A Time for Tolerance?

The television was showing a video screen close-up of one of the World Trade Center towers crumbling. It's a video that, like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, is going to be etched in our history.

As it collapsed on office workers, police, firemen and other rescue workers, Dan Rather on CBS observed that "this is the new face of war." But it's not. Crumbling buildings, smoke, dust, rubble, fire, sirens, casualty figures in the thousands is new only for the United States. Politics aside, for the people of London and Hamburg, Hanoi and Tokyo, Belgrade, Baghdad, Beirut that's what an air-attack on civilians looks like.

But what is new about this "war" is that it's not country against country or even people against people, which is bad enough. What happened here almost surely was that a small group of angry fanatics were willing to commit suicide and kill thousands of innocent civilians for the purpose of making a political statement, a statement of hatred and revenge.

War, it's been said, is diplomacy by other means. But this is not diplomacy, even in its most violent sense. What distinguishes terrorism from war is that war has a purpose, however immoral or wrong. Terrorism doesn't seek to advance the strategic position of the terrorists or even seek to improve their place in the world. It's simply lashing out. The joy for the terrorist is in the destruction, not the political gain.

Yesterday's attack should put an end to the illusion that isolationism is a viable policy. Unless we want to shut down all our airports, stop trade, and cut ourselves off from the world, we are part of the world, hence vulnerable. There's no place to run, no place to hide. The only way to deal with conflict this side of war is to engage, talk, negotiate, and negotiate some more.

Reports indicate that Osama bin Laden had warned, a week earlier, of a planned attack. The State Department took precautions but how could they have anticipated this kind of attack?

The French News Agency quoted a spokesman for the radical Islamic Jihad movement as saying that the attacks were a consequence of United States policy in the Middle East. He condemned the attack, as did Yasser Arafat.

I know what people are saying: this is no time for namby-pamby pacifism, no time for talk about tolerance, human rights, brother and sisterhood. A part of me is saying that very same thing. But I also hear a voice inside me saying that this is precisely the time to talk about tolerance and moderation.

If it was an Arab or a Muslim group that is responsible for this atrocity (and at this point there is only circumstantial evidence), it is not all Arabs or all Muslims. Just as in Oklahoma City it was not the extreme right-wing that destroyed the federal building, it was fanatic. It will do us no good to take revenge or urge revenge on one group of people for the crime of a miniscule group that might look or even, in broad ideological or religious way, think like them. It will simply let the true culprits get off and encourage more hatred, vengeance and barbaric terrorism.

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