September 11 reflection

I really hope it’s not ‘too soon’, but you never know. ‘Too soon’, of course, is the response topical jokes about catastrophes sometimes receive when the public mood is not quite ready for light to be made of whatever disaster, tragedy or scandal is being targeted by a comedian. It was also the response to several statements, articles and speeches written by very serious people in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September. Several columnists, activists and philosophers were vehemently criticized within the first few months following the September 11th attacks, for daring to ask certain questions or make certain observations about the events. And even now, as I consider bringing them up nine years later, I suspect some people will be muttering: ‘too soon’ and wishing I’d be quiet.

But that is simply because ‘soonness’ has nothing to do with why people objected then (as they do now) to certain things being said about 9-11. It’s the same impulse that makes ordinarily rational people object to a mosque being built near the site of the Twin Towers (in which a Muslim prayer room operated peacefully for many years). Because of the great number of people killed in that area, on that day, both have taken on a kind of sacred character for many. This is understandable for the friends and relatives in particular of those who died, but it should not preclude us from asking a question that several people were lambasted for asking nearer to the time: was there anything fundamentally more important about the people killed on September 11 than all other people?

Philosophers and critics who pointed out that while the events of September 11 were tragic and horrible they were not that out of keeping with what was experienced by the rest of the world were attacked for being outrageous, disloyal and speaking ‘too soon’. Is it still too soon now to ask why we still care so much about the 3,000 victims of that attack while even then we could hardly muster as much sympathy for the 20,000 who died in India that January? Is it too soon to ask why every civilian casualty in America should be venerated and mourned, while in our wars in the Middle East they should not even be counted?

Is it still too soon to genuinely ask the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ without resorting to cartoon answers that assume madness, fanaticism or unadulterated evil and take no factors into account like the historic and economic oppression of Muslim countries by western powers or of the millions of children that had died in Iraq due to American sanctions and been deemed ‘acceptable’ by the US Secretary of State?

Is it still too soon to point out that American lives (and British lives, for that matter) are not nor have they ever been, more valuable than those of civilians or combatants in states with whom we are at war or in regions where our friends or companies commit misdeeds? Is it still too soon to ask Christians in particular to recognise this fact?

Is it too soon to compare the motives of the hijackers to the motives of those who pushed for the Iraq invasion for moral worth?

Is it still too soon to start comparing the numbers of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, through military conflict and subsequent chaos, on both sides, to the numbers killed on September 11?

I’m not saying that all or even any of these questions would in any way justify the taking of human life (on September 11 2001 or any other day). I am also not saying that the dead from the Twin Towers should not be mourned, and that with respect and dignity. But the ‘war on terror’ continues. Iraq and Afghanistan will live for generations with the consequences of the actions undertaken by governments we elected in response to 9-11. If we don’t ask questions now, or some time soon, we never will. And we will make the same awful mistakes again.

BAA humbug!

‘We should invade North Korea.’ Why Korea? ‘They’re trouble.’ Why are they trouble? ‘Their attitude.’ That’s the voice of the American man on the street, apparently. I’m quoting an old video still doing the rounds on YouTube and office emails, entitled Who should the US invade next? It features an Australian ‘reporter’ supposedly doing a vox-pop survey of ordinary people’s opinions as to who George Dubya’s next target should be. Some other answers: ‘Iran’ Why Iran? ‘I think there’s a revolution happening there soon,’ and ‘Italy’ – no explanation given. It’s funny, though not as funny as when the interviewer brings out a facetious map and asks people to pinpoint their chosen targets. Maps with North Korea, Iran and Iraq all printed on the continent of Australia elicit no cries of ‘it’s not over there!’ from people, and the lesson we take away is that Americans, despite their impact on it, are ignorant about the rest of the world.

For instance, did you know only 7% of Americans even own a passport? It’s true. I learned that statistic from the University of Facts I Pulled Out Of My Bottom To Support My Prejudices. Did you study there too? Actually all I could find about American passport ownership was that the European Travel Commission supposedly believes the number to be closer to 18% – this may or may not be true, it’s a long website and I honestly don’t care enough to find out. The point is: putting the lazy, racist, anti-American prejudices aside, do we really want to be a country with no experience of or interest in the rest of the world? Because if we do not, we need to question what Plane Stupid are trying to achieve.

