September 18, 2001
When there is as much terror afoot as there has been since September 11th, it is hard to see how love might prevail.
This is how it is with us human beings when we are afraid: We contract. Our breathing becomes shallow and constricted. Concerns for our immediate survival push everything else out of the picture. In the throes of terror, our thinking is narrowed and short-term. The world is divided into two kinds of people, those who are threats and those who can help us defend against the threat. Everyone else is seen as irrelevant, and might as well not exist. All our attention is focused on protecting ourselves from the immediate danger. Our thoughts become dominated by “fight or flight,” triggering the reptilian part of our brain to take over. If we can’t successfully flee, then we must fight. It’s kill or be killed. Nothing else matters.
That’s the mindset of terror. That’s what fear does to us. It’s a state of consciousness that’s been widespread in our nation since the horrifying and tragic attacks of September 11th.
In Time magazine’s special issue about the terrorist attacks, the concluding essay was titled, “The Case for Rage and Retribution.” The author of this piece, frequent Time contributor Lance Morrow, called for “hatred,” and “a policy of focused brutality.” He was far from alone in speaking of the virtues of rage and retaliation. On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly said “the U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble — the airport, the power plants, their water facilities and the roads.” As far as the civilian population of Afghanistan, O’Reilly said, “If they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.” Calling for the U.S. to massively attack not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq and Libya, he added, “Let them eat sand.” Meanwhile, the former executive editor of the New York Times, A. M. Rosenthal, said we should issue ultimatums to six nations, including Iran, Syria and the Sudan, and then, if they don’t comply to our satisfaction within 72 hours, follow up with massive bombing. New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy was also something besides coolheaded, saying “As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts.” The editor of National Review, writing in the Washington Post, concurred, adding, “If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution.”
With the sounds of such war drums reverberating through the American psyche, polls show that 80% support not only the use of ground troops in Afghanistan, but also military action against other countries in the Middle East.
I am no stranger to the desire for revenge. Like President George W. Bush, and most likely like you, I have felt it surge through me in recent weeks. Contemplating what took place on September 11th, are there any among us who have not, at least momentarily, felt their blood boil with outrage, and with the demand that these mass murderers and all those behind them pay with an eye for an eye?
But at such times, when our hearts are filled with outrage and our eyes look everywhere for revenge, it is extraordinarily important that we remember the awesome truth behind Gandhi’s prophetic statement: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
This is the very truth that the Osama bin Ladens of the world would want us to forget. They would like us to be so lost in hysteria that we can’t think straight. They would like us to be so terrified, so anxious, so belligerent, that we lose perspective and make rash and destructive decisions. If we stay within the bubble of our fear, then the bin Ladens of the world will have won.
Sometimes we need to take a very long, very slow, and very deep breath, to restore our mental balance and ability to function with clarity. There is a difference between enraged action and wise, effective response.
Of course we should find the people and organizations responsible for the attacks of September 11th, and the subsequent anthrax mailings, and any other attempts that might yet be made to terrorize our nation. We should find them, destroy their networks, and bring them to justice. By no means should we tolerate or excuse their actions, much less allow them to continue. These are people not the slightest bit interested in giving peace a chance. The possibility that they might acquire and use nuclear weapons is unfortunately all too real. If we fail to track them down and uproot them, we may find ourselves in even worse shoes than the European who wrote, after World War II, “We who live beneath a sky still streaked with the smoke of crematoria have paid a high price to find out that evil is really evil.”
But as we work to uproot the terrorists and their networks, we must be careful to do so without escalating the cycle of violence, and without causing the deaths of even more innocent people, for this would only deepen the anger and rage already extant in our world. Burning down the haystack is not the best way to find the needle, especially when, in the effort, you might set the barn, and the whole world, on fire. We must bring those responsible to justice without jeopardizing our ability to create a world where terrorism won’t take root, a world where criminal psychopaths find no followers, a world where hatred has no lure.
