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.