This week I listened to a candid and touching podcast interview with a 9/11 first responder. The surreal horror of the event and it’s long lasting effects on the citizens of New York City are difficult to believe. Hearing Cris Italia discuss his experience clearing human remains from the pile of rubble and holding a miraculous survivor’s hand as he died from his injuries put a name and a voice on a person who suffered through the event. His ongoing struggles with PTSD and insomnia, along with the physical ailments that have plagued and killed other first responders opened my eyes to the magnitude of that day in so many peoples’ entire lives [you can donate to help first responders here]. After the interview it was impossible to watch images from the streets of Manhattan without being moved to tears. It is a disturbing thought that, like those innocent everyday Americans, I could be violently killed in an indiscriminate attack. No matter how ridiculously improbable that chance is. Because many victims were English speaking Americans it’s easy to feel an immediate sense of compassion for their deaths. I can picture myself in their shoes.
But Americans were not the only victims of 9/11. After the attacks, in a startling display of ignorance, hatred, and corruption my homeland decided to repay senseless, horrific violence with senseless, horrific violence. Truly senseless, horrific violence. And massacres. And cluster munitions. And drone strikes. And check-point shootings. And apache helicopter shootings. And drive bys. And torture. And extraordinary rendition. And black site prisons. All of these policies, of course, being exactly what the families of 9/11 victims were hoping for in response to their tragic losses.
Just as America’s compassion for the victims of 9/11 was contorted into justifications for military invasions and occupation, Bin Laden’s compassion for people in the Muslim world was contorted into justifications for murdering innocent Americans. Bin Laden expressed his sympathy for the victims of Israel’s war against Lebanon and the half a million children killed by sanctions against Iraq. Watch former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright say that half a million dead children is “worth it.” Those victims’ Muslim identity and shared cultural background made it easier for the psychopath Bin Laden to feel compassion for them. But this prejudicial compassion is obviously not enough in the age of globalization. We need the universal brotherhood that Dr. Martin Luther King preached about.
Two years after 9/11, in a terrifying display of the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned of, America invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 were citizens of Saudi Arabia (none from Iraq), and there is speculation that funding for the attacks came from government connected Saudis. Yet we still supply signals intelligence and billions of dollars of military equipment to a country that has beheaded 100 people this year and is bombing civilians in Yemen.
So why invade Iraq? Did our protracted war in another Muslim country make us safer? Do less people in the region hate America? Are there less calls for violence against the United States? Did destabilization and sectarian civil war make Iraq a bastion of liberty and democracy? Did Saddam have WMDs? Was Iraq linked to Al Qaeda?
The circle of compassion that connects us to the victims of 9/11 should be widened to include all of our brothers and sisters worldwide. Osama Bin Laden felt compassion for his Muslim compatriots because they grew up under similar circumstances and had a shared culture, language, and history. And like America, he dehumanized his perceived enemies in order to justify terrorism and hatred.
But compassion is powerful. There are Buddhist meditations where the practitioner concentrates his will and extends compassion to every living being and creature in the universe. We don’t need everyone to take it that far, but a country that boos the golden rule should not be surprised when it experiences blowback. If we are going to address the grievances that lead to 9/11, then the first logical conclusion is to drastically cut back the sprawling, worldwide military apparatus that has been responsible for the systematic killing of peoples in other countries. Many other countries. Not only because 53 cents of every tax dollar goes to military spending, but because we have compassion for people the world over. If we spoke Arabic and grew up in Yemen, videos of Muslim civilians being exploded by American bombs would equally cause us to shed tears. If our mother was Cambodian, the illegal carpet bombing of her homeland would equally make us cringe with sadness. If we had a brother in Nicaragua, the destruction and violence wreaked on that country would equally cause us to mourn the horrendous losses. There is no room for hatred and violence in a globalized world that is dependent on every part. Obviously this is an idealized conception of world politics, and although it may never be realized, steps could be taken to make that ideal more of a reality. The best way to stop terrorism is by not participating in it.
My deepest sympathies to the many victims of 9/11. Thank you for reminding me to have some compassion and love the Earth I inhabit. If only for a short time. Satyagraha. As-salamu alaykum. Peace be upon you.