This is no small task, but it is the task before us. Our leaders are wise in working to form a multinational coalition to fight terrorism. But this should not be merely a coalition of countries who allow the U.S. military the use of their airspace, or the use of their airports, or provide other military support. No coalition to defeat terrorism can be ultimately successful unless it is also a coalition of countries joining together to build a peaceful, just and prosperous world. Our coalition to defeat terrorism will do only half of its job if it merely seeks to defeat those who are responsible for the attacks of September 11th. It must also work to build a world of international cooperation, a world where no part of the greater human family is left out or marginalized.
Approximately 6,000 people perished in the September 11th attacks. Our nation reels from that despicable brutality. But those who died from the attacks on that tragic day were not alone. On September 11th, 35,000 children worldwide died of hunger. A similar number of children died on September 12th, and again on the 13th, and on every single day since then. Meanwhile, we in the U.S. feed 80% of our grain harvest to livestock so that a people whose cholesterol levels are too high can have cheap meat.
To advance human security and control terrorism, we must not only find the brutality of the September 11th attacks to be totally intolerable. We must also find intolerable that one billion people worldwide struggle to survive on $1 a day, that more than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and that 3 billion people have inadequate access to sanitation.
The presence of such dire poverty is an insult to human dignity and would be deplorable enough. But today, with worldwide telecommunications making the rising inequality between a rich, powerful and imposing West and the rest of the world visible to all, its continued existence can only spur those who have no prospect of a better life to previously unheard of levels of despair and rage. In a time when a handful of desperate and suicidal people can devastate the most militarily powerful nation in the history of humankind, any coalition dedicated to defeating terrorism must also be a coalition dedicated to the goal of bringing justice and prosperity to the poor and dispossessed. If we are serious about stopping terrorism, then our goal must be to reduce the level of pollution, fear, and poverty in the world.
If this is truly our goal, and if we devote our actions and resources to its accomplishment, the support for the bin Ladens of the world will inexorably evaporate. People who would have otherwise sided with the terrorists will be clamoring to tell us who and where they are, and to help us find and defeat them.
This goal is too costly, many say. But this is not true. The cost of our initial military response will easily top $100 billion (on top of our already enormous annual defense budget of $342 billion). What could we accomplish if we spent even a small fraction of that much on programs to alleviate human suffering?
In 1998, the United Nations Development Program estimated that it would cost an additional $9 billion (above current expenditures) to provide clean water and sanitation for everyone on earth. It would cost an additional $12 billion, they said, to cover reproductive health services for all women worldwide. Another $13 billion would be enough not only to give every person on Earth enough food to eat but also basic health care. An additional $6 billion could provide basic education for all.
These are large numbers, but combined they add up to $40 billion —”only one fifth as much as the $200 billion the U.S. government agreed in October 2001 to pay Lockheed to build new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jets.
Our government leaders have not hesitated to build an international coalition and to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to defeat those who launched the attacks of September 11th. What if we were equally as dedicated to building an international coalition to eradicate hunger, to provide clean water, to defeat infectious disease, to provide adequate jobs, to combat illiteracy, and to end homelessness? What if we understood that, today, there is no such thing as national security as long as the basic human needs of large portions of humanity are not met? In today’s world made transparent by television and other telecommunications, any country that attains prosperity unshared by its fellow nations can only breed resentment and hatred.
Most immediately, we must address what is rapidly becoming an overwhelming humanitarian problem in Afghanistan. This nation has endured decades of conflict. As a result, there are millions of people there who, even before our bombing campaign began, were dependent on food aid. Now, they face the prospect of imminent starvation. According to United Nations experts, this is the most severe humanitarian emergency ever.
