Volume 5, Issue 8 - October 1, 2001
Friends and Neighbors,
I hope everybody's well.
Three weeks have passed since the awful tragedy of September 11. But, even as the event gradually recedes into the past, it continues to reverberate in our lives and in our hearts.
I'm still hit, at odd moments in the day, by waves of despair, as I recall turning on my TV to the inescapable reality of the flames, a second plane, and the overwhelming sense of anguish as I watched and understood the meaning of one magnificent, wounded tower, filled with innocent souls, collapsing after another.
We are bereft at so tragic a loss. And we are afraid for what it portends for our future.
I'd like to acknowledge the many heartfelt expressions of concern, sorrow and solidarity for my countrymen and women, which I've received from so many of you good folk, from around the world, over the last few weeks. Your many emails voice the myriad of emotions - anguish, shock, confusion, fear, anger - that we all share in reaction to these unspeakable events. The fact that so many of you felt the emotional, spiritual and physical impact of that day, from thousands of miles away, perhaps as profoundly as did many of us only a few miles away, is surprising and yet not surprising at all, as we are all part of the same human family.
On that Tuesday morning, America lost its innocence - with the slaughter of so many innocents. Ever since switching on my TV to that surreal scene, I have struggled to gain even the slightest understanding of what occurred and why. I've failed, repeatedly. I pore over newspaper articles, soak up TV new reports, search online, and I am no closer to being able to fix the myriad of facts and emotions in my head, in any semblance of order. In fact, I understand even less now than I did the moment it dawned on me that what I was watching on my TV screen was, in fact, actually happening.
Part of my job description as a writer is to attempt to make some kind of sense of the world we live in (and you thought I just wrote songs), however in this instance, I am at a loss. Because I remain bewildered by what occurred and by what is about to occur as a consequence, I am ashamed to say that I have only my own confusion to offer up, a confusion, I suspect, we share. I was afraid to begin this email, because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stop writing - just as I've been unable to stop thinking about what happened and what is about to happen. I apologize for the length of this email. Forgive my lack of focus. Like you, I remain overwhelmed.
To start, this is simply a relaying of my own trivial experience, safely removed, 50 miles from ground zero.
Alison had left for work at the Bronx Zoo, having already dropped the kids off at school in Westchester, on the way. Lazy musician that I am, I was still lying in bed, half asleep, when Alison called me from her car cell phone to tell me to turn on the TV. Like all of you, as understanding dawned, a profound anguish washed over me. The constant repetition of the impact footage taunted my sense of linear time and consequence, as if to suggest, to a disbelieving mind, that by replaying the crash over and over again, it might eventually have a different outcome. It didn't.
Reality of this magnitude is slow in dawning. Three weeks later it's still sinking in.
Alison got as far as the parking lot at work and called again to ask whether I thought she should go back to school to pick up the kids. Alison is a mom and as such has a heightened sense of danger, especially where her kids are concerned. There are good, natural reasons for this and I generally defer to her instincts. Alison picked up the kids and swung by her sister, Dorian, who was alone with her month old baby, anxiously waiting for her husband, Mihael, to return from his office in mid-town. With phone service erratic, I served to relay messages between various family members unable to reach each other directly, all while glued to CNN and AOL online for news updates. Mihael eventually made it home on a borrowed bicycle, whereupon Alison and the kids finally headed north to home.
I relay these trivial details only to illustrate how the magnitude of the event impacted on our every thought and action even though we were a good distance from the site. As the Pentagon attack hit the airwaves, it raised the specter of multiple coordinated attacks on other high profile targets. We live 5 miles from Indian Point Nuclear Reactor and 5 minutes from the Croton Reservoir, a main water supply that feeds New York City. As the 110 story towers collapsed, extinguishing thousands of lives in seconds, the 'unthinkable' suddenly became 'thinkable', and the prospect of a nuclear incident and biological terrorism suddenly seemed less a science fiction, doomsday scenario and more a plausible concern.
I feel foolish writing much of this - I sit here safely typing away on my PC. We have plenty of electrical power and fresh water. The refrigerator is stocked with food. The kids have returned to school. It's a beautiful sunny day outside. And yet snipers with rifles now patrol the Croton Reservoir and Dam and armored cars block the entrance to Indian Point. Is my family safe? Is the worst over. Or has it only just begun?
