News & Opinion » Featured story

Peace's progress: one year later


Example for the nations

by Jack Bradigan Spula

Just a year ago, while the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the wrecked Flight 93 were still burning, I used an Emily Dickinson poem, "After great pain," in a reactive, reflective essay.

            The poem's insistence on "a formal feeling" --- pure shock with heightened sensation --- helped me bridge the pain of the moment.

            Today my mind goes to a poem by Dickinson's contemporary, Walt Whitman.

"This Compost," one of Whitman's best, begins with the poet in an uneasy state.

            "Something startles me where I thought I was safest," he says. He retreats from his beloved landscapes and seashore and ponders an existential riddle: How does the Earth transform "distemper'd corpses" into "sweet things," the "divine materials" of nature that are new life itself? Ultimately, he marvels at the mysterious "chemistry." Yet while he's still in a fearful mood, Whitman poses a question that his final optimism can't silence. "Is not every continent," he asks, "work'd over and over with sour dead?"

            Certainly in our time, that's the case with every continent but Antarctica --- and it's probably destined to join the club. But never mind that, we've got an immense intercontinental tragedy on our hands, and it's getting worse.

            Every day since 9/11/2001, we've been focusing on the domestic death toll. That's not wrong in itself, since things that hurt our loved ones carry special weight. And the domestic toll is stunningly large for something that happened so quickly: More than 3,000 killed at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and on the hijacked jetliners. But the dead were truly international. The US State Department says the casualties included people from 84 nations besides the US. In a philosophical sense, this fact underscores the truism that death is the great equalizer.

            So as we recover from what happened a year ago, we should deplore all the pain that the crime of 9/11 and its antecedents have caused, without segregating humanity into deserving and undeserving victims.

            But how do we find our bearings in a still dizzying time of reaction? And how will we put boundaries around our national grief so it won't drive us to compound the damage?

Some ancillary --- I almost said collateral --- data might show us a way out of the moral thickets. We have to take stock of all the deaths on our watch.

            Take the data from the US bombing of Afghanistan over the past year. Estimates of civilian deaths run from just over 1,000 to more than four times that.

            This summer the quite mainstream United Methodist News Service, quoting a Methodist bishop who'd gone on a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan, said the total was "at least 2,000... and that's considered a low estimate."

            At the high end of the scale, Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire has upped his estimate to 4,000 or more. Herold's methodology --- he gleaned the numbers from a multitude of international reports --- has come under fire. And yes, it's possible Herold's numbers are inflated. But if that's so, the number of uncounted, undocumented deaths remains a live question. Aerial bombing is notoriously messy; it quite literally renders bodies difficult to find, even if there's a will to find anything. And in this case, official willpower can be gauged from the fact that an obscure New England professor of economics and women's studies has produced the most widely discussed research on the topic.

            In any case, Afghans were dying at horrifying rates long before this war came home to us. Between 1979 and 1989, fighting in Afghanistan between invading Soviet forces and Mujahedeen rebels left more than one million dead and produced five million refugees. It used to be said that US-CIA activities in support of the rebels began months after the Soviet invasion. That sort of intervention would have been bad enough. But now it's known that the Carter Administration primed the pump with covert activities before the Soviets went in.

            Well before 1979, the US was helping things in the wider region get out of hand. In 1953, the CIA helped depose Iran's premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, who oddly had been Time magazine's 1951 "Man of the Year." (Mossadegh, whom Time actually loathed, was much admired in nations then emerging from colonialism. His fatal error was to assert domestic control over Iranian oil production.) After Mossadegh came the Shah of Iran, a US aid recipient who through his SAVAK (a CIA clone) and other agencies tortured, killed, and oppressed great numbers. It's estimated SAVAK and the Iranian military killed 12,000 to 15,000 Iranians just in 1978, the year before revolutionaries loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini took over.

            Things were grim then in Iraq, too, with the US complicit in large-scale killings. For example, near the end of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the US gave Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein a billion-dollar loan and provided tactical advice. The help came even after Saddam gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds.

            Overall, the Iran-Iraq War claimed more than 800,000 lives. But strangely, one incident from the war hasn't been getting much play. In 1987, Iraqi aircraft hit the Navy warship USS Stark with two missiles; the resulting fires killed 37 sailors on board. But the US didn't make it a "Remember the Maine" kind of thing. At the time, the US objective was to take down Iran, not to discommode the Iraqis.

            A few short years later, the objective changed. President Bush the First launched a war against Iraq to end the latter's illegal occupation of Kuwait. When the dust settled, it was thought 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were dead. Baghdad reported 35,000 civilian deaths on top of that. Both figures were later revised downward. But the dying had only started. US and allied forces had bombed the country's infrastructure to pieces, setting the conditions for hundreds of thousands of subsequent civilian deaths from malnutrition and disease. And ongoing economic sanctions take the toll ever higher.

So, just looking at this one region post-World War II, the death toll approaches two million.

            Remember, this is counting only Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and not counting Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Turkey (large death tolls among Turkish Kurds), Pakistan, Kashmir, and India, not to mention Southeast Asia, large parts of Africa, and Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim nation, where in 1965 a US-backed dictator liquidated perhaps a million people).

