Attack will transform this nation – but into what?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 18, 2001

&uot;Heavy, heavy, heavy hand and heart/ We are at war,/ Bitterly, bitterly at war.

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

&uot;Heavy, heavy, heavy hand and heart/ We are at war,/ Bitterly, bitterly at war.&uot; -Denise Levertov, from Tenebrae

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I cannot think of a time when I have dreaded a topic more. What happened last Tuesday is only supposed to happen in movies, like Independence Day or Godzilla, not in real life. Real people don’t suffer that way, only nameless extras in the background of disaster films.

I was on my way to work when I heard that a jet plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. And while I was listening to a report on rescue efforts, another one flew into the other tower. Massive explosions. Debris falling. People screaming. By the time I got to Mankato, I was in no mood to work on anything. The story kept getting worse and worse. I called my wife and then my in-laws just to hear the voices of loved ones. I prayed for miracles. I wanted to wake up and find out this was all just a really bad dream.

How can anyone be so consumed by hatred that they want to kill so many other people? What in the hearts of these men could lead them to treat thousands of other human beings as if they were nothing more than garbage? Didn’t the presence of young children on the airplanes that were used for the attacks lead any of them to change their minds? The only thing that appeared to matter to them was that the victims were Americans. How should we respond to this terrible, merciless attack?

We are now at war. Of that I am convinced. And I believe that we will win this war, as complicated and terrible as it also will be. But wars can be fought in many different ways. Our President seems fixated on punishment. But will punishment alone be enough?

The events of last Tuesday are now etched into the minds and emotions of an entire generation of Americans, especially our children. We need to make sure that they understand that despite our grief and pain and anger, we will not forget to take care of them. And for the sake of our children, we need to be careful that our efforts to destroy this new enemy do not leave us becoming as violent and evil as they are. The ends do not justify any means, despite what some have been saying. I have heard calls for the U.S. to bomb Afghanistan. Killing ordinary Afghanis may help us feel revenged; it may make us feel powerful, but it will not bring peace.

I still remember how quickly everyone assumed that &uot;Arabs&uot; had blown up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Surely no American could do such a thing! And already this time, Muslims in our country have been attacked by vigilantes who do not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent in their need to take revenge on &uot;foreigners.&uot; But past events tell us that some Americans are willing to put bombs where children play. And there are people who call themselves &uot;Christian&uot; who can still look into the eyes of other human beings and see nothing worth caring about.

I do not want my children to grow up in an American version of Israel, living out lives of suspicion and fear, with armed guards in every restaurant and shopping mall and soldiers in the streets. But do we have a choice? It’s hard to believe what my faith tells me at such times, that love really is stronger than hate. Nonetheless, despite the images of destruction seared into our hearts, we have to live that way, if we want to have a chance at real peace.

On the streets of New York we saw formerly sophisticated, cynical, big city residents weep and stand in line for hours to donate blood. We saw people trusting each other. We need more of that. But we also need to find out how anyone could live a life so empty of hope, so filled with despair, that suicide missions that kill thousands of people seem to make some kind of sense. And then we need to make sure that today’s children do not grow up governed with that same kind of despair.

I find wisdom in words found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: At the moment we speak hastily. But we must not be hasty. We have become too hot. We must cool ourselves and think; for it is easier to shout ‘stop!’ than to do it.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.