9/11 and the Tenth Parallel

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Twin towers of a different kind, Damascus
Among my many emotions on this somber anniversary, the greatest is frustration. Here's why, and what I think we can do to fix it.

In response to a series of events ten years ago today that an arrogant and naive America could not anticipate (much less comprehend), our nation launched two wasteful and devastating wars, dismantled protections of civil liberties, sanctioned torture and illegal detention, built walls—both physical and bureaucratic—around our borders, shamefully failed the selfless volunteers who sacrificed to protect us, and embraced xenophobia and racism in our public discourse. All these rash and careless and downright stupid responses to 9/11 frustrate me, but not nearly as much as our collective failure to respond in one single, all-important way: to seek to understand what led to those events and how can we work to decrease the chances of their ever happening again.

Few ever seriously asked those questions, in large part because they were "answered" for us. President Bush told us the terrorists hated our way of life, media pundits told us the "war on terror" on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Iraq was a success—until that illusion became wholly untenable, and all our crazy uncles railed against Islamic rage and Muslim "backwardness" and the desire of every human being from Morocco to Indonesia to see us all dead.

But in truth, most Americans never really made an effort to learn more for themselves about the values, the challenges, the histories, the cultures that exist in the Arab and Islamic worlds. If we had, we may have acted very differently throughout these last ten years, and adopted measures to defuse the tensions that fueled extremism among a shockingly small fraction of these populations. Instead, we spent the last ten years working against our own interest or, at best, spinning in circles.

Today, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, police officers manned every corner of downtown Washington and New York. Why? Because at heart we know that—even with Bin Laden dead and Saddam dead and al-Qaida in disarray and all the other so-called victories in the "war on terror"—we are still no safer than we were on that fateful September morning ten years ago. We just don't understand why.

* * *

I would like to challenge readers of this post to change that, by making a genuine effort to reach out and understand the thing you fear. Here's some ideas:
  • First, read. I suggest the single best book I have read in this decade on the Islamic world and its interactions with our own: Eliza Griswold's The Tenth Parallel. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who wants a readable and engaging look at the central questions driving events in our world today.
  • Second, ask yourself how many Muslims you know? There are billions in the world—now is as good a time as any to meet some. Go out on a limb—ask them about their origins, their faith, their culture, their beliefs. What's the worst that could happen? Too many Americans make too many blanket statements about a religion they hardly know.
  • Third, take a trip somewhere you'd never imagine going. Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, India, Kenya—why not? The only difference between a trip there and a trip to Europe is that you'll learn more and spend less. Don't have the financial ability to travel so far? There are Muslims in Ann Arbor and Houston and New York and pretty much everywhere else in the US. Visit them and talk with them.
These steps aren't terribly difficult. Yet if more Americans make efforts like these to reach out and understand "The Other", our country can be in a very different place—and have a very different reputation in the world—on the the 20th anniversary of this tragic day.


Chad Oberholtzer said...

Though I may be less inclined to be so critical of the American response which I think was, if nothing else, very natural and aligned with human nature, your sentiments are very well articulated and worthy of reflection. Frankly, this is one of the most helpful things that I've heard or read in light of today's momentous anniversary. Thanks for sharing...

Chad O.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thank you, Chad. I'm very glad it's helpful! Feel free to share with others who might find it informative as well.

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