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Reflections on the Events of September 11

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak with you at what is so clearly an urgent time. With your permission, I will depart from the line of remarks I had initially sketched out and address myself explicitly to the events of this war.

I can certainly be expansive on the subject of broadcasting, and how we are—or are not—meeting our responsibilities. But those observations would now be small-minded. The fact is, during the recent weeks of crisis all major broadcasters—not only including, but specifically the much-maligned commercial broadcasters—have met those responsibilities with professionalism and devotion. This week, they have only my admiration.

I suspect that what I have to say today about war and peace will not please a good many of you. They are certainly not the remarks you might expect from the person you invited several months ago. I don’t want you to feel compelled to offer courteous applause for remarks with which you may vigorously disagree. I am grateful for the chance just to be heard in this forum; that is as much courtesy as I can expect. So let me suggest that my remarks be received simply with silence.

There is nothing good to be said about tragedy or terror. But miseries can distill a sense of utter clarity—remind us of who we are; whom we love; and what is worth giving our lives for.

When Jeremy Glick of Hewitt, New Jersey, called his wife, Lyzbeth, during the last moments of United Flight 93 he said: “I love you. Don’t be sad. Take care of our daughter. Whatever you do is okay with me.”

The depth of his love compressed, and clear as a diamond.

Over the past ten days, the pain of loss and fear of terror may have caused many Americans to admit to themselves how much they really love their country. Love it not blindly, but with unblinking awareness.

They love that frivolous America that proclaims pride in 31 flavors of ice cream—but also the solemn mission of having a gaudy Times Square assortment of all the world’s peoples within its borders. They love the America that can be shallow, giddy, and greedy—but also funny, delightful, and generous. America can abound with silly, malicious, and even dangerous ideas—because people here are free to express any damn-fool idea that comes to them.

America can be bigoted and inhospitable—but it also takes strangers from all over the world into its arms.

America has now been targeted by a few blind souls who are willing to kill thousands—and themselves—to make this nation bleed. But far more people from around the world have already been willing to die—over-packed into holds of ships and trucks—just to have a small chance to live here.

It’s not that Americans don’t want their country to change, in a thousand ways, from making good medical care available to all Americans, to abolishing the designated hitter rule. But the blast at our emblems last week has made many Americans see their nation as that place in the world where change is still most possible.

Patriotism has often been the last refuge of scoundrels—and we’ve had those scoundrels. But what hiding place is open to those who twist their faith into a weapon to run through innocent people?

Do we really want to live in the kind of world such blind souls would make for us? In the end, the choice may be that harsh: to live in a world that revolves around fear—or in America, with all its faults.

Now I say this knowing that we have our own American mullahs; and by this I don’t mean—in fact, I specifically do not mean—American Muslims who have recently been the object of harassment and threats. I am not of a mind to be obscure about this: I mean specifically the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Please permit me to repeat the thrust of some remarks I delivered this past weekend. In a way, I am grateful for this duo: they renewed my capacity to be shocked at a time I thought my sense of shock had been exhausted.

Right after the terrorist strikes in New York and here in Washington, when America was wounded and confused, the Reverend Falwell was a guest on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. He said that God Almighty, angered by America’s abortion rights, gay rights, and secularism in the schools, had permitted terrorists to slay the World Trade Center and smite the Pentagon:

“What we saw on Tuesday,” said Mr. Falwell, “could be minuscule if in fact God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.”

Mr. Robertson joined in, saying, “Jerry, that’s my feeling. I think we’ve just seen the antechamber to terror. We haven’t even begun to see what they can do to the major population.”

Then Mr. Falwell concluded, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen.”

Last week, both the reverends issued apologies. Mr. Falwell called his own remarks “insensitive, uncalled for, and unnecessary”—everything but wrong.

Also last week, it was reported that Mark Bingham, a San Francisco public relations executive, may well have been one of the passengers who so bravely resisted the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into an unpopulated field, instead of another national monument.

Mr. Bingham was 31. He played on a local gay rugby team, and hoped to compete in next year’s Gay Games in Sydney, Australia.

I don’t know if Mark Bingham was religious. But it seems to me that he lived a life that celebrated the preciousness of this world’s infinite variety, while the Reverends Robertson and Falwell, and the mullahs of the Taliban, see a God who smiles with approval on murder and destruction.

Let me put it in the bald terms in which many Americans may be thinking right now: if your plane were hijacked, who would you rather sit next to? Righteous reverends who will sit back and say, “This is God’s punishment for gay Tele-tubbies?” Or the gay rugby player who lays down his life to save others?

And by the way: which person seems closer to God?

One of the unforeseen effects of being in journalism is that your firsthand exposure to the issues of the world sometimes has the consequence of shaking your deepest personal convictions. I happen to be a Quaker; I suspect that may have something to do with me being invited to speak here today. I covered conflicts in Central America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa. None of them shook my belief that pacifism offers the world a way to foment change without the violence that has pained and poisoned our history.

