The only survivor
What matters is love
By Mahmoud Sadri
September 24, 2001
Mesmerized by the terrible glitter of this waking nightmare, we continue
to watch and read. Apocalyptic clouds of September 11 coil in media's unblinking
eye. Overwhelmed by the pain and passion of the victims and witnesses and
consumed by the drama of the actors, media neglects the plot. Burning trees
blot out the burning forest. But the spectacle need not be interrupted.
We need the hellish images. Let the fires of "sympathetic magic"
brand our hearts forever. We cannot and must not forget. The media need
not be supplanted, only supplemented. We must once again be able to feel
and think at once. We must, if only for a while, let our gaze to wander
away from the burning trees to the burning forest.
There may never be a water-tight case for Bin Laden's hand in this or
any other terrorist atrocity. But an educated guess places him in the limelight
of the fires he most likely ignited. Who else would have hated the people
of the United States with so much passion as to declare them all targets?
Who else could have mobilized resources and assassins for this crime? Let's
just say: he is "wanted for questioning!" Good enough.
But who will serve the warrant? Peaceful means ought to be tried but
we won't hold our breath. The metaphor of war has been used. But the lessons
of that other metaphorical war, the war on drugs, are sobering. Who wants
yet another "endless war" against enemies more elusive, determined,
and murderous than the drug lords? If the war against terrorism means an
accurate and decisive response to the initiators of the terror then let
the armies march to cripple not only Bin Laden's ghastly terror gang but
the brutal band of Seminarian war lords (Taliban), to allow the rival multi
ethnic alliance of Mojahedin in the north to wrest power from them.
If, however, war means escalating the conflict to engage other diverse,
unrelated, and, often, mutually conflicting organizations such as Lebanon's
Hizbollah, or Palestine's Hamas, as has been suggested by some, then it
would be at best Quixotic and at worst Custeresque. It will rally a wide
spectrum of disparate leagues around a single banner, swell the ranks of
amorphous guerilla groups, and persuade a constituency numbering in hundreds
of millions to provide them with material and, what is more crucial, moral
support. The long term repercussions of such a protracted entanglement are
too horrendous to contemplate. Our present reality is bleak and bloody enough,
without invoking the image of even one thousandth of one percent of that
population embarking upon ever more innovative initiatives for mayhem.
What can the individual American citizen do? A hundred and seventy years
ago a perceptive French traveler, Alexis de Tocqueville, described Americans
as a people surrounded by two oceans and thus blissfully oblivious to world
affairs. But on September 11th 2001 Tocqueville's America finally ran its
course. The grotesque violence of the world reached across the oceans and
ended America's geographically induced innocence. It is time to take notice.
Americans, whatever their political leanings, must educate themselves about
international affairs and the conduct of American foreign policy. Only then
will politicians, bureaucrats, and generals listen to people's advice on
international affairs just as they heed them on domestic issues. Let the
miracle of democratic supervision heal the chronic malady of shortsighted
and special interest-ridden conduct of American foreign policy.
Beside bending the ears of their government about applying the lofty
and long term values and interests of America to American international
policies, enlightened Americans must serve as beacons of tolerance and hope
at home to curtail the widespread practice of imputation of guilt by association.
Witch hunts and the frenzy of collective punishment dishonor the victims,
injure the innocent, and perpetuate the cycle of violence.
In addition to a well-defined retaliatory response, there should be parallel
attempts to explore the source, the cause, the structure of the conflict.
Suicidal radicalism is the tip of the iceberg of regional and global hopelessness,
despair, humiliation, and alienation. That iceberg starts to melt in the
warmth of recognition, communication, respect, and hope; if we heed the
lessons learned from this tragedy. Things need to happen on both international
and national fronts.
Since global terrorism can be confronted only globally; a conceptual
lowest common denominator, a definition of terrorism must be formulated.
Reaching a clear cut consensus on the meaning of the term terrorism implies
that nations around the would waive their local and political interests
to arrive at an internationally sustainable definition. Terrorism must be
universally defined as: "Focused Attack on non Combatant Civilians
Whether Perpetrated by Individuals, Organizations, or States." Once
this is decided we will no longer hear statements like: "One side's
terrorist is the other side's freedom fighter." No such thing! A terrorist
is a terrorist is a terrorist! No cause, no matter how expedient, legitimate
or holy must be allowed to justify terrorism.
