to see the bastards pay, and pay big. Whether the justice they receive is civil or military makes little difference to this atavistic side of me.

But it only goes so far. I do not wish to see their wives pay, or their children--even their sons, who may well grow up to perpetuate this type of violence. No, the proper retribution should be visited on only those who did it, not their kin or their homeland.

Now for the point, which I hope you will consider with patience.

I am disturbed by the reports I have been getting about a rising nationalistic let's-kick-their-butts attitude. I have received e-mails from the most unlikely people with pictures of angry eagles and a recycled Americanism editorial. (This was originally written in 1973--at the end of the Viet Nam war and as the American Red Cross was in danger of bankruptcy--and has been dressed up for this occasion.)

My mother wrote and said that "Lots of cars have flags flying on them and homes with flags flying, you have to stand in line at the places where they sell flags, our patriotism is very high."

I'm not there. If I were, I'm sure I would be feeling a surge of national pride, too. Even from here, I have experienced a new sense of what it is to be an American. The expressions of concern and support I have heard, even from total strangers, have been deeply moving.

But what worries me is this: too much nationalism is a dangerous thing. It leads us to see others as less than human. Love your country; I do. Be proud of it; I am. But that doesn't mean that people born in Adelaide or St. Petersburg--or Kabul--are any less human than I. The surest way to make war palatable is to objectify the other, in fact to make him "other." Show pictures of men in non-Western wear cleaning their guns in the desert. Show their women ululating. Make them seem "foreign" so when the bombs are dropped our sense of their humanity is disengaged.

Can't we see that this kind of thinking is exactly what drove the men who did this terrible thing? Had they thought of buildings full of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, they couldn't have done this thing. They had to see the people in those buildings as other and evil to do this.

All this regards dealing with an event that is already past. But let's apply this same principal to the future. How can we prevent this sort of thing from happening again?

Clearly, "security" is not enough. The success (a chilling word in this context) of this operation proves that.

No, the only way to ensure peace is to ensure "liberty and justice for all." Not just us. Justice for all of the world's peoples. Economic justice, equality of opportunity. Am I talking about cultural imperialism, exporting the American Way? No. If a country chooses to be Marxist-Leninist, or a theocracy, let them. But let's be sure it was indeed a choice.

The much-hated "people of Afghanistan" had nothing to do with this. Blessedly, in the midst of all the propaganda I've been sent, I received one voice of sanity from my friend Kirsten. (You can read it at [2019: Sadly, no longer available.]) It's an excellent editorial by an Afghan-American journalist, pointing out that the people of Afghanistan are virtual prisoners of their government. It is the sort of situation that the U.S.--via international organizations, diplomacy, etc.--needs to turn its attention to. The U.S. needs to use what power she has, along with the world's other developed countries, to give a hand to the developing countries, ensuring that the human needs of all people are being met.

We must be in dialogue with oppressive regimes. If the people represented by these terrorists--most likely a branch of the Taliban--had felt that they were being listened to, that fruitful dialogue was in progress, this might not have happened.

A corny old song says, "There will never be any peace until God is seated at the conference table." Well, I don't know about that exactly, but I'm sure that to the extent we include all people in the on-going humanization of the world, peace will prevail. Exclusion breeds discontent, and discontent leads to tragedy.

One of my favorite teachers, Dr. Huston Smith, wrote back in the mid-1950's: "When historians look back on our century, they may remember it most, not for space travel or the release of nuclear energy, but as the time when the peoples of the world first came to take one another seriously."


Posted September 25, 2019

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