Sunday, September 11, 2011


“A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.”

“Peace is not the absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition of benevolence, confidence, justice.”

The above quotations both come from Spinoza. Because they each ring so true, they don’t seem at all contradictory. Yet on days like today, as I will explain shortly, a close read cannot help to reveal just how inconsistent they are.

9/11 has meant a lot of things to a lot of people. For many, it has provided the beginning of a lifelong hate-affair -- and not just with an organization (Al Qaeda) but with a religion of more than a billion people (Islam). For most of us, at least here in America, it has served as the second coming of Pearl Harbor – a call to arms. But perhaps the greatest role of 9/11 has been to supply what has become for those of us born after World War II the single most tragic event of our lifetimes. Sure, there were other events that consumed more lives, but they didn’t pack the same emotional punch as 9/11. Earthquakes and tsunamis make you weep about the present, but 9/11 makes you wonder if there is to be a future.

“We the people” used to be a phrase associated with a nation, a body politic. But now, thanks to 9/11, it refers to a species. And it hardly sounds irrational to ask whether that species will soon go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo birds. If a few troglodytes could destroy two of our most majestic buildings, imagine what those same men could have done if they controlled the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan today or Iran tomorrow.

Osama Bin Laden didn’t quite survive a full ten years after the creation of his evil “masterpiece.” But the dream that inspired him is thriving. He wanted to destroy the United States as an empire, much as he helped destroy the Soviet Union. He wanted America to come rushing into central Asia and spend its blood and treasure on a fool’s errand – conquest and colonization of a land impregnable to modernization. And just look at the results. Unending wars abroad and unending greed domestically have left us with a stagnating economy that even huge deficit spending can’t seem to fix. What’s worse, Bin Laden’s successors may not watch the “United” States dissolve like the Soviet “Union,” yet there is no denying that America is splitting apart at the seams. The inequalities of wealth are getting increasingly stark. Political discourse is getting increasingly polarized and uncivil. And perhaps the only thing that unifies us is disdain for our leaders – Republicans or Democrats, they’re almost all viewed with cynicism and contempt. Yeah, I’d say that Bin Laden’s success as a catalyst of empire-destruction is hard to deny.

To the depressive, then, 9/11 is indeed a rich territory to mine. I could go on and on to describe how our species has been lessened as a result of that event in both obvious and subtle respects … but why bother? We all know a tragedy when we see one. And even though Hollywood will do its best to dramatize the heroism of 9/11, much like it has strived to soak all of the heroism possible out of the Holocaust (see, e.g., Schindler’s List), the devastating consequences of these events are exponentially more profound than their uplifting qualities.

But just because 9/11 is tragic, doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Quite the contrary -- it is precisely the tragedies of life that supply the greatest learning opportunities. Speaking for myself, 9/11 has spurred me to (a) become a peace activist, (b) write a book (Moses the Heretic) that is largely about peace, (c) become a student of Islam, and (d) co-found and coordinate the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington. There is absolutely no reason to believe that I would have done any of those things had Bin Laden’s butchers not hijacked those airplanes. And now, peace work has become among my life’s greatest passions.

So yes, 9/11 should move us to think and more importantly, to act. And like any far-reaching and momentous event, it can legitimately move people to act in widely different ways. I applaud those who, as a result of 9/11, are working to better detect and root out terrorism here and abroad. We should all be especially grateful to those who have joined the military as a result of 9/11 and who are risking their lives so that the rest of us may enjoy ours. But for me, as paradoxical as it may seem to some, 9/11 has served primarily as a spur to working for peace and dialogue, not as a call to arms. Instinctively, I must have recognized so much of the “hate-affair” that I mentioned earlier is really a result of ignorance – ignorance in the Muslim world about the West, and ignorance in the West about Islam. I assumed that the best way to minimize the number and impact of future 9/11s is to combat that ignorance with … if I may say it … empathic, rationalistic dialogue.

Spinoza was, of course, 100% correct, when he said that peace, at its roots, is not the absence of war but rather a certain pro-active disposition characterized by such faculties as benevolence, confidence and justice. As long as the majority of people believe that they are working for peace simply by refraining from making war, they will allow inter-group relationships to be dominated by the minorities among us who sow the seeds of discord. Only a pro-active effort to wage peace can combat and defeat the inevitable efforts to wage war.

Those words sound obvious, and yet it is shocking how few peacemakers exist among us – even the so-called “peace movement” is largely populated by passionate partisans whose view of peace would involve concessions by one side to a conflict and not the other. Why are true peacemakers so rare? It is a sad question to ask, but at least we have a pretty good idea of the answers. Consider, to begin, that it seems like such a Herculean task to bring an end to a widespread conflict. Just about any other cause imaginable offers more tangible and likely successes. Secondly, it is precisely because making peace is so difficult that it is so unbearable, when you consider that the word “peace” conjures up images of harmony, relaxation, and quiet enjoyment. The juxtaposition between peace as a euphoric ideal and working-for-peace as among the most frustrating activities imaginable is devastating when it comes to recruitment.

And yet, I still cannot bring myself to abandon this movement. For what is as holy as working for peace? And what is as rewarding as making genuine strides in the movement for peace? Today of all days, I cannot begin to offer an alternative.

As for the other Spinoza quotation at the beginning of this blog post – the admonition to think about death least of all things – I’m normally a huge fan of that statement. Surely, Spinoza correctly perceived how religions people who are enamored with speculation about the after-life so commonly seem to forget the importance of making a difference in the here and now. And just as surely, he was also reflecting on those individuals who are so fearful about their status after death that they lose their ability to embrace and enjoy their time on earth. Generally, I support anything and everything that can be said to get people to focus on the tasks before us and to view what comes next as simply part of the mystery that transcends human comprehension.

But today, I feel differently.

Today, those of us who are truly devoted to peace are compelled to think about death. We simply cannot avoid thinking about it even if we wanted to. How can we ignore the deaths of the thousands who went to work at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, or who decided to take a flight across the country, only to expire at the hands of devout, yet depraved God-worshipers? And how can we ignore thinking about the hundreds of thousands who died in the wars that resulted from 9/11 – wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and any other conflicts in the Arab world that can legitimately be traced to the events of ten years ago? It is the job of the peacemaker to think about what a great obligation we have to honor the names and the lives of these individuals – not simply by weeping at their demise, but by striving to ensure that they did not die in vain.

I have already told you how my life and my conduct has changed as a result of 9/11. What about you? How has 9/11 affected you? What can you do to honor the dead? The same question can be asked of us when we think about other similar tragedies – American slavery, the Civil War, the Holocaust … or for that matter, the Black Plague. The memory of all of these events can serve as an inspiration. But there is no muse quite like a momentous world tragedy that occurs in one’s own lifetime. If that won’t get your blood flowing, perhaps you need a transfusion.

In short, we know of two kinds of motivating experiences in life – happy ones and learning ones. Let’s all take steps to ensure that 9/11 remains within the pantheon when it comes to the latter.

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