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Question is how to end cycle of violence


In the wake of the horrible assault on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Americans have been in a state of shock. Understandably a primary response has been to hold prayer services to express our mourning for the victims. But I believe it is not too early to start reflecting critically on the dominant government and media responses to this event, lest we react as a nation by generating far more victims.

One of the major responses to this horrible event of destruction has been expressions of national unity. Our prayer services for the victims have typically featured the waving of the American flag, the singing of “America the Beautiful.” While this sense of needing to pull together as a people who feel collectively assaulted is understandable, such displays of patriotism easily feed into a reaffirmation of a delusory American identity: We are America the Good, America the Innocent, America who can do no wrong, unjustly assaulted by those who hate us for no reason, whose very hate indicates that they are the spawn of the Devil, the representations of the “forces of Evil.”

This dualistic language that glorifies ourselves and demonizes some vague other, presumed to be Arab and Muslim, blocks any critical reflection on why many people, even young children, in the Muslim world, as well as other parts of the world, in fact see America as a representative of oppressive global forces responsible for their own impoverishment and the violence visited upon them. For Palestinians it is not hard to make this connection. Under siege for a year, even a child has only to pick up the casings of the shells fired against them (that to date have killed 631 Palestinians, a third of them children, and injured 15,510). These casings typically read “Made in the United States.”

The attacks of Sept. 11 were intended to hit two symbols of corporate economic and military power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It also killed or injured thousands of ordinary Americans, what our military has called “collateral damage” when we have done this sort of thing to Iraqis. Focusing, as we should, on the horror of the deaths of those ordinary Americans, we avoid discussing the symbolic meaning of those edifices for many other people in the world.

The overwhelming response being suggested by our government and media is what is called “war,” some massive military retaliation that will wipe out the terrorists and the governments that supposedly shelter them. Exactly how such military strikes will wipe out terrorism, rather than in fact feeding into its escalation, is never discussed. We are told that enormous war powers must be given to the president. Vast funds to “fight terrorism” at home and abroad have already been passed by Congress, oblivious to the fact that such feeding frenzies of anti-terrorism funding have been largely wasted in the past.

Even more ominous, we are told that we should acquiesce to giving up some of our civil liberties, accept a further militarization of our society, bow to endless security checks at the entrance to every public place as the price of recaptured “security,” practices that only give evidence of massive insecurity. That anyone with Muslim dress and an Arab name will be the likely victim of such stepped-up security is obvious.

Particularly alarming is the rapid effort to profile Palestinians as the icon of the terrorist that we should see as our enemy. Pictures of Palestinians “celebrating” the World Trade Center bombing were endlessly played on the media Sept. 11, mostly without explanation that those celebrating were small groups of young people, mostly children, who did what any group of Palestinian youth do when the cameras are turned on them, jump up and down and flash V for victory signs. There is little evidence that they actually understood the dimensions of what had happened in New York. Once the full reality of the disaster became known, there was no cheering by Palestinians.

On the contrary, a million Palestinian children held a moment of prayer for the victims, and condolences from Palestinian organizations have poured in to friends in the United States. I have received many of these by e-mail, but have failed to find any mention of them on the American news.

It is time to stop and critically reflect on this whole line of response before we go farther down this road. We need not only to understand how our presence in the world does great harm to many other peoples of the world. But we should also perceive how the violence represented by groups such as those connected with Osama bin Laden and our call for righteous vengeance are mirror images of each other.

All three monotheistic religions evidence, in this global struggle centered on the Middle East, a deep streak of righteous violence. Such righteous violence operates with a false concreteness of symbols of the “evil other.” The world is divided between the forces of light and darkness, the kingdoms of good and evil. The only difference is which side sees itself as the kingdom of Light and projects the other as the epitome of the Great Satan. Both sides imagine that by destroying symbols and representatives of the other they will actually destroy “evil.”

Both kill ordinary people who happen to inhabit or are traveling on these symbolic vehicles, whose deaths they dismiss as collateral damage. But what is collateral to one side is the loved ones of the other side, thus fueling outrage and a thirst for revenge. The cycle of violence is not ended but fed by such retaliation.

The question is not how to find some target large enough to bomb in retaliation for the tragedy of Sept. 11, but how to stop the cycle of violence. We need to start by imagining the other as fellow human being, getting to know and understand how our power has injured them, and beginning to imagine some way to reduce the injuries and injustices that fuel this anger and hatred. We need to change the paradigm of relationship from demonic other to neighbor and potential friend, and we need to start speaking about this now and in clear voices before the cycle of violence engulfs us all.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001