Will we have the courage to break the cycle of violence?

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I wrote this op-ed in the weeks following 9/11 for my editorial column that appeared every other Saturday in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Given what’s been going on in Afghanistan, I think it has relevance today.

So now as I’m leaving, I’m weary as hell
The confusion I’m feeling, ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head and fall to the floor
If God’s on our side, He’ll stop the next war

~Bob Dylan, “With God on Our Side”

During the days immediately following September 11, I found that I was more likely to make eye contact with folks I met, more willing to talk with strangers on the elevator. I shed tears of sadness and solidarity for the bravery of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 on hearing of their struggle to overcome the hijackers. I felt a swell of pride for my fellow countrymen/women as they responded to the call to action by giving blood, money, food, time, energy, prayers. And I made my contributions too.

Out of the ashes, out of the death, is it possible that we have been awakened to our humanity, to our love for our fellow humans, to the tenuousness of life itself? We were jerked from our daily routines, from our self-absorption. The best of us was called out, and we have responded to that call—willingly, generously, openheartedly.

And yet, amidst all this kindness, amidst all this compassion, the hysteria of war has swept the nation, fueled by politicians and the mainstream media. Flags wave. Trumpets blare. “Smart” bombs explode. Actions designed to bring the perpetrators of the dreadful deeds of September 11 to justice are trumped by a military campaign against Afghanistan, a country where there is little left to destroy. Those who question the call to war are shouted down, accused of being un-American. Muslim-Americans are suspect and some are even physically attacked.

A huge majority of Americans currently believe that the warfare now being waged is the answer to the challenges we are facing. But if, as a result of our attacks, we kill men, women, and children who are guilty of nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time, how are we different from the perpetrators themselves?

Perhaps destructive actions, blowing up Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan will comfort our psychic pain for a while. We have received a terrible blow. And the urge to strike back is understandable. But what if these wounds are too deep to be assuaged by bombs and explosives? What if more killing does not bring relief? What if, instead, we are called to look inside ourselves, inside our national identity to find true healing? We’ve learned that we’re not immune to the violence and chaos of the world. What if we also discover that we’re not the idol of all the world? What if we are forced to reexamine how we regard other countries and how we interact with the planet’s peoples? What if we learn that we’re not omnipotent after all, that we’re just like everyone else—no better or no worse?

Indeed, if we give up our freedoms to gain that elusive security we seek, if we drown out free speech by castigating those who dissent from the majority view, if we give in to our fears and our baser instincts, haven’t we already lost the battle?

We have been given an awesome opportunity, a test that requires great courage and a willingness to face reality. In the aftermath of the terrible deaths of almost three thousand people and the destruction of national icons, what will we do? How will we be? Will we be willing to break the cycle of vengeance and respond with the justice and compassion for which this nation has been known? Or will we continue to stumble robotically down the futile path of an eye for an eye? Our children are watching. The whole world is watching. Our Creator is watching.

[Published in the October 13, 2001 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times,]
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