Serious Thoughts 2: Suffering

In the days immediately after September 11, 2001, the US appealed to the world to side with it against terrorism, both on the basis that combating terrorism is the right thing to do, and because America had just suffered such a terrible attack. The world responded, at least for a time.

Now, let’s be clear. Combating terrorism is the right thing to do, though very little of it can be done effectively with guns and bombs. Most of it requires diplomacy, tact, mediation, and a passion for justice. But I digress. I want to talk about the second reason the world responded to the US’s appeal: suffering.

Many people all around the world had mixed feelings about the attacks on the World Trade Center. On the one hand, they were horrified and grieved. On the other, deep down, they were hopeful. I saw an interview with a Palestinian the other day, talking about those first weeks. “We thought Americans finally understood what we have been suffering,” he said. “We thought that at last they would help us.” An Israeli would have said the same thing, no doubt.

There was a time, fortunately a brief one, when the American government seemed to use its people’s suffering as a justification for any action it chose to take. (Using the justification that the US has the military, political and economic might to enforce its will on the rest of the world, which is the current policy, is just as mistaken and much more dangerous. It is no wonder that most other countries are no longer “on side” with the US. But that too is a digression.) The fact that America has suffered is important, but not for that reason.

Flashback to the days before September 2001.

For decades, the United States had been fortunate enough to escape the fate of so many countries all over the world. American civilians (and military personnel, for the most part) were safe. As in any society, they feared crime, but they did not fear atrocity, unlike the people of Spain, India, Pakistan, the former Yugoslavia, Algeria, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Israel, the Palestinian Occupied Territory, etc, etc. And in their safety, Americans became increasingly inward-looking, more and more self-centered, less and less concerned about the impact of their actions on the rest of the world. Extremism feeds on that kind of insularity, and uses the simplistic worldview it fosters to generate sympathy and funds.

Over the decades, individual Americans and the American government had supported various terrorist and pseudo-terrorist causes. The IRA, when it was bombing Britain’s cities, killing its innocent civilians, and attempting to assassinate its leaders, received substantial funding from Americans via NORAID. The CIA’s support of organisations and institutions now considered terrorist is also well documented. I cannot believe my people would have supported, or permitted, such things if the devastation they caused had been as real to them as the attack on the Twin Towers came to be.

Flash forward again to the present.

The anniversary last week allowed people to get back in touch with their grief – and their anger. Now, anger is like fire: it’s a good tool, but a poor master. In the aftermath of any terrible event, it is anger that gets us back on our feet. But it also clouds our judgement, and makes us heedless of the consequences of our actions. In their fury, my fellow countrymen have been tempted to use their grief as a lever, or an excuse. “We’ve suffered,” was the argument, “so we’re entitled to do whatever we have to to feel safe again.” Phrases like “acceptable losses” and “collateral damage” came up, people nodded wisely and looked stern. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and making other people suffer will not make us feel better in the end. Pursuing a course of justice, where suspects are tried and the guilty are punished is part of the answer, but only part.

To really heal, we need our grief as well as our anger. Grief drives us to make something good come out of devastation. It unites us across ethnic, cultural, and national boundaries, and renews our empathy. Knowing what it is to suffer ourselves, we can imagine how other sufferers feel, and be touched by the desire to help them. And in helping others, we heal ourselves. More than that: we grow. We become stronger than we were before. We are more than whole, and live in a better world than we did before. This is the great gift of any suffering, the silver lining in the blackest cloud.

This is the challenge facing the United States, and indeed all of the West: to wake up to the shared suffering of the world, and build out of it a better place for our children. That would be a fitting memorial to honor those affected by September 11.

Serious Thoughts 1: Rights

I am an American, and proud of that fact. My nation was founded on a set of philisophical principles which I share. They were revolutionary at the time. Actually, they’re pretty controversial now, if you take them seriously.

I believe that all men – and women – are created equal.

Note that I didn’t say all Americans there. People in the Third World, who don’t speak English and aren’t as wealthy as I am, are my equals. Their suffering matters, and their lives matter.

