We will always remember where we were on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when we heard the news. The horrific events in the United States on that day will be a defining moment in our lives.
Itís all too much to ingest right away: the nightmarish images played and replayed on television, the gruesome details of falling bodies and crashing Boeing 757s, the agonizing accounts of survivors. The historian in me wonders how future historians one hundred years hence will treat this awful sequence of events. Will they be able to make more sense of it than those of us who were so close to it? Will they be able to find the words of wisdom which now elude me, yet come so easily when Iím describing a tragedy that occurred a century ago?
Itís rare that we witness an event of this magnitude, and it will surely become the topic of countless future history books. But as hard as I try to keep my historical perspective, my thoughts drift to those poor souls who were caught in the maelstrom. I spent time in lower Manhattan a few weeks ago, staying in an apartment near the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which came crashing down Tuesday. I canít stop wondering about the people who were killed. Like me, they were Americans men; women and children from a variety of backgrounds. They had their ups and downs, ambitions and heartaches.
The questions begin to haunt me. How many of them went to the senior prom in high school? Or got dumped? Or looked forward to growing old and having grandchildren? Who comforted them when they were sick or sad, and who did they comfort? Who did they leave behind? How many peopleís lives are forever ruined by the loss of a loved one or a dear friend?
Then I remember that these same questions are applicable to the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who were destroyed when American planes bombed Iraq in the Persian Gulf War ten years ago. Francis A. Boyle, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Illinois, author of several books, who received his Doctor of Law and Ph.D. from Harvard, has studied the staggering loss of civilian life in that war. He has charged that the United States, with its use of indiscriminate bombing, killed countless civilians in Iraq.
Boyle writes: "In aerial attacks, including strafing, over cities, towns, the countryside and highways, United States aircraft bombed and strafed indiscriminately. The purpose of these attacks was to destroy life and property, and generally to terrorize the civilian population of Iraq... As a direct result of this bombing campaign against civilian life, at least 25,000 men, women and children were killed. The Red Crescent Society of Jordan estimated 113,000 civilian dead, 60% of them children, the week before the end of the war."
Possibly 250,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war and its effects, asserts Boyle. Were their lives less valuable than the Americans and other nationals who perished in Tuesdayís terrorist attack? Did they have any more control over Iraqi foreign policy than the Americans lying dead in the twisted rubble and airline wreckage had over theirs? Did the Iraqis who lost loved ones feel any less agony than Americans who suffered the same loss?
These are, of course, rhetorical questions, whose answers are obvious. We can never excuse or explain the horrific loss of life on Tuesday. But these events cannot make us lose sight of the fact that while the civilians were innocent, the United States government has long contributed, often excessively, to bloodshed and repression around the globe. Itís unrealistic to expect that this cycle of violence would never find its way to American soil.
I keep hearing pundits and politicians thundering that Tuesdayís tragedy represents a declaration of war, and that reprisals will be swift and decisive. They still havenít internalized at a deeper level Jesus Christís instruction to turn the other cheek, or Gandhiís aphorism that an eye for an eye makes the world go blind. If this catastrophe does not teach the advocates of force just how insidious all forms of violence are, nothing will.
Prof. Andrew Hunt is an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo. He is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States.