“Why Can’t They Just Say Stop It?” Reflections on Terror and the Cycle of Indifference

I knew it was a conversation that at some point I would have to indulge; and last night, amid commemorative news coverage of the events of September 11, 2001, it became apparent that the time had come.

Although I had previously discussed the events of that day and the aftermath of those events with our ten-year old (who was only 10 weeks of age when the attacks took place), Rachel, who is 8, had previously been far more oblivious, paying little attention to my prior conversations with Ashton about the subject, or showing little interest if she had been.

But last night, as she watched footage of United Airlines flight 175 violently piercing the South Tower of the World Trade Center (something I, like so many others, had watched live at the time), her interest, and of course fear, was piqued. Though she was trying hard to concentrate on some cute little game on her iTouch, involving a puppy dog of some sort, I would catch her looking up at the television screen from time to time, obviously disturbed by the images she was seeing.

Then came the inevitable questions, and I realized that this would be our youngest daughter’s first real lesson in the global geopolitics of violence.

“Why did someone want to knock down those buildings? Were they important?” Rachel asked.

I tried to explain that the World Trade Center was (and the Pentagon still is) a symbol representing American power. In the first instance, the power of American money, and in the second case, the power of our military: a military with more guns, bombs and the capacity to kill than that of pretty much all other militaries on the face of the Earth combined. So, I noted, for people who are angry with the United States, these particular buildings were targets that made sense to them: to hit them would serve to scare people, which is why that kind of thing is typically referred to as “terrorism.”

“Why were they angry with the United States?” would be her next question.

I took a deep breath, knowing that these are the kinds of things that can be hard to explain to children, and also knowing how important it is to provide an answer that is honest, as opposed to the silly, simplistic and narcissistic lies to which we have grown so accustomed; to wit, that they hate us “because of our freedoms,” or “because their religion compels them to kill infidels,” or whatever it is that any number of ignorant Islamaphobes would have them believe.

“Well,” I began, trying to choose my words carefully, “about ten years before they flew those planes into the buildings, our country had started a war with another country called Iraq, and a lot of people were killed as a result of what we did. After the fighting was pretty much over, we kept some of our troops in another country nearby called Saudi Arabia, and it made a lot of people angry because they felt like we were trying to control that part of the world.”

“Oh,” she answered, short and sweet. “So we started it?” she inquired.

Another deep breath. “Well, it depends on who you ask, I suppose. Some people would say that they started it, and that they just did it because they’re bad people, but the United States definitely has done things in that part of the world that have hurt people and made them mad. So in some ways, you could definitely say that we started the fight,” I tried to explain. “Of course,” I continued, “no matter who started it, it’s never O.K. to go kill a bunch of people just because you’re mad at their leaders.”

“So what happened after they attacked us with the planes,” she wanted to know.

And now began the more important part of the lesson, since, after all, my previous mention of the unacceptability of mass violence as a way to resolve disputes with leaders you detest holds as much in one direction as the other.

“Well, we attacked a country called Afghanistan, because they had been helping the group that attacked us, and then we attacked Iraq again because…well, we never did give much of a reason for why we did that,” I said. “Iraq had nothing to do with the planes that hit the buildings, but President Bush decided to attack them anyway.”

I explained that ten years later, we were still at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and that people were still dying because of it. “Like I said, killing a bunch of people just because you’re mad at their leaders doesn’t make much sense, whether it’s them doing it to us, or us doing it to them. It just never really solves the problem.”

“What if someone attacks our house?” she inquired, clearly nervous about the prospects of terrorist-inspired violence touching her world, and in a more direct way than merely on a news broadcast, as part of a ten-year commemoration event. As I explained to her why she had no reason to fear such a thing — after all, our house is not really as attractive a target for terrorists as a government building, or national landmark like the Trade Center — my heart broke, mostly because it struck me that such a fear as this is precisely that which Iraqi and Afghan children must feel and have felt daily for years; only fathers in those places could not assure their children, as I can mine, that such a dread is misplaced. For them, the fear is all too understandable and the risk all too real. Indeed, according to classified U.S. military documents released by Wikileaks, there were over 66,000 civilian deaths in Iraq between 2004-2009 alone (other estimates place the number of civilian deaths at well more than 100,000), and mid-range estimates suggest the numbers of civilian dead in Afghanistan at another 22,000 or so.

