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The Last Crusade
14 September 2001
"They have attacked America because we are freedom's home and defender; This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while, but we will rid the world of the evil-doers." President George W. Bush
It’s been two, short weeks since the World Trade Center attack, and I’m absolutely terrified. The most powerful country in the world is wallowing in its own panic, and in so doing tearing at the roots of our liberty here at home, and planting the seeds for terrible violence throughout the world. Almost 7,000 innocent Americans are dead, the UN has pulled aid workers out of Afghanistan in fear of U.S. retaliation, hundreds of thousands of refugees there are on the move, and the World Food Program is warning that as many as 5 million Afghanis could starve to death as a result. Are our lives really this fragile?
Without any debate or even much discussion, Congress has given the President a $40 billion “down payment” to fight a war on terrorism, and granted him extraordinary and unprecedented powers to do it with. It seems clear that the government will soon repeal restrictions preventing us from conducting extrajudicial executions assassinations hiring known human rights abusers, and will grant the Justice Department sweeping powers to conduct wiretaps and massive surveillance. And we’ve only just started fighting this war. This “crusade” has barely just begun. Truth be told, I’m scared to death what tomorrow may bring. Are our lives really this fragile? Terror is as much of a threat to our humanity as it is to our lives and property. If we would kill, or allow to be killed, innocents to protect "our way of life," then what is it that we are protecting? If we would kill, or allow to be killed, innocents then we will be morally indistinguishable from that which we claim to be fighting: terror. We have our “reasons," yes, but then so do the people we are opposing. They are also responding to something. They also claim to be defending something. They also find justifications for their actions - rationalizations for the unjustifiable.
It is distressing to watch as we recklessly pretend that the men who killed themselves in order to strike so terribly at us on September 11th attacked us, as the President said, “because we are freedom’s home and defender.” It is distressing to imagine that we are unable to see that their pain is like our pain; unable to imagine that their actions here might have been in response to our actions there. These people are locked out of the political structures of their own nations in part because of our actions and support. They see us acting in ways that they define as "terrorism."
Are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who’ve been killed over 11 years of bombings and blockade really this invisible to us? Are the daily humiliations and deaths of Palestinians struggling under a vicious, military occupation that we help fund and support really this invisible to us? Are our lives really this fragile? Our anger toward the terrorists who killed so many innocent Americans is reflected in our victims and would-be victims across the world with the oldest and clearest lesson in the history of the world: violence begets violence.
There are a set of beliefs operating here, from within our pain, that refuses to acknowledge reality. Without confronting these misconceptions it will be very difficult to move forward. We must not continue a cycle of violence where our feelings of pain cause us to lash out and create similar feelings in those whom we would deem responsible for our suffering. For in imposing unjustifiable suffering on others we break our own compact, and become ourselves like these terrorists. Today, as we move so recklessly toward war, what seeds are we planting for future catastrophes?
When Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) says, “We are coming after you. God may have mercy on you, but we won't,” he is speaking from pain and in panic. When Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA) says, “Bomb the hell out of them. If there's collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable,” he’s speaking from pain and in panic. When Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz says that we are going to “end states” that sponsor terrorism, and our entire government puts the world on notice that everyone must “choose sides,” that we no longer differentiate between terrorists and the countries they may live in, and that they are either “with us or against us” - we are speaking from out of our pain and our panic. Our lives really are this fragile.
Arabs and Muslims desire no more - or less - than the things we desire: peace, security, a chance to build a brighter future for ourselves and our families. Though they will never secure peace through violence, or security through violence, these extremist movements make inroads among all peoples when moderate ones fail to secure these basic forms of human dignity for their peoples. As we are witnessing right here, right now. Our lives really are this fragile.
We must face our own pain, and the pain we have caused others, with understanding and compassion. We must face the hatred we have sown around the world, and the hatred we have sown in our own hearts, with understanding and compassion. We must meet violence, at home and abroad, inside ourselves and in the world around us, with love. Our lives really are this fragile.
We are supposed to be a nation of law. We are supposed to stand for justice, for human rights and for civil liberties; not for blind or indiscriminate violence and vengeance, and not for panic. If we would stop terrorism, we must go after its root causes: poverty, injustice, oppression. A superficial attempt to go after the symptoms of this problem rather than its wellspring will surely fail, and to disregard the rule of law and claim that we can attack anyone anywhere on "evidence" we will subsequently refuse to release, to kill other's children to supposedly protect ours - all of this will set a terrible precedent. It will say to the world that the only law we acknowledge outside of our borders is a drumhead court's, a star chamber's. It will say that all we really respect is our own power, thereby demonstrating to others that power is all we will really respond to. But none of the causes in this world - including our self-“defense”- is worth a single, innocent life. Not one. That’s their logic, terrorist logic - that we must to kill to save the world. The truth is the exact opposite: as both the Torah and the Qu’ran teach, “To save one life is as if you have saved the world.” On September 16th Vice- President Cheney said, “I think this is going to be a struggle that the United States is going to be involved in for the foreseeable future. . . . It's going to require constant vigilance on our part…” He’s absolutely correct. And we must remember that constant vigilance is not just the price for maintaining our liberty and our humanity - it’s also the cost of destroying them. Our lives are really that fragile.