Like most people around the country, we of the Jewish Mobilization for a Just Peace have been reeling with grief and horror at the events of September 11. There can be no possible justification for the attacks made in New York and Washington, which have been rightly condemned by every community and every nation as a crime against humanity.
The fact that Tuesday’s attacks were utterly indefensible, however, does not mean that here is nothing we need to learn from them. If we wish to work toward a world in which such tragedies do not occur, we must try to understand their context – and their roots.
Until Sept. 11, we here in the United States – especially those of us who are white – have been shielded from direct experience of the wars of mass destruction that have ravaged the globe for the past century. Napalm, carpet bombing, missile strikes, covert operations, death squads, helicopter gunships — these have been words on a piece of paper to most of us, and until this week we have lived with the obscene luxury of choosing whether or not we will comprehend the realities they refer to.
Today, we face a choice – perhaps the most important choice we will make in our lifetimes. Now that such massive death and destruction have occurred inside our own country, will we respond by turning away from war and militarism, by rejecting the culture of violence? Or will we allow the merchants of death to convince us that we need them now more than ever – more armaments, more bombings, more soldiers, more missiles, more profiling, more arrests, more revenge, more dehumanization, and more hatred?
Speculation about the origin of Tuesday’s attack has centered on the Islamic world. People of good will in many communities have cautioned against jumping to conclusions – while stressing the importance of taking action to defend Arab Americans, Arab immigrants, and all Muslims from hate-based violence. With incidents of violence already surging, these cautions are well taken. Regardless of the source of these attacks, the demonization of an entire faith or an entire ethnic group is racism, pure and simple. We believe it is important to go beyond that, however, and take a long, hard look at ourselves and the world we live in.
If current charges about the authors of this event are ultimately verified, what would that mean? Both directly and indirectly through its regional allies, the United States has inflicted untold suffering on the Middle East and neighboring countries for decades. We have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars of armaments into the region. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed. Entire countries have seen their civilian infrastructure and industrial base destroyed. Some of the most undemocratic regimes on the planet are sustained in the Middle East by U.S. arms and U.S. diplomatic support. Meanwhile, the wealth of the region has continued to flow out uninterruptedly to U.S.-based oil companies, arms manufacturers, and other profiteers.
Is it really so surprising that in some quarters these horrendous injustices have been transmuted into hatred and despair – leading some to turn to desperate, senseless acts of violence? In this cycle of violence and hatred, are our own hands so entirely clean?
More important, what path can lead us forward from this point, toward a world of peace and sanity? In the face of so much death, will we choose more death? Or, as Jewish tradition demands of us, will we choose life?
Will we have the courage, as we condemn the inhumanity of these attacks, to reject the easy answer of retribution, vengeance, and demonization? Will we fight back against the voices that call for bombing yet another Islamic country "back to the Stone Age?" Will we speak out against those who label every Arab or Muslim a "terrorist" and casually voice their desire to "kill the Palestinians," eager for someone else’s blood to drown the pain of their grief?
Will we have the clarity to reject the easy – and entirely false – promise that more military power will keep us safe? If anything, these attacks – which were carried out essentially without weapons – prove that no fence is high enough and no army is strong enough to protect us. Will we fight back as the White House steps up its campaign to boost military funding, junk the antiballistic missile treaty, and resurrect Star Wars? Will we resist the push that is already underway for a war – any war – as soon as we can decide on the enemy?
This painful tragedy has occurred following years of assaults on civil rights and civil liberties here in the United States. Little-known "anti-terrorism" laws passed in 1996 mean that those arrested for these attacks may be tried and convicted on secret evidence, without the right to confront their accusers or the evidence against them. Will we denounce this travesty of justice and defend the constitutional right to due process of law – not for white people or U.S. citizens or people we agree with, but for everybody? Will we resist the new McCarthyism that is already on the horizon?
Many people in the Jewish community have accepted that U.S. involvement in the Middle East is designed for our protection – or the protection of our fellow Jews in Israel. Will we learn from this tragedy that the human family stands or falls together – that we cannot keep ourselves safe by keeping each other down? Will we fight for peace with justice between Israelis and Palestinians, based on human rights, democratization, and demilitarization?
In conversations and even in the media, we have heard it said many times that "now we understand what Israelis go through" in the face of random bombing attacks. How many of us have added, now we understand what Palestinians go through, as their homes and communities are bombed and shelled, their orchards uprooted, their neighbors assassinated? Will we dare to ask why some violence is decried as terrorism – but some is not? Will we summon the humanity to recognize ourselves in every person who must wait for someone who will not be coming home – whether they live in Afghanistan, Iraq, Panama, Guatemala, Gaza, or the Sudan?
Our grief today is profound – but it will be repeated over and over again if we do not respond by building a better world. To memorialize the victims of this obscene attack, let us work for justice, so that we may create peace.
JMJP is a working group of Jews Uniting for Social Justice, a grassroots organization in Philadelphia. Contact us at jmjp firstname.lastname@example.org.