“Why can’t they just say ‘stop it’?” Rachel wanted to know, the question striking me at once as both the most simplistic and yet, most utterly valid and important question which, at the end of the day, one can ask about war. It follows, after all, from the kind of advice most of us give to our children about how to resolve conflicts in their own lives: don’t hit, be kind, use your words, and try to make peace. But unfortunately, the lessons we teach to children, not just because they sound nice but because they actually work best, are all but forgotten by the time those who teach them find themselves playing the role of a national leader, or the head of a retail terrorist operation, for that matter.

While children mostly understand the futility of violence and counter-violence, of retaliation and escalation, of tit for tat and “sending messages” by way of hijacked planes on the one hand, or precision-guided munitions on the other, adults seem to think we know better. We pretend, against the weight of historical evidence to the contrary, that with just a little more violence, a few more (or a lot more) dead, we will successfully usher in an era of calm, of freedom, of democracy, and of peace. We believe that violence does pay, and I suppose for some it does. It pays for the defense contractors, the weapons-makers, and the politicians who wield it to gain votes from a scared public, whom they warn about how a failure to deploy it, and on a massive scale, will surely mean danger in the future for them and their loved ones.

Sadly, the reason no one is willing to just say “stop it,” is because in the world of power politics, to do such a thing is to risk being viewed as weak; because peace is for wimps, because real men hit back, and because one is always sure that one is right, and that the other guy is to blame for the conflict. In the end of course, victory at the barrel of a gun is never final, no matter how much Chairman Mao may have thought otherwise back in the day, or however much George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Ayman al-Zawahiri do now. In al-Zawahiri’s case, even if he is able to pull off one, two, or many more significant terrorist attacks against the United States, before we ultimately find and kill him like his predecessor, he and those he represents cannot count on such events as true victories. We have the weapons and quite clearly the ability to kill more of them than they can kill of us, for what that’s worth, and for whatever it may say about the nation’s greatness, which apparently is measured as of late by this, and very few other metrics.

And as for us, such victory as might obtain in the short run from our efforts — be it in our case the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the routing of the Taliban in Kabul — also says little about the prospects for lasting peace and security down the line: new thugs replace old ones, and the Taliban is already largely regrouped and in charge of significant swaths of Afghanistan again. Even if al-Qaeda were to disappear tomorrow, the threat of terrorism launched against the United States would always be extant so long as we remain committed to a politics of Western dominance around the globe; so long as we stand in the way of self-determination for the Palestinian people; so long as we act as though we are entitled to other people’s oil just because our automobile-obsessed culture demands it; so long as hateful bigots continue to demonize Muslims and treat them as the enemy. If we make it “us against them,” and project the idea worldwide that we see ourselves locked in a crusader’s holy war against Islam, we can hardly act surprised if and when those on whom we’ve declared that war take us at our word and decide they have nothing to lose by taking as many of us down as they can in the process. Violence begets more of the same, as does hatred.

And yes, I realize these are cliches about both violence and hatred, but what of it? Are they any less valid for that reason? After all, as we remember 9/11, cliches are virtually all we’ve been offered: cliches about how on that day “everything changed,” or how “America lost its innocence.” And in those two cases, the cliches however ubiquitous are, of course, utterly and completely false, unlike the ones I’ve offered regarding violence and hatred, which are virtually inarguable. 9/11 did not change “everything,” except for that relatively privileged class that had, because of their privilege, been protected from the realities that almost all other human beings have lived with forever, and with which millions of their own countrymen and women had as well. Terrorism and being targeted because of who you are was not new for everyone. People of color knew about it, but there will be no memorials to the millions of indigenous persons who lost their lives because of it; no memorials for the millions enslaved and subjected to racial terror for two-and-a-half centuries in this land. No indeed, in cases such as that, the very persons who insist most loudly that we must “never forget” 9/11 — and who will no doubt be saying that two hundred years hence — are the very same who insist the suffering of others is to be forgotten precisely because it occurred in the past and that, at some point, the victims need to “get over it.”

And there was no innocence to lose, except in that most ironic and revealing sense of the word: innocence as naivete, as a kind of willed ignorance which most people would find embarrassing to admit, but which in a nation such as ours — where an accurate understanding of history is very nearly prohibited in order to rise to prominence in one party, and where even in the other, it is something to be slickly managed and ignored — is considered something the loss of which is occasion for mourning and regret.