However, in order to be universally accepted, the law must be narrowly
defined. Under this definition Israelis would not be able to brand the Hizbollah
guerrillas ambushing their military convoys in southern Lebanon as terrorists;
just as the Palestinians would not be allowed to call the suicide bombers,
detonating themselves in Israeli pizzerias and buses, martyrs. American
marines who died in bombing of their barracks in Lebanon would not be called
victims of terrorism, while Russians and their Chechnyan foes would both
be blamed for acts of terrorism. Terrorists worldwide from Serbia to Rwanda
would suddenly find the world a much less hospitable place. What distinguishes
guerrilla warfare from terrorism is not the ends but whether innocent non-combatant
civilians are sacrificed to achieve them. This is the argument that Albert
Camus introduces in his touching and elegant play: "The Just Assassins".
On the national level there are signs of the end of unilateralism and
disengagement. One can only hope that they are the results of lessons learned
from the tragedy of September 11.
Signs of the end of unilateralism are evident in President Bush's vow
to "rally the world" as his Secretary of State scrambles to build
a "coalition of Nations." Forging this alliance would have been
much easier had the United States not walked out of five international treaties
and conferences in recent months; thus compounding its deplorable image
as a world class bully with that of an improbable brat who takes his marbles
and goes home whenever he dislikes a game. It is at a dear price, but not
too late to finally realize that no matter how powerful and wealthy this
nation may be, it needs the cooperation of the rest of the world to safeguard
its security and prosperity.
Concerning the end of disengagement, the latest news from the Middle
East are that the Israelis and Palestinians have agreed on a cease fire
to be followed by negotiations. The United States has ended its hands-off
policy by actively urging the two sides to engage in talks. This, in contrast
to the last few months in which the United States seemed to wash its hands
off the carnage in the Middle East. America's enhanced presence in that
region of the world will help dispel the widespread impression of the unconditional
support of the United States for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
So long as there is, at least, a semblance of a genuine dialogue; so long
as there is hope for the desperate and humiliated masses in the occupied
territories, refugee camps, and beyond, radical groups would find little
wind in their ominous sails. Giving the masses, in this case, the Palestinians,
the Arabs, and the Moslems, a stake in the game, something to lose, something
to look forward to, will prevent the overwhelming majority of them from
sympathizing with destructive and self-destructive causes espoused by the
likes of Saddam and Osamah.
The relatively calm and optimistic state of affairs during the Oslo peace
process in the 1990s attests to the truth of this claim. When the regional
leaders, encouraged by American brokers, promised: "enough tears, enough
blood" the people listened, hoped, and rejoiced and the terrorists
were relegated to the ranks of the lunatic fringe. But now, with the hopes
of Oslo fading, atop these ruins, drenched in fresh torrents of tears and
blood, we dare to hope again for a return of multilateralism and engagement.
. . . And then, we reach for the remote and the overwhelming human tragedy
of September 11 takes our breath away. Our gaze drifts from the burning
forest back to the burning trees.
In 1927 Thornton Wilder, the of the classical American play "Our
Town" published a slender volume entitled "The Bridge of San Luis
Rey". It is the story of five Peruvians who ended up crossing the bridge
on a Friday noon in 1714. Wilder tells us that it was "the finest bridge
in all of Peru", and that it "seemed to be among the things that
last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break." But break it
did, plunging all five to their doom in the gulf below. In the wake of the
tragedy Brother Juniper, a tireless theologian, set out to inquire into
the secret lives of the five victims of the incident: "Why did this
happen to those five?" wondered brother Juniper, "If there were
any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life,
surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly
cut off." For "either we live by accident and die by accident,
or we live by plan and die by plan."
Of course, despite his hard work, brother Juniper was unable to gather
the biographical evidence and the mathematical proof that each of the five
lost lives was a perfect whole by the time the bridge collapsed. But all
is not lost for the reader who learns that even though ways of God remain
concealed to man, there are other subtle certainties: that "soon we
shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we
ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have
The parallels between the bridge of San Louis Rey and the twin towers
of New York and the two blazing arrows that sliced them need not be laboring.
Not five but more than five thousand lives were lost in those gleaming bridges
to heavens. A latter day Brother Juniper will be as helpless in figuring
out whether or not each one of the victims had completed their journey by
9:03 AM September 11, 2001. Billy Graham lived up to the wisdom of his age
when he confessed in his address at the National Cathedral on September
14 that he did not know why such things happen. But none of that matters.
What matters is love: "... for although we can never be totally assured
of Divine Intention in our every movement on earth, the bridge' of love
that connects one to another gives dignity and purpose to even the lowliest
Let's reiterate the last words of Wilder's story as a tribute, a pledge
to those who perished on the tragedy of September 11: "There Is a Land
of the Living and a Land of the Dead and the Bridge Is Love, the Only Survival,
the Only Meaning."
Mahmoud Sadri is associate professor of sociology at Texas Woman's
University (Federation of North Texas Area Universities). Webpage here.