I am writing this on Monday, September 11th 2017. The New York Times highlights one of its editorials as: “9/11: Finding Answers in Ashes 16 Years Later.” But what answers? And what memories? That depends both on our historical perspective and the lessons we take away from that perspective.
September 11th, 2001, is, in the American imagination, a day of infamy when we were attacked by terrorists who hijacked aircrafts to destroy the Twin Towers in New York City, attack the Pentagon in Washington DC, and crash a third commercial flight in a Pennsylvania field, killing a total of 2,753 people. We should certainly mourn the dead and their families, just as we decry acts of terrorism and violence, now such a common and ubiquitous feature of our world. September 11, 2001 was a deep psychic wound to our nation, which experienced a new form of violence, besides war, directed symbolically to the financial and military heart of the country. It is appropriate that we mourn the dead. It is also important that we condemn the violent forces and attitudes that cause such deaths.
But what enduring answers have we gleaned from that traumatic experience? The national response at the time was to launch massive wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly with the purpose of attacking the terrorists and the countries supposedly harboring them. The idea was to show that America would not be assaulted, and that we would retaliate in the case of an attack, seeking “victory” through arms and bombs. Military might was the power that America stood for and would exercise in the world.
On September 11, in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi– the person most strongly opposed to such a response to violence and to militarism in general, launched his satyagraha or non-violence movement. The Natal government in South Africa had come up with an ordinance disenfranchising Indians and essentially inflicting a form of apartheid government on them. The essence of that nonviolent movement had to do with fighting violence and injustice with the weapons of truth, soul-force, and patient suffering, with the idea not of retaliation and “victory,” but of establishing a safe space where differences could be discussed and negotiated, and peace and harmony achieved at least in the conflict at hand. In stark contrast to militarism, Gandhi upheld moral power as a way not only of resisting injustice, but also of organizing personal and social life.
As we know from history, that movement, launched on another September 11th, has turned out to be one of the most powerful moral-social forces in modern times. Gandhi himself used it successfully in his struggle for Indian independence from the British. And his example and methods have been followed by leaders and movements as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights campaigners in the US, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Eastern European struggles against Communist totalitarianism, and Nelson Mandela in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In Gandhi’s own words: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.”
As it turns out, there is yet another globally-significant event on September 11. On this date in 1893, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was opened as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the first global interfaith gathering in modern history. Until that time, America saw itself as a largely Protestant-Christian country, but with the Parliament, it opened itself to the diversity of the world’s religions that preach a message of peace and harmony among them as an essential step toward achieving a wider peace in the world. A brilliant Indian monk from the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Vivekananda, captured the imagination of the delegates gathered in the assembly and, through them, the imagination of the world.
It is worth citing his message to the Parliament, because it remains relevant, and certainly timely: “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth…But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
So, when we consider some of the other significant events that have taken place on September 11th in a broader historical perspective, we might re-envision what this date in history means to us, and more significantly– what lessons we learn from it. Will we associate this day with violence and retaliation waged in the name of military victories, or will we, rather, learn from Gandhi and Vivekananda the messages of a robust peace and of harmony between peoples? Peace for both of them was not just a desirable state of affairs and, even less, a pious wish, but fundamentally a way of being in the world, a basic attitude, serving as the basis of a peaceful world, an ideal that Gandhi called swaraj or moral self-government. Both satyagraha and swaraj carry power, but power of a radically different kind than that on display in the years after September 11, 2001. To which power then will we give our allegiance?
This is a teachable moment.