Gandhi and Nehru’s nonviolent revolution gave India a skilled and sturdy democracy, rather than another violent religious tyranny. Nelson Mandela’s willingness to employ deliberate and peaceful protest against the brutalities of apartheid made today’s South Africa an inspiration to the world of the power of reconciliation and hope. Martin Luther King’s campaign to bring down American segregation; Corazon Aquino’s People Power revolution in the Philippines—pacifism has had its heroes, its martyrs, its losses, and its victories.

My pacifism was not absolute. About half the draft-age Quakers and Mennonites in North America enlisted during World War II, on the idea that whatever solutions nonviolence had to offer the world, it was without a response to Adolf Hitler. I hope I would have been among those who enlisted.

And then, in the 1990s, I covered the Balkans. And I had to confront, in flesh and blood, the real-life flaw—I am inclined to say literally fatal flaw—of pacifism: all the best people could be killed by all the worst ones. Bosnia, we might remind ourselves, had the ambition of being the Costa Rica of the Balkans, an unarmed democracy that would shine out to the world. Its surrounding adversaries were not impressed or deterred by this aspiration.

Slobodan Milosevic will now stand trial before the world—but only after a quarter of a million people in Bosnia and Kosovo have been killed. Forgive me if I do not count his delivery for trial as a victory for international law, and therefore a model to now be emulated. In fact, I am appalled by the fact that much of the evidence presented against him at trial will almost undoubtedly be derived from U.S. intelligence information. That evidence will be used to try to convict Slobodan Milosevic after he has committed murder—because America lacked the will to use its military might to prevent those murders.

So I speak as a Quaker of not particularly good standing. I still am willing to give first consideration to peaceful alternatives. But I am not willing to lose lives for the sake of ideological consistency. As Mahatma Gandhi himself once said—and, like Lincoln, the Mahatma is wonderful for providing quotations that permit you to prove almost any point you choose—”I would rather be inconsistent than wrong.”

It seems to me that in confronting the forces that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the United States has no sane alternative but to wage war; and wage it with unflinching resolution.

Notice I don’t say reprisal or revenge. What I mean is self-defense—protecting the United States from further attack by destroying those who would launch them.

There is a certain quarter of opinion in the United States—we certainly hear from them at National Public Radio—who, perhaps still in shock, seem to believe that the attacks against New York and Washington were natural disasters: horrible, spontaneous whirlwinds that struck once, and will not recur.

This is wrong. It is even inexcusably foolish. The United States has been targeted for destruction. We know now that more hijackings were likely planned for September 11th. Other agents were at least exploring the possibilities of other kinds of attacks, including sending crop-dusters over cities with poisonous chemicals. If you dismissed these kinds of scenarios as Hollywood folderol before, it is just not informed to do so now. There is an ongoing violent campaign aimed at bringing down the United States. How many more skyscrapers and national monuments—and the people in them—how many more citizens are we willing to lose?

There are some quarters of world opinion who believe that simply delivering those who plotted the attack to international justice should suffice. But this is not the nature of the danger we confront—literally, physically, in this very city—which is present, persistent, and current. Simply arresting those who executed the attacks in New York and Washington will not deter other assaults that we must assume are proceeding right now.

There are some quarters of opinion who say, just this bluntly, that Americans somehow invited this attack down upon ourselves—for sins that range from slavery to the policies of the CIA.

The people who make these arguments usually consider themselves at the polar opposite of the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Pat Robertson. But are they? They say that those who died in New York and Washington have only their country to blame for their deaths. By ignoring the extensive advancement America has made towards becoming a just society, they make it seem as if sins that are centuries and decades old can never be overcome by progress.

Some of our finest minds have become so skilled at playing this parlor game of moral relativism that they make little in American life seem worthwhile. They insist, in so many ways, that the United States cannot criticize the Taliban for enslaving women in the 21st century because we once had slavery ourselves—a century and a half ago. They suggest that the United States does not have the moral standing to oppose terrorism because we once supported the Shah of Iran.

But what price would those who urge reconciliation pay for peace? Should we surrender Manhattan Island? Iowa, Utah, or Hollywood? Relocate Israel, piece by piece, to Ohio, New Jersey, or Florida—to fatten the vote for Pat Buchanan? Should we impose a unitary religious state on these shores, throw American women out of school and work, and rob all other religious groups of any rights so that we will have the kind of society that our attackers will accept?

To reconcile ourselves in any way with the blind souls who flew against New York and Washington—and who have other targets within their sites now—is to hand our own lives over into wickedness.

