Rethinking 9/11

By CATHERINE TUMBER  |  September 11, 2006

I’ve become much more sensitive to the trivial distractions of popular culture, which have become more extreme and pervasive, since September 11. The scale of suffering brutality, and danger in the world is overwhelming, incomprehensible. And on Newbury Street, people are buying . . . I don’t know . . . how many $2000 handbags have been sold in the past five years? The luxury goods market is flourishing. And celebrity culture has become intense and unavoidable. I find myself deeply resenting how much I have to know about movie stars. Why do I have to devote a speck of brain power to knowing that Tom Cruise had a baby and we haven’t seen her picture yet?

Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus, Boston University

The events of September 11 were certainly unique as the most concentrated, most dramatic, most deadly acts of terrorism we have known. Yet I would not say they “changed the course of history”, because I see them on a continuum of terrorist acts with common characteristics. What they have in common is not sadistic madness, but perceived grievances. The grievances are held by huge numbers of people, and a small number of those will carry their anger to the point of terrorism. It would be a dangerous mistake to ignore those grievances. Indeed, we have already put ourselves in greater danger by doing that. With the Irish Republican Army the grievance was the British occupation. With the Palestinians, it is the Israeli occupation. With Al Qaeda it is the American military presence in the Middle East, as well as the support of Israel. The common denominator for terrorism is not, as has been said, the religious fundamentalism of Islam, but fairly obvious political issues. The Princeton scholar Robert Pape, in his book Dying to Win, studied 188 terrorist attacks around the globe, from 1980 to 2001, and concluded that their common roots were not religious fanaticism, but political grievances centered on foreign occupation. To see September 11 as unique removes the possibility of putting it in historical and world context, and understanding its roots, which lie in the imperial expansionism of the United States. If we are looking for uniqueness, we might find it in the fact that while countless people in other countries have suffered the consequences of a violent US foreign policy, for the first time American civilians became the victims, most obviously of Mideastern fanatics, more fundamentally of America’s imperial ambitions.

Rebecca Haag, Executive Director of AIDS Action Committee

I think 9/11 was transformational not only from a worldly point of view but from a personal point of view. It increased my conviction that I can make a difference in the world, and elevated the importance of how every person can make a difference. I had spent 20, 25 years in the private sector and had always volunteered in nonprofits and done some work in state government. But 9/11 reinforced for me that it was important to identify the challenges the world faces and to get involved. For me, it was an easy transition, since I happened to be on the board of Aids Action, and not too long after that the opportunity to actually manage the agency came along. That work has gotten me much more involved in getting to the root causes of HIV and AIDs, which are very much related to the root causes of violence in the world. Poverty and racism and sexism and other insidious things can create a lot of anger, and HIV and AIDS has created a lot of anger in the world.

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