Reflections on the World Since 9/11

That morning I helped my youngest child get off to school. I straightened our now-quiet kitchen, then sat at my desk to check my e-mail. There, in a little box on the AOL welcome screen, I saw a still picture of massive fires raging in the upper stories of one of New York City’s Twin Towers. The news reports said a plane had flown into the tower.

Oh my.

I had worked in the news business for more than a quarter century. I knew this was big. I ran to the family room and turned on CNN. Within minutes, I saw a second plane fly into the other tower. I stayed locked to the TV through the horrifying scenes that followed—scenes that I probably don’t need to describe to any other person in this country. “Al-Qaida,” some of the talking heads were saying. I’ve worked on Middle East issues since the 1970s and that made some sense to me, though so far no one had any firm information.

I had married my first husband when I was a young reporter in Lebanon in the 1970s. He is Lebanese. By 2001, our two kids from that marriage were Arab Americans in their mid-20s, living in Texas and Michigan with their distinctively Arab names. As the dimensions of the 9/11 attacks became clear, I worried about the vulnerability of my kids and others who were (or were judged to be) Arab Americans to vengeance-fueled hate crimes. But I worried even more that our country’s leaders might feel compelled to launch some massive and ill-considered military attack overseas that, as I already judged, would not solve the problem posed by al-Qaida, but could meanwhile inflict a lot of suffering on people and communities everywhere.

At 11 am, my editor at the Christian Science Monitor called. I had been writing a column on global affairs for the paper since 1990, and now Linda, the editor, asked if I could write a special column on the day’s events for the paper’s September 13 edition. And could I have it with her by 4 pm? I gulped, and said yes.

I still feel fairly pleased with the text I sent her shortly before the agreed deadline. It started like this:

We may not know for many days yet how high the human casualties of Tuesday’s attacks will mount. But we should take care that some of our country’s basic values don’t fall casualty to the attacks, too. . . .

President Bush should do what he can to fashion a targeted response that punishes those responsible, while taking care to avoid collateral damage and overkill.

And meantime, he should continue holding out an active hand of friendship to all the world’s peoples—without exception. Blaming any one national or religious group for the wrongdoing of a small number of its members would be as foolish today as it would have been, in 1945, to try to punish all the Germans.

Throughout the months that followed I continued to argue—in my CSM column, on the blog Just World News that I started writing in February 2003, and anywhere else that I could—in favor of a response to the 9/11 attacks that was focused, discriminate, and based on the sound principles and constraints of international police work rather than the waging of wars. In those months I was one of few voices in the mainstream media pointing out that launching one war—let alone two!—would be counterproductive and harmful to everyone involved.

I tried to make my witness as solidly based on my own life experiences as possible. The day the Bush administration launched the invasion of Afghanistan I was plunged back into memories of my time in Lebanon, where I was not only a foreign correspondent chasing news and deadlines but also a wife and mother trying to run a household and ensure a safe childhood for my kids amid the country’s civil war. I remembered the fearfulness that gripped Beirut as the normal institutions of law and order broke down, and the widespread and seemingly random acts of butchery that occurred in that environment. I recalled the hard knot of dread that would punch me in the stomach if I was working at the Reuters office and heard of something happening near our apartment—or vice versa. I remembered the travail of hauling water eight stories up to our apartment whenever power cuts made the water pumps useless. I remembered interviews with families stripped by the war of homes and adult men, and the gaunt faces of women struggling to create new lives and shelter for their children in the burned-out shells of other people’s homes. I remembered a 9-year-old boy, Fady, who told me that his parents and three of his siblings had all been killed. “Now I’m the oldest,” he told me matter-of-factly. (Where is he now?) I remembered the scene of one massacre I visited just hours after the carnage had ended—though the occasional stray shot still rang out. What I thought were yet more bundles of clothes abandoned by fleeing families turned out on closer inspection to be bodies starting to swell in the hot sun.

In those years I saw and smelled too much for a person to bear easily. But my work as a reporter kept me focused. As a journalist I needed to interact calmly and professionally with people on all sides of what was a very multifaceted and complex conflict. In addition, my then-husband, a Lebanese Christian, had relatives on all sides. Through my work and my life there I saw firsthand how the state of war itself brutalized people of all different kinds and on all the different sides of the conflict. I saw how people who were fighting for, as they saw it, self-evidently worthy ends could rapidly find themselves sliding down the slippery slope to the employment of more and more brutal means; and how the cycles of violence, once ignited, continually gained fresh bursts of momentum.

My experience of living as part of Lebanese society for those six years of war deeply informed my view of warfare as something that necessarily inflicts great harm on civilians. There is no such thing as a “clean” war, despite the claims of the salesmen of so-called “precision-guided” weapons. This lesson was reinforced by my assignments to other places, to cover other wars, by the study of strategic affairs I undertook in the mid-1980s, and by my more recent studies of conflicts and peacemaking efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. My heritage of growing up English in an England still badly scarred by the Blitz was relevant, too. My family was one of the many of that era that for two generations had no uncles, since so many millions of the continent’s men had perished in two World Wars.

