“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
– Yoda, Jedi Knight
Being asked to participate in a panel discussion about 9-11 Monday has caused me to reflect on what that event means ten years on. There are many directions I could take in analyzing the impact of 9-11. What does security mean in an age where technology allows a small group armed with only box cutters to alter the course of the world’s greatest power? Did Bin Laden succeed in causing us to react in ways that harmed our country and the world economy? Is there such a thing as a ‘war on terror,’ and if so, is anyone winning?
But as I reflect, it strikes me that the real lesson is more basic, it’s in the emotions that the events of 9-11 evoked in the public. The strongest were love and fear. I have a theory that most people’s personalities can be explained by the way they handle love and fear. Those with the most fear are distrustful of others, angry at life, and often feel that they are victims of some kind of conspiracy. Those with the most love are helpful, giving and open. Too much love without fear opens one up to being abused and taken advantage of; too much fear and one lives a life of depression and bitterness.
By love I don’t mean romantic love, or even the love one has for family and friends. Love at its purest is the sense that links us as humans. It is what caused New Yorkers to help each other out and comfort each other on that horrific day. It is the connection two