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Printed in From The Ashes: A Spiritual Response to the attack on America (Rodale Press, Oct 2001—an anthology of responses to the Sept 11 attacks, with profits going to disaster relief funds). Reprinted in Organica magazine

BREAKING THE CYCLES OF VENGEANCE

By Paul Rogat Loeb

It’s hard to look deep into our souls. It’s harder still when we feel profoundly violated, when the boundaries of our world have instantly crumbled. But we need to look deep if we want more than revenge for the crimes that killed several thousand innocent people. As citizens, we must help prevent these kinds of horrors from continuing, generation after generation, in the United States or any other place on this earth.

Our president has called this "a war between good and evil." He vows to "rid the world of evildoers." Overwhelmed with outrage and loss and wanting to feel united, most Americans cheer him on. The attacks were evil, unequivocally so. Nothing could ever justify them. And it’s good to see Afghanistan free of the Taliban. Yet U.S. policies sowed some of the seeds for the terrible day of September 11, not to mention the brutal recent history of Afghanistan. We can’t afford to fuel the cycles of indiscriminate violence. To help prevent still more innocent deaths, we need to use the lessons of what happened to chart a different path. The future depends not only on our government’s actions, but also on our own, as individual citizens.

For all our anger and sorrow, and for all the monstrous and inexcusable deeds of the hijackers, we still need to ask what made them so bitterly despairing that they were willing to murder thousands in the name of their cause. Even as we work to bring to justice those who helped perpetrate these crimes, it’s not na´ve to ask what has made them act as they did. It’s essential for breaking the endless cycles of vengeance.

A few months before Sept 11, I read a newspaper article about a Palestinian terrorist. He crossed the Israeli border and blew himself up along with a group of Israelis. Originally an apolitical man, he worked as a jailor, assigned to guard a top official from one of the militant West Bank groups. The two became friends, but the jailor remained uninterested in politics. Then an Israeli bomb blew up his friend. The jailor lost hope, abandoning everything but retribution. He took his own life—and as many innocent Israeli lives as he could. They could have been my cousins in Tel Aviv.

Just as something turned this man, something turned the hijackers and their Al Qaeda cohorts. Maybe it was watching corrupt dictatorships like Saudi Arabia inviting U.S. bases onto their soil. Maybe it was seeing Palestinians shot and bombed by Israeli soldiers with American backing. Maybe it was the Gulf War and the one million Iraqis who have died because the war and our continuing embargo have destroyed their most basic health and sanitation systems. Or our bombing of Sudan’s only pharmaceutical factory, on what turned out to be false charges that it was producing biological weapons and was tied to Osama bin Laden.

There’s more troubling history. Our leaders, including Bush senior, created the Mujahideen as a force to make Afghanistan a Vietnam-style quagmire for the Russians, spending over $3 billion and working with Osama bin Laden in the process. They backed Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party as a counterweight to Iran, whose Ayatollah came to power as leader of the only force capable of overthrowing the brutal Shah. The United States had supported the Shah since our CIA installed him in 1953, after overthrowing an elected prime minister who’d dared to talk of nationalizing oil. Coincidentally, September 11 was the anniversary of the CIA-backed coup overthrowing Chile’s elected Allende government, launching nearly twenty years of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.

The ordinary Americans whose inexcusable deaths rend our hearts may have died in part because of our own government’s past actions. As always, the sins of the fathers are visited upon the innocents. Unless we create a more just world, desperate men from voiceless communities will continue to destroy more innocent lives, here and abroad.

How then, as citizens, do we respond? In a crisis of this magnitude, people understandably want to unite. I see flags and red, white, and blue ribbons on houses and cars, purses, and bodies. The flags have been a way for people to say their spirits won’t be cowed, and to do something tangible, along with donating blood, supplies, and money. But they can also promote a crusade of good versus evil, one where we bury root questions in self-righteous anger.

I saw this on a beach near my Seattle neighborhood, where people had surrounded our local 10-foot-tall version of the Statue of Liberty with an impromptu shrine commemorating the dead. They’d left candles and flowers, crosses and American flags, peace signs, a New York City firefighter’s shirt, and messages of mourning. But then a fundamentalist megachurch descended to hold a rally, overwhelming the original circle of diverse messages with new ones proclaiming "An eye for an eye," and "Kill a terrorist for Jesus!"

If we feel like wearing or flying the flag, we should. But maybe we need to display it next to banners or buttons asking for global justice. And ribbons of mourning that recognize our common humanity—even with the men who lost theirs by being so tangled with rage that they didn’t care who they killed.

It’s tempting to say that in a time like this, we need to trust our national leaders. But now administration hawks are already arguing to follow up our war against the Taliban with attacks on Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Sudan, and radical groups in Lebanon and the West Bank. So ordinary citizens need to speak out more than ever, arguing for America to proceed in a way that gives our responses the broadest possible legitimacy, including in the communities from which the bombers were recruited. Think of Iran, and the delicate path toward democratization pursued by reformer Mohammad Khatami. Bomb enough Islamic civilians, and his already-beleaguered regime will surely fall, replaced by the Ayatollahs. Think of Pakistan, with its nuclear capabilities. If we don’t proceed with caution, acknowledging past misdeeds, we’ll only incite more terrorists.

No one, in contrast, could argue with the trial of the bombers who destroyed the Pan Am jet, near Lockerbie, Scotland. They blew up innocent people. They were tried with full due process after being turned over by Libya’s Khaddafi, a leader we once demonized as our ultimate enemy. Their jailing created no more martyrs or cycles of hatred. They were brought to justice in a way that only strengthened our security.

This crisis would daunt any national leader. Yet the president who now commands our responses has spent his life sheltered by wealth, indulged by friends in high places, and scripted in his every public appearance. In his first six months alone, Bush turned his back on our interconnected world by rejecting, or proposing backing out of, so many international treaties: on banning chemical, biological, and toxic weapons; prosecuting war crimes; banning land mines; limiting the international small arms trade (where weapons we sell as the world’s largest arms dealer have already been turned against us); and even beginning to address global warming. His missile defense system would shatter 25 years of arms control treaties. With a few exceptions, like Colin Powell, his appointees have a history of doing everything possible to sunder common responsibilities and common ties: a Vice President who repeatedly voted against Head Start, school lunches for low-income children, and even the mildest sanctions on South Africa; an Attorney General who’s repeatedly attacked African-American voting rights; a Secretary of the Interior who’s scorned our need to protect the earth; and a Secretary of Defense obsessed with missiles that do not defend.

I cite this history not to encourage self-righteousness among those of us who question our government’s response (God knows we all need humility now), but to describe the real context in which we act. For it’s going to be up to ordinary citizens to raise the hard issues, including which crises we consider urgent.

Congress recently authorized $40 billion to rebuild New York and beef up anti-terrorist security. Much of this investment is appropriate. But why have we chosen not to make other investments addressing crises equally real? According to Bread for the World, six million children die every year of hunger-related causes in developing countries—the equivalent of three World Trade Center attacks every day. For an annual appropriation of $13 billion—that’s a third of what our Congress just authorized, five percent of our existing $260 billion dollar defense budget, or less than twice the $8 billion just authorized for missile defense—we could meet the basic health and nutrition needs of the world’s poorest people every year. Yet we’ve chosen not to. Nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance, but we’ve chosen to be the only advanced industrialized country not to provide it to our citizens. Guns kill 30,000 of us a year, yet we choose to do little to control them or address the poverty and rage among our own desperate and marginalized. I cite these examples not to diminish the horror of these unjustifiable attacks, but to stress that all shattered lives are just as real, and to ask why some cataclysms disturb us so little.

I fear that this tragedy will pave the way for needless and provocative military buildups and interventions that will spawn further spirals of vengeance. Already, the Bush administration is using the crisis as an excuse to despoil the environment, lavishly subsidize wealthy corporate backers, and erode the very liberties that let us challenge destructive actions of state.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine if these terrible events inspired us all to take on the difficult work of creating a more just world, and making the necessary common investments so indiscriminate violence and needless suffering do not prevail.

The crisis has already produced a wealth of individual acts of courage and compassion. We saw tremendous heroism among the firefighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens who gave their lives trying to help others live. We’ve seen an outpouring of personal generosity: people giving blood, comforting their neighbors, collecting supplies. American Christians and Jews have held vigils to help protect threatened mosques, and a Jewish family volunteered to walk with a Muslim woman who felt threatened just stepping outside. We still feel a bit like common mourners: Beneath the jingoism, people have seemed a bit more careful, vulnerable, and kind to each other. These events just might be able to break us away from our gated communities of the heart.

But by itself, individual compassion won’t create a just world. To do that requires asking what common choices would respect the humanity of all human beings—and then working to make those choices a reality.

This means acting in common, raising our voices, continuing to speak out no matter how hard it becomes. We need to be kind to ourselves, and nurture our souls while we act: whether through walking in nature, playing with children, dancing to music, or communing with our God and the people we love. We also need to take public action—including reaching out to those who disagree with us on how to respond to this brutal cataclysm. Because from what I’ve observed, there’s ample common ground once we make clear we share the goal of preventing these horrors from continuing to be visited on innocent humans again. We need to act with enough faith and strength to keep on raising the difficult questions, demanding paths that are both just and wise.

If we really raise the hard questions, we’ll take some heat and be called some names. That’s already begun to happen. It might help to carry flags at our vigils and protests, or call ourselves Patriots for Peace when people try to silence us, as in Bush Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer's bullying warning that Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do." But with the stakes so high, we can't afford to be silent. If we have reservations against responding to these unconscionable attacks with our own indiscriminate violence, we need to speak out now, to prevent our government from embarking on paths that will bring neither security nor justice. For true patriotism means taking responsibility for the choices of our nation--all the more in the most difficult times.

We can never know every facet of this situation, nor every detail of how our government responds. We may not know whether our actions will prevail. But we need to speak out, whever the obstacles or costs, for our own human dignity. And also because this is the only way that the cycles of vengeance have a chance of finally ending.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time [St Martin’s Press, www.soulofacitizen.org] and three other books on citizen involvement with war, peace, and social justice issues. A version of this appeared in From the Ashes: A Spiritual Response to America’s Tragedy (Beliefnet/Rodale Press, Nov 2001).