Position Statements
9/11, Sharing the Burden and Possibilities of the Crisis

Maulana Karenga
'01 September 17

It was actually there, not just on TV this time, but actually live in New York and Washington. The twin towers of the World Trade Center ablaze and eventually crumbling into smoke, ash and tons of rubble, thousands killed, wounded, missing. People walking away dazed, others watching, dumbfounded and in horror. Emergency vehicles assembled in long lines and telltale clusters at the zones of impact. Moreover, Wall Street is closed and government offices shut down all over the country; the Pentagon is in flames and temporarily dysfunctional; all air traffic is halted; and the President is in flight, hiding and on the run like a fugitive. We cannot believe it or turn off the TV, or change the channel to something less disturbing or walk away and return with the usual programming resumed. War and its brutal consequences are no longer conducted in its safe, sanitized and distant forms from the air or in video games. We are in shock. Our carefully cultivated illusions of a war proof society are shattered. We are anxious, insecure, frightened and eventually angry. Who would dare do this to us who are, we say, the greatest power in the world, the keeper of democracy, freedom and civilization in the world? We do not know or do we? It is too soon to say, but we must say it anyhow. It is, we say with a sneaking racialized suspicion, Middle Easterners, Muslims. We don't think what this premature and blanket condemnation will mean to the Muslims, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Puerto Ricans and other look-alikes among us - citizens and visitors. We will, in spite of ourselves and our claimed superiority, hold them all responsible for the people we hate among them. The bombings and boycotts of Iraq and the war in Vietnam and the boycott of Cuba are our models for this.
In the African American community, there are three different strands of thinking which merge into a coherent and instructive whole. There is the Martin L. King approach stressing interdependence and developing a sense of shared suffering and loss; a Malcolm X approach which asks us to accept the awesome burden of "chickens coming home to roost" after years of oppression in the world; and the Anna Julia Cooper approach which asks us to combine the sense of shared grief and suffering with the obligation to think critically and ethically about our current crisis and "to grasp the deep significance of the possibilities of the crisis" for all of humanity. Thus, in spite of our anger, anxiety and sense of insecurity, we must think through this national tragedy in ways that contribute to the solution of the problem rather than exacerbate and perpetuate it. All people of good will should participate in this collective thinking and conversations and bring forth the best values and visions of our spiritual and ethical traditions to aid in shaping a discourse and policy in this great challenge.
First, we must, of necessity, mourn the loss of human life, of family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors and the fire, police and rescue personnel who gave their lives in an effort to save others. And we must mourn and grieve for them not as isolated victims, but as victims of a cycle of violence that engulfs the world. Because loss of loved ones and acquaintances is so personal, we are tempted and taught daily to see only our own suffering, to deny, close our eyes to or minimize the importance of others' suffering. Also, we are not to link this or any of our suffering to the suffering of others, especially those we see as the real or possible source of our suffering. But we are not the only people who have suffered or suffer this violence which engulfs the innocent. And if we are to avoid practicing a selective morality and a selective remembering and thus a selective empathy in the loss of innocent lives, then, we must know and feel the pain of others. For it is this mutual empathetic understanding and appreciation of the suffering of others that is one of the key elements in the solution to ending this cycle of violence.
Secondly, then we must reaffirm the sacredness of all human life everywhere and condemn all violence against innocent civilians whether here in the U.S. or in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Bosnia, Guatemala, or Afghanistan. This means taking the difficult moral stand against the thirst for a general blood vengeance that we are called to engage in and support. For beyond the mist of our rightful grief and easily stoked patriotic passion, we must know that it is morally and rationally contradictory to kill innocent people in a general war without specific targets while condemning others who do it. Indeed, we must avoid practicing a state terrorism to counter what we see as small group terrorism. We are told we are fighting terrorism, but is it defined to include not only group terrorism but also state terrorism? At the heart of terrorism are acts and threats of violence to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate a people. Clearly, a state which bombs a people repeatedly, engages in selective assassination, collective punishment and kills innocent civilians in great numbers cannot be exempt from this designation. In fact, it kills more innocents given its massive resources and advanced technology.
Thirdly, we must, even in the midst of our rightful grieving, pause and reflect on the possible causes for this devastating attack and how best to respond to it. Surely, we cannot believe the nightly newscasters and selective guests who assure us that the people who did this are simply jealous of our riches, even though millions of us are not rich, but are actually poor. Nor because they hate freedom, justice and related values. In fact, they think they are fighting for freedom, justice and the right to self-determination. Perhaps, then, it is not the material goods some of us have that they hate the U.S. for, but for attempts to impose the materialism of a consumerist society on them, to turn them into homogenized consumers of a McWorld system. And perhaps it is not that they are against freedom and justice and related values, but against the U.S. imposed interpretation of this. Perhaps, they resent the arrogance of imposition and the inequities imposed by a globalism that grinds them underfoot and denies them a right of self-determination and security that we say are indispensable to us and our allies.
