|By A.D. Freudenheim||
16 September 2001
On Tuesday, 11 September, I sat in my office and listened to the evolution of the rumors early that morning, from "a small plane accidentally crashed into the World Trade Towers" to "a commercial airliner hit one of the Towers" to "two commercial jets crashed into the Towers, intentionally." It didn't take long - some fifteen or twenty minutes for the news to evolve. What took longer was to believe the reports as credible. Listening to the radio, lacking images, it sounded more like an Orson Welles script than reality.
I walked home, through midtown, a little after 10am; I couldn't see downtown, it was too far away, but the streets and sidewalks were crowded, full of people - all of them acting in an orderly fashion, grimly efficient. People did not seem panicked, even if they did seem frightened. Although the goal was to get home, and to do so as quickly as possible, as I walked I passed clusters of people gathered around shop windows, watching televisions, or around parked cabs, listening to the radio. At one corner on Sixth Avenue is a large sculpture by Robert Indiana; it says "LOVE". There were people clustered around that, too.
The internet is an unbelievable invention. Though phone service was spotty - I could call Boston, but not Brooklyn - I was able to get online from home, and receive messages from friends around the world, asking if we were ok, checking in, and sharing their thoughts. I was instantly in touch, not just with the breaking news, but with the people I care about most.
In the days since the attacks, the American demand for revenge, for retribution, seems to be growing; the news is full of reports, meant to be reassuring, about the strength, commitment, and readiness of American forces around the world. And at whom, exactly, does anyone think we will or should strike back? Afghanistan, that famished nation? They may be harboring Osama bin Laden, but they certainly do not have much else. If foreign civilian deaths is what we seek, then by all means: Afghanistan makes a fine target. But in that case, how are we any different from those who have just attacked us? We must not cede the moral high ground out of a desire to answer our blood lust.
I have been asked if I am angry. Yes, I am angry; perhaps outraged is an even better word. That anger, however, is focused inwards, at America and Americans. We are not to blame for these tragic deaths in a direct way, but in some way have we not encouraged the anger and hatred against us? Over the years, we have pursued a greedy line of foreign policy, supporting the Saddam Husseins and the Osama bin Ladens when we perceived it to be in our national interest to do so: Hussein to provide a secular foil against the fundamentalism of Iran, bin Laden to help oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Supporting Hussein gave us better access to oil, bin Laden played a role in Soviet containment; when the situations changed, so did our support for each - and they are but two examples of enemies of our own creation.
Terrorism will not go away as a result of military action by the United States and its allies. We cannot "root out" all the true believers who ascribe to a perverse ideology that makes demonizing others a central tenet. If we want to get rid of terrorism, then we need to take away the incentive to strike terror and the desire to inflict on others the pain that the terrorists themselves feel. We need to push our allies to rethink some of their own policies and actions, and reevaluate many of the "national liberation" movements that exist around the world. Israel should be encouraged to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza; the English should push harder for peace talks in - and a withdrawal from - Northern Ireland; and countries like Turkey and Egypt, with varying degrees of democracy and freedom, should be told again to reevaluate the price that their nations pay for the oppression of broad freedoms in the name of restraining "fundamentalism." If we accept a universal right of human self-determination - the right of all people and nations to make their own political and religious decisions - then how can we continue to support countries and regimes that flagrantly violate this principle? In taking any of these actions, there will be problems and there will be pain, but there may also be a kind of salvation.
As Iran is - slowly! - working to show, a devotion to Islam does not need to be in direct conflict with the values of democracy or human rights. Though it has been nearly twenty years since the Revolution, Iranians are moving towards finding a balance between their religious beliefs and their desire for freedom. This evolution should be encouraged, carefully but steadily. Through this, people can be shown that Islam does not need to fear the United States any more than Americans must inherently fear Islam. Iranians can - and should - safely reject the elements of our society that they deem undesirable (such as the oversexed products of our Hollywood imaginations) without rejecting us as a people. We must work to do the same for them.
At moments like this, small acts of heroism count for much more. In addition to the heroes in New York and Washington who have put their lives on the line to help others in the aftermath of these attacks, I want to say thank you to my friend Joshua Goldberg for his own heroic act. On Friday, Josh paid a visit to the Islamic Center here in New York, and chatted with the Imam. Josh wanted to express his disapproval of the threats being made against Arab-Americans by showing them that not every American thinks that Muslims or Arabs are dangerous, and according to the Imam, Josh was the only Jewish New Yorker to visit the Center, aside from a few Rabbis who have accepted invitations. In making this trip, Josh put his beliefs into action, and he made a point of showing that people - all people - are just people. At a time when Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, may be turning too inwards, and may be thinking too aggressively about people we perceive as "dangerous," Josh took a step towards dispelling those attitudes - and towards making sure that Muslim-Americans are treated with the same respect and dignity as any others.
At moments like this, holding on to our humanity, and our values - of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association - becomes even more important. We should, like Josh, try not to lose sight of that, lest we succumb to the same kind of hatred and vitriol that compelled those terrorists to take their own lives, and to murder some 5,000 other people in the process.
It is difficult, at this moment, to know what to write about this week.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.