The U.S. government has made much of C-17 cargo planes dropping 20,000 food packets a day to Afghan civilians. But according to world hunger relief organizations active in Afghanistan such as Oxfam, the program has been a dismal failure. The president of one of the world’s most prestigious aid organizations, Doctors Without Borders, speaking from Islamabad, deplored the program as so much “PR.” The airdrops, he said, are a huge waste of money. The packages, containing enough to feed an adult for a day, land all over the place, with no guarantee that they will be retrieved. Many land in the midst of landmines. And the amount being dropped is insignificant is a country where seven or eight million people are in danger of starvation. The money ($25 million according to U.S. government sources) would be far better spent provisioning the regular aid convoys already in action.
There is a terrible irony here. The United States has long been a major supplier of food aid to Afghanistan. But now it is U.S. bombing that is destroying roads and making it impossible for substantial food aid to be delivered. If we were to make a dramatic effort, now, to get meaningful amounts of emergency relief to these people, it would make a great difference to their survival. If we don’t, it will only cement in the minds of the world’s masses the image of the U.S. as indifferent to the needs of the poor.
While the vast majority of Americans care deeply about the welfare of their fellow human beings, the foreign policies of the U.S. government have for some time now been seen by much of the rest of the world as arrogant and selfish. And it is a sad fact that we have far too often given them cause for such a view. It is hard to be proud of our country for standing nearly alone among nations in refusing to sign the treaty banning land mines; for being one of only four nations (the others are Libya, Syria and Iraq) who refuse to comply with a global treaty to eliminate chemical weapons; and for almost single-handedly blocking U.N. efforts to reduce the use of children as soldiers, even when two million children have been killed in armed conflicts in the past decade.
Our nation has also done many wonderful and generous things. We have at times behaved with honor among nations, and been a beacon of freedom. But the world has seen our other side, too. It’s not easy to feel grateful to the United States for being one of only two nations (the other is Somalia) to refuse to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and one of only three nations (the others are Libya and Iraq) to oppose the U.N. being able to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes such as rape and sexual slavery.
There is an enormous disconnect taking place between the will of the American people and the foreign policy of our government. The American people are for the most part honest, decent, and compassionate. But few U.S. citizens are aware of how much U.S. foreign policies have betrayed our caring and our humanity. How many Americans know that we are far and away the world’s leading arms merchant? Or that, in the last fifteen years, the U.S. share of the worlds arms trade has increased from 16% to more than 70%? How many Americans know that even before September 11th we were spending 18 times more money on the military than the combined spending of all of the nations identified by the U.S. government as potential enemies (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria)?
President Bush began his term by withdrawing from almost every multilateral agreement and international treaty that came up, except those that in the short term served to enhance American profits and power. From the outset, his administration angered and alienated the world community by disengaging from treaties attempting to deal with global warming, nuclear disarmament, population control, trafficking in small arms, and chemical and biological weapons, to name just a few.
This is not a matter of partisanship. Both Republican and Democrat administrations have come all too often to define American self-interest almost without regard for the concerns of other nations. It’s sad but true that to assure American access to oil and other natural resources around the world, and to provide a constant pool of cheap labor, the U.S. government has frequently supported undemocratic and repressive regimes that have been hated by their own populations. We have massively supported governments that have engaged in widespread terrorism against their own people. Instead of supporting human rights and self determination, we’ve sold hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons to a string of tyrannical governments as long as doing so provided us with cheap oil and access to their markets.
But now, suddenly, we are realizing that we desperately need the help of the world. There are signs of hope. As a London newspaper recently commented, “Colin Powell, in a stunning and rare display of humility for an American official, now acknowledges that in order to fight terrorism effectively the U.S. is going to have to be more sensitive to the concerns of other cultures.”
Might the United States remember in all of this that our national purpose is greater than the construction of a McWorld, and that we have a deep and paramount interdependence with the wellbeing of all of the world’s peoples? As the president of the State of the World Forum, Jim Garrison, puts it: “If out of the present crisis the United States emerges more connected with the rest of the world, more willing to live cooperatively within coalitions than outside them, then light will have truly come from out of the darkness and redemption out of the recesses of hatred and war. In one of the deepest paradoxes of contemporary history, the present crisis might compel America to… (realize) no country is an island unique unto itself…and the only solution to hate is to stop the underlying causes that produce it, working within the community of nations to achieve goals that benefit the poor as well as the rich, the south as well as the north, the developing nations as well as those more advanced. Achieving this, America will fulfill the deepest yearning of one of its founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that he believed the real destiny of America would not be about power; it would be about light.”