            The US doesn't have anything like a majority responsibility in most of these "theaters," of course. The world is full of wrongdoers --- I almost said "evildoers" --- including many eager to ride on imperial coattails. But a nation that imagines itself a peacemaker should have no complicity in such crimes.

            Those lost on 9/11 are small in number by the standards of modern warfare --- but starting with the number one, every life is precious. Infinitely precious.

            In "This Compost," as elsewhere, old Walt Whitman watched the infinite do its dance of healing: "Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient, / It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions, / It turns harmless and stainless on its axis..."

            That's the kind of world people of good will crave: an example for the nations, you might say.

Caption: Clinical social worker and councilor Nanette Robinson-Vine: "We're [not] going to get closure any time soon."

The long, hard road to healing

by Chris Busby

As with any individual affected by an act of violence, Americans as a whole are going through a healing process in the wake of the September 11 tragedy that includes feelings of shock, sadness, and anger. Meanwhile, the government has responded to the attacks in part by launching its own attacks against real or perceived terrorists worldwide. That violent response has, in turn, created other tragedies --- such as the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire in that chaotic country.

            The anxiety people felt in the immediate wake of 9/11 has since taken on new dimensions. There's suspicion and paranoia about the possibility of another attack. There are fears the government is eroding our civil liberties. And the growing possibility of a full-scale war with Iraq frightens battle-hardened generals and peaceniks alike.

            Professionals who work with people affected by violence see parallels between the way the nation has responded to the tragedy and the way individuals react to violence perpetrated on a smaller, more personal scale. Just as anger and feelings of vengeance can torment someone whose spouse has been murdered in a robbery, they say the government's militaristic response to 9/11 can make it harder for all Americans to come to terms with the tragedy.

"I don't believe revenge helps the healing process," says Nanette Robinson-Vine, a clinical social worker and councilor in Rochester. "Revenge is a process of getting someone else to feel as badly as you do. It sounds different to me from encouraging someone to heal so they can stand up for themselves, so they can confront someone who's violated them."

            For victims of violence, "advocacy is necessary, support is necessary, having a place to be heard is necessary, but revenge isn't necessary," she says.

            While the drums of war grow louder, Robinson-Vine says that "politically, there are people out there who believe differently and are mourning the track our country's taking and grieving. They're struggling with feelings of identification, support, and love for the victims who are getting hurt in the process.

            "If we're militaristic, I wonder about the other feelings that come up for people," she continues, "the sense of responsibility, the sense of guilt that may not be on surface, but may be in there somewhere."

            After all, says Robinson-Vine, when it comes to suffering from violence, "even if it's the other guy, we've got another victim."

William Fleeman is the founder and CEO of Pathways to Peace, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Cassadega, New York, that helps "people who use anger as a way to change feelings of powerlessness into feelings of power," he says. "Certainly, an occurrence like 9/11 creates feelings of powerlessness in people," Fleeman continues. "They feel violated, hurt, frustrated that they can't do anything. People typically use anger to cope with those feelings."

            In the wake of a violent event, "the first stage is denial, followed by anger, followed by bargaining --- 'If we'd just done this, then that wouldn't have happened' --- followed finally by acceptance," Fleeman says.

            But Pathways to Peace also advocates one more step: forgiveness. "Through that process of acceptance, we believe that unless the act of forgiveness is also made, [negative feelings] can't be resolved," he says.

            Though forgiveness "plays a big, big part" in the healing process, Fleeman acknowledges that it's the hardest stage to reach. In the organization's handbook, forgiveness is the subject of the last of 16 chapters. "It's something people are least likely to do, or least capable of doing, when dealing with issues of anger and rage," he says.

            Even if someone is finally able to find forgiveness, Fleeman says it's important not to forget. Speaking personally --- Pathways to Peace is apolitical --- Fleeman says "we need to forgive, but if we forget, we can't learn from it." The events of last September 11 "were horrendous," he says, "but at same time, it's an enormous lesson for humanity and there's the potential for incredible growth."

How long will it take us as a nation to progress from anger to forgiveness after the September 11 attacks? "That's a tough question," Fleeman says. "And it'd be even tougher if I lived in Manhattan, and even tougher if I lost someone I personally knew in that disaster.

            "Some people will never, ever, forgive --- period," he continues. "Some people will hold onto their feelings of hate, anger, and rage over that instance because it makes them feel powerful. And there are those people who are chronically angry and get off on it."

            In the wake of personal tragedies, Fleeman says finding acceptance and forgiveness is generally a two-to-three-year process. But given the political nature of this public tragedy, he says it may be "a lot longer" than that before Americans come to terms with the event.

            Based on her work with individual clients since the tragedy, Robinson-Vine says "people are at different levels of healing, depending how directly impacted they were, what they had in terms of support systems, and how open they were in talking about it.

            "As a culture, there are a number of things happening to facilitate the healing," she continues. "It's being talked about, the anniversary is being honored, it's in the media."

            Robinson-Vine believes "we're in the process" of finding acceptance, but says "I don't think we're done, and the threat continues, so it's not like we're going to get closure any time soon."

Add a comment