Learning from September 11

Like millions of other people around the world, I watched live coverage of the recent attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. with shock, horror and deep sadness. As a U.S. citizen living in Asia, I have witnessed the profound and personal impact of these events on an international scale during the past week.

However, as American attention shifts from explanations and rescue efforts to the need for a government response, there is a growing conviction that someone, somewhere, must pay the consequences. Behind calls for decisive action is the demand that retribution be exacted in full from all those who might somehow be responsible. If this tragedy has illustrated the human capacity for courage and compassion, it has also heightened fears about U.S. security and reinforced old stereotypes and prejudices.

The violent U.S. backlash against Arab and Muslim populations, especially the anger directed towards Arab-Americans, is deeply disturbing. Similar attacks in places such as Northern Ireland, Spain and China indicate that terrorism is not nationally or culturally specific; it does not always hold the same passport, speak the same language or uphold the same principles. It is a method of civilian warfare that relies on simplistic explanations of complex political, economic and social situations. It is blind to the particular identities of its victims; it does not discriminate between the innocent and the guilty.

Any acceptable response to last Tuesday’s attacks must avoid replicating this reductive view of events. There is an urgent need for active demonstrations of solidarity with Arab and Muslim communities worldwide. Acts of intolerance and injustice serve the interests of extremists on all sides who argue that cooperation and reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Judeo-Christian world is impossible.

We must not respond to terrorism with acts that rely on stereotypes and simplistic explanations or that fail to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty.

U.S. officials have described Tuesday’s events as an attack on American democracy. If this is indeed the case, surely the most effective response is an increased commitment to protect the rights of all American citizens and to endorse these democratic ideals on a global scale.

A successful response to this attack will be one that is multifaceted and multilateral. Unilateral acts and declarations by the United States cannot be successful in the long term. The numerous expressions of sympathy and offers of assistance from world leaders should be taken as sincere. There is a need to include even — and perhaps especially — those nations with a history of hostility towards the US. The attacks on New York and Washington, D. C. relied on a simple plan, basic skills and equipment and assumed the unquestioned loyalty of participants. The success of this strategy highlights the inadequacy of security measures in the U.S. and, more importantly, the absence of information-sharing and anti-terrorism mechanisms worldwide. It is a strategy that could be used again in the United States, in London, in Moscow, in New Delhi, in Cairo: in any urban area accessible by air.

Communities like Williams have a particular role in demonstrating a response to Tuesday’s events that is thoughtful, comprehensive and inclusive. Terrorism preempts dialogue by resorting to the most extreme means of communication. It usurps the right of individuals to speak for themselves and to one another, whether it is perpetrated by state governments or by private interest groups.

Now, more than ever, members of the Williams community have a responsibility to insure freedom of speech, tolerance and integrity in formulating responses to the unthinkable.