Originally published in Little Village issue 6, October 2001.
“If you’re not going to quote Jesus about turning the other cheek or about loving your enemies, then you have no business quoting the Bible at all. So shut up.” -Kirk Anderson
Sept. 14, 2001
The events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 are likely to live viscerally in every American old enough to retain a memory of the day. Thousands massacred suddenly, seemingly senselessly, in a way that caused each and every one of us to doubt, perhaps for the first time, the safety of ourselves and friends and families. I felt it too, as I rode the bus out of downtown, evacuated from my office at the foot of the tallest building in a city 1,000 miles away from the hideous carnage I would see repeated over and over again that day through the miracle of videotape. Three days later, we are still saddened, still frightened, and as the shock wears off, increasingly angry that we have been made to feel that way.
Stop. Focus. Take a deep breath. Realize that the weapon of the terrorist is terror; that the applicable American Heritage Dictionary definition of terror is “violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes”; that the feelings we are dealing with represent that intimidation, that coercion; that we must not let those feelings serve the purposes of those that inspired them.
Realize that we do our dead no honor by letting our fear give way to bigotry, by attacking or even shunning those of the same ethnic descent or religious belief as the people who perpetrated this act. Realize that when columnist Ann Coulter writes, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity”; when US Sen. Zell Miller recommends the bombing of Afghanistan with no consideration of “collateral damage” (a military term that translates into plain English as “slaughtered innocents”); when Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell describe Tuesday’s events as God’s revenge against gays, feminists and the ACLU; when members of Congress use this moment to lobby for defense spending and lay blame on their political enemies; when radio “personalities” use their forums to rage against the “ragheads”; realize that they bring profound shame upon themselves; the memory of those who died Tuesday and the values of this country. Realize that we have a responsibility to ourselves and our country not to let the terror and anger in our hearts lead us to tolerate beliefs and actions contrary to what we know to be right and fair.
Our leaders have told us that this is a struggle between good and evil. Any adult human being regardless of nationality should be able to tell you that the world is more complicated than that, that such distinctions are the simplistic stuff of children’s stories, George Lucas films and George W. Bush speeches. A wise few might also clue you in to the fact that belief in just such a good-and-evil story, albeit with the roles reversed from the one the president is currently telling us, was precisely why 18 men willingly committed suicide on Sept. 11. What we are being asked to believe is every bit as dangerous in the long run, both to ourselves and the world at large, and lowers us to the level of our enemies.
If we are to emerge from this moment in our history with our liberties and our nation identity intact, we would do will to tempter the “quiet anger” the president has attributed to us, to temper it with a sense of quiet consideration. Decisions will be made in the next few weeks that will have profound and unforeseen impacts on our national way of life. Already, the trade-off between civil liberties and public safety and the constitutional question of war powers have become the topics of heated debate. As justified as our national sense of outrage may be at this moment, it is important that these decisions be made on fact rather than feelings, consistent with decency, truth and our national values. Any decision we make on a lesser standard can be counted as precisely the sort of disruption of our society Tuesday’s attacks were meant to cause.
E.C. Fish is a German-born, Minnesota-raised and Iowa City-educated writer who penned the political column “Go Fish” for Little Village magazine between 2001 and 2006.