Seven years ago today the world witnessed what happens when hatred and violence shape human actions. September 11, 2001 was the world’s first truly global terrorist event. The scale, the number of people from around the world gone in a moment, and the planetary TV audience brought us all closer together, if only for a moment.
In the days that followed, I wrote the following open letter. It was partly an attempt to come to terms with my own feelings and partly an attempt to sway anyone who might have been reading that we must find better ways to live together on this planet.
Here is the letter in its entirety from September 14, 2001.
This letter is dedicated to the victims, their families, the rescue workers, and everyone who is a voice or a pair of hands for a more peaceful world.
The events of this past week have shocked and saddened all well-meaning people the world over. As an American, my heart breaks for the people tragically victimized by this act. As a human being my heart hemorrhages, that we still live in a world that believes killing each other is a solution to our problems. How regrettable that we human beings still choose to address our grievances with each other in such destructive ways.
It is devastating to witness the results of such hatred, bigotry, and violence in action. No cause, no complaint against the United States can ever justify the actions taken by these fanatics. Their misguided interpretation of their beliefs and their unwillingness to see Americans as fellow human beings, worthy of life, caused them to conclude that any action against America was justified. The outpouring of human emotion and determination this week from around the world should let them know they have crossed a line drawn by all civilized societies and sane human beings.
In our effort to draw that line, we bring ourselves into danger. Not only the physical danger of responding to their actions, but the psychological and spiritual temptations to become like the terrorists to defeat them. If we allow our desire for revenge on groups of people to overcome our need for justice for the individuals responsible, we are in danger of becoming undifferentiated from them. If we succumb to the fear resulting from the terrorist’s actions and curtail the basic liberties we hold dear in our society, then the very thing that sets us apart and is worth defending becomes a victim of these acts. Ben Franklin, the wisest of our founding fathers, said, “Those who give up their liberty for a little temporary security, shall have neither liberty nor security.” Our leaders and our citizens would do well to recall these words as we address what measures should be taken to balance our freedoms with our security.
This week has been a time for grief over the deaths of many of our fellow-citizens as well as a significant number of foreign nationals representing more than 40 countries. By this measure, this was indeed an attack on the entire civilized world. As grief turns to anger and then to action, it is important for us to measure our actions and do what is right not just what would make us feel better. In the aftermath of these events, we might feel justified in doing almost anything. We may believe that retaliating against innocent people or attacking our fellow citizens who might look or share the same religion, in name, as the terrorists is acceptable. Such actions would only make us guilty of sinking to the same level as these criminals. As Americans it is our responsibility in the world to set a different example and show the world different and better ways to solve problems. Simply responding in kind will surely bring a cycle of violence, whose results we cannot predict, and leave us with the same long-term problems experienced elsewhere in this world when violence becomes the only means of communication.
There is plenty of suffering to go around. The victims and their families are suffering, our country is suffering, and the world is suffering as we relive these events on videotape over and over again. In this time of righteous anger, it is also important to contemplate the amount of self-inflicted suffering that must be necessary for any person to carry out this kind of terror. It is a time to reflect on the ways in which we all bring suffering into our lives and the lives of others. It can be a time when, in addition to justice, we seek new ways of relating to each other and working for a world where no one feels either the right or the impulse to inflict such things on others. Suffering was brought by these attacks. Killing more people in response will only increase suffering not bring solutions.
So from tragedy comes opportunity. We have seen this week the heroism of those working directly to help the victims, so there is opportunity to demonstrate our humanity one to another. There is opportunity to reflect on a world that we all create everyday with each thought, word, and action. There is opportunity for all sane and civilized peoples to work together to end the scourge of terrorist violence wherever it occurs. It is justice we must seek, though, not revenge.
Finally, we have the opportunity to start seeing the other people we share this planet with, even those different from ourselves, as human beings just like us. The temptation to divide the world into “us” and “them” is the thinking that created justification in the minds of these terrorists for their acts. To the extent we have all perpetuated this concept of the world, we have all created a fertile field for the conflicts we continue to endure here on planet earth. No religion teaches nor accepts acts like we saw this week. Every religion, however, does teach us to love our fellow human beings. To the extent we fail in the latter, we can all expect more of the former.
Let’s not permit this horrendous tragedy to occur and these deaths to be meaningless. Let us commit, even as we seek justice for these crimes, to create a world where such acts are unthinkable ways of making a statement, even for the most radical among us. An event like this should fill us with hard questions, not easy answers. Let us rally around our flag to seek justice, not as means of supporting a response yet more fierce and destructive in nature. Blood for blood has never brought people anything but more blood. May these events lead us to a greater self-awareness and a more reflective, just world. In that way, we can honor the memory of those lost in New York and Washington D.C, and Pennsylvania.
Some may believe this to be an unattainable goal. One thing is for sure, as long as we believe it to be impossible it will be. Despite our best efforts, crazy people may persist, but as a civilization and as individuals we owe it to ourselves and our children to seek that kind of world. May those who have suffered loss, find solace in their faith and the people around them. May those who are responsible be brought to a civilized justice. May we all find peace in our hearts and greater peace in our world!