Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam: Love is Counter-terrorism

Today is the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  Amidst all the memorials, documentaries, and solemn ceremonies which have been aired and held and will continue throughout the day, I would like to say some things which might lend a slightly different take on the suffering felt on that day and since, and what we can do about it.

Back in 2001, I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school.  I still remember passing between classes on campus and being told by a girl whom I barely knew that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and arriving at my Physical Sciences class to spend the whole time glued to the TV coverage as the 2nd plane crashed into the 2nd tower, another hit the Pentagon, and the last crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

It was terrifying and heart-wrenching, and yet I also remember being selfishly thankful that the terrorists hadn't struck where the President actually was that day.  He happened to be in my hometown of Sarasota, FL, reading a book to a class of schoolchildren.  Had they only known, I thought, there would be planes falling out of the sky over my head.  And then there was the moment of silence a day or so later, led by the head student officer of our school's ROTC, who denounced the attacks and declared her love for her country as a Muslim and proud prospect for the military.

In many ways, 9/11 was a seminal moment.  It's a day that will go down in infamy, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor which spurred on our entry into World War II.  It was the genesis for 2 wars that still continue to this day, and have claimed thousands of lives --- terrorist, military, and innocent --- on both sides of the equation.  But it was also a moment in time that brought out, simultaneously, the best and worst of us.

While some of us wanted peace and saw this as all the more reason that the world needed it, more wanted revenge and war.  According to some of the documentaries I saw last night, many even wanted this war of retribution so badly that they didn't care about the civilian casualties it would cause.  An eye for an eye... Innocents for innocents.

We heard of the selflessness in the actions of those who helped those around them escape the towers and the self-sacrifice of the passengers of Flight 93 in order to ensure more lives weren't lost. We saw the compassion-in-action of emergency responders who rushed into those towers in order to do anything they could despite the risk, many of their lives being claimed in the process of trying to help.  And we saw all the rescue workers and their dogs tirelessly wading into the rubble to try and find survivors, day after day.

Those who survived the attacks and those who volunteered themselves to searching and clearing the ruins of the towers --- firefighters, police, rescue workers and construction workers alike --- subjected themselves to tons of health hazards which we are only now starting to understand.  The dust and smoldering rubble have claimed more lives since, and continue to plague many of those who survived.  Appallingly, while the toxic plume that these brave souls endured contained a perfect cocktail of carcinogens, cancer treatment is not covered in the current Zadroga health plan for free medical coverage for responders and survivors who were exposed.*

There was a tremendous outpouring of support, sympathy, empathy, and giving.  But along with that, there was a tremendous surge of distrust and hatred toward our Arab and Muslim neighbors.  Tons of hate crimes and hate speech --- violence, discrimination, and harassment --- has stemmed from this one event.  Religious discrimination, such as a city's opposition to a mosque, discrimination in the workplace and verbal harassment, are all part of the fallout.  Merely to be perceived as an Arab or a Muslim based on the color of your skin or the wearing of a turban can lead to trouble, putting Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious and ethnic groups in danger of the same mistreatment.^

I can't lie... In the aftermath I wanted us to strike back and take out those responsible, and became increasingly suspect of Muslims.  Whenever I saw a woman dressed in hijab, I felt nervous.  I didn't know any Muslims personally, and the social and political environment was increasingly hostile.  While I knew better, having been subject to discrimination and hate due merely to my Jewish background, the combination of my ignorance and the uproar saw me swept up in the prevailing sentiment.  Then, a few weeks after the tragedy, a bunch of celebrities participated in The Concert for New York City, a televised benefit and memorial to the victims.  Richard Gere's speech struck me as particularly inappropriate.

"The horrendous energy that we're all feeling, and the possibility of turning it into more violence, and revenge --- we can stop that. We can take that energy and turn it into something else. We can turn it into compassion, and to love, and to understanding...  That's apparently unpopular right now, but that's alright."

He wanted peace for all sentient beings.  I didn't think that the terrorists or those who sponsored them deserved it.  Back then I wasn't Buddhist and didn't really know anything about the religion, nor religions in general.  Gere was crazy and off-putting for being so calm and seemingly unaffected by the tragedy.

In the ten years since, I have come to see the wisdom and value of Gere's words, which represent his Buddhist worldview.  My reaction then and my reaction now are vastly different.  I'm almost on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.  Having become Buddhist and decided to study the various faiths, I have come to understand that the religions of the world all have their worth in seeking to provide guidance and a moral blueprint for humanity.

Extremism doesn't exist solely in Islam, despite what we are led to believe by the misinformation and paranoia which are often propagated in this country by the media and others.  Extremists can be found in those claiming to be practitioners of all the various traditions.  Anyone who firmly believes they have the right to claim they are the sole holders of the truth, and that all others are subject to hate, violence, and/or persecution as unbelievers is dangerous.

Muslims, in fact, are some of the most intelligent, kind, and tolerant people I've met.  I am proud to have several amazing Muslim women as my friends, including an ex-girlfriend who I considered marrying and having children with.  All of them have helped educate me on Islam and opened my heart.  They are constant reminders of courage, perseverance, and warmheartedness in the face of adversity, persecution and fear.

Now, instead of being nervous whenever I see a girl in traditional Muslim garb, I smile.  She probably gets plenty of nervous glances and hateful stares just based on the way she's dressed, through no fault of her own.

Despite being Jewish by birth, I now don't automatically side with Israel and denounce all its neighbors and those who oppose it, not out of a new found self-hatred, but out of a more nuanced understanding.  While I find it deplorable, I can understand how children come to be supporters and even members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  Such groups recruit underprivileged youth who are deprived of things like clean food and water, shelter and hygiene facilities, and lead them to believe that Israelis and Americans don't care for them or seek to keep them down.+

No matter where extremism and terrorists are, it all boils down to what we cultivate as a culture and as individuals, and with what values we instill when we raise our children.  If we were to encourage love-kindness, tolerance and compassion for all beings instead of hate, competition, and indifference, how much kinder a world would the we have?

So what can we, as individuals, do?  Often I have heard, and even expressed, a frustrated sense of being unable to change the world all by one's lonesome.  The truth is, none of us are alone.  Everyday, we touch the lives of others and are ourselves touched, and such interactions have effects and consequences far beyond our scope to see.  We are constantly inspiring and informing those around us, caught up in a worldwide web of interdependent thoughts, words, and actions.  Indeed, as the Buddha said:

"The thought manifests as the word.  The word manifests as the deed.  The deed develops into habit, and the habit hardens into character.  So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring forth from love, born out of concern for all beings."

Therefore, what we should do in memory of those whose lives were lost or given, and in response to those responsible, is strive to value peace over war, love rather than hate, and show compassion for those who are suffering... not just today, but everyday of our lives.

For my part, I will meditate and pray, and make an effort to attend a film called The Power of Forgiveness showing on campus tonight.  I leave you with two quotes that say what I believe in my heart much better than my own words can.  Hopefully you will take them to heart, too.  Remember:

"Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule."
~ The Buddha
"World peace must develop from inner peace.  Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the manifestation of human compassion."
~ The Dalai Lama

* = See the documentary CNN Presents:  Terror in the Dust

^ = See the documentary CNN Presents:  Unwelcome - The Muslims Next Door; the FBI's hate crime statistics report 2002; and Harvard University's Pluralism Project research report on Post 9/11 Hate Crime Trends

+ = See the documentary film Promises