Plane Stupid is the group eventually banned from protesting outside Heathrow Airport over airport expansion last week. I find their name inspiring (I myself want to put a stop to donkey and mule-related methane emissions and am starting a group called Dumb Ass) and their overall aim of taking radical action to save the planet admirable. But since only a few percent (real figures exist, I heard them on Radio 4) of global carbon emissions (and even fewer of UK carbon emissions) are produced by commercial aviation, or indeed aviation of any sort, why are we picking on the airlines? Because they are softer targets, isolated examples of emissions that are easy to identify and to denounce. But that is as lazy as an island race denouncing Americans as insular. Checking on the greenhouse gases emitted in producing, transporting, cooling, wrapping, housing, and feeding the clothes in your cupboard, the food in your fridge, the tv shows you watch and the packaging around your organic vegetables, that’s harder. But then, that stuff is harder to give up.

Don’t get me wrong, BAA, who initially wanted to ban a total of five million people from being in the vicinity of Heathrow, including the entire RSPB , are bullies of the first division. But then what do you expect? Of course they are power mad! They’re the airports! Have you been in an airport recently? They’re dilly with the power. Even before 9-11 being on a plane or in an airport (though thankfully not a stewardess) was pretty much a relinquishment of your basic rights and freedoms. You don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment: when someone says ‘what’s in the bag?’ in your local pub, say: ‘a bomb.’ If you’re not an obvious Muslim, you should get away with it (if you laugh and don’t just start running). Try the same in an airport. Where comedy is prohibited, power has gone mad. Sadly, picketing over that won’t make any difference either. Enjoy your holidays.

A Tribute for the dead

“Where were you on 11 September 2001?” That’s a question many newspapers, radio programmes and tv shows asked last week as they remembered the events of five years ago. I would say it is a clichéd question and presumes an American worldview, but I do remember where I was. More importantly for me, I remember how I felt. As I watched the first reports I could only think that a symbol of the western capitalism that enslaves the developing world with unfair trade and enslaves the West with materialism and greed had been struck. I did not weep. I did not get angry. I watched with interest and a sense that for once it wasn’t the innocent or the weak who had suffered. It took me some time to realize that I was wrong. Listening last week to answer-machine messages left by those inside the Twin Towers shortly before they died, it struck me again. These were human beings. Frightened human beings, about to die, choking on smoke and wishing they had had more chance to say goodbye to their husbands, their wives, their children. As political beings, it is easy for us to view events as abstractions, as symbols in an ideological game. As Christians, that is never acceptable

The temptation for me now is to point out that thousands of people die all over the world, all the time. That there is nothing special about American or British lives, no matter what our respective governments tell us. But it is insufficient. It misses the truth that every life is important, whether that of a stock-broker or a suicide bomber. All are valued by Jesus and every one that dies without him is a tragedy. 9/11 was an important day. Not because it happened on US soil, not because the Twin Towers ever symbolized anything other than money, and not just because people died. It was the point at which many of us who had never made my mistake of seeing abstractions instead of people, started doing just that. Not only did the perpetrators cease to be humans with grievances and motivations, replaced by “evildoers” but entire nations ceased to be made up in our minds of shopkeepers, children, teachers, husbands and lovers. They became “the enemy”.

One of the many casualties of 11 September 2001 was thought. The growth of a culture of uncritical acceptance of government rhetoric has been one aspect but more disturbing for Christians should be the unwillingness of many of us to see past our own fears and ideologies to the humans beneath the headlines. You know you’ve done it. I have. The secret joy at a military victory, despite the lives lost. The willingness to hate, actually hate George Bush, Abu Hamza, or anyone not on your side of the political fence, be it left or right.

Seeing the truth is not just about placing events in our ideological system, assigning good-guy or bad-guy badges. It is not even just about criticizing “our side” first (though I believe this is in keeping with the “check for planks in your own eye” ethos of Jesus). It’s about seeing the world the way God sees it. And God sees people as made in his image. So as we remember September 11, I wonder if fellow lefties, pinkos and commies would join me in saying, even through gritted teeth: “God bless America”. The rest of you can chime in: “and Iran, and Iraq, and North Korea.” That would be a pleasing tribute not only to the dead, but the living people still being affected by September 11.