Commentary - August 31-September 15, 2006

The Global Meaning of 9/11



Commentators of all stripes agree on one point: 9/11 was a defining moment in our history. Just as each of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when JFK was shot, most of us can recall “where” and “what” when the planes crashed into the twin towers. Such recollections, however, do not reveal just how 9/11 was a “defining moment” or ways to avoid another 9/11-type tragedy. What is the meaning of “9/11”?


Reread the biographical sketches of those who perished on that day and you will see the meaning of human life revealed. There is not only the courage underlined by the media; there is more -- such variety, so much potential and so much love. 9/11 highlights the value; indeed, the sacredness, of human life.


Among the killers, we see the true meaning of evil – human life destroyed. Instead of variety and potential, we see sameness – men driven by a single, rigid, closed-minded, life-limiting ideology. Instead of love, we see hate. Killers, actual or potential, are those who cannot see and respect the value of the lives of others. They look for sameness. Terrorists hate difference! They cannot see others different from themselves as individuals. They paint others with the same brush, the color of “not us,” of “infidels” not human. Then the destruction of hated differences is easily rationalized, as by Nazis during the Holocaust, by Hutus’ committing genocide in Rwanda, by Islamic terrorists murdering occupants of the towers, etc., ad nauseum.


The rationalization of killing is easier if the killer can see himself as serving a cause larger than himself. The 9/11 terrorists saw them-selves as striking a body blow at a power they viewed as evil incarnate – the overpowering U.S.A. The cause? – defending Islam against the worldwide spread of American power and ideology, seen as undermining an Islamic way of life and offending Muslim dignity. This view seemed to be reinforced by delusions of grandeur -- of a glorious afterlife, and perhaps of leading the charge for a revival of past Muslim power.


Can 9/11 be seen as a catalytic event in a “war of civilizations?” Yes, in the sense that different ways of life are in conflict. The differences that count are few but crucial. We are the first nation founded on ideas, chief among them that there is a right to life and that the life of the individual has unique value and priority. Contrast this with the Taliban or terrorist’s view: That one’s group-identity is more important than the individual, whether the group be defined by the Taliban, other Islamo-fascists, earlier Nazi fascists, communists, David Koresh, Jim Jones, African tribes, some ethnic group or religious sect – any group whose definition is rigid, whose community of co-believers is closed and that establishes an “us” vs. “them” mentality.


 Those fighting for self-determination in a globalised world would do better to adapt American ways rather than destroy American lives. For ours is a decentralized system that allows group self-determination and self-government as well as individual liberty. Where else can you see incredibly different ways of life and communities of groups thriving as in the U.S.A., for example: Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, the Amish in Pennsylvania, the Baha’i community outside of Chicago, the Pilsen Mexican-American community in Chicago, Mormans in Utah, “Freestaters” in New Hampshire, Chinatowns nation wide, and many others? We provide the world’s best example of how to accommodate even radical differences in ways of life -- “E Pluribus Unum.”


For the global struggle is primarily a battle for group self-determination, group v. group in situations where one group finds its way of life threatened by another. Thus, our President is partially mistaken when he equates his “War on Terror” as a fight for democracy. If every group representing a distinctive way of life could have a piece of Earth in which their way of life could rule supreme, whether the rule was democratic or not, there would probably be no terrorism, at least not against us. The failure to understand this has already led to failings in U.S. policy even apart from those in Iraq; e.g., the failure of Western countries to support governments where members of  organizations we call “terrorist” have been democratically elected, as in Palestine (Hamas) and in Lebanon (Hezbollah). Yet, we have supported both democracy and self-determination for the Kurds in Iraq and the Kosovars in Serbia, even though the militant wings of both have hardly differed from those of Hamas or Hezbollah.       


At issue is the fight of groups and individuals to determine their own destiny in their own ways. So, we return to the ancient conflict of “differences.” What is the common denominator that can help bridge these? It is life among the living, the core features of which are almost identical between groups no matter who or what. Each of us is born. We live day to day lives of working, home-life, choosing mates, having and raising children. We retire and we die. We put on our clothes in the morning; we try to stay clean and healthy; we have relatives, friends and neighbors, etc. These core similarities far outweigh and outnumber those that cause us to differ.


And so, what is the meaning of 9/11? It lies with the lives lost. We honor those who died by recognizing the individual value of their lives and asking what we need to do to ensure that they have not died in vain. So, this author suggests that we should:


Ø      Seek to influence the rest of the world far more by broadcasting our good example than by force (unless we are attacked by another nation), while working continually to improve our democratic Republic from within.

Ø      Always err on the side of life; recognizing that human life is sacred.

Ø      Seek to decentralize governmental power, both at home and abroad, to provide greater latitude for self-determination by self-governing communities.

Ø      Enable and empower people to be able to “make a difference” in their own lives.

Ø      Foster self-determination first, democracy second.

Ø      Work to defeat terrorism through heightened vigilance and security that relies primarily on people’s own efforts and civil authorities, not “war” and the military.

Ø      Recognize the need of others, like ourselves, for human dignity.  


To the extent that we recognize and honor the meaning of 9/11, we are more likely to avoid another such tragedy.  

            Peter Bearse, Ph.D., welcoming comments via

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