Animal Writes
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28 October 2001 Issue
What Should We Do Now?

John Robbins on the events of September 11th 

Something truly terrible and tragic took place on September 11th, 2001. If I could, by giving my life, somehow prevent that from having occurred, I would do so in a heartbeat. I know I am not alone in this.

But none of us can undo what has been done. The question, now, is how will we respond?

Will we experience both our vulnerability and our unity as a nation as never before? Will we see that even beset by such terrifying death and destruction we are capable of compassion, courage, heroism, and honor? Or will we do as the bin Ladens of the world would want us to do, seeking revenge by retaliating with massive violence in the Middle East, thus providing them with a new generation of suicidal terrorists, eager to fight against "evil America" in this "holy war"?

I am no stranger to the desire for revenge. Like President George W. Bush, and most likely like you, I have felt it surge through me in recent days. Contemplating what took place on September 11th, are there any among us who have not, at least momentarily, felt their blood boil with outrage, and with the demand that these mass murderers and all those behind them pay with eye for an eye?

But at such times, when our hearts are filled with bloodlust and our eyes look everywhere for revenge, it is extraordinarily important that we remember the awesome truth behind Gandhi's prophetic statement: "An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind."

This is the very truth that the Osama bin Ladens of the world would want us to forget.

Bin Laden and his cronies have set a trap for us. It would serve their purposes perfectly for us to mount indiscriminate and ongoing air attacks on Afghanistan, killing enormous numbers of innocent people, thus causing fanatics to flock to their cause. Do you think the civilian population of Afghanistan would be protected in well prepared underground hideouts? Not likely. But bin Laden and the Taliban rulers would be. Nothing would please these deranged psychotics more than for us to kill children in Kabul, thus enabling them to raise the armies of terror they've always dreamed of. And even if we killed bin Laden in such a bombing attack, it would only render him a martyr in the eyes of those whose support he craves. The Osama bin Ladens of the world would like to see our efforts cause extensive civilian casualties in Afghanistan, because this would push even moderate Muslims toward hatred of the United States.

There is one thing, though, that the bin Ladens of the world would like even more than for us to mount a reckless bombing attack on Afghanistan. And that would be for us to rush headlong into Afghanistan with ground forces in an effort to control the country, for such an attempt would only demonstrate before the whole world our impotence and stupidity. Remember that the Soviet army tried for years, and failed, and they had the advantage of being close at hand, knowing the terrain, and they had numerous people who spoke the native languages.

You could hardly think of a more effective way to destabilize the peace-loving Moslem regimes upon whose support the United States now depends. An American invasion of Afghanistan, for example, could easily ignite a civil war in Pakistan, with the distinct possibility that Pakistan's government, with its nuclear arms, would then fall into the hands of extremists supportive of the Taliban. No American response could better serve the terrorists' evil purposes.

If we are not to fall into the trap set by bin Laden and his cohorts, what, then, are we to do?

I believe that we must ask the mainstream Islamic world for advice. We must go to them and ask them what they would have us do. And then we must listen to them, and deeply.

It is not the strength of our military and our ability to punish that will enable us to meet this challenge, but the strength of our hearts and our ability to listen. To form an alliance with peace-loving Muslims, we will have to understand and take seriously their concerns. This will mean reorienting our policies in the Middle East - not, of course, to pacify the terrorists (who do not deserve to be pacified, and could not be in any case), but to bring them to justice in a way that undermines his purposes and retains the support of moderate Muslim states. If we lose this support, we play into the hands of the bin Ladens of the world, and risk world war.

It is critical that we remember that our problem is not with Islam, or with Muslim people. Osama bin Laden no more represents Islam than the Klu Klux Klan represents Christianity. Let us indict this man and his cohorts as the mass murderers they are, and then, along with our Islamic allies, bring them to world justice. Bin Laden and his compatriots are not only enemies of the United States. They are enemies of true Islam, and of the entire world community. For what took place on September 11th was more than a crime against the United States. It was a crime against humanity. People from 80 nations perished in the World Trade Center, including hundreds of Muslims.

Domestically, it is crucial in these times that we go out of our way to treat peace loving Arab Americans with respect and friendship. A group of people in my local community have made themselves available to Arab Americans, to go with them shopping if they would like that, or to walk with their children on the way to school, or to stand by and with them any time that they might feel unsafe or fear that they might be scapegoated.

As we take steps to reduce the risk of further terrorist attacks, we must proceed calmly and deliberately, bearing in mind the need not to erode the liberties and freedoms that are at the core of the American way of life. The true patriot is not the person who, in the name of anti-terrorism, would target people because of their race, religion, ethnic background, or appearance. The real American is the person who would have us uphold the essential principals of a democratic society. The American dream can be realized only in a world where liberty and justice prevail for all.

Since the day he took office, President Bush has been withdrawing from almost every multilateral agreement and international treaty except those that enhance American profits and power. This is an administration that has snubbed the world community and disengaged from treaties attempting to deal with global warming, nuclear disarmament, population control, trafficking in small arms, chemical and biological weapons, to name just a few. This is an administration that has defined American self-interest almost without regard for the concerns of other nations, and sought to ram genetically engineered food and hormone laden beef down the throats of the rest of the world. But now, suddenly, this is an administration that desperately needs the help of the world. There are signs of hope. As a London newspaper recently commented, "Colin Powell, in a stunning and rare display of humility for an American official, now acknowledges that in order to fight terrorism effectively the U.S. is going to have to be more sensitive to the concerns of other cultures."

Might the United States remember in all of this that our national purpose is greater than pursuing corporate profit, and that we have a deep and paramount responsibility to the wellbeing of all of the world's peoples? As the president of the State of the World Forum, Jim Garrison, puts it: "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… (realize) no country is an island unique unto itself…and the only 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."

If we would defeat terrorism then we must not only defeat the individual bin Laden and his cohorts, but we must also defeat the systemic injustice, exploitation and cruelty that provides fertile soil for terrorism to flourish. We must take actions that will lead to a thriving, just, and sustainable world for all, for this is the only kind of world where terrorism can not take root. The bitter historical events that came to fruition on September 11th did not come from nowhere, but developed over decades and even centuries. Likewise the peace and understanding that we seek, and which alone will make us truly safe, need be nurtured and cultivated over generations of time.

It is to the planting, nurturing and harvesting of fruits worthy of all that is good and beautiful in us that we must now, as never before, dedicate our lives. Because now, as never before, the world needs our wisdom, our cooperation, our affirmation of the human spirit, and our understanding that all humanity is connected.

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