The Oprah Magazine: Wise Guides

Wise Guides – comments of September 11

Mark Matousek

LIVING THROUGH CHALLENGING TIMES CAN BRING OUT a blazing new spirit in people. Mark Matousek asks an extraordinary panel of thinkers, writers, and spiritual leaders: What’s the best way to carry on when things are shaky?

THE REVEREND CALVIN BUTTS Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City

WE NEED TO REMIND PEOPLE that every day is uncertain. Tomorrow is always uncertain. The only difference between each day and the events of September 11 is the enormity of the tragedy. But any morning that I get up, anything can happen to me. I can get hit by a car, have a massive heart attack. I can get on a plane headed for Chicago and that plane can crash. There’s a woman in our church whose son had just graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. He went out to a club to celebrate and was caught by a stray bullet outside. Now he’s gone. Every one of us is challenged by uncertainty every day, and it would be helpful for people to put the terrorist attack in that context now.

As people of God, we say that we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we know Who holds tomorrow So there’s no reason to stop doing what you always do. The lesson for us here is that although we do have to protect ourselves from terrorists, we must remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: That in terms of vengeance and retaliation, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth simply leaves us all blind and toothless. We are not anxious to get involved in the kind of tit for tat that much of the world–especially the Middle East–is involved in now. There is a cry for justice. But justice will not cure the distortion of human community; only the forgiveness of faith will. If there is an offensive move, it should not be a movement of US. weaponry, but of the bounty of our nation–to reach people who are hungry, care for children, get rid of land mines, fight for the rights of women who’ve been abused in these oppressive countries–that will win us more victories than bombs and planes.

I pray that as the minister of this church, I have prepared people for this grief through steady preaching of the gospel. While we are all devastated, I believe that we have inner reserves of strength. You call on your reserves at a time like this–it’s what you’ve stored up, what takes you through it. Remember that line in “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come.” Hopefully, that inner strength and grace will carry us through. It’s like our old folks say: “Are you prayed up?” One of our members whose son was lost in the World Trade Center came to me. She said, “I know I’m one of 4,000 or 5,000 families grieving for loved ones, and I have comfort in knowing that I am not alone. I didn’t come to cry, Reverend. I just came for a hug.” I hope we’ve prepared people so they know there is a God on whom they can depend and lean.

The people who committed this crime were using religion as a shield, the way the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan did. People have used religion for ugliness across the years. That may raise questions about religion in some people’s minds, but for those of us who know, the will of God is never seen in tragedies. The will of God is seen in our response to tragedy. The compassion that we are witnessing is really God’s will. This is one way to explain recent events to the children. Obviously there is evil in the world, but it’s important to see the love that’s outpouring: You can see a much larger capacity for compassion than for evil, and that ultimately good will triumph. The new does not come without some pain. All of this can be seen as a breaking in. The world will never be the same again. But it won’t be different in terms of evil. It will be different in more aggressive patterns of good.

ISABEL ALLENDE Author of many novels, including The House of Spirits and Daughter of Fortune. Her most recent novel is Portrait in Sepia (Flamingo).

WE HAVE BEEN PRIVILEGED IN this country to believe that life is secure, that our rights–including the search for happiness–are sacred. But most of the world as lived with uncertainty for millennia. I lived in Chile, a country that bad one of the oldest democracies in Latin America. We never thought that anything like a military coup could happen to us–those only happened in banana republics! Until one day it did happen–and the brutality lasted for 17 years.

The eerie coincidence is that it happened on Tuesday, September 11, 1973. This was a military coup orchestrated by the CIA-a terrorist attack against a democracy. The extraordinary thing is that in 24 hours you learn to adapt. You go on with your life because life goes on. You can see this in anyone who has survived a traumatic situation. For example, my own daughter died. At first you think you can’t live with this, it’s just too much. Then life begins to take over. One morning you wake up and you want to eat chocolate or walk in the woods or open a bottle of wine. You get up on your feet. You do not let the bullies put you on the floor. I have been on my knees a thousand times and I get up. This is the message for the children: You must get up off the floor.

Sooner or later everybody suffers. Grief and darkness are part of life. When I moved to this country 14 years ago, I fell in love with a lawyer — the kind who sues the city when you fall on a banana peel. I couldn’t believe it! Accidents are accidents; if you slip and fall, it’s your own fault! I tell him there is no insurance for happiness or safety — that’s impossible. Life is difficult, painful, and wonderful. But we are a society that expects to be happy and entertained all the time. We are also a spoiled society that hasn’t had war in its territory in more than a century. But we contribute to war in other countries all the time. We invaded Grenada and support the worst dictatorships all over the world. And it is we who helped create the Taliban.