Will the day come when the United States fulfills our true national purpose and achieves lasting national security?
We’ll know we’ve begun when we break our addiction to oil, and develop an economy based instead on hydrogen, wind power, solar power, and other non-polluting, safe and renewable sources of energy.
We’ll know we’ve begun to create true national security when we define the greatness of our civilization not by our military capabilities, not by our ability to inflict massive damage and punishment, but by our ability to bring out the best in ourselves and others, and by the quality of life we leave our children.
We’ll know we’ve begun when we stop thinking there is such a thing as “smart” bombs or “sophisticated” weapons. “Sophisticated” means having the ability to use our intelligence, empathy and imagination to solve serious and complex problems. “Smart” means realizing that when these bombs kill civilians they leave them just as dead, their families just as heartbroken and enraged, the spiritual fabric of the world just as shredded, and the human heart just as violated.
We’ll know we’ve begun to defeat terrorism when we see the connection between the $5 trillion the U.S. has spent on nuclear weapons since World War II and the homeless children shivering in the cold, the battered women who have no shelters, and the families broken by grinding poverty; when we see the connection between the $1 billion a day we’ve spent every day for decades on the military and the hungry people who have no hope, the children dying from preventable diseases, and the families who sell their daughters into sexual slavery because they see no other way to survive. We’ll know we’ve begun to create a world where terrorism can’t find a foothold when we commit ourselves and our resources to the building of a peaceful world with as much dedication as we’ve committed ourselves to war.
We’ll know we’re on the right track when we begin producing and eating food that is healthy for our bodies and healthy for the Earth, and when we no longer find acceptable the existence of human hunger anywhere on the planet.
We’ll know we’re upholding the human spirit when the power we seek is the ability to nurture and befriend, rather than to conquer and subjugate; and when the success we pursue is one in which all beings share because it is founded on reverence for life.
We’ll know we’ve begun to create a safer and kinder world when we design our public policies and personal lifestyles not just for individual advantage, but for the greater good of the whole Earth community. Then we will ask God to please hear the prayers of the people in prison, of the homeless, of the refugees walking on roads because a war has forced them from their homes. We will ask God to hear the prayers of those who hunger and are not fed, and those who are despised by their fellow humans because they are somehow different. We will ask God to feel the exhaustion of those living too close to the edge of their physical and spiritual resources. Then our religious and spiritual lives will make us more human, more humble, and more able to live with respect for all beings.
In times of fear, most people step back and wait to see what others are going to do and what’s going to happen. Some people, though, see the situation as an opportunity to step forward and take a stand. The more of us who in our hearts and lives take a stand for the creation of a thriving, just and sustainable way of life for all, the less likely it is that the bin Ladens of the world will accomplish their purposes, and the greater the chance that it will be love and not fear that will prevail. Then those who perished in the September 11th attacks will not have died in vain, but will live on in the flourishing of human hope and well-being.
The bitter historical events that came to fruition on September 11th did not come from nowhere, but developed over decades and even centuries. Likewise the peace and understanding that we seek, and which alone will make us truly safe, need to be nurtured and cultivated over generations of time.
It is to the planting, nurturing and harvesting of fruits worthy of all that
is good and beautiful in us that we must now, as never before, dedicate our lives. Because now, as never before, the world needs our wisdom, our cooperation, and our understanding that all humanity is connected.
(John Robbins is the author of many best-sellers, including Diet For A New America, and his recently released The Food Revolution. He is the founder of EarthSave International, and can be contacted through the website foodrevolution.org)