The truth is I feel irrationally secure. In large part, this is because I have a fundamental faith in the power and ability of the United States, its people, its government, and its armed forces. It doesn't help that I believe the genial good ol' boy, currently running the show, to be sincere, well intentioned, and not particularly bright. He seems fundamentally decent, though, and my fervent hope is that the same dumb luck that handed him the election (no, wait, that was the Supreme Court) will smile on him - and us - as we struggle to find our way out of this morass. Fortunately, his VP, Cheney, Secretary of State, Powell, and Defense Secretary, Rumsfield, seem to know what they're doing and if our earnest president's slow-witted, off-the-wall, cowboy utterances serve to irritate those who wish us ill - all the better. I wish George W. all the best.
But I can't help being anxious. Anxious, because cataclysmic mistakes can be made at this juncture in terms of how we respond to this event, and George W. Bush, has grown up in, and is surrounded by, a political family and culture - surrounded by his father's same advisors, after all - which, like it or not, played an active, indeed aggressive, role in the political climate that currently exists between America and the Middle East. Still, I am optimistic - I also pray that they get it right.
Inevitably, a crisis like this forces a person to confront their primal, innermost feelings about their relationships - to their family, their friends, their community, their country and their world.
I have always cherished my country. I've traveled to many places around the world, and lived in some for extended periods; and while I appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of each place and its people, I am always proud and grateful to be able to call America my home.
This love of country is not, however, without a critical eye.
My country, like the world we live in, is imperfect. We screw up - sometimes big-time. I am not oblivious to the institutional injustices that are perpetuated by our money-driven, pseudo-democratic system. As much as we try to use our vast power for the good - and we do - there's no question but that we are capable of abusing it as well - and have. We can be arrogant, we can be thoughtless, we can be stupid and we are capable of selfish acts, which cause others to suffer. In spite of all this, I know that as a country and as a people, we are fundamentally good and well intentioned. And just to be perfectly clear about where I stand on all this: America is the coolest, most amazing place on earth. It may have its flaws, but it saved the world from barbarism in the last two World Wars, it just ended wholesale slaughter in the Balkans and it's still the only country capable of taking on a rogue state whose actions threaten the security of the rest of the world (With the crucial help, of course, of our able allies and friends - It was reassuring seeing Tony Blair sitting next to Laura Bush during George's speech.)
And let me be clear about this too: The group that committed this act are evil, deranged scum. To give even passing, momentary credence to their supposed justifications for these acts is idiotic and insults the memory of their victims. At the same time, in order to prevent this from happening again, we must attempt to understand any circumstances that might have allowed their evil to flourish. To say that some of those circumstances may have been the unintentional product of our own actions is not to say we bare even one iota of responsibility for the horror that they perpetrated on humanity - we do not. The imperative for understanding what happened is simply that if there are things we can do differently to avoid this in the future, we must know what they are.
Notwithstanding the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor (a remote island/military base which was then a territory of the US), America hasn't suffered war casualties, on the mainland, since the Civil War, which ended in 1886. This attack on the World Trade Center is, in truth, the first time American civilians have suffered major casualties from external attack, on American soil, in an act of war, in over 130 years! The scale of this tragedy is sickening. The fact that this country has been spared civilian assault, in the continental US, for more than a century, is mind-boggling. The rest of the planet has not been so blessed. A small part of me is aware that this feeling of, seeming, civilian immunity from the awful consequences of war may have influenced our actions when pursuing conflicts afar - not that we are oblivious to the suffering of others, but that, as a nation, we've been spared the first-hand experience of it for so long - until now.
Will there be a second wave of attacks? A third? Or, are we, now alert, in a position to foil their efforts? No one truly knows.
In response to this act, America is about to go to war - or at least what our president has chosen to characterize as a war - in a determined effort to bring the perpetrators of this act to justice and more importantly to prevent an act like this from ever happening again.
We will strive, to the best of our ability, to avoid such casualties, but this is the great curse and paradox of war: In order to fight evil, one inevitably commits evil. Intent may be the only thing that distinguishes our actions in the end. I believe my government has good intent. I know there is a great risk of 'collateral damage', and that even so - some kind of action must be taken. I only pray that the people running the show have the wisdom and good fortune to do only what is necessary and no more.
