Viewpoints / PeaceWatch Sept. 11, 2002
September 11, 2001
Americans entered a new world on September 11,
2001. It is a world where history can touch you, at any moment.
Reality can land in your bedroom in the form of a Scud missile or an
Israeli tank shell, or walk down the street as a suicide bomber. It
can knock at your door wearing a uniform and ransack your house.
Reading an American magazine article about a girl
whose father died in the World Trade Center tragedy of September 11,
2001, my son remarked, "Americans are weird. They devote five pages
to a girl whose father was killed in a terrorist act. There is
nothing remarkable about that, after all." Welcome to our world,
where everyone on every side, knows someone who was killed, wounded,
imprisoned, who survived a terror attack or an air-raid.
In this world there are no facts, only
interpretations, no objective reality, only beliefs. Events and
history are understood like chapters in the Qur'an or the Holy
Scripture. Each person and each side attaches to them whatever
exegesis, whatever significance and meaning, fits their world view
and their need to believe.
What is believed is more important for history than
what is true in the ordinary sense that you learned. This applies
everywhere, but nowhere is it more applicable than in the Middle
East, the place that has been exporting belief for thousands of
Orderly minds want to believe that an event like the
World Trade Center attacks must have a cause that can be isolated
and dealt with. If something so awful happened, it must be a sign
that there is some problem to solve. There is no lack of problems to
choose from, because problems and conflicts are the superabundant
natural resources of the Middle East. Perhaps the problem is
militant Islam, or Israeli aggression, or US relations with Saudi
Arabia. Everyone interprets events according to their own theology.
Perhaps Saddam Hussein is a villain, or maybe he is really a great
liberator and Americans or "Zionists" are the villains. Perhaps
Saddam did not invade Kuwait after all, or maybe they deserved it.
Perhaps the suicide bombers are the good guys, and the Al-Qaiada and
Hamas are really saints and martyrs. It depends on your point of
view. Things happen, and you weave a story around them. The story is
not meant to isolate the causes of a problem, it is meant to be an
edifying lesson. The story may help rationalize why people are going
to do something to you, for totally different and unedifying reasons
such as greed, power struggles and old hatreds, or the story may
just be an invention, a way of earning a living, selling what people
want to hear, or the government wants them to hear.
Can we point to one particular problem, and say "That
is the reason for the attacks on the US. Solve that problem and it
will all go away?" There are hunger, and war and hate and lies,
despotism, fanaticism, foreign intervention and puppet regimes.
However, these have all existed for most of the recorded history of
the Middle East. They cannot be the special cause of the attacks of
September 11, 2001.
Perhaps there is no problem. This is just the way
chaos works. September 11, 2001 was just a manifestation of the
normal sort of thing that happens in a world of bandits and
warlords, magnified by the possibilities of technology. As soon it
as it was technically possible for an event like September 11 2001
to happen, it was inevitable that it would happen.
In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas
Friedman tells this story. In Beirut of the 1980s, a hostess wanting
to serve dinner asked, "Will you eat now or wait for the cease
fire?" This story is a metaphor for our lives. We never wait for the
cease fire, for the just and lasting peace, because it probably
isn't coming. We have to get on with our lives. On the other hand,
we cannot quite eat the full meal and enjoy it with the bullets
whizzing by, so there must be postponement of gratification -
infinite postponement, because the cease fire is not coming.
"Believe me, a day will come, it will be good. I
promise," sings the soldier to his kid sister in the Israeli song
from 1948. We are still waiting. For all of the Middle East, the
great cease fire, the just and lasting peace, the end of despotic
regimes and the new order are consigned to a metaphysical coming
event that will never come in the lives of real people, like the
coming of the Messiah. The Middle East, which invented the Messiah,
also invented infinite postponement of gratification. Meanwhile, we
must adjust to "the situation." Americans who are looking for an end
to the "war on terror" and a return to normal may be sorely
In our world, things happen. Airplanes and missiles
get thrown at you. You don't need to do anything, it just happens.
Two groups are fighting. Probably they forgot the reason, or perhaps
they know the reason, but not one you can understand. Perhaps they
will give you a different reason from the real one. Talking heads
talk about homeland and rights, to explain why thugs are fighting
over drug profits or land speculators are fighting over water
rights. You think it has nothing to do with you. After all,
something is always going on somewhere. But you have to pay
attention to the signs before it is too late. Osama Bin-Laden and
Al-Qaiada issued their fatwa against the West in 1998 (see
mideastweb.org/Osamabinladen) but hardly anyone paid
attention to this boring news from far away.
Suddenly, you are the target. If you had known
yesterday, you could have prevented it, but now it is too late. You
do not know the reason, Maybe you are a collateral relative of one
side, or a friend of an enemy, or your house is in the line of fire,
or perhaps they need money and you have money. Perhaps you were an
easy touch one time, so they have returned for more. If they cannot
find a reason, they will invent one.
There is never a good choice. There is only a choice
between bad and worse, and there is never enough information. To
follow a slogan or a crowd without understanding, or to act without
principle can be worse than doing nothing, it can turn you into
another aspect of the problem.
However, there is always a threat, and always a
choice. You cannot switch channels on your TV and forget about it.
You have to try to understand, and to know what to do. The choice
must be made. Otherwise it is certain that the world of order and
hope will descend into the world of chaos and despair. To make no
choice, to ignore what is there, to do nothing, is to choose
perdition. Nobody can tune out the world any more, and deciding not
to decide is not an option.
This is one in a series of
related to the events of 9-11-01.