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The only survivor
What matters is love

By Mahmoud Sadri
September 24, 2001
The Iranian

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 been enough."

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 of lives."

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.

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