We are about to invade a country already decimated from decades of war and violence. The sad irony is the fact that America's own CIA funneled $ billions in funding and training of assorted Afghan rebel groups in a policy designed to bleed the Soviets during their occupation. It worked. They left. At what cost? It's interesting to note that President George W. Bush's father George Bush senior was a director of the CIA before becoming president. The chilling fact is we trained these people how to kill. We armed them, we financed their training camps and we schooled them in the art of strategic sabotage using manuals authored by the CIA. We've done this for years and continue to do so, in the naive assumption that it would never come back to haunt us. At the time, there may well have been compelling reasons for doing so. In fact, there's a compelling reason for doing so now. We're about to overthrow the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan and to do so, we will be allying ourselves with, and arming and training, another group of Afghan rebels - the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Do we have a choice? Probably not. Something needs to be done. And yet, the cycle potentially begins anew.
Terrorism and the cycle of violence. For years, I've refrained from expressing my thoughts regarding the ongoing situation between England and Ireland. After all, I'm an American, untouched by civilian violence in my homeland, what did I know? Nothing.
But, in my anger, I finally feel free to speak: Except I have nothing constructive to say. We are - all of us - crazy. And cursed to live in a world where people so readily choose violence as the only way to redress a wrong; and what's worse, is that sometimes it is the only way.
[I say this with all due respect to my pacifist friends, whose peaceful ways are welcome and appropriate in some circumstances. But as a Jew, who would not be permitted to exist, had the Nazi's not been defeated militarily, less than 60 years ago, I take a much different view towards turning the other cheek.]
Yeah, I know this particular England/Ireland conflict has been going on since the 12th century. It's complicated. Both sides have suffered. Still, at the risk of alienating half the people on this mailing list: Look at a map, guys. It's an island, for goodness sakes! Of course, you could do what we've done with the Native American population, here in the US (or rather, what's left of them after we effectively committed mass genocide, upon landing here four hundred years ago) - which is let them open up tax-free casinos until, eventually, they'll be able to afford to buy back all the land we stole from them.
You see, like it or not, we are all the beneficiaries of some prior injustice. But we can't change the past. We can, however, make a conscious effort to determine our futures.
Besides, you guys are so very close to real peace, these days. I pray you make it, because then, there's real hope for the rest of us.
Because, if the Irish Catholics and the English Protestants can't make peace after fighting for hundreds of years, what hope is there for the Arabs and Jews who've been at it, off and on, for thousands of years? Or for any two tribes fighting over a patch of land on this planet?
Which, of course, brings me to Israel and a big part of what this fight is really all about, in fact, what all wars are really all about - a perpetual fight over resources (including food and water) and land (and the economic power derived from it), combined with fear (transformed into hate) of another culture - oh, and one last ingredient: the unchecked ego of a megalomaniacal leader.
The fact is, notwithstanding a few moderate Arab countries, too many Arab groups simply can't abide Israel's existence. And therefore, hate America, almost as much, for defending her all these years. Actually, they'd hate us anyway, if for no other reason than we're so successful, but being a friend to the Jews, well, that just drives them even more nuts. This has been so, ever since the United States and England consented to create an official state, where Jews had been living for millennia anyway. And because no country really wanted to absorb the thousands of Jewish refugees that survived Hitler's onslaught (Just as their Arab brethren are none too willing to absorb the millions of Palestinian refugees into their countries, today.) and Israel seemed like a logical place to send them. (Not to mention that it makes a convenient base to protect oil interests.) Of course, even if the Jews in Israel were to pack up and move en masse to Arizona, there would still be war between nations in the Middle East. As always, the Jews make a convenient scapegoat. I guess there's just something about the place, huh? But, you'd think God would have left more explicit instructions as to where he wanted his various god-fearing children to dwell - maybe plan this whole thing out a little better. Less confusion. Instead he bequeaths each of them the same tiny patch of desert. Really, what was he thinking?
Ironically, as much as it would appear that large portions of the world hate us with a passion, it seems they continue to embrace our culture with an equal passion - after all, we gave them Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse and Levi's Jeans, and more recently, Britney Spears, and, of course, our own unique brand of democracy and capitalism, which many seem to aspire to.
It also appears as if most of the world has been so disturbed by this assault on civilization (and ultimately their own security) that they may actually join in common cause, or at least refrain from beating up on us like usual, while we do what needs to be done.
So, what is there to conclude from all this?
Well, the truth is, you already know the things I'm about to say, but I'll say them anyway...
That we all live on the same planet.
That we need to pray for the wisdom to come up with creative alternatives to the unceasing cycle of violence that seems so integral a part of our human nature.
Is this possible?
In the 21st century, given our resources, our technology and our organizational skills, it should be - if we have the will, and prioritize the goal.
But it requires us declaring a different kind of war, on several fronts.