I believe that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Again, that means all of us, including people who will use those rights in a way I don’t approve of, and people who will voluntarily relinquish said rights. I will address the issue of liberty, and the missing link to responsibility, another time.

This does not mean that the United States has the right to, for instance, protect these rights for citizens of other countries. But it does mean that any American foreign policy that takes these rights away is a bad idea.

I believe that sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, and that governments are accountable as a consequence.

This is the one I want to talk about right now, in the light of some reactions to my comments on September 11.

If sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, then any ruler – monarch, parliament, dictator or president – who is not in power because the people want it that way is a tyrant. This applies whether they are in place because of a coup or are installed by a foreign power. And any society that advocates the displacement of a legitimate ruler, uses its funds to influence foreign elections or civil wars, or directs its efforts to the overthrow of another country’s rulers is participating in tyranny. This is true no matter how much we dislike the ruler in question or his politics. (Note that assisting in making peace, arbitrating between disputants, and keeping the peace with the consent of the people affected are not tyranny.)

This also means that my government is my employee, answerable to me. I have the right to question and even criticise it if I think it is doing the wrong thing. Actually, I have a responsibility to do so. Historically, of course, this right and responsibility have been more honored in the breach than in the observance. Governments don’t like criticism, and when the national mood is particularly fervent, neither do ordinary citizens. That does not dilute the responsibility.

On a more pragmatic note, criticising bad government policy is the only way to get good government policy. No one’s ideas are universally correct; good ideas are developed by discussion and concensus, and bad ones killed by the same process. Writers know this – submitting your work to criticism is the only way to hone and improve it. Government is no different, and it is the duty of responsible citizens to participate in public debate to help improve policy. The most pernicious trend in US public life today is the stifling of this debate, the denial of this responsibilty, and the relentless kowtowing to the government.

But surely, comes the answer, in the national interest, we have to do things that are incompatible with our Constitution? They are unpleasant, but they are necessary.

I believe we cannot write straight with crooked lines. The ends do not justify the means.

Not even desperate times. This is when we need to cling to our principles more tightly than ever.

One Year On…

…and we have failed.

The world is not a safer place, as our politicians promised at the time. It’s, if anything, a worse place for most people.

Before I go on, let me say something to those who will be offended and stop reading halfway. Just because someone is critical of, say, your nation, does not mean they’re wrong, or biased. It could mean your nation is on the wrong track. Getting in a huff won’t solve the problem.

Back to the facts.

Palestine, the goad that drives the Islamic world to terrorism, is in a worse state than ever. Israel, driven by the same fears that drive the US, has not taken the terrifying, courageous and necessary leap toward co-operation, and after some brief gestures in that direction, their strongest backers have not pressured them to do so. America, by the way, should take a good look at how dreadful everyday life is for Israeli civilians. This is where the US’s current foreign policy is taking our nation.

The impetus toward war in Iraq continues. Americans seem to want it, and George Bush wants it (to finish what Daddy started, maybe?). Tony Blair, perhaps trying to be more “presidential”, is trying to persuade a skeptical British public that such a war is a good idea. I don’t think he’ll succeed. Will he commit the UK anyway?

Climate change continues, unabated, because the worst polluter has yet another reason not to care. Yesterday it was floods in France and the drought in Africa continues unreported while the richest nation in the world drives its SUVs with the flag at half-mast.

And (lower on the list, since it kills no-one directly) my native land, blinded by fury, has lost hold of its guiding principles. Where is the liberty and justice for all? I await the trials of the people in Camp X-Ray, currently in a most unpleasant legal limbo. I await the restoration of genuine freedom of speech, where the right to say what you like even if it is unpopular is protected. I await the return of the mindset that made America a true beacon of liberty to the world, before she became obsessed, before she discovered that she could do so many things and forgot to ask if she should.

I am filled with sadness for the thousands who died a year ago. But I am also filled with sadness for the thousands who died offscreen, getting up not in comfortable, secure homes but in refugee camps and sun-scorched farms. These people mattered too, and were beloved of their families too. They were innocent, and they were heartbreakingly brave in the face of terrible adversity, but where are their parades and their memorials?