But if by innocence lost we are referring to the loss of our ability to feel so special, so protected by a red-white-and-blue-banner-waving God that nothing such as that which touches everyone else on Earth — namely, mass death — could reach us too, well then, the loss of such delusions is not only not regrettable, but rather, may be an absolute prerequisite to the long-term sustainability of life on the planet. Feelings of invincibility, or the sense that one has the power to put a “boot up someone’s ass” (to paraphrase noted philosopher, Toby Keith), and to do so without consequence, and without the inevitability of payback, are dangerous to indulge. Without the knowledge that one can also die, that there are those who despise you every bit as much as you despise them, and who might just be willing to show you their hatred up close and personal — and to die for it — there is little to restrain the hubris and violence of the first party.

This is not to suggest — and make a note of it, because I want there to be no mistake about what I am and am not saying — that the attacks of 9/11 were justified, or a good thing, or morally acceptable. But they happened, and having happened we must then decide what we are willing to learn from them, since, in any event, they can’t be erased, and the lives lost as a result cannot be brought back. If all we learn is that “they” are evil, or jealous, or fanatical — or whatever self-indulgent, self-serving and self-righteous piffle our leaders would seek to teach us — then we will be forever endangered, trapped in our own mythology, weakened by our unwillingness to engage in even a moment’s introspection.

If what we “learn” is that we must send into war brave men and women to whom we lie about why they’re being sent — and so we indulge the trumped up fears about weapons of mass destruction, or the misperception believed by more than 80 percent of soldiers in one poll, that they were in Iraq to “avenge Saddam Hussein’s role in the 9/11 attacks” — then we have learned nothing. Nothing except that soldiers are, as always, expendable in the service of an empire run mostly by men who themselves have never seen a battlefield, never held a comrade as their guts lay strewn outside of their bodies, their life slipping away with each remaining and increasingly shallow heartbeat. The men who make these decisions and so glibly prattle on about the importance of supporting the troops are the very men (and occasionally women too) who then abandon those troops when they are no longer killing for America, and who, upon returning home find themselves plagued by physical, mental or emotional trauma, only to encounter an eviscerated safety net and a gutted VA system. They are persons who have always and forever sent others to do their dirty work while using every available outlet to avoid combat themselves.

But there are lessons, which, if we are willing to learn them, are there for the taking. And now, after the passage of a full decade since that awful day, maybe we can think clearly enough to consider them. It’s doubtful, but perhaps worth a shot, so here they are.

First, that the best weapon against terrorism is not military force but honesty and the policy directions that might flow from it. We cannot defeat, forever and always, a tactic. Terrorism the likes of which we experienced on 9/11 will always exist, so long as people have valid grievances against others. This doesn’t mean that those grievances justify the terror unleashed in response — as I’ve already said, they do not — but it does portend that the terror that flows from those grievances is entirely predictable nonetheless. If we wish to minimize the likelihood of terrorism being deployed against our nation, we must insist that our nation turn from the policies that have given rise to those grievances — and not merely as a way to sue for peace, but because those polices are unjust. In that regard, and as flawed as their response to those polices obviously is, the terrorists are correct: it is not legitimate to station American troops in Saudi Arabia, or to fund Israel to the tune of billions of dollars as they continue to subjugate the Palestinian people in ways they could not do for one week were they to have to pay for their police state on their own. It is not legitimate to starve the people of Iraq with economic sanctions that kill hundreds of thousands of children, and then claim — as did President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright — that those results, as painful as they may have been for the dead children and their families, had been “worth it.”

We have not the right to condemn the indifference to human suffering that is the hallmark of the terrorist while remaining utterly indifferent to the suffering we inflict, as if it were not the same thing. It is. Dead is dead, and to the families of the dead, it matters painfully little whether the end of their child’s life came as the result of a plane crashed into a building by a terrorist, or a “smart bomb” sent stupidly into a village by the world’s most powerful and advanced military. And if we cannot see the equivalence — if we continue to insist that the lives of our children are more precious (which is exactly what we suggest by virtue of our non-chalance at the loss of life sustained by our adversaries) — we will never be safe. You can take that to the bank.