Indeed, this was not a light matter. It was an extreme act of anger, hatred and violence. Nor was it a recently developed posture. On the contrary, it seems under girded by a sense of abuse, oppression and state terrorism for years and decades against poor, less powerful, darker and religiously different people and the asymmetry of suffering these have inflicted. If these people were from the Middle East, then, the examples of the U.S. role in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon stand out. But also in other parts of the world, the contras in Nicaragua, the CIA in Guatemala and Chile and the brutal intervention in Vietnam all speak to a U.S. role that provokes the most severe criticism, anger, resentment and hatred.
We might not want to concede any humanity to these particular people, but that is neither the most moral nor rational thing to do if we are to address meaningfully the challenge they pose in the world. Surely, we can and must condemn what they did, but it is also useful to imagine why they did it from their own perspective and to consider whether others feel similarly, even if they refuse to use such means to make their point. If we did, we might discover that from their perspective and those of people who will not commit such acts but are emphatic with their aims that they did it to: (1) avenge years of state terrorism, mass murder, selective assassination, collective punishment and other forms of oppression by the U.S. and its allies; (2) to demonstrate vulnerability of the U.S. at its crucial centers of power, i.e., financial - Manhattan, military - the Pentagon, and political - Washington, D.C.; (3) to cause the rulers of the country to fear, to be uncertain and to reverse the role of hunter and hunted; (4) to insist on being heard and considered in human, political and military terms; (5) to demonstrate a capacity to strike regardless of the superior strength and technology of the U.S.; and (6) to dramatize and underline in a highly visible way the asymmetry of suffering between the U.S. and the oppressed in the world.
Finally, African Americans must self-consciously reaffirm their role as a moral vanguard in the country by taking an ethical stand in several matters no matter how unpopular. We must speak out against the easy non-solution of war and for the difficult task of peace. And it must be a peace based on an ethics of sharing the good and tasks of the world, i.e., shared status (the inherent dignity and worth of all humans), shared knowledge, shared space, shared wealth, shared power, shared interests and shared responsibility for building the good world we all want and deserve to live in. It is in this context that Congresswoman Barbara Lee's stand against war and unlimited powers to the President is so meaningful and praiseworthy. For here she not only stood up for principle in the mist of the fire of patriotic passion, but also reaffirmed our ancient ethical tradition of speaking truth to power and setting the scales of justice in their proper place among those who have no voice. What an important symbol, a Black woman, one against 420, speaking to the best of African and human values as she had done concerning the bombing of Iraq and Kosovo. It is worthy of the best of our foremothers and forefathers, from Khunanup to King, from Lady TaAset to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and from Amenomope to Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X.
Secondly, we must defend without hesitation or equivocation the rights and equal treatment of Arabs, Muslims, Southeast Asians and others who are racially profiled and abused and attacked by the government or private citizens. Thirdly, we must resist the call to unite to kill and to win wars of great devastation, reaffirm our moral obligation to repair and heal the world, and insist that the leaders of the country call us together to pursue the more difficult tasks of winning the peace, and securing justice, freedom, material well being and human flourishing in the world.
Also, we must resist the erosion of civil and human rights under the camouflage of national security and in the midst of the cacophony of calls for vengeance and victory in a war whose horrors will eventually come back to haunt us. And finally, we must challenge the U.S. to review and reconstruct its international policy, especially in the Middle East, so that it is just and equitable. This will be perhaps the most difficult struggle, not simply because of our uncritical commitment to the U.S.' major ally in the region, but also because of its shared demonization of their opponent and thus the refusal to address their legitimate claims and their undeserved and asymmetrical suffering. At this point, the voices of King, Cooper and Malcolm call on us to recognize the inherent dignity and rights of every person and people and their right to freedom, dignity and a decent life. For without this and the justice it implies and requires, there can be no peace or security for any of us anywhere in the world.

Dr. Maulana Karenga is professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach; Chair of The Organization Us and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO). Dr. Karenga is widely known as the creator of the pan-African holiday Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and 14 books including: Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and Introduction to Black Studies, 3rd Edition [www.Us-Organization.org]