Amer Latif, a Muslim-American native of Pakistan, teaches religious studies at Marlboro College. This piece is adapted from a speech that he delivered at a gathering/vigil organized by the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Clergy Association . “I am extremely grateful to be standing here with all of you on the tenth anniversary of the events of Sept. 11,” Latif said at the beginning of his remarks. “I would like to express my thanks to all the members of the interfaith community who have worked hard to create this space where we can remember a tragic and painful event in the spirit of compassion and love.”
Originally published in The Commons issue #119 (Wednesday, September 21, 2011).
As I collected my thoughts and searched my heart about the events of Sept. 11 and what has transpired in the last decade, I had to move past the images and feelings of fear, anger, loss, and apprehension that are associated with that day. I was searching for something that I could share that was true to the events of that day but also helped us at this moment and in the moments to come.
One idea kept coming up again and again: that a small group of dedicated individuals can possess tremendous power, and that the actions of the few can affect the lives of many.
On 9/11, a small group of al Qaeda extremists was able to cause so much destruction, pain, and fear, and in response, a small group of neoconservatives was able to steer us into waging two wars that are ongoing with no end in sight.
There was a time after 9/11 when the entire world was feeling our pain and reaching out to us saying, “We are all Americans!” At the present time one wonders about what happened to that goodwill and sense of solidarity.
The defining moment came when our government decided to wage war as a means of pursuing and punishing al Qaeda. I remember the millions of people all over the world who took to the streets in their respective countries, pleading with President Bush not to go to war, begging for an alternative strategy of dealing with the extremist militants who formed the extremely small group called al Qaeda.
Sadly, the Bush administration did not heed these pleas. Every choice has its consequences, and our nation’s choice to pursue two major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is no exception.
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Domestically, we have spent billions upon billions of dollars in military spending. Even a fraction of the vast amount of money spent on these wars could easily help the suffering of poor and struggling families.
More than 3,000 American soldiers have died. Perhaps one of the most painful consequences of these wars is the lasting damage to young soldiers. A staggeringly high number of young people return home from war physically disabled and now undergo the daily terrors of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a cost that will have an impact on thousands of families and communities in the U.S. for many many years to come.
Our civil liberties have suffered with the passage of the patriot Act. The creation and continuation of the prison at Guantánamo, the sending of suspects to be tortured abroad through the practice of extraordinary rendition, the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding: all such practices have not only made us lose the moral high ground and the sympathy of many around the world, but such practices on our part have also become recruiting tools for extremists in Muslim countries.
At the foreign level, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, there is a disproportionate number of civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands. These human beings fall under the frightening category of “collateral damage.”
A whole generation of children has grown up in the caustic atmosphere of an unending war, terrifying car bombs, and deadly suicide attacks. And, as is the case anywhere, it is the poor, the weak, the innocent who suffer the most.
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So yes, a small group of dedicated individuals can possess tremendous power, and the actions of the few can affect the lives of many. I think one of the reasons why this statement kept coming up for me while reflecting on 9-11 and its legacy was due to the theme chosen for today’s gathering: To stand on the side of love, compassion, and peace for all humankind.
Here we are, brought together by a small group of people dedicated to the beautiful qualities of love, compassion, and peace. If a small group of people can instigate a war, a dedicated small group can also instigate peace.
Perhaps the most beautiful and wholesome way to honor and remember the innocent who died on 9/11 and in the wars since then is to stand on the side of love and compassion for all humankind. But what a difficult task this is!
It is easy to stay in separation. Our physical existence, with our individual bodies and thoughts, argues for a fundamental separation between the self and the other. But the imperative is to find ways to see the similarity, the equality, and hence the truth of the other, especially of human beings who belong to groups other than our own.
To love humankind is to love the truth of each human being.
It is to see the suffering of the victims of 9-11 as no different from the suffering of the thousands of Iraqis who died in response to that one event.
It is to see the suffering of soldiers who have felt the shock of roadside bombs and are suffering with post-traumatic stress as no different from those civilians in Afghanistan who were subjected to the treatment of “shock and awe.”
It is to see the suffering of an American mother who loses a soldier son as no different from the suffering of a Pakistani Pathan mother whose young child lies dead and disfigured as collateral damage in a drone attack.
But this is difficult work. It demands that we find the will to locate and experience love, compassion, and peace within ourselves.
We need to commit to techniques and daily practices that help us find and cultivate these beautiful qualities.
We need to hunger for these qualities as we hunger for food and water. We need to work for these as we work to put a roof over our heads and food on our tables. Then we can share these qualities with those closest to us in our families and places of work, and — slowly but surely — the effects will ripple out to the larger community.
As a Muslim-American, I find such inspiration in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who, when asked how one could change the behavior of one’s children, replied, “Start with yourself.”
I also find guidance and hope in Prophet Muhammad’s words: “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”
Dear friends, neighbors, community members: I counsel you and I counsel myself to look into our traditions, whether religious or secular, to find the beautiful, to cultivate the beautiful, to reap the beautiful, and to share the beautiful.
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