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What meanings, lessons, and vision for the future can we uncover
from the terror, lost lives, and rubble of 9/11?
The shocks of 9/11 still reverberate within and around us. Who cannot
feel them? I lived in New York for many years and love this city for its
rich diversity of peoples, its energy, creativity, and fly-in-the face
honesty. My youngest daughter was born near ground zero. As a college
student she spent 6 months in Jerusalem, listening to Jews, Muslims, and
Christians on all sides of the Middle East conflict and exploring
nonviolent solutions. She heard Palestinian students debate whether to use
violent or nonviolent means to make their concerns heard. A few days later
they started throwing rocks and Israeli troops opened fire with U.S.-
funded guns and tanks. Children were killed. My husband and I watched the
news in fear for our daughter and sorrow for the victims on all sides. That
was in the late 1980s.
More than a decade later, the same daughter, married and with a new-
born baby she and her husband plan to raise in their mixed Jewish-Christian
traditions, were returning to their home in California from a Bar Mitzvah
in New Jersey. Instead of staying until 9/11 to visit friends, they
returned on 9/10. They missed by a day being on a flight from Newark that
was commandeered toward the White House but crashed instead into
Pennsylvania fields. My daughter called safe in bed on the morning of 9/11,
to tell me the breaking news. As the reality sank in, my knees buckled
under me. My daughter, son-in-law and baby Rachel are alive. But the
daughter of friends was killed, and other people I know barely escaped from
the Twin Towers. I am not a dispassionate bystander.
My feelings and views of 9/11 and its aftermath continue to unfold,
heavily affected by recent experiences in Israel and Palestine. Because I
have been there, I paid attention when bin Laden avowed that there would be
no peace for the U.S. until there was justice for Palestinians. While in
Bethlehem and Jerusalem for international meetings in 2000, informal
discussions with Palestinians had made it apparent that most were deeply
frustrated by the peace process. They had lost faith in Arafat and in U.S.
and Israeli leadership to deliver either Palestinian statehood or a just
peace. They recounted almost a century of betrayed promises – from
Britain’s failure to deliver on its League of Nation’s mandate, to UN and
Western failures to stop Israel from seizing their lands, bulldozing their
homes and businesses, and turning them into refugees in their own land, to
the suppression of their human rights and freedoms under a system of
virtual apartheid. The situation was a tinderbox ready to explode.
Tragically, a few people on both sides wanted to light matches. When Ariel
Sharon, accompanied by hundreds of armed soldiers, violated the sanctity of
Haram al-Sharif, one of Islam’s holiest shrines where Muslims believe
Muhammed ascended to heaven — it was widely seen as a deliberate strategy
to enflame Muslims, evoke a violent reaction, and end the peace process. It
worked. Muslims everywhere were outraged, especially Palestinian Muslims
who were the custodians of this sacred place. More provocations followed,
and, as anticipated, were answered with violence that was then used to
legitimize Israeli military attacks and the occupation of Palestinian
Suicide bombing did not bring justice for Palestinians. And a war on
terrorism did not make Israelis more secure. Instead lives were
needlessly lost or disrupted. How many victims might still be alive
with different policies and strategies? As the numbers of dead
mounted on both sides it became almost impossible to continue the
peace process. Israelis who had been committed to the peace process
and critical of Sharon’s policies were soon supporting him or
effectively silenced, and Palestinians and Israelis working for
nonviolent solutions were marginalized. Six weeks after 9/11, I was
in Israel again for meetings with inter-faith groups who had worked
for years to advance co-existence through inter-religious dialogue.
Most were extremely disheartened, and those who continued to meet
and work together faced significant obstacles and duress. Still,
dreams and efforts for peace persist. One of the miracles coming
out of 9/11 and Middle East deaths is that despite, or perhaps
because they have seen too much death, some people are finding the
courage to become agents of their own and global transformation.
On 9/11, people of many cultures, races, and beliefs died at ground zero.