I’m glad to see reporting now that asks, “Why do they hate us?” We need to hear the complaints of those who experience U.S. foreign policy, sometimes at the blunt end. But I would not want our increasing erudition to distract us from the answer that applies to those who are now physically attacking the United States: they hate us because they are psychotics. They should be taken no more seriously as political theorists than Charles Manson or Timothy McVeigh.

I have been impressed by President Bush’s determination to make the rights of Muslim Americans—and American respect for Muslim nations—an essential part of U.S. policy. This is vastly different from the actions that were inflicted against Japanese Americans during World War II. The difference between the damage that good liberals of their time, Earl Warren, Franklin Roosevelt, and Hugo Black, imposed on an ethnic minority in 1941, and what conservatives of this time, George W. Bush, Rudolph Giuliani, and John Ashcroft, have specifically avoided doing, radiantly represents America’s ability to improve itself.

Over the past ten years, every time the United States has committed itself to a military deployment—explicitly in the Gulf War, then in Somalia, and over the skies of Bosnia and Kosovo—it has been in the defense of Muslim peoples. At the same time, tens of thousands of Muslim students and other immigrants have been accepted into the United States. American Muslims now number close to 6,000,000.

We still suffer the stain of racial and ethnic bigotry. But this largely peaceful incorporation of Islam into American life should be a source of pride that is not belittled by the actions of a few cranks and bigots. Surely we have the means to defeat them, too.

I can conjure a score of reasons why this war should not be fought. The terrorists who struck are ruthless, and undaunted even by their own deaths. The war will kill people—Americans, and those from other nations: sacred and irreplaceable souls all. The war will be lengthy, costly, and fail to culminate with an unambiguous surrender in a small-town courthouse. Just when we may begin to feel a sense of safety returning—another strike may occur. The war may restrict some of the liberties—to travel and communicate freely—that define us; liberties that, I would add, have already been badly abused by those who carried out these attacks.

And yet: to back away from this war would be to live the rest of our lives, not just a few years, with skyscrapers and bridges exploding, people dying by terrorist bombs, chemical attacks, and the successive devices of sharp and ruthless minds, to live out our futures with our liberties shrinking as our losses and fears expand.

I think that peace activists can sometimes commit the same error in judgment as generals: they prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. The conflict before us now does not involve American power intruding in places where it has interest. It’s about American power intervening to save lives in a circumstance in which only American power can be effective.

We are living in a time when we must remind ourselves of the imperfections of analogies. But let me press ahead with one that has recently been on my mind.

In 1933, the Oxford Student Union conducted a famous debate over whether it was moral for Britons to fight for king and country. The exquisite intellects of that leading university reviewed the many ways in which British colonialism exploited and oppressed the world. They cited the ways in which vengeful demands made of Germany in the wake of the end of World War I had helped encourage the kind of nationalism that may have kindled the rise of fascism. They saw no moral difference between Western colonialism and world fascism. The Oxford Union ended that debate with this famous proclamation: “Resolved, that we will in no circumstances fight for king and country.”

Von Ribbentrop sent back the good news to Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler: the West will not fight for its own survival. Its finest minds will justify a silent surrender.

The best educated young people of their time could not tell the difference between the deficiencies of their own nation, in which liberty and democracy occupied cornerstones, and a dictatorship founded on racism, tyranny, and fear.

But Mahatma Gandhi knew the difference. He spent World War II in a prison in Poona and sat on his hands and spun cloth, rather than to raise a hand in revolt against England when it was most vulnerable. He knew that, in the end, a world that was spun by German and Japanese fascism offered no hope to the oppressed of this planet. And in fact, at the close of World War II, Britain divested itself of empire: exhausted by its own defense, to be sure, but also ennobled by defending its own best ideals.

Have thoughtful, moral Americans in the 21st century become so extremely sensitive to the sins and shortcomings of the United States, so comfortable with the lack of resolution that moral relativism promotes, that we do not see the blessing that has been put into our hands to protect: an incomparably diverse and democratic nation?

Friends do not need any lectures about risking their lives to stop wickedness. Quakers resisted slavery by smuggling out slaves when even Abraham Lincoln tried to appease the Confederacy. But those of us who have been pacifists might consider that it has been our blessing to live in a nation in which other citizens have been willing to risk their lives to defend our dissent.

When George Orwell returned to England after fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, he felt uneasy over finding his country so comfortable—so close to fascism. His country, he said, with its fat Sunday newspapers and thick orange jam—”all sleeping the deep, deep sleep,” he wrote, “from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

On September 11, Americans, with our 40 different kinds of coffee drinks and diet pills, heard that roar. And that blast awakened a gratitude to live in a country worth loving—worth defending.

Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, is a former member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), and of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill. He spent many hours covering the terrorist strike at the World Trade Center. This article is based on a talk given on September 25 in Washington, D.C, as the annual Parker Lecture sponsored by the United Church of Christ. Scott Simon’s memoir Home and Away has recently been released in paperback. ©2001 Scott Simon

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