Because this is a new kind of warfare — against drugs, crime, and terrorism — citizens will have to become involved, to protect themselves and society. But we cannot have a gated-community mentality anymore and think we can keep ourselves safe. There’s too much inequality and poverty. More than 800 million people in the world are hungry. The distribution of wealth is completely unfair and helps to create conditions for hatred and violence. This can’t continue forever without paying the consequences. It’s time now to look into why this happened and work on the causes. That is why this is such a wonderful moment for reflection, for getting together, talking about who we are, what we do, why people like or dislike us, the good and the awful things we do abroad. It’s a wonderful time for change, renewal of spirituality and strength; a chance to grow up, for a moment of awareness and, I hope, a moment of peace.

I learned something in Chile at its time of terror. We tend to focus on the negative because that’s what makes the news. But for every terrorist and torturer, every person who commits a crime, there are a thousand people who are willing to risk their lives to help and do good. We forget this, but if it weren’t true we would still be in the Stone Age. Why has humanity evolved? Because there are more good guys than bad guys, even though the bad guys make more noise. Let’s concentrate on how much good we can do, how much intelligence and strength there is in the world.

JUDITH MILLER Reporter for the New York Times and coauthor of Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War

I DECIDED TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT bioterrorism because that was my way of dealing with the fear. All of my books have been about the same thing–evil and the consequences of evil. The Holocaust, Saddam Hussein, militant Islam, bioterrorism. I guess I’m just a doom-and-gloom kind of gal.

When I first started learning about biological weapons, I had trouble sleeping. I used to have nightmares. But the more people I talked to, the more reassured I became, understanding that there were many things we can do to protect ourselves as a society. One thing is to not take so many antibiotics. People should not be taking Cipro like aspirin. This reduces the ability of these drugs to combat serious illnesses should they arise. If there were a biological attack, staying inside could sometimes be enough to protect you. Some of these agents are more contagious than others. Most important is to listen to advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health officials.

At the moment I’m not really afraid myself–though I’m not sure why. I do worry that my country might not take the opportunity to consider this problem seriously. I worry that lethargy and short attention span might prevent us from taking serious action. An era of seeming invincibility and security has ended with this attack. Being an American always meant that when you came home you were secure. Sure, there were robberies and muggings but you did feel safe, more or less. That was one of the ways in which America was so special. I’ve taken great risks for my job, although–since I never run toward the fire–I realized I was never going to be a war correspondent. I don’t do well when people are shooting at me. I’ve gone into Afghanistan twice–the last time in October 2000–and I did have the sense that something big was coming. [The Taliban] have been warning us in their communiques and videos for a long time.

But one thing I saw during the Gulf War is that when Americans need to learn about something, we do. The more you learn, the better able you are to cope as a citizen. As Americans, we now realize the urgent need to press our government to do the right thing, to make public health–the safety of drinking water and food supplies–a top priority. These things are not normally part of national security.

ECKHART TOLLE Author of The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

HUMAN HISTORY HAS LARGELY been a history of insanity, the manifestation of a sort of collective mental illness. If measured by the number of people killed, the 20th century could be said to be the most insane of all. Dreadful as it was, what happened at the World Trade Center is just another chapter in long story of suffering inflicted on humans by other humans. If we don’t understand the roots of how this happens, we will never be able to go beyond it.

To a greater or lesser degree, each person carries the roots of this illness within him- or herself, though certain individuals–like terrorists–manifest it. How is it possible for a person to kill himself, and thousands of others, with seeming indifference to their suffering? To understand this we need to look at the human mind and how it operates.

The mind finds labels and concepts to describe and interpret things and people. The moment you put a mental label on another human being, you can no longer truly relate to that person. The more mental labels you have for other people–or groups of people different from the group you identify with–the more you deaden yourself to the aliveness and the reality of those people. It then becomes possible to perpetrate any act of violence. Jesus’ last words are borne out in the truest sense-“they know not what they do.” Clouded by labels and concepts, the mind becomes unconscious.

