I wrote the following column in the days following the 9/11 tragedy, now more than two wars in the past.
It first appeared in Honolulu Weekly on October 3, 2001.
I think it has aged very well.
I am not at war.
It’s a statement, an affirmation and a challenge. I’m not at war, Mr. President, and don’t take more lives in my name.
It’s a starting point. A first step. I don’t know where it leads, only where it starts.
I’m sitting at home in Ka’a'awa, listening to the rhythm of a Windward rain while searching for perspective on the events of the last three weeks. It isn’t easy.
It would be nice to think that we’re tucked away at a safe distance from the clamor of world events, but the modern world is just too small. My wife and I were up before dawn on Sept. 11, watching the terrible spectacle live on television as it unfolded half a world away. When we walked through the back streets of Ka’a'awa and down to the beach later that same morning, we met others equally stunned by the terrors we had witnessed. Even Ka’a'awa isn’t a refuge from the rest of the world.
But today, here on the brink of silence, there is a sense of clarity. I am not at war.
If I were, it would be against a different enemy than the elusive one our government is seeking to destroy. In my view, our enemy is violence, and the idea that escalating acts of violence can, in the long run, achieve political objectives or resolve essentially political conflicts.
The enemy is a national policy that treats attacks on civilians as an acceptable military strategy and a legitimate means to pressure and manipulate their leaders.
The enemy is propaganda and jingoism, no matter how popular, that dehumanizes opponents to such a degree that their suffering brings cheers, and their pain a reason to celebrate. The enemy is indifference to injustice when we’re not the immediate victims.
The enemy is a holy righteousness that claims divine sanction for its own acts of destruction and terror, while denouncing those of the infidels on the other side.
The enemy is the inability to see oneself through the eyes of our enemies and admit that there might be a kernel of truth behind their point of view.
And the enemy is the stubborn belief in our own innocence, and the failure to recognize that, if there’s a rogue nation-state in today’s world, many in the world say it’s our own, moving unilaterally to undermine international environmental accords and arms control agreements, blocking long-term efforts to reduce the arms trade, clinging to military solutions even in the face of opposition from friends and allies.
We are so right in our rage and sorrow about what has happened to America that breaking out of the cycle of violence, revenge and more violence will place tremendous demands on our national character. We’re much better at war than at peace, and I fear that we’re all in for a hard ride ahead.
A conservative spokesman interviewed on public television recently spoke almost reverently of beginning a war that will last for generations. The comment went unchallenged. It was a stunning moment, an indication of how far we’ve been pushed toward an acceptance of the unthinkable.
Even before most of us had a chance to grieve for those lost in the stunning moments of mayhem and death at the World Trade Center and beyond, advocates of a holy war moved to appropriate the public’s righteous anger to support a presidential crusade, a battle of good against evil that demands — and justifies — any and all means necessary for victory.
I found myself at odds with the cadenced jingoism of Bush the Junior and other interpreters of the official government posture; support for a more cautious response seemed sure to grate on the patriotic veneer of those who have raised their flags or, like my parents, taped newsprint versions of the Stars and Stripes to their front doors or windows like anchors chained to the national psyche.
I’ve seen many people displaying patriotic icons as genuine, personal indications of their sense of unity with the victims and survivors alike, but the knee-jerk, cynical or economically motivated variety of patriotic fervor is something very different.
Businesses moved to co-opt people’s raw patriotism into a consumer impulse as flags sprouted in store windows and merchandise displays, creating a bizarre clash of symbols and images.
“Land of the free, home of the brave,” read one large red, white and blue banner at the foot of University Avenue, along with its pitch to chug-a-lug a Bud, presumably for the good of the country. Patriotism, it seems, demands that we get back to business, and spending, as usual.
The peace impulse was almost lost in the swift, early tide of war propaganda, but more moderate voices have emerged and are having an impact. While supporting the hunt for those who planned and carried out the attacks, many other countries have urged that any military response be both restrained and focused. Religious leaders, including the pope, have urged compassion and peace. Even within our own government, more moderate leaders like Secretary of State Colin Powell appear to have successfully reined in their most hawkish colleagues, and talk of widespread military action against a long list of Muslim countries appears to have faded.
These are surreal times, indeed, with a hard edge that poses real and present dangers to us all. But we can make a difference.
There’s always the temptation to assume that government officials are in the best position to make the right decisions, and our best course is simply to hunker down and follow orders. The more disturbing reality is that government leaders are often trapped by political considerations of their own which drive policies in directions that could not garner majority support if openly debated, a danger increased by the unprecedented secrecy being demanded in the current crisis.
So what do we do here, in our island community, to fan the spark of peace? How do we begin to wage peace? I’ve got a few things high on my own agenda.
• Remember that you are not alone in the desire for peace. On campuses, in churches and on the Internet, people are gathering to share their feelings and lay the groundwork for peace action. Find friends, and make new ones.
• Seek out support groups that are building peaceful relations between countries and taking risks to lay the groundwork for person-to-person understanding even in the mist of war.
• Assist those who have lost their jobs here at home. Hawai’i is facing an economic downturn of staggering proportions without a clear indication yet of how long or how deep the impact will be. Our village hasn’t been bombed, but the indirect economic effects of the September attacks could have devastating consequences. We’ll all have to find ways to share, digging deeper than usual to support each other.
• Demand news, not propaganda. To make our democracy work, we need real information on what the government is doing in our names. We need to know how it looks from other vantage points, including those quite different from our own. If local news media fail to deliver, we need to voice our concerns and raise the level of expectations.
• Don’t allow dissent to be marginalized. When uncouth talk-show hosts demean different opinions, when editorial writers dismiss critical views, when those opposing government policy are called unpatriotic or worse, let people know that it’s not acceptable. The international news agency, Reuters, has told its writers to avoid inflammatory terms like “terrorist” or “freedom fighter.” Similarly, we shouldn’t let jingoism (jingo, according to Webster’s: a person who professes his or her patriotism loudly and excessively, favoring vigilant preparedness for war and an aggressive foreign policy; bellicose chauvinism) co-opt civic engagement. Demand more.
• Remember that the Sept. 11 attacks weren’t the first or the worst acts of modern warfare, and that it’s useless to dismiss those responsible simply as personifications of evil. The bombings of German cities and the use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities during World War II were also attacks on civilians and led to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. Evil might be a useful concept in theological discussions, but it doesn’t help to understand the realities of the world we’re living in.
• Think little. Sometimes the rush of events and layers of instant “news” leave us feeling ignorant, unprepared and powerless to do anything. Think little. Start with yourself. Decide what’s right and wrong. You can’t save the world, but you can begin by doing something. Take that first step.