The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2002 Volume 23 Issue 2
The words “September 11” evoke powerful emotions and memories. Most of us remember what we were doing a year ago when we heard in disbelief that an airplane had crashed into the first World Trade Center building. Many of us then watched with sickening horror the endless television replays of the attack on the second Trade Center building and the images of both Towers collapsing in a plume of dust and flame.
More than 2,800 persons are now listed as killed in the attacks on the WTC; another 184 died in the attack on the Pentagon and 40 on Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Among the dead were 25 Canadians. There is not now, nor can there ever be, any excuse justifying their deaths. It is therefore appropriate that we take some time to remember those who perished and acknowledge the sorrow of those left behind.
Remembering is dangerous, however, and my concern is that we are often being encouraged by political leaders and the press to remember the wrong things. The terrorist attacks have been described as an event that “changed everything.” While the attacks on US soil represented a dramatic change of terrorist tactics, I don’t think it is accurate or fair to say that everything changed. Sadly, it seems that the mass killings of a year ago were far too typical. For as Caleb Carr has written in his book The Lessons of Terror, attacks against innocent civilians can be traced back as far as the Roman Empire. It is not the unusual nature of the September 11 attacks that should shock us, but rather the fact that this kind of cold-blooded killing has been so much a part of human history for so long.
In the last six decades our world has seen an unprecedented level of violence in which millions of civilians have been murdered by efficient state operations as well as by grassroots killing machines of the kind we saw in Rwanda where “mothers with babies strapped to their backs killed other mothers with babies strapped to their backs”(Hesse and Post 1999, p. 48). In the Milosovic trail in the Hague a Yugoslav soldier recently testified how he and his unit were ordered on March 25, 1999 to go the village of Trjne and ensure that “no one should remain alive there.” He “remembers most vividly how there was a baby and it had been shot with three bullets and was screaming unbelievably loudly. Never a night goes by,” he continued, “without my dreaming about that child”(Globe and Mail 2002, p. A14). No, the attacks of last year were simply more cold-blooded acts of mass murder in the longstanding war against the innocents which continues unabated in our world.
September 11 is also remembered as a day of heroes. While others ran out of the burning Towers in New York, the firefighters ran in, 343 of them paying for their heroism with their lives. Survivors have recounted how, as they were running down the stairs, they saw rescuers rushing to the most dangerous parts of the doomed Towers. In not one reported case did the rescuer ask the victim if he/she were rich or poor, a member of a particular religion or of a particular nationality or ethnicity.
This model of heroism, in which one person helps another irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, is also played out in countless ways in our community. When our civil servants enforce laws justly, they are heroes. When emergency workers respond to cries for help, they are heroes. When those who work with the young impart the values of good citizenship, they perform acts of heroism. When assistance is given to the poor, disadvantaged, or marginalized, it is given by heroes. These countless acts of everyday heroism create a truly civil society. The strength or fragility of civil society depends on heroes each of us knows.
We can respond when we see people trapped in the burning twin towers of hatred and violence. At the University of Waterloo, we have responded, and we can continue to respond, when we deny a home in our midst to intolerance and discrimination. We can respond in our communities by giving hope to those who have none, and by creating opportunity in which hatred and despair cannot live. We can respond in our country by reaffirming diversity and by ensuring everyone a fair and equal chance to achieve their hopes and dreams. And we can respond internationally by “screaming unbelievably loudly” in resisting the call to rush blindly into new cycles of war that will have no end and will only sow more seeds of hatred and revenge. The power to create the kind of world that we want is in our hands. The terrorists have lost.
Globe and Mail 2002, “Baby was shot three times, war-crimes trial told,” September 7.
Hesse, C and Post, R (eds.) 1999, Human Rights in Political Transitions: Gettysburg to Bosnia, Zone Books, New York.