A year later and we’re still taking stock.

One thing that occurs to me; perhaps the state of nervousness and tension that the world — especially the United States — is experiencing is the norm, rather than the relative peace and ease that we felt during the mid- to late 1990’s. In the United States, especially, with our economy on a path of what seemed to be limitless growth and jobs plentiful for everyone and the Internet ready to revolutionize everything from how we communicated with everyone around the world to how we did our laundry (anyone remember, we could pretend that the whole world was sharing our joy and feeling the same kind of peace.

Of course, it wasn’t. And on 9/11/01, we finally got a dose of the reality that not everyone in the world was happy.

I’ve been doing my best to avoid any media coverage of 9/11 “commemorations” and “remembrances”; not because I want to ignore the pain and suffering of those who lost loved ones in the attacks, or ignore the effects that they had on our society. To the contrary, I believe that media over-exposure cheapens the meaning of the events and desensitizes us.

We’re all still trying to figure out what it means. Some people think it means that the United States and everything we believe in is suddenly a target for blind, unreasoning hatred. Some people think it’s grand that suddenly we have a new target to direct our own hatred at (too many people miss the Cold War). Others believe that we brought this on ourselves and that the only honorable thing we could do as a nation is commit national suicide.

Me, I don’t know. There’s a part of me that wants to blow off the terrorists; at times, terrorist groups remind me of the kids in high school that I knew who drew up elaborate plans for how they would storm the school and take it over if only they had the guns and the money to do it — except now they have great big guns and people willing to commit suicide in the name of the same adolescent sort of bravado. But I know that this not only cheapens the events, but also ignores the legitimate grievances and painful conditions that fostered the desperation that led to the terrorism in the first place.

Not that I believe for an instant that al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were at all justified in what they did (or that Fatah is justified in their attacks on Israeli citizens, or that al Aqsa, or Islamic Jihad — or, for that matter, the IRA). But there has been a lot of suffering and strife in that part of the world for decades now, and to say that the West had no role in fostering that struggle and suffering is to bury our head in the sand and ignore reality.

Religion is not the cause of the current crisis. I’ve seen arguments claiming that if we simlpy eliminate religion from human society. I find such speculation dubious, at best; Stalin and Mao, after all, organized and perpetrated some of the largest and deadliest massacres of innocents in human history, and they were both atheists.

But you certainly can’t ignore the role of religion in what has been happening. While we in the West tend to secularize our religion and set it aside and do our best to separate it out from the rest of our lives, such a division of religion from life is impossible in Islam. Islam teaches that God is absolute, that God is first in all things; and to focus on anything else, such as money or power or pleasure, is to practice idolatry. Thus, religion is a fact of life that informs every aspect of Islamic life. To us in the West, a government informed by religion is repugnant at best; to the Islamic world, a government separated from religion is equally repugnant.

But, of course, Islam as a religious organization is ultimately made up of human beings: and, thus, subject to division and factionalism and schism, just like western society.

The upshot is this: Osama bin Laden may believe that he is acting in the name of Islam, and his political and warlike goals may, to him, be justified; but he represents a miniscule fraction of what Islam really is (just as Fred Phelps and his “God Hates Fags” lot represents a thankfully tiny minority of Christian fanatics). Unfortunately, as always, it’s the noisy lunatics who get the press while the reasonable majority are ignored.

Terrorists plot against the United States; they have since our country’s very beginnings, and they always will. Sometimes they will get lucky; most of the time they will not. And the United States is not even unique in that regard; Chechnyan rebels struggle against the Russian federal government, while Mexico faces challenges from the Zapatistas. In Nepal, Maoist rebels have been killing people left and right for years. Of course the US is a big target, so there are a lot more people struggling against us. But we’re still hardly unique.

In other words, I am not convinced — and I never have been — that the threat of terrorism against the United States is greater than it ever has been.

Over the past year, I’ve pondered these issues plenty. And I have reached a few conclusions:

  • First of all, terrorism can never be defeated. As long as their are groups of people, there will be hatred, and hatred will always find a way to express itself in blind, fanatical, and destructive ways. But we can build a world which is more inhospitable to terrorism. I don’t think that this can be accomplished with more fear, with weapons, with war-hawkish attitudes and speeches, or with revenge. The way to do it is to act with honor, with integrity, with decency, with tolerance, and with charity towards all people — no matter who they are, no matter where they are, and no matter whether or not you like them or what they have to say or what they have done. It doesn’t matter if they return the treatment. It’s okay to take the moral high road.

  • Second of all, on a more political note, I believe that clamping down on civil liberties is absolutely the wrong thing to do. Racial profiling of Arabic people, granting more rights to the government to eavesdrop and spy on its own people, and so on are caving in to fear. Security and liberty are not mutually exclusive.

  • And, finally, I believe that dissent is not only okay, but is, in fact, vital for a democracy to continue to function. After all, our nation was founded upon dissent. And nothing noble was ever accomplished by people who were happy with the way things are.

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the attacks. I won’t watch television or wave a flag maniacally or sing the national anthem. Instead, I’ll remember those who love me, I’ll say a prayer for peace, I’ll say a prayer for those who wish us harm, and I’ll keep doing what I can to make myself a better person, and to make this world a better place.

So I guess that there is one last conclusion that I’ve reached over the past year. And it is this: if you have ever had a dream for making the world a better place, then this is the time to make that dream come true. Whether that dream involves helping the poor find food to eat, or building bridges of communication between different cultures, or helping people in your own community have access to the resources they need to learn and to read and to inform themselves, or telling people stories that entertain or teach — now, more than ever, the world needs that dream.

Okay, I’ll stop now before I get really embarrassing.