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The Soul of A Nation
20 September 2001
I grew up right outside New York City. The zoo, the parks, the museums, the theaters of NYC were my cultural training ground. I paid for college by working at the NY Stock Exchange, and when I was out of college, I came to NY to live and work. The recent attack on the WTC felt to me very much like an attack on my childhood and early adulthood, on my origins.
My first actions on the morning of September 11th were phone calls to my brothers and sisters and other family members who live and work in and around NYC. This took much of the day. The connection with people was vital, and it kept me for a while from going into shock. But eventually the shock came, and for days I moved as though I carried a very heavy weight.
When we first learned of the violence in NY and DC, some of us had no words. We felt it was an unspeakable horror, unspeakable that defenseless and innocent people should be brutally attacked and killed. And it was. Let us call it what it is: murder...largescale...a massacre.
In the week after the attack on the WTC, I talked with my brother-in- law who is a Manhattan policeman. He said the most remarkable thing is how New Yorkers have pulled together. Taking in strangers who were stranded and putting them up in their homes. On the streets, people breaking down in tears and being comforted by people they've never met before. And of course a great outpouring of goodwill and cooperation for the rescue effort. New Yorkers, he said, have come together like never before.
This is a time for coming together, a time for unity, without which we are lost. Unity depends upon respect, tolerance, caring. Surely this is the really positive aspect of all the flags flying around town -- that Americans are united: united in our stand for freedom, respect, tolerance. These flags are a statement that we care about the well-being of our neighbors; that we grieve along with the individuals and families who were most painfully touched by the violence; that we are angry because violence is a threat to our freedom, it creates fear and hatred, it violates the code of respect that freedom rests on.
In the midst of this, a question arises -- a question we might like to duck or dodge, but which won't go unanswered. "How far does our respect reach?" Clearly it reaches from one side of this nation to the other, from sea to shining sea. The question is: Does it reach to Afghanistan?
Right now, in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of people are leaving or trying to leave their country. Those who have no hope of leaving, especially the women who aren't even allowed to leave their homes, tremble, waiting for the bombs to start falling. In Washington, our leaders are moving forcefully to use death to answer the problems of life.
Is anyone talking seriously about how we will wage a long-term military campaign without killing civilians, without destroying the infrastructure that society depends on? Are our leaders doing anything to reassure these Afghan citizens that their lives, their children's lives, their homes, businesses, crops, livestock...are not threatened? How far does the compassion of our leaders extend? Does it extend beyond NYC? In calling for retaliation, our leaders are appealing to what is worst in us: the violence that lurks in our own hearts and in the heart of our nation.
Two years ago, I traveled with 7 other Americans on a fact-finding mission to Iraq, a country, sadly, which is a prime example of the devastation that a long-term military campaign will wreak. The day we landed in the Middle East, three bombs from a U.S. fighter jet landed near the grounds of a grain silo in Najaf, in remote south-central Iraq. One of the missiles landed right on the main road, killing 14 civilians and hospitalizing 18.
Three days later we visited the town. 10 minutes after we arrived, 150 people had gathered around us. One after the other, they were trying to tell us what had happened that day. And they were bringing us shrapnel and bomb parts from the attack. A sizeable pile built up. And they were definitely angry. Some of them were outraged, for this wasn't the first time Najaf had been similarly bombed by U.S. warplanes. They kept asking: "Why, why is your government doing this? Why is it attacking civilians?" And I thought to myself: "What are we seeding in the hearts of Iraqi people by these bombings?"
In the hospital there, we visited injured survivors of the attack: a taxi driver who had lesions all over his body (all three of his passengers were killed; he described trying to pull them out of the taxi when a second missile hit nearby); a badly injured auto repair worker whose two shopmates had been killed; and worst of all, an 8-year old boy whose right arm was severed by shrapnel.
I looked at that boy lying in bed with a stump of an arm, his mother sitting silently next to him, his eyes looking right into mine, and all I could think of was Rachael, my own 7-year old daughter. What would it mean if she lost her arm in an act of violence? How would she make sense of it? Would it leave her bitter? Would it leave me bitter? Again in the hospital we heard, "Why? Why is your country doing this?" That day in Najaf was the most frightening day of my life. With bomb parts collecting, with the stories of the missile attack ringing in my ears, with the injured lying before me, I felt like a small animal in the shadow of a beast. I wanted to run and hide. This was a glimpse of what it must be like to be under military threat or attack: I knew I could be crushed as easily as we swat an insect.
The people in Najaf could have killed me that day, or worse. It would have been the easiest thing. Before I left for Iraq, concerned people said they were worried about my safety, but during my two weeks there, I never once felt threatened by an Iraqi person. I met Iraqi people in all kinds of situations: in their homes, in formal meetings, in hotels, restaurants, stores, and markets, in taxis, in hospitals, and on the streets. People were unfailingly hospitable and friendly to us. I drank more tea in two weeks than I had in the previous 40 years.
The Iraqi people, I have come to realize, were true to what is best in their culture. In the desert, you are gracious and hospitable to strangers and visitors. That is the custom. And with good reason. Today, after the horrific bombings of the Gulf War and eleven years of U.S.- sponsored economic sanctions which have killed over a million innocent Iraqi civilians, the Iraqis are still hospitable and friendly to Americans who visit. They have broken the cycle of violence. They are worthy of their cultural inheritance.
Right now in America, the very soul of our nation is threatened. I don't mean this in some quasi-mystical sense, but literally. Our leaders are appealing to what is worst in people and society. We must look inside ourselves and draw on the best of our intelligence, courage, and compassion. If we are going to hold the American flag, if we are going to reclaim it as a symbol of freedom rather than of nationalist militarism, if we are going to stand under it, then we have to be worthy of it. Let our respect reach to everyone in our community, and let our community be one without borders.