Faced with this extreme manifestation of human unconsciousness–what we would call evil–it is a great challenge for America now not to create a chain reaction. Whether as a nation or as individuals, we are in constant danger of being pulled to the same level of unconsciousness as the attacker through reactive force. America can do virtually the same thing that has been done to it–bomb cities, kill thousands of people–or it could become aware of the nature of its challenge. Of course a nation needs to defend itself, just as the individual must defend him- or herself when attacked. The important thing is not to deaden ourselves to the reality of other nations, other people, or other religions by falling into the same error of conceptualizing who they are. When you look at history, the greatest evils of humanity are perpetrated by normal citizens, by groups, by religions. America needs to take action. But let it be wise action.

Many people are deeply disturbed, having witnessed so much suffering close to home. It is painful to watch people die. But it helps to remember that whenever death occurs, a redemptive factor also comes into play. There is something sacred about death, and the Western world tends to forget that. Death is not just dreadful, awful, and bad, because then the whole of human existence would be dreadful, awful, and bad (since we are all destined to die). I’m sure you’ve read accounts of people who’ve found themselves faced with death–and accounts of so-called near-death experiences. In a great majority of these cases, people speak of finding great peace and serenity. They report that as the accident was about to happen, everything seemed to slow down, all fear left them. In some cases they see people around the death bed and want to tell them it’s all right, though of course they can’t. There is a transformation of consciousness that accompanies death. It is almost as if, for the first time, you know yourself bey ond words and labels. There’s a deep sense of knowing the roots of your being, knowing that the essence of who you are is not subject to death. That is where this feeling of great peace and serenity comes from. We do not know how many of the people who died so violently experienced that. I’m sure that many did.

MARY ROBINSON United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Ireland

THERE’S A WONDERFUL EXPRESsion that I used a lot when I was president of Ireland: It is in each other’s shadow that we flourish. This means that when we stay near one another and help one another in times of trouble, we can heal. When people band together and engender community spirit, they are more than halfway toward combating anything they’re hit with, as we’ve seen in the extraordinary ways in which New Yorkers have come together to help one another.

In my current role at the UN, it has been especially important for me to look at this situation from the perspective of the victims. What I’ve found, besides great bravery, has been a sense of guilt. I used to see this in Ireland as well after terrorist events. A brother saying “If I had only lent so-and-so the money, he wouldn’t have gone to work that day,” and so on. It is always very moving to hear such things by those left behind. Of course, there’s fear of what lies ahead, but I’ve found from experience that this fear changes to strength. When the initial terror passes, a feeling of steadiness sets in. People simply learn to cope. In places such as Northern Ireland and Lebanon, where violence occurs more frequently, citizens develop surprising qualities. I used to enjoy going to Belfast at the height of the troubles because people had the most wonderful black sense of humor, marvelous resiliency, an unshakable sense of community. We have many flaws in Ireland, but one of our strengths is this sense of w hat it means to be a neighbor.

From a human rights perspective, I am concerned that this attack could bring about an erosion of certain civil liberties. That the weakest among us — refugees, those seeking asylum, illegal aliens — could have their freedoms abused. It is important that while countries take actions to protect themselves they don’t begin cutting corners on these freedoms. Part of the problem is that we lack the proper language with which to address events of this kind on the international level. One person’s terrorism may be another person’s fight for freedom; these are enormously complex issues and definitions are hard to reach. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that the events of September 11 constitute a crime against humanity–a crime no less heinous than those for which we are trying Milosevic and the criminals of Rwanda. Once we can find the appropriate language, we can mobilize the global community: This definition will help to isolate the perpetrators, and every country in the world becomes responsible for helping to bring these people to justice. Once you realize that the crumbling edifices are the burial ground for 6,000 people, you realize the need to find this appropriate language.

Americans are being greatly admired around the world for their response to this tragedy Having endured an attack of this scale, Americans will undoubtedly look into their own hearts and empathize even more with countries that frequently suffer from terrorism. When I was at the site of the attack, I spoke to a Missouri team who’d been working for nine days at a stretch. These were big, burly men, and many of them told me in trembling voices that what they wanted most was to get home and hug their kids. On the simplest level, this is the advice I would give to parents: Hug your children more, give them reassurance. This is not a bad way of beginning the process of normalization.


Presidential historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II

WE TEND TO THINK OF PAST wars from the victory back ward–this is what history teaches us. World War II came out well, but in the beginning there was an enormous amount of uncertainty about whether or not we could match Germany’s weaponry. In 1940 Germany had the most powerful army ever amassed on the face of the earth, and our armed forces were rated 18th in the world! By the time Pearl Harbor came around we were much better prepared, but there were months of losses before it began to turn around.