Spending $100 billion rooting out al Qaeda and deposing the Taliban from Afghanistan will alleviate a horrible symptom, but not the underlying ongoing disease.
The real battles of the 21st century are these:
Half the souls on this planet, 3 billion people, - loving families like your own or the one next door - still live their lives in perpetual poverty, most of them chronically underfed, surviving on less than a two dollars a day.
20 million + people - no different than your own relatives - die annually from hunger or hunger related illness.
20 million + people - people like you - live in squalor as refugees.
30 million + people - people like all of us - have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. 3 million of them die every year in Africa alone.
That's a lot of people in this world who are suffering on a daily basis; old news, but true nonetheless. Suffering because our system of world government has failed to protect them from the endless cycle of poverty, hunger, illness and violence.
These conditions are self-perpetuating. Poverty leads to hunger and illness, which leads to destabilized governments, which leads to violence, which leads to poverty, which leads to hunger and illness, which leads to...
None of this is new, but as a global society we do gradually, incrementally, evolve, and there has to come a time where the acceptable threshold of human suffering on this planet is made many times lower than it is.
To be sure, this act was committed by a rich man, born into privilege, and planned and carried out by some who could be considered educated and even middle class. But they garner their support from the strife around them that continues unabated.
We will never rid the world of madmen. But as we continue to lower the acceptable threshold of poverty and the misery that flows from it, we will reduce the risk of madmen taking root in the desperate soil of human suffering.
This is not even a question of humanity.
It's a question of practicality!
How can we guarantee peace in our own country, when large portions of the world around us are in so much agony?
It's common sense.
Our own technology has made the world small and interconnected and vulnerable. What affects one, affects all. It's way too late for isolationism! We have to raise the bar globally concerning minimum standards of living including decent housing, clothing, food, education and meaningful employment.
It's not that we haven't been trying. We have. We spend millions every year. It's just that that's nowhere near enough. And it's still not the priority it needs to be.
We need to spend trillions, conservatively, in a prudent, carefully thought out and managed campaign to provide minimum standards of living including decent housing, clothing, food, education and meaningful employment. (Yes, I realize we've strived to do so and that it's a complex, never ending struggle)
If not, ten years from now, a new crop of angry young men, will be the willing recruits of the next Bin Laden handing out AK47's and the promise of eternal bliss in the next world.
We also need to have the courage to face even more difficult and complex questions, such as:
How do we reconcile our fundamental respect for freedom of religion, with the very real and deadly threat of fundamentalism?
How do we reconcile a hands-off, non-interference approach to non-democratic governments when their continued existence poses an ongoing threat to democracy and our own way of life?
How do we justify maintaining close political and financial relationships with countries in which slavery and the violent subjugation of women continues to be an integral, and legally sanctioned, part of their culture.
How do we confront all these difficult realities without becoming the very threat-to-their-way-of-life that these inflamed voices claim us to be?
My mind is still twisted in a knot trying to grapple with the way the world has changed in subtle and dramatic ways in these new days.
I've imposed on you with a meandering rant saying things you already know, just to get them out of my system. I'm sorry if all I've accomplished is to add to your own confusion. I apologize if I've written anything that could be interpreted as trivializing or dishonoring the memory of the innocent people who's lives were just cut short for no reason. My intention was just the opposite, to acknowledge and attempt to express how profoundly we are hurt, and are forever changed, by their passing.
If you still feel hopeless, in the face of this darkness, consider this:
The single most significant event of the past century never occurred... on a day that never came. I'm not being glib here; I couldn't be more serious: In spite of nuclear arsenals - stockpiles of tens of thousands of warheads, capable of wiping the human race off the face of this earth - the nuclear states, managed, somehow (after the undeniable reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), to practice restraint, to refrain from unleashing ultimate and complete global destruction.
This is the miracle of this past century - that, in spite of all our many failings, we managed to keep our finger off the button. There were no headlines. There were no parades. There were no celebrations. But, even though unnoted and unheralded, the day that never came was very, very real. Despite so much evidence, seemingly to the contrary, in this most important instance, Civilization proved itself to be sane.
This fact alone should serve to provide genuine hope for our futures.
Still, anxiety continues to permeate our every day. I still ache for the surviving families, for whom this tragedy will never end. And yet, because it is my nature, I am hopeful... that as a country, along with our friends around the globe, we will recover and thrive and somehow help to fashion a better world from out of tons of twisted steel, rubble and dust and the lives of loved ones, lost.
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