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Some thoughts on September 11

It’s curious what turns a distant national tragedy into a personal issue. For me, it was talking about the September 11 terrorist attacks on the radio. Still in a state of disbelief, I rushed to our community radio station, where my wife and I made phone calls and searched the Internet for useful information and compiled a list of local counseling, spiritual, and relief organizations that listeners might find useful. A co-worker had been in tears when I arrived, but only when I went on the air to read the list I’d compiled did I feel my throat constricting—this tragedy had really happened.

Three days later--as suspicions focused on a wealthy Saudi living in Afghanistan and I started reading reports of some racist attacks against Arab-Americans--I was back on the air for my weekly “world music” show. What better forum than this to promote some sense of global unity, based on music, spirit, and peace? Focusing my show on sacred music of the world, I started with a piece of music recorded at the annual Festival of Sacred World Music in Fes, Morocco: Hamza Shakour playing “Sufi Music of Damascas.”

As the music played, I felt a little less isolated; I knew that people around the world were praying in their own ways to find light and peace in this dark week. I got a call thanking me for this selection of music. Then another call, from a woman who was in tears. “I find this music very upsetting,” she said. I gently explained to her the theme of the show, and hoped she would stay tuned. Between songs, I talked about this call and my purpose for the show. More calls followed, evenly split between those who supported for my initial selection and others who thought it was in poor taste.

“We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
--President Bush

After another day of reflection, I think it comes down to distinctions. I understand what the president is saying, but I believe this kind of act—and the emotional response it generates in all of us—requires us to make more distinctions, not fewer. We need to make the distinction between a very small group of violent fanatics and those who look like them, or come from the same nation, or live in the same neighborhood, or profess the same religion.

“We work so hard to create beauty and peace, and then this happens.”
-- Simon Shaheen, a Palestinian musician who lives in New York City

I don’t believe that the upset listeners who called me are racists. But if they associate sacred Sufi music with terrorism, they have some distinctions to make. Syria is as distinct from Afghanistan as Osama bin Laden is from the mainstream of Islamic thought. If you cannot separate the work of poets and musicians from the work of terrorists, then how can you distinguish your Arab-American neighbor from suicidal maniacs? If you could make the distinction between Timothy McVeigh and the majority of Americans, but you can’t make such a distinction this week, you’ve got some racist issues to work out.

“The violence that was delivered to New York, to DC, to Pennsylvania, was a vicious, ugly reminder that Americans have been neglecting the full truth for too long. Americans and all citizens of the world have been extremely irresponsible in permitting warmakers of all nations to determine our destinies.”
--Martín Antibalas of New York’s Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra

The musicians and record labels I deal with have an international perspective, and I’ve received a lot of emails this week from those located in New York, assuring people they are okay. Many of them, after denouncing the attacks as barbaric, go on to discuss the roots of the problem. The United States is a violent country, from our entertainment to real life on the streets. Admittedly, this violence is different. It’s like “non-point pollution” that comes from a thousand small sources instead of one smoke-belching factory. We’re quick to “declare war” after a major terrorist attack, but who do we declare war on when 30,708 people in this country die from firearm-related deaths in a single year? (1998 statistic from the Centers for Disease Control)

“The man who occupies the White House cried today. Good. Keep crying, Mr. Bush. The more you cry, the less you will go to that dark side in all humans where anger rages to a point where we want to blindly kill.”
--filmmaker Michael Moore

We need justice, but not revenge. Does anyone really believe that lashing out in a vengeful fury will make the world a safer place? That bombing Afghanistan or encouraging Israel to crack down on Palestinians will decrease the number of desperate fanatics who see suicide attacks as their best career option?

Yesterday I attended a candlelight service at the local Buddhist temple. Prayers and chanting were mixed in with messages from local and visiting Buddhist leaders, my state representative, and the Dalai Lama urging restraint and tolerance (read his message at www.tibet.com). I’m not a Buddhist, but I can appreciate the need to break the cycle of violence that has got us to this point. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Osama bin Laden was trained by the CIA during the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion. The US helped create this monster!

Somehow, we need to get past the anger, seek justice under the rule of law, and the work to remove from the world the desperation and lack of alternatives that feeds extremist violence. It may be hard work, and it may not always be rewarding in the short term. But it’s work that needs to be done, whether it’s being more tolerant towards immigrant communities, insisting that politicians find ways of addressing foreign conflicts without the use of tools like Osama bin Laden, or simply finding ways to better understand and appreciate those different from ourselves.

Our politicians need to hear this message. The president is responsible for this country, and he is understandably angry. If the aim of terrorism is to attack our system, we have to fight back by strengthening our system, not by responding in kind. We need to be inclusive and fair. We need to respect our neighbors’ free speech and religious ideals. We need to follow the rule of law when dealing with criminals. And we all need to participate more to make this country and this world a better, safer place to live.
I’m starting by writing this. What will you do?



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