The real parallel between what’s happening now, in terms of civilian life being struck, is the Blitz in London. There were 57 nights of continuous bombing. Londoners had to live through massive uncertainty. Twenty-three thousand people were killed. But just as Hitler failed to break the will of the British people, New Yorkers are proving that their will has not been broken either. Remember that Churchill insisted that theaters in the West End remain open. When there were air-raid sirens, people put on gas masks and sang songs until the all clear was sounded. Tube stations were turned into underground shelters with libraries. Stores opened with signs on their shattered windows that read MORE OPEN THAN USUAL. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey the Houses of Parliament–buildings that had stood for centuries-were in great states of disrepair. But life went on. This is when Churchill said, “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour. “‘ Knowing that people had the ability to sustain themselves through this barrage, and somehow endured it, should give us hope that we can do it as well.

What you see from other periods of great difficulty, and are seeing now when people band together to defy the enemy, is that fighting spirit. Not allowing the terrorists, Nazis, or whomever to win by breaking our spirit. It’s not that fear is taken away, but this passion not to be broken becomes greater than fear. Being part of a group gives you courage that you might not have individually. That’s why the massive showing of flags and the feeling of being a nation have been so important during this time. Most of the time, “nation” is an abstraction. But when a crisis happens, you remember in your heart what it means to be an American living in this country. Being part of something larger than yourself gives you an extra sense of strength.

In World War II, almost everyone was involved in doing something to help: planting victory gardens, sending in their dog’s rubber toys, collecting aluminum. That’s why people remember World War II with such positive feeling. This administration needs to think creatively of ways for people to become involved as a nation so they don’t feel as if they’re just waiting passively for the next thing to happen. In times of anxiety and fear, it’s crucial to mobilize positive action so that it doesn’t get taken out in anger and prejudice.

This is a big shift for us, and not at all part of the ethos of recent years. In the decades since the war in Vietnam, we’ve been more private and individual-oriented. We feel especially vulnerable after a period of so much prosperity. There’s been little sense of collective consciousness. This disaster is awakening that other side of people, infusing the leaders of the future with deeper public consciousness. One feels enlarged during times such as these. It’s a chance to improve domestic civil rights as well, just as they did during World War II when Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged FDR to create the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Two million blacks got jobs at skill levels they had never had before. Women came into the workforce in massive numbers, the GI Bill of Rights was brought in, and so on. The truth is that you can’t fight for democracy abroad and not do it at home as well. I’m anxious to see how this administration does that.

ELIE WIESEL Winner of 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and author of Night

HOW CAN WE LIVE WITH WHAT we’ve come to know through this tragedy? My response would have to be, How can we live with not knowing? The quest for knowledge is what makes humans survive, even if it hurts. There’s a troublesome verse from Ecclesiastes about this. It says that the more we know, the more pain we have. But because we are human beings, this must be. Otherwise we become objects rather than subjects. Of course it hurts when we see pictures of people throwing themselves out of windows, children who are orphaned, the widows. But there is no way out of what we’ve seen.

We have more responsibility now. Even though people are afraid, this is not the prevailing sentiment in America. The prevailing sentiment is anger. Otherwise how could you explain all the thousands of people rushing to Ground Zero, wanting to donate, to be of service? The generosity of the American people will remain in history, just as the memory of this catastrophe will remain. Fear is a natural ingredient in life; if a child is afraid of fire, that’s good. Fear is only unhealthy when it becomes excessive. Courage has to play a role in how we cope with what we know. Courage means doing the impossible within the possible.

We have learned so much from this about what makes human beings noble. When people are in need, you must be present. When people suffer, you must let them know you’re suffering with them. But we have also learned that we have been far too naive. It was naive to have terrorists in our midst and not know it. It is naive to believe that whoever lives in this country will learn from us the values of democracy, friendship, and freedom. Clearly, this did not happen. We have been too naive about fanaticism. Most of us realize now that this is merely the beginning of a process in which we must expect more attacks–they will try again, that’s for certain. This wasn’t a onetime tragedy.

I was shaken by this murderous deed, but shaken in a positive way as well by the heroism everywhere. This has been America’s finest hour. I would not say that from horror comes goodness–that would be giving horror too much credit. But goodness prevails in spite of horror. And finally we must have hope. Even when there is no hope–as Albert Camus once said–we must invent it.

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