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Isolation now seems out of place

Hope is a decision. Much like faith and love. We decide to respond to the gifts of life. All of those virtues have been evident in the response of the American people during the days following the history-shaping terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. From the ashes have come countless acts of extraordinary generosity and self-sacrifice.

As remarkable has been the reflective way so many have responded to the terrorist acts. The wife of one of the men on flight 93 who apparently wrestled hijackers on the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field said, for example, she does not seek revenge. “I don’t want any Pakistani or Afghan mothers to have to go through what I am going through,” she said. Calls for caution and restraint in the midst of national outrage were being heard across the nation.

In contrast to the Washington leadership, clerics and educators among others last week began to ask, however tentatively, one of the most important questions facing the nation: “Why?” Answering this is not easy, especially for a people who live comfortably between two large oceans and -- despite a global communications network -- in relative isolation from the rest of the world.

The tragedy offers the hope of awakening us all to a greater sense of interdependence. A nuclear defense shield built with the purpose of “protecting America” in an every-nation-for-itself mentality seems quite out of place at a time Washington scrambles to build a worldwide coalition to fight terrorism.

All the Trident submarines and F-16 jet fighters and armed tanks of the elite units of the U.S. armed forces seem inconsequential in efforts to stop terrorists from cracking open a vile of a biological toxin in the center of a U.S. city. Washington’s might takes on new and perhaps diminished meaning in light of these new realities.

These are sobering times, but within them is the hope that fresh assessments can be made that will allow the United States to hook up with the rest of the human family in a new way, aware of a new sense of vulnerability, a more realistic sense of national limits and the need to consult broadly beyond our borders if mutual understanding and cooperation is to be achieved.

Nothing is more important in pursuit of these new arrangements than an examination of conscience. This is not to say that through some perverted logic horrific acts perpetrated by these terrorists could be justified. We are victims here, all of us. The pain is overwhelming, the grief consuming.

Rather it is to say that the magnitude of the horror will only grow unless these events change the way we think.

In 1996, Madeleine Albright, at the time U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and eventually secretary of state during the Clinton administration, answered a question about whether the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to the U.S.-inspired sanctions were worth the political objective of taking down the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Replied Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it.”

There is no need to overstate the case here. The point is not that Albright is an evil person but that her language betrays a certain attitude about people in other parts of the world, about how dispensable we seem to consider them. No wonder they get angry.

We are a great nation. We represent more than any other nation the entire global family. The United States is the most exciting multi-ethnic experiment on earth today. But we are also cut off from much of the rest of the human family, often victim of our material successes and consumer-driven lives.

This can change. As John Allen writes on page 3: “To try to understand how the United States looks through another set of eyes is not to endorse that view. Determining the truth in any perspective is a task for sober discernment. It is precisely sobriety, however, that tends to be eclipsed when war clouds gather.”

These are sobering times. Not times for rash action. As a nation, we are coming to recognize we cannot live in isolation, either from the pain and suffering of others in distant lands or from their perceptions of us. The realization is being driven home that we will make it or not only as one human family.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001