For the next several days in the U.S. thousands of people called radio talk
shows transmitting messages of fear, hate and vengeance. Some wanted to
“nuke ’em back to the stone age.” “Them” meant not only the perpetrators
but also all things foreign. However, by the third day new voices began to
be heard, arising from a deeper humanity and calling for reason and a
rejection of violence. Some quoted Gandhi: “An eye for an eye and a tooth
for a tooth soon leaves the world blind and toothless.” Others invoked
Martin Luther King who, at a time of hate, called for building the “beloved
community.” Many followed words with action, reaching out to the Islamic
community to build bridges of peace and understanding. In the ensuing
months these voices have become stronger and more numerous. Some are
transforming ground zero into sacred ground where people of all faiths come
to pray with one another. Ground zero, once a target of hate, is becoming
holy ground for healing and reconciliation. By word and deed those coming
to pray testify that religion must not be twisted to justify violence.
Somehow the spirits of those who died here are moving people to choose love
over hate, life over death. Ground zero is becoming a foundation on which
to build peace and nonviolence.
Despite such hopeful directions it is important to ask some hard
questions. Could the tragedies of 9/11 have been prevented? What were the
underlying causes? Was declaring a “war on terrorism” the best response?
Has it made the world more secure? What can/should be done to prevent such
tragedies in the future?
Nothing can justify the terrible taking of lives on 9/11. But
ignoring underlying causes begets poor judgment in choosing remedies and
preventing future tragedies.
Should the murderous acts of 9/11 be viewed primarily as criminal acts
by disgruntled and misguided extremists? If so, would existing
international legal remedies have sufficed or do we need to develop more
effective international legal mechanisms? Or should they be viewed as acts
of war for which no other response could be made except a retaliatory
declaration of war? Did expanding the definition of war to include war
against terrorism really advance human security, or does it undermine true
security by legitimizing the use of violence and the suspension of human
rights and civil liberties? How has the meaning of war changed when one
party is a state and the other comprised of disparate non-state actors
living in more than 60 countries? Is such a widespread and protracted war
humanly and financially sustainable over the long run?
Did this “war” arise from a “clash of civilizations” – a conflict
between cultures and religions? If the perpetrators believe that they are
engaged in a “holy war” against perceived threats to Islam from the West
(in the form of globalization, commodification and secular values), is
retaliatory violence by the West the most effective response or would inter-
cultural and inter-religious dialogue be more effective? Was 9/11 a cry by
marginalized people wanting their voices heard? Was it the result of
failed diplomacy or a failure to hear?
Or was 9/11 — and U.S. reaction to it — part of a larger pattern of
geopolitical warfare over resources? 9/11 was the latest in a series of
terrorist attacks whose perpetrators came from the Middle East. High among
the reasons given by 9/11 conspirators is U.S. military support for Israel
and U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam’s most sacred sites. But
why is the U.S. so heavily invested in military support for this region?
Because, in a time of rising energy needs and diminishing supplies, the
world’s largest reserves of oil are still to be found in the Middle East,
and especially Saudi Arabia.
Or, in yet another view, does 9/11, along with other acts of
terrorism, signify the inadequacy of 19th century systems to assure peace
and security in a 21st century world? Is the nation-state system,
including a state-centric UN system, though still useful for many
functions, inadequate in the face of new global-scale interdependencies and
challenges? Could this “war” have been prevented if there had been in place
a more humane, democratic and equitable world order? When the opportunity
to advance such a new world order presented itself at the end of the Cold
War, and when many people, including in the Arab world, were ready to move
in that direction, why was the opportunity lost? Can it be regained?
Or do the causes include all of the above or some interactive
combination of them?
Depending on responses to these questions, some of the following might
be more effective paths to security than an endless and costly war on
terrorism. Some of these steps are primarily for the U.S; others are more
Patricia M. Mische, Ph.D. is the Lloyd Professor of Peace Studies and World Law at Antioch College and formerly taught in the Peace Education Program at Teachers College Columbia University. She is also the co-founder and President of Global Education Associates