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The Horror And The Humanity Of September 11: Finding A Progressive Solution To The Tragedy Of Global Misery
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
October 15, 2001

I didn't see the initial crash of the towers, but from the streets outside my apartment here in Jersey City, I could look across the Hudson to the smoke and char billowing in the air and stare in unbelief at the striking absence of those landmarks so usually dominant in our vision.

Many in my neighborhood took the PATH subway to the World Trade Center station every day and many of them would never come back. The sick irony of the hate involved in the attack was underscored as a makeshift memorial - one of a seeming infinity erected throughout the New York region - appeared at our station, its list of names dominated by the Arabic dead from our heavily Middle Eastern and South Asia neighborhood.

How can progressives respond to September 11?

With pain, with horror, with sympathy, with pride, with all the regrets of what could have been. But most importantly not with its usual defensive stance of saying just "no", for out of the horror of that day are also the possibilities of a new sense of humanity in the world that progressives should embrace as the positive solution to prevent further tragedies.

While we should worry and act proactively to defend civil liberties and promote international justice as an alternative to military means of security, it is worth emphasizing the positive sides that our society revealed in these crisis days, some of them directly the result of the political and cultural organizing progressives have been promoting for years. I say all this not to paint a pure rosy picture, since we may have some grim days ahead, but to emphasize the gains we have achieved by our constant engagement with these issues over the years. There is so much good we can appeal to in our fellow citizens, so we should not frame our response totally in a "ten minutes to midnight" approach.

Despite some horrible acts by individual Americans, the major media and politicians have been dramatically less xenophobic than during past terrorist acts in the US, with continual admonitions against turning hate against fellow Americans, especially Arab and Islamic Americans. Despite the justified anger at the death and destruction, there has been a heartening lack of scapegoating and an understanding promoted of the diversity of what Islam means and the humane components of the Palestinian struggle which overwhelmingly reject this act of mass murder. This is a remarkable advance on the xenophobia that absolutely dominated all discussion of terrorism and the Middle East even a few years ago.

In speaking of these events, we need to remember that in times of crisis communication is not always about what is intended but what will be heard and understood by listeners. When bodies lie barely cold in the rubble of mass death, no explanation, no "perspective", on the causes of the event are likely to be heard or should expected to be heard as anything other than an excuse for the murder. That is a reality that has to be part of any responsible left response to these tragic events.

In that sense, anything said must be clearly put in the context of absolute and unequivocal condemnation of these mass murders and of the criminality of those involved.

While the US has its own international crimes for which it should be held accountable, they are irrelevant to these events, for there is no calculus that allows the grievances of one set of innocents to be taken out on the bodies of another set.

This reality is why the Palestinian leadership condemned it so strongly without any reference to US actions, an act of amazing compassion considering this was done even as their people were being killed with weapons and by allies of the US. As was reported by Reuters, the Palestinian leadership stated that the attack contravened ''all human principles and values regardless of the existing differences with the American administration.'' Arafat himself told reporters, "We completely condemn this serious operation. ... We were completely shocked. It's an unbelievable disaster. It is touching our hearts. It is very difficult to explain my feelings. God help them. God help them.''

No one wants to hear about past mistakes right now that this tragedy has occurred (since that just doubles the bitterness), but everyone wants to hear about solutions to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. The Right is coding their explanation and scapegoating in their proposed solution - military response - implicitly (and in a few cases explicitly) blaming too little military spending and too lax repression for the events of September 11.

Conversely, instead of discussing past crimes by the US government, a better approach is to stress solutions for the future - collective security through global justice. We can act in solidarity with the Palestinians and the other victims of US violence by strongly emphasizing the evil of all violence bred of hate, domination and exploitation. We will find far more allies for a just world through building solidarity between the victims of the World Trade Center and other global victims of violence than through any finger-pointing or causal explanations.

There has been a surprisingly large amount of acknowledgement of the suffering of the Palestinians and other victims of US military actions in these weeks, both in the media and in the public. The very enormity of this act that may be encouraging war fever in some has through its enormity also focused many Americans on the world of misery they often ignored.

Maybe that is a justification for the effectiveness of the act of the terrorists, but it is the traditional religious explanation justifying all evil - that when we confront evil in its raw singular hateful reality, we may be inspired to find the good within in reaction. That is never guaranteed, but when peoples' hearts are opened at such a moment, we may find that an appeal for humanity and love may be far more effective than a more traditional oppositional stance.

People will hate only if they feel that is the only solution to the wound that was opened in them. If we can provide an alternative solution, of solidarity between all victims of violence and hate, of ending misery so hate cannot breed, of seeking a real end to war and violence through democratic and global collective security, that is I think the truest way to serve both the victims of this September 11 and the victims of US violence as well.

Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, a National Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book NET LOSS on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see Posted by Nathan at October 15, 2001 10:53 AM