A few months after 9-11, I went to a talk by Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn. Thay (his nickname, translates loosely as “teacher”) said early in the talk that were he given the opportunity to talk to Bin Laden, the first thing he would do is listen, and let Bin Laden air his grievances. Only then would he speak, and try to address him and the horror that he has directly or indirectly created. (Here he explains that comment, and what he’d say to America) Even for a very sympathetic crowd, this was a hard statement to swallow. He was called on it in the Q&A portion of the talk, and didn't change his tune an inch. He believes fervently that a radical non-violence, rooted in listening and compassion, is ultimately the only way out of the violence we're in, personally and societally.
I don’t care to a lot of time or space resurrecting 9-11. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Thay’s talk, and what it still means five years later. I don't know what I'd say to Bin Laden, or Bush for that matter, but I doubt I'd be able to be so equanimous. What I, and I think many of us here in the States do remember most about 9-11 is first the horror of the day, but then the remarkable way that Americans opened their hearts in the days following. In all of the fear and pain, we reminded ourselves of the amazing human potential to love, to reach beyond ourselves in service of a bigger whole.
… And then, collectively, we promptly forgot. Perhaps because we’re jaded, perhaps because we weren’t sufficiently asked*, perhaps because it all seemed so big and overwhelming, we allowed our nation to take a policy of creating a big terrible “them”, (first the Taliban and Al Queda, then Hussein and the Iraqi insurgency) rather than really probing difficult questions about our problems and culpability. We allowed politicians, particularly but not exclusively Bush and his ilk, to exploit our fear and anger into an unprovoked, reckless war with no end in sight. We went back into the Middle East with too many bombs and not enough butter, and didn’t even to attempt to understand things from a Muslim perspective. We forgot the adage of keeping our friends close and our enemies closer, and that the less enemies you make, the less time you spend fighting them.
I don’t pretend to have answers to the big questions this anniversary poses, of security versus personal liberties, of how to allocate resources, of how to leave Iraq without further destabilizing the region. But I believe deeply that the only way out in the long term is if we, individually and collectively, operate from a place of love, open our hearts and listen to the suffering of the victims of 9-11 and its aftermath- American, Afghani, Iraqi, whoever- even the ones we find odious, even the ones who want to destroy us. I know this sounds tremendously naïve to many, and I don’t mean “love” in a hippie or Hallmark way; I mean the ability to face the truths about ourselves, and to operate with compassion- not pity, not denial- towards ourselves and others. When we do that, when we wake up, positive change is possible. We saw it five years ago, and we let it slide away. We can see it again.
Another way of putting it, from old friends at Spiritus Christi in Rochester (pdf file):
"Fighting terrorism has become the rational for a myriad of actions including bombing cities, killing innocent people, locking people up without telling them the charges, dumping shampoo bottles at airports, and most importantly, securing access to oil. I believe we need a different national goal than fighting terrorism. What if our actions were designed instead to “create peace”? Would we choose a different means to achieve that end? Would our military strategy be different? Would the terrorists have less effect on young men and women if we were known as a peaceful country? Please reflect on this and share your thoughts with your congress people. The world cannot afford our silence."
* Aside- I think the single biggest political missed opportunity since 9-11 has been on the issue of energy independence. We had both the opportunity and the rationale to put forward a program on the scale of the Marshall Plan or the man on the moon to make America energy independent, and to rapidly accelerate the development of “alternative fuels”. This would go a long way towards bolstering our national security, making our biggest adversaries less potent by making them less crucial to our economy, and oh, yeah, saving the planet. Instead, it’s taken five year, Iraq, Katrina, and $3 a gallon gas to even put these issues on the table a little bit. It’s not surprising, given both parties connections to and fiscal dependence on big oil, but it’s no less shameful. On a personal level, here’s a starting point.
The most interesting and useful reflections I've seen has been the lead in this week's Boston Phoenix. Other thoughts, suggestions and links always welcome.
Alex Ross on music and the days following 9-11.
Sasha Free Jones