In the aftermath of September 11, I found it disturbing to see how quickly many people in the U.S. seemed to buy the idea that waging wars to invade first Afghanistan and then Iraq could end up being good not just for their security, but also for the peoples of the countries invaded. I worked steadily with others in the antiwar movement to try to debunk the exaggerated fears that the Bush administration and others were stoking with regard to Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD program or his alleged links with al-Qaida. But what concerned me most was to see many of my longtime friends and colleagues in the human rights movement arguing that—regardless of the facts around the WMDs or the other rationales Bush used as he led the country towards war—an invasion of Iraq would bring real improvements to the Iraqi people.

I was sympathetic to the arguments of these “liberal hawks.” How could I not be? I’ve been on the Middle East Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch since 1992. In that position, and because of my 30-plus years of close engagement with the Middle East, I knew how extremely damaging Saddam Hussein’s numerous, very grave rights abuses had been. (I also knew that in the 1980s, the U.S. government aided and abetted many of those abuses.) But still, because of my own experiences in Lebanon, because of my study of other attempts elsewhere to win humanitarian gains using military means, and because of the understanding I’d gained over the years into the deeply antihumanitarian nature of military instruments, I continued to argue against the idea that a U.S. military invasion of Iraq could end up, on balance, bringing good things to the Iraqi people. I also did some brainstorming on how the international community might intervene effectively in nonmilitary ways to increase the rights of the Iraqi people—something that the economic sanctions that the U.S. and UK spearheaded against Iraq between 1991 and 2003 notably failed to do.

I have several close and deeply valued friends (and two beloved sisters) whose attitudes in the run-up to the U.S.-UK invasion of Iraq could be described as those of liberal hawks. One of these friends is an Iraqi man who worked at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London for 19 years. In 2002 he was an enthusiastic advocate on human rights grounds of the U.S. plan to invade Iraq; after the invasion, he returned to Baghdad and dedicated himself to trying to build solid and accountable institutions of national governance there. I am very grateful that, from 2002 until today, he and I both worked hard to maintain our friendship despite the grievous depth of our disagreement over the invasion. (I met him in Jordan earlier this year. He talked a lot about the missteps he saw the U.S. taking in Iraq, and told me he was preparing to depart Baghdad.)

Even within our own beloved Religious Society of Friends we apparently had at least one fairly vociferous “liberal hawk.” I’m referring to Friend Scott Simon who, describing himself as “a Quaker of not particularly good standing,” argued publicly after 9/11 that “the United States has no sane alternative but to wage war; and wage it with unflinching resolution. . . . What I mean is self-defense—protecting the United States from further attack by destroying those who would launch them” (“Reflections on the Events of September 11,” FJ Dec. 2001). Simon explained this embrace of war-making by reference to scenes he had witnessed during the interethnic wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Later, he said of Quakers and others who had challenged his views that, “It seems to me that many of [them] . . . were inflexible political ideologues. Some sounded as if they hadn’t taken a fresh look at the world or reassessed their own thinking since Joni Mitchell’s Greatest Hits album” (“To Friends Journal readers: A Response,” FJ May 2003).

All I can say is that, like Simon, I too am a veteran journalist. Like him, I have covered the aftermath of a number of atrocities in different continents, interviewed survivors and perpetrators, and reflected deeply on the meaning of “man’s inhumanity to man” as revealed in those investigations. Unlike Simon, however, I also had the experience of living as a part of a country at war for six long years, and seeing the wrenching moral and spiritual deformations that the state of war engendered in otherwise good and worthy people. And apparently unlike him, I have had the blessing of meeting and interacting deeply with a large number of inspiring social activists who have proclaimed and practiced active nonviolent engagement right on the frontlines of war and sometimes under almost unbelievably trying circumstances.

In Rwanda in 2002, I interviewed two Anglican priests—Michel Kayetaba and Antoine Rutayasire, both Tutsis—who in April 1994 sat and prayed with their families even as the hate- crazed Hutu militiamen stormed their houses and threatened not only them but also (a harder challenge) the loved ones for whom they felt responsible. As both men described it later, they prayed even for the souls and well-being of the men coming to kill them; and then, as the killers came closer, these men of God used scripturally based reproaches to remind them that they were still, indeed, God’s children. And the killers spared them.

In Mozambique, I interviewed two other deeply Light-filled church leaders. These men, one Anglican and the other Catholic, played a crucial role in facilitating the opening of the peace talks that in 1992 finally brought an end to their country’s 15 years of atrocity-laden civil war. That peace was won not on the basis of “destroying” the perpetrators of violence, but rather by reintegrating them into peaceful and productive relations with their neighbors.

I have been truly blessed to meet, work with, and learn from nonviolence activists from numerous different religions, ethnicities, continents, and cultures—people who have upheld the ethical and practical value of nonviolence under circumstances that are far more personally taxing than anything I, and probably also Scott Simon, have ever been forced to face. And yes, these activists include people from the Balkan war-zones that had apparently touched Scott Simon so deeply.

