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EDGEWISE: After Paris, searching upstream for the source of terrorism

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By Thursday, Nov 19, 2015 Viewpoints

News of the Paris terrorist attacks last week sent a shiver of memory down my spine. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the morning of 9/11/2001, when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. I remember the eerie silence the next day when all flights were grounded, and how the news broadcasts played endless loops of people on fire jumping out of the windows of the burning towers, just before the whole edifice crumbled in huge clouds of toxic dust.

For many years, when I was a girl growing up in Manhattan, I watched the construction of those towers on the skyline. I remember how exciting it was to finally go inside, take the super-fast elevator to the top and look out over the remarkable view. I remember delightful celebratory dinners at Windows on the World, and at the exclusive Cellar in the Sky.

The towers were an integral part of New York City, until suddenly they weren’t there any more. And then the grief set in, not only for the huge, shocking loss of life, but for a certain innocence that we’d had until then, in America — a childish sense of invincibility. No matter the horrors and chaos in other parts of the world, we had felt safe here in the U.S., at the heart of Empire. With 9/11, that sense of safety was suddenly revealed to be a total illusion.

Of course, the illusion of safety had only ever been possible for people of great privilege in this country. For people of color, poor people, and for women of all social positions, there had never been any safety. Even I, as a little white girl growing up in a wealthy enclave in Manhattan, knew that I had to be very careful where I went, at what time, with whom…in order to keep myself safe. I knew that as an individual — a small, easy-to-prey-on girl — I was vulnerable.

With 9/11, that vulnerability suddenly hit home to all of us New Yorkers, the same way Parisians have now been forced to learn what Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Afghans, Iraqis and Libyans and Somalis and so many more have had to learn the hard, agonizing way: that as long as death-dealing weapons are sold to fanatic militants, civilians are not safe.

In the reams of commentary written in the wake of the Paris attacks, one phrase particularly jumped out at me: “ISIS is about as Muslim as the KKK is Christian.” Both are fanatic groups, the former targeting “apostates,” the latter “Blacks.” Both groups are active online, with a shadowy network of believers and followers. But the Islamic State now controls actual territory in the Middle East, in which women and girls are being turned into sex slaves while the men who love them are beheaded.

I remember in the run-up to 9/11, Afghan women risked their lives to smuggle out footage of the Taliban beheading women or stoning them to death for “crimes” such as going out on the street without a male escort to try to find food for their children. The world was indifferent — until the World Trade Center came down.

Now the hatefulness of the Taliban is being projected into the world under the banner of the Islamic State. Women and children are again bearing the brunt of the rage of these religious fanatics. And again, for a long time, the world shrugged, content to practice “containment,” meaning “whatever whatever,” as long as they don’t come here.

Now, after Paris, just as after 9/11/2001, they have come here. When it’s white people dying in New York or Paris, the world is suddenly ready to act. But in 2015 there are some differences that are important to note.

article-71e6c860-64a6-4528-b45f-30831f3a5147-6V2tHmTAq-HSK1-374_634x885After 9/11, I was shocked to see how the ordinary Americans here in my corner of the world responded with xenophobia and ultra-patriotism. Pick-up trucks garlanded with American flags were everywhere, and very few people seemed to care about asking deeper questions like: “Where did the Taliban come from? Where did they get their funding? Why are they hitting the World Trade Center? Why are they angry at the West? What is their problem with women?”

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, things are different. Maybe we Americans are starting to become a bit less adolescent, a bit more worldly. Almost in the same breath as the outpouring of grief and sorrow for the loss of life in Paris, people began reminding each other that this was just one episode among so many—sandwiched between terrorist attacks in Beirut and Kenya…the downing of the Russian airliner…and too many other incidents to count, including the tragic loss of life among the refugees trying desperately to escape the crazy Islamic State and get to the relative safety of Europe.

I take this as a sign of hope, and I recognize that it is largely driven by our ever-increasing hyper-connection via the Internet. After 9/11, in 2001, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social media sites had not yet been invented. We were left to piece things together ourselves, with our families and local communities, based on the information we received from the mass media.

Today, news is often broken on Twitter before it appears on CNN, and instantly the whole human hive is “twittering” about it madly, with so many more viewpoints represented than ever before. Even as we share the grief of the Parisians, we also connect the dots between this incident in the West, and scores of similar massacres in the Middle East. We wonder aloud why people are putting up solidarity profile pictures of themselves bathed in the French flag, but no one does that when there is a terrorist strike against civilians in Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

We recognize and discuss our own weaknesses and flaws — conditioned racism, stereotyping, tribalism — in that recognition comes the seeds of change. And it all happens in the space of what used to be called a single “news cycle” — a 12-hour period.

After 9/11, the Republicans in charge of America took us almost immediately into a retaliatory war that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The French have started retaliatory strikes against the IS, but President Obama is a much more cautious president than George W. Bush was, and in no rush to send American young people into danger if it can be avoided.

Yes, the terrorists are a real threat, particularly as the weapons they wield get more and more deadly. But let’s not forget who manufactures and sells those weapons—the U.S. dominates the top 10 list of manufacturers and exporters, with Russia and France right up there as well. If we really want to defang the terrorists, we should stop selling them weapons, for starters. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the military industrial complex thinks, since for them, every bomb dropped represents another order placed by the U.S. military. For the military-industrialists, the business is in selling the weapons and destroying the weapons so as to sell another round.

It’s time to break this deadly cycle by looking upstream at the causes of the problems we face in the world. As a meme attributed to Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai puts it, guns kill terrorists, but education kills terror. We need to address the root problems of poverty, corruption and ignorance combined with a world awash in lethal weapons. This can be done if we the people, newly empowered by knowledge and hungering for peace, unite around the world to demand that our will be done by our political leaders.

I take hope from the fact that instead of rushing to war in the wake of the Paris attacks, the nations of the world will be meeting in that city as scheduled to discuss the most important current threat to humanity: climate change. The climate is non-sectarian. Just as the sun bathes us equally in its life-giving light, climate disruption is a matter than cannot be solved by any one nation alone. Scary as climate change is, it is also a tremendous opportunity for the nations of the world to work together, to collaborate rather than compete.

We humans have big, big problems to deal with these days. The good thing is that now, unlike in 2001, we know a lot more about what’s going on. It’s the job of all of us ordinary folks to push our leaders to act decisively to rid our planet of the scourge of death-dealing fanatics — whether they call themselves ISIS or KKK or EXXON or DOW or MONSANTO.

Each of these groups has the potential to change — to shift to making a positive contribution to our Earth community. By virtue of the Internet, we all wield more power than we know to push them to morph from merchants of death to agents of life. It’s time to stand up, speak out, and be the hope and love we want to see in the world.

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Author photoThe weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.


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