Editor’s Note: This article was published in The Stamford Advocate about a year after Sept. 11, as we approached a Congressional vote on granting the president the power to invade Iraq. I had become tired of the snide and sarcastic stuff I normally write, so I decided to go with something a bit more “warm and fuzzy.” I guess I succeeded, since most everyone seemed to like this article. In fact, I only heard one complaint: Like many women flirting with senility, my mother just loves Bill O’Reilly, and she chastised me for being snotty about him.
One Year Later ...
Last month’s tragic anniversary has made me think a lot about our response during the past 12 months. And what’s most striking is that the United States is a better country than we may have thought it to be.
As the anger at what our enemies had done to us peaked in Sept. 2001, I assumed Americans would never be satisfied until we’d bombed substantial areas of the Muslim world back into the Stone Age. It hasn’t happened that way, and I think most of us are proud that our country has reacted with civilized restraint.
Some in the media worried that a groundswell of anti-Arab and anti-Islamic bigotry might lead to reprisals by misguided patriots here at home. Yet, despite some isolated incidents, widespread vigilantism has not taken place.
A few days after 9/11, a naturalized Pakistani shopkeeper in my Stamford neighborhood had his windows smashed. When I stopped in to express my regrets for my fellow Americans’ actions, he cheerfully told me that dozens of people had already come in to deliver the same message. Many more would follow, his business still thrives and his store was never vandalized again.
In September of this year, Stamford’s Ferguson Library hosted a discussion entitled, “Where Was God on Sept. 11?” Moderated by Episcopal priest Frank Geer and John Horgan, a science writer and agnostic, the audience ran the gamut from hard-line fundamentalist Christians to hard-core atheists. Several participants had lost friends and relatives, but no one expressed blind rage or bigotry — I’ve seldom seen a group discuss such controversial and contentious issues so gently, compassionately, fairly and with such tolerance.
On the other hand, Fox T.V. personality Bill O’Reilly became apoplectic when the University of North Carolina required incoming freshmen to read a book about the Koran, which he dismissed as “the foundation of our enemy’s religion.” Fortunately, most people don’t share his view that ignorance is a virtue. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the number of Americans interested in learning more about Islam since 9/11 has skyrocketed, and those who knew more “tended to feel more favorable toward the faith.”
Opportunistic hate mongers such as the Rev. Franklin Graham have spewed their venom about how “terrorism is part of mainstream Islam,” the “evil and wicked religion,” and Jerry Falwell has called Muhammad a “terrorist.” Meanwhile, right-wing pundit Anne Coulter has recommended that we “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” However, more than twice as many respondents in the Pew survey (54%) felt favorably toward Muslim-Americans as felt unfavorably (22%), indicating such hate speech remains the minority position.
On 9/11, in the West Bank city of Nablus, 3,000 Palestinians danced with glee for the cameras and passed out candy to their children at the news that thousands of innocent Americans had been killed. Even more disturbing were similar stories from Palestinian neighborhoods in New York City. It seemed outrageous that people who’d emigrated from Mideast hellholes for a better life here would celebrate the murders of fellow Americans. At the time, I told anyone who’d listen that this video footage should be shown on American TV stations once every hour for the next year, so we’d never forget who our enemies are.
Of all the stupid things I’ve said or thought in the past year, that may well be the dumbest. We know who our enemies are. Do we really want to fuel this hatred? This is precisely the hell the Palestinians have forged for themselves. They’ve stoked the fires of vendetta for generations, and it’s brought them lives of unending violence, in bombed-out cities, kept awake at night by the sound of tanks rumbling through their rubble.
Do we really want to become like the people who dance with joy at the death of innocents and commit the same suicide bombing of our spirit? Too many nations have already chosen this vile path — think of Northern Ireland, where the footage of past outrages has been running in terrorists’ heads every hour for centuries.
Since 9/11, the phrase “If we … [ fill in the blank ] … the terrorists win” has become part of the lexicon. We’ve filled in this blank with everything from “stop shopping at the mall” to “don’t fly the kids to Disneyland.” But the serious response should be, “If we think like the terrorists — and, more, importantly, behave like terrorists — the terrorists win.”
The goal of al-Qaida, and all religious fanatics, is that we become exactly as they are and abandon our own way of life. They demand that we reject our values and accept theirs. And, if we answer those who hate us with equal measures of evil and bigotry, isn’t that what the bin-Ladins — and, to a lesser extent, the Franklin Grahams — of the world would have us do? When hate mongers triumph, the terrorists win.
There will always be evil in the world that must be opposed, often in ways that are frightening and terrible indeed. But such actions should be undertaken without self-satisfaction or glee. It’s reassuring that few Americans are happy about the destruction in Afghanistan. And it’s comforting that the possibility of an invasion of Iraq has caused widespread soul searching, rather than just a jingoistic desire to inflict suffering on Muslims and Arabs.
I lack the intelligence (in either the military or the political sense) to know if invading Iraq is a good idea. But if it must be done, we should do it sadly and reluctantly, with the knowledge that it’s the least of many evils. There should be no dancing in the streets when the cruise missiles lift off, nor should we pass out candy to our children when the cluster bombs fall. Otherwise, the terrorists win.
Jesus once asked, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Whether you’re Christian or agnostic, whether you even believe you have a soul or not, this is a question worth pondering. Otherwise, the terrorists win.
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