In the years since 9/11 I have traveled broadly in connection with my work, both within and beyond the United States. In those years I’ve spent significant amounts of time in 17 other countries, on five different continents. Everyone I met on those travels—including Hamas leaders and Iranian government officials!—expressed great sympathy for what befell our country on 9/11. But I met almost no one in those travels who understood why we U.S. citizens allowed our government to invade Iraq 18 months later. On the morning after the U.S. started bombing Baghdad I was walking along a nearly empty dirt lane in Arusha, Tanzania. A slip of a girl skipped toward me. With a singsong voice she asked where I was from and when I said, “America,” she turned and asked in amazement, “Why you bomb Iraq?” I’ve found that same amazed incomprehension everywhere I’ve been.

I believe that for a long period after 9/11, a large proportion of the U.S. citizenry remained locked in a form of posttraumatic shock over what had happened that day. It was understandable. The attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the other planned targets were inhumane and shocking. In addition, these attacks shattered the sense we in the U.S. have had for so long that our country, protected by its broad oceans, is virtually invulnerable to attacks from outside. There was shock; there was grief; there was fear. And, as often happens in such circumstances, some of these emotions became transformed into rage and a self-righteous form of anger that, tragically, was systematically fanned by the militarists and hate-mongers in our midst. As a Quaker, I felt called to speak to the grief, vulnerability, and fear that so many of my compatriots felt—while also trying to point out that using means other than violence would meet our people’s now-urgent need for security much, much more effectively than violence ever could.

Both before and after 9/11, I have felt sustained in my espousal of a clear pro-peace position by the strong relationship I have with my monthly meeting, Charlottesville (Va.). Our meeting is a haven of spirituality and mutual support for me and many others, including the young families and other community members who have joined and enriched our community in notable numbers since 9/11. We have wise elders, other weighty Friends, spiritual teachers, children, and seekers following a variety of personal paths who come together to gain the sustenance of Spirit-led worship and to gain a sense of what it means to build our own little Beloved Community, however imperfect. With other Friends and on my own I have studied George Fox, John Woolman, the Dalai Lama, some New Testament, Henri Nouwen, and Pat Loring. In between meetings for worship or business, I have worked with the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, and I’ve had the joy of being able to travel the world to learn more about conflict and, above all, about peacemaking. My experience as a member of my monthly meeting has given me powerful tools to do that: tools of humanity and understanding and a stronger ability to listen, be patient, be humble, trust others—and to know that there really is that of God in everyone here on God’s Earth, and that with the help of “that of God” in me I can hope, even when this seems difficult, to reach out and connect with that of God in everyone else.

At some points after 9/11 it felt quite difficult to uphold the Peace Testimony in public places in the U.S. Now, because of the continuing tragedy and turmoil inside Iraq, upholding the Peace Testimony feels much easier than it was four or five years ago! (I have seen the steady increase in the support we get from motorists during our weekly peace vigil here in Charlottesville.) At this point, because of the evident failure of President Bush’s project of coercive violence in Iraq, we have exciting new opportunities to envision and plan how to reorder our country’s relationship with the rest of the world.

As part of this effort, those of us who are convinced pacifists need to redouble our efforts to reach out to those of our friends who four years ago were still “liberal hawks.” We need to gently connect or reconnect them with the wisdom A.J. Muste articulated regarding the unity of ends and means when he said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Or with the wisdom of the Dalai Lama when, in the face of the provocations his people have suffered (which have been many times graver than anything people in the U.S. have suffered at the hands of others), he gently argues that people who use violence to win their ends will find that any gains they make will be far less well-grounded and long-lasting than they had hoped, and also that any use of violence sends unpredictable waves of onward violence cascading and ricocheting into the future. Or, with the core teachings of Quakers or other practitioners of nonviolence who stress the transforming power of love. (As John Woolman said so succinctly: “Love is the first motion.”)

Of course, we should not engage with these former liberal hawks in any kind of a gloating way that says, “Ha! We were right and you were wrong.” Instead, we could simply invite them to join with us in reflecting more deeply on what went wrong with the project to improve Iraqis’ lives through the application of military force, and to entertain the idea that now and in the future, when we are concerned about harms suffered by vulnerable others in distant places around the world, there are ways for our country to respond that would be a lot more effective than the use of military action—even if this action is dressed up in the fine (though very misleading) words “humanitarian intervention.” We need to strengthen our country’s commitment to the UN and the essentially egalitarian principles it embodies. We need to work hard to develop the capacities of all nations—including our own—in nonviolent conflict resolution and the nonviolent prevention of future wars. And we all need to work much harder than we have thus far to build the kind of equitable world order that is needed to enable all of God’s children to flourish, in whichever part of the globe they’re born.

And we need to start doing these things quickly. Already, many U.S. politicians are looking at the unfolding debacle in Iraq and arguing that what the U.S. therefore needs is an even bigger military than the 1.4 million people our nation currently has under arms! Those of us who want to build a better world and who can see that this cannot be achieved through more warfare and violence need to act prayerfully—but also fast. Quakers who are U.S. citizens have some awe-some but exciting responsibilities in the years ahead.

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a member of Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting. She is a "Friend in Washington" with Friends Committee on National Legislation, and has recently written a book on U.S. foreign policy after George W. Bush's presidency, due out in early 2008. Details of her work are available at her blog