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Special Report

When power is not enough


The heart goes numb at the thought of it.

At Xavier University’s academic convocation on “The Effects of Globalization,” the ethicist and the economist were speaking about the challenges and problems that come with global economic development. The Jesuit had already told us that there were lessons to be relearned today from the lives of Jesuit missionaries like Mateo Ricci and John DeBrito who had been sensitive to the cultures in which they worked.

Then, in the middle of it all, the cell phone rang for the first time. The World Trade Center had been barraged, the voice on the other end of the line told me. I froze in my seat, aghast and unbelieving: Who? Why? What can possibly be done in the face of something like this? I tried to concentrate while the real world haunted the academic world like silhouettes behind a scrim as we all sat in straight, neat, professorial rows approaching the problems of the world “reasonably.”

Thirty minutes later, the cell phone rang again: The Pentagon had been bombarded, too, the caller said. Shock turned to pain in me while the political scientist mused about whether or not globalization was really the problem a few vociferous voices say it is and the theologian reminded us that all religions of the world warn us that personal development depends on the development of the common good. When I moved out into the lobby, television sets, radios, cell phones were shouting the news: The United States of America, leader of the free world, center of the capitalist world, was under attack from unknown terrorists from unknown places. It was an ironic, a bizarre, setting for a bizarre event.

The nightmare of wounded people, of peace shattered by shards of hate, of the curdling of the illusion of security was bad enough. But the nightmare within the nightmare was even worse. Something was all wrong. The Cold War had generated paranoia of massive proportions. So, armed to the teeth, we had won that war, hadn’t we, and against the most powerful people in the world?

Well, maybe yes, maybe no.

What we had really won in the wake of the Cold War may have been exactly what makes us so susceptible now. What we won, perhaps, was a sense that we were invulnerable, impenetrable and invincible. But now we had been hit from behind the trees, just as a small band of American farmers once defeated a well-prepared and well-disciplined British army. Now we had been struck at the heart of our most symbolic centers: the World Trade Center, our icon of capitalism, and the Pentagon, the symbol of the kind of American military strength geared to deal with nuclear powers. Now we had been wounded more seriously than we had been at Pearl Harbor: All financial markets closed, all airports locked down, all federal buildings evacuated, children sent home from school.

The United States had been brought to a halt by four commercial planes and a band of anonymous terrorists.

What we had really won in the Cold War, it seems, was a false sense of power and a false kind of power. With no national government formidable enough to check our own, we could break international treaties, walk out of international conferences, ignore the complaints of large parts of the world. We could do whatever we wanted anywhere at any time. Who was strong enough to stop us now?

A traveler whose plane had been affected by the attack groaned to the TV interviewer in despair, “I can’t understand who would initiate this kind of attack on us.” As the West takes over more and more of the resources of the world with small regard for social inequities that raw capitalism leaves in its wake, we may all have to try to understand again that it may be weakness, not strength, that is our enemy.

As unpatriotic as it may be seen to be in the initial moments of such an event, we may have to learn that listening to those to whom no one listens at all may be the only power that’s really effective.

Shooting won’t be enough to control people who have nothing to lose. Nuclear shields won’t have a thing to do with it. Getting them -- whoever they are this time -- won’t solve the problem or keep America safe, because they will simply come back again and again in their children.

The United States of America is worth more than this. The United States of America stands for more than this. The United States of America was itself born out of having nothing to lose.

The only thing that can possibly resolve global situations like this is a power based on respect for the powerless before their powerlessness turns to rage. Indeed, there is something to learn from Ricci who respected the culture of the Chinese and DeBrito who became an Indian ascetic in order to communicate across all castes. Then, terrorists, whoever they are and however fanatical they may be, will be able to curry no favor with those who need favor most, with those who dance in the streets to celebrate such a thing.

In the meantime, God bless America. May God give us all the grace it will take to survive this grief.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001