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The imagination to do things differently

We had the chance to do things differently.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks last year, we wrote in this space, “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.”

The world was with us. “We are all Americans,” some foreign headlines exclaimed.

The moment has been lost.

We could have reacted differently. We reacted in the easiest way available. We went to war.

By this year’s anniversary of the attacks, we had squandered much of the goodwill. The world has become wary, not supportive, of our intentions and our methods. It was clear by that anniversary that the Bush administration, having already embarked on an undeclared, open-ended military campaign, intended to use the 9/11 observances as a steppingstone to war with Iraq.

The danger today is that we believe the overblown rhetoric that this administration is using to both convince the public of the need to go forward with the war and to convince itself of the nobility of its intent.

At Ellis Island on 9/11, President Bush had not only history but also God matching the United States with the duties of the moment. “We cannot know all that lies ahead,” said Bush. “Yet, we do know that God has placed us together in this moment, to grieve together, to stand together, to serve each other and our country. And the duty we have been given — defending America and our freedom — is also a privilege we share … and our prayer tonight is that God will see us through, and keep us worthy.”

If, indeed, God were as intimately involved in our moment of determination as the president would have us believe, then that God might have stooped and begun writing in the sand, reminding us of our own sins and of the fact that God is the God of all creation.

For all truly religious activity, whatever the tradition, begins with self- examination, and that is what we, as a culture and as a nation bent on war, have refused to do since the attack a year ago.

We declare who we are — we are just, our enemies unjust; we love every life, our enemies value none. “We fight,” our president says, “not to impose our will, but to defend ourselves and extend the blessings of freedom.” Our enemies hate us because they hate our freedoms and our way of life.

There is, of course, an element of truth in all of that. However, a larger truth, the episodes of history that have brought us to this point, the record of our behavior in the region that had nothing to do with extending our freedoms or respecting the rights of other cultures but had everything to do with extending U.S. access to Middle East oil fields, is left out of the speeches.

At times, the policy is embarrassingly transparent. On his way home from the United Nations conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited two other African countries, Gabon and Angola, (where we also have a Cold War history that may come back to haunt us). There was no secret about why he chose those two. They produce oil. They potentially could produce a lot of oil. Our interest in government stability, in giving aid for environmental projects, is directly linked to our need to maintain access to oil.

The president has shown himself adept at playing the Catholic card in domestic politics and in extolling the virtues of Pope John Paul II, but we doubt he will quote the words the pope spoke on the first anniversary of Sept. 11: “A resolved joint effort is necessary and urgent to activate new political and economic initiatives to resolve the scandalous situations of injustice and oppression that continue to afflict so many members of the human family, creating conditions favorable to the uncontrollable explosion of the desire for revenge. When fundamental human rights are violated it is easy to fall prey to the temptations of hate and violence. It is necessary to build together a global culture of solidarity, that can return to youth hope for the future.”

In a way, our elaborate grieving on the anniversary of 9/11 is symbolic of what we fail to see. That moment of heartfelt connection with victims of wanton, insane violence was made all the sadder by the fact that we failed to draw the connection between our hurt and the hurt of millions across the globe who are victims of insane violence almost daily.

Millions of mothers on continents around the globe ache for dying children, for missing husbands. Relatives and friends the world over tread between fear and courage, trying to find the whereabouts of political prisoners, risking life itself to make that human connection. Just weeks before our observance in the United States, relatives and friends stood around yet another open grave in Guatemala, the latest excavations. They stood in fear because the military and paramilitary are still assassinating people who get too close to the truth. What a story the mothers and friends of the 200,000 plus missing victims of political violence and genocide there — a short plane ride from our nation’s capital — would tell if only they had the wherewithal to do it.

The United States has the largest microphone, the largest and most skilled army, the most powerful economy and the longest reach of any country in the world. We can fashion our story in a way no other culture can. What religious leaders like the pope and others represented in this issue seem to be asking is, Do we have the compassion and the wisdom to use all of that for the greatest good? Do we realize that when we say, as the president did, “The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind,” that many around the world feel they pay an unfair price — in our exploitation of resources, our manipulation of their politics, our disregard for their cultures — to help us uphold those ideals on our soil?

We have, on this page, gone over the reasons war with Iraq would be not only dangerous but futile many times before a new war with Iraq became a public obsession. Those reasons are spelled out amply again in our coverage in this issue.

While the military and strategic questions are important, vital even, to considerations of war and peace, the deeper and more important question for America now is whether it is losing sight of itself and what it means to the rest of the world.

The United States can, as President Bush makes clear, go it alone. We are that powerful a nation.

Can we, though, dare to have the conversation — with countries in the Middle East, with the rest of the world — that an alternative to war requires? Can we dare to summon the imagination to do things differently?

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002