Politics & Law

Lessons learned from 9/11: The nonviolent way to security

Michael Nagler

Please read these words of an American woman living in Norway:

Our public officials have asked us to put compassion first, to nurture each other, listen to each other, put words to our feelings, to respect our vulnerability, to feel our anger and desperation but not allow hate or angst to take over. King Harald, Queen Sonja, their son Crown Prince Haakon … all let us see their tears. The King promised that our humanist values would not be shaken. The Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said: “We will meet terror and violence with even more democracy, openness and humanity – though not with naivety.” He quoted a young woman from the Labor Party Youth organization who was present during the attacks, “If one person can show that much hate, imagine how much love we all can show together.”

We cannot fail to be moved by the nobility of the Norwegian people. I know of individuals who have risen to this kind of maturity — like Eileen Egan who at age 80 was mugged and badly hurt but forgave her attacker and, as she said, “refused to live in fear.” The Amish community responded recently to a rampage like the present one that took the lives of children at their school. But here we are seeing the courage — and wisdom —of an entire people.

Terrorism, as basically an extreme form of violence, follows the dynamics of violence anywhere: if you fight it with your own violence it gets worse (thought there might be some “successes” in the short run); if you respond to it with nonviolence — and the courage and nobility of the Norwegians today is exactly that (this was the people, remember, who courageously defied Hitler during the Nazi occupation during the famous Norwegian school teachers’ strike) — not only do you keep from falling into the debilitating mindset of fear and anger yourself, history shows that you also tend to inhibit the repetition of such disasters.

This is why in the UK, no stranger to terrorism, they tend, in the words of an English friend of mine, to “play it down (splash and publicity is just what the attackers want) and quietly set about solving the problem.” Note the assumption that there is in fact a problem — that if someone hates you that much, there might just be a reason. So this is an approach that, while it does not evoke the incredible generosity of spirit we are seeing in Norway, at least does not descend to the methods of the attackers and has been adopted because it tends to break the cycle of violence.

Then there’s our way. The United States had a powerful knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 which was not based on political realities but was framed as a kind of cataclysmic mythology á la Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings, or, yes, Harry Potter. There is an “axis of evil” of mindless terrorists out to get us because “they’re jealous of our freedoms,” and we’re not reacting out of private vengeance (only), we’re saving the world. After 9/11 President Bush lost no time evoking cowboy mythology with his “wanted dead or alive” rhetoric that similarly demonized and in a way trivialized the presumed mastermind of the evil attack (the recent film Cowboys and Aliens finishes the merger of the two mythologies).

End-time mythological fantasies are not a safe way to think about the real world. Norway will reel from the blow she has felt, but will still be the open country they want; to some extent they will be the stronger because they have discovered the possibility of love in the depths of hate. The UK has many problems, but terror has not knocked them off their perch, except insofar as they have been swept into the American mythology in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there’s us. We have sacrificed the lives of over four thousand of our own servicemen and women in Iraq alone (a country that had nothing to do with the attacks) and left an estimated 100,000 wounded, many of them yet to be counted as the post traumatic stress of the meaningless brutality comes home. Over 7,000 coalition troops — more than twice the total who died in 9/11 — and close to two million Iraqis and Afghans have died in the ensuing violence. Nearly $4 trillion is down the drain in the two theaters.

Looked from another perspective, Anders Breivik completely failed in his mission to start a revolution and choke off the tolerance of Norwegian society. The various attacks on the UK have had some “success,” without causing any fundamental changes. But Osama bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He not only devitalized our economy and many of our democratic freedoms but damaged America’s credibility in the world.

It is not too late to restore a good measure of that credibility. As one peace scholar voiced shortly after the attacks: “terrorism cannot be condoned, but it can be understood,” that is, not turned into an apocalyptic myth that condemns us to endless war and the sacrifice of our freedoms in the name of “security.” This is not who we are. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 comes up, why don’t we defy the terrorists by strengthening, not weakening, our democratic institutions with the principles of nonviolence (watch our website for developments of our “Love Your Enemy” campaign)? What is stopping us, the American people, from rejecting Islamophobia and the police-state mentality into which we fell when we were first reeling from the shock of 9/11? Eileen Egan refused to live in fear. Shall we go on refusing to get over it? Let us reignite the courage and idealism with which we once inspired the world.

This op-ed appeared in Waging Nonviolence

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