A second lesson is this: that either we are all entitled to life or none of us are. For too long, Americans have preened about as if we were somehow more deserving of life and opportunity than others. Yes, we use a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and yes, we maintain military installations and troops in over 700 locations around the world so as to guarantee our continued dominance, but that’s O.K., because we deserve it. We’re Amurka, as some like to say. But so long as 11 million children under the age of 5 die every year on this planet from preventable disease — disease that this nation could single-handedly eradicate were we to turn from empire to something commensurate with the sustenance of life — we are all implicated. Our failure to do that, and our insistence that it is better to spend trillions on war than to save tens of millions of lives, says, by definition, that we believe those lives to be worthless, or at least worth less than even a few thousand of ours. That is the calculus of America’s superiority complex. Our stance to the families of the dead is simple: yes, we are rich enough to save you, but we will not, because we have people to bomb, and Hummers to drive, and derivatives to trade, and reality shows to watch, and churches to attend, wherein we will pray to a God in whom we barely believe, if at all — for if we did, we wouldn’t dare manifest an indifference of this magnitude, so sure would we be that such indifference would vouchsafe for us a most unpleasant afterlife.

A third lesson we should learn, but likely won’t is that there is strength in humility; that there is no shame in acknowledging one’s mistakes, whether one is a child, a parent, or the president of the world’s strongest nation. But we seem far from the learning of this one. Republican or Democrat, there is no humility, and no willingness to admit that sometimes this country is simply wrong, and that our actions are immoral, unethical and unjustifiable. We are not just a “pitiful giant” to quote Richard Nixon, who stumbles into one tragic act after another; rather, we make conscious decisions that destroy people’s lives, and these are decisions for which we must be accountable.

And we cannot be accountable while mouthing words such as these:

“I’m interested in going forward, not looking backward.”

As author, activist and educator, Paul Street reminds us in his most recent essay, these were the words of Barack Obama in June 2009.

Chilean President, Michele Bachelet was visiting the White House, and Obama was asked whether it might be appropriate for the U.S. to apologize for the role our nation had played in the 1973 overthrow of that nation’s democratically-elected government (interestingly, also on September 11). That the overthrow of Salvador Allende and his replacement by the vicious dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet led to the murder of at least 3000 people and the torture of some 30,000 more is indisputable. So too is the extent to which such an outcome could not have obtained but for the involvement of the CIA and the covert machinations of the Nixon Administration, and specifically, Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

But for two decades of right-wing brutality unleashed upon the Chilean people, there will be no apology, even from the most nominally liberal president the United States has had since that time, because we must “look forward” and never back. Unless of course the injury is ours, as in the case of our 9/11, in which special instance we will insist on the moral right, and indeed obligation, to look back, forever. We will not only look back, but rather, will look back in anger, and with non-stop news coverage, heart-rending documentaries and memorial commemorations. Our pain matters, while their pain does not. It is that simple, and that evil. Yet most of us say nothing.

And a final lesson is this: that our biggest enemies — enemies to our national well-being, the Constitution, and the democratic values to which we claim to cleave — are not hostile foreign forces, but ourselves. It has been no Muslim Caliphate that has instituted wiretaps, and domestic spying, and secret military tribunals, and torture of our enemies. It has been no Ayatollah who has vowed to roll back the rights of women, relegating them to involuntary incubators for the state. It has been no Middle Eastern follower of Mohammed who has wrecked the national economy by way of their speculative investment activities or the get-rich-quick trading of derivatives. All of those things have been done by Americans, including many who call themselves Christians. More damage has been done to this nation since 9/11 by supposedly patriotic white men who go to church on Sunday than what all the brown-skinned supporters of bin Laden could have hoped to do in three lifetimes.

It is time we hold them accountable, and demand better of ourselves than this.

Oh and one more thing: we must remember to hug our children tight, and each other. Because life is precious, and fleeting, and not promised us for even one more day. And that is something we should have learned from 9/11: that what we take for granted can be snuffed in an instant, and that all the time we waste in anger, in acrimony, in seething hatred for the dreaded other, is time we are not spending holding, and caring for, and loving those closest to us. It is a lesson that needs to be remembered, by terrorists of all stripes — be they freelancers or government-sponsored — and by the rest of us as well.

Why can’t they just say stop it? Indeed.

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