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September 11 2001: good people all round the world are appalled by the thousands of sudden and needless deaths, all in one dreadful day, and by the suffering they have brought to thousands more lives for many dreadful days to come.
Good people around the world are in despair at the state of social, economic and political institutions everywhere. These institutions may not be directly responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; but they inescapably bear responsibility for the social, economic and political climates which provoke such outrageous, desperate acts. Some institutions bear more responsibility than others.
The killings on September 11 are only one outrageous act among many. They were more arresting, the work of an instant, compared with say, the slow starvation of many thousands of children in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime must shoulder much of the blame for that infanticide - but so must those who favoured his reppresive regime, supplied him with arms and those who continue bombing Iraq and maintaining sanctions against its people.
The 'greatest army assembled since the Second World War', in 1991 when George Bush was the US president, did little to end Saddam Hussein's reign of terror. Now George Bush plans a massive National Missile Defence project, but that won't stop people deliberately flying planes into buildings, or worse. Military actions don't create peace; the last century should have taught us that. But political leaders are slow and reluctant learners, and their agendas rarely match the hopes of most of us.
The men who planned the action and finally aimed the planes on September 11 have been widely called 'cowards'. I have no idea what they were, but 'cowards' isn't a description that readily comes to mind. My imagination fails me when I try to envisage a situation in which I might willingly, actively, go to a certain death. Agreeing to an experimental and hazardous surgical operation, perhaps? - though one hopes to survive that. Suicide at the end of a painful and fatal illness? That comes a little closer. But a deliberate death in which you force total strangers to join: what sort of mind can contemplate that?
It's easiest to see those fatal flyers as fanatics. Perhaps they were. But they also come from a long tradition, and not just the 'kamikaze' to which some commentators have compared them (who in any case were not the fanatical enthusiasts of popular imagination but young men in the grip of a malignant social system). Only half a century ago, tens of thousands of Americans and Europeans flew out in bombers night after night, knowing full well the horrendous death rate of bomber crews; and also knowing that, in many cases, it was civilians who were their target. These men were almost universally called 'brave'. Many were given medals for what they did; though by the Second World War's end politicians were trying to distance themselves from the 'area bombing' policy. Many former Bomber Command members were and are, unsurprisingly, disgusted by such bad faith, remaining fiercely loyal to 'Bomber' Harris, their controversial commander and chief proponent of 'terror bombing'. Recently declassified RAF maps, now on display (Lie of the Land: the Secret History of maps) at the British Library in London, show in pedantic and bureaucratic detail the plans for killing civilians, in obscene numbers, from the air.
I make this diversion into earlier history to demonstrate how contradictory our sets of values can be. We don't make it easy for ourselves to see it clearly. The film 'Saving Private Ryan' (depicting the D day landing on the Normandy coast during the Second World War) for example is said to be 'anti-war'; it's no such thing. Old soldiers have praised the 'reality' of the scenes on the beach; but what sort of reality can be experienced in front of a cinema screen? As far as I know, no-one who has watched this movie has wet themselves with terror; they certainly haven't feared for their lives. I suppose there might be a moment of vicarious fear as the doors of the landing craft open and the poor squaddies emerge to run straight into a hail of bullets - an act that surely nobody should be asked to perform. And yes, the battle is grim, there's plenty of convincing blood and guts, and no false heroism. But nor is there any implicit criticism of the battle or the war. If anything, what is implicit is praise. How many people have raged, I wonder, as they watched this movie, at the political system that sent real young men to their real deaths in a real hail of bullets? How many of the audience have been appalled by the power of a social system that persuaded those real young men perhaps not all unquestioningly, but all dutifully to obey?
lest we forget
Exactly two months after the atrocities in New York and Washington, politicians and the military in many countries will bow their heads in silence on the anniversary of the 'war to end all wars'. This annual event - Remembrance Day - clearly symbolises (though it seems to go by unnociced by the majority) the failure of armed force as a tool for peace. It is a ceremony that was subverted right from the start into a justification of war - a war in which men were marched to the front line past pits already dug, in advance of battle, for their returning corpses. Think about it. Think about it long and hard and weep and rage.
September 11, 2001. Good people from all round the world have been asking: 'What can we do?' It's a hard question, and there are many answers, mostly too specific to be helpful to a worldwide readership. But there are things which all of us can do - and many of those things are in some ways the hardest.
What can we do? We need to maintain a continuous and active witness against any value-system, anywhere, that condones violence. How we do it depends on our individual circumstances. How energetically we do it depends on our commitment to promoting a nonviolent ethic.
The 'fanatics' in the planes of death gave their lives (and took the lives of others) for their beliefs. Their methods were brutal, cruel, wholly unacceptable. But we mustn't forget, say, the UK's and USA's Trident missiles, lurking in the ocean and primed to unleash death on a scale terrorists don't dream of. Those deadly missiles are there, we're told, to protect the Western way of life and beliefs. So, how committed are we? No guilt-tripping here, just a simple question for every individual to answer.
There are groups and organisations like the Peace Pledge Union all round the world. They are working hard, promoting nonviolent values and challenging anti-human activities of whatever kind. Theirs is a long term project, often not very visible but vigorous at the grassroots. For example, it may not be exciting, but it is certainly vital to help teachers and parents of young children to foster nonviolent values. These are the values which will ensure that the next generation is able to say No to that hail of bullets, and Trident too.
Even more important: that generation will grow up with the vision and skills to build a society based on co-operation and on nonviolent problem-solving. It won't happen quickly, of course: it needs time. But unless we make a greater effort, now, to build a 'critical mass' of nonviolent values and of people who live by them, the cycles of mindless and mindful violence will continue.
It's true that few of the things we can do today will 'solve' anything immediately. But they are the essential, basic elements of peace-building, and they need us. That means not only now, when we're confronted by a terrible wrong and ask 'What can we do?'. It means tomorrow, next month, next year, the rest of our lives. No-one said peace-building was easy.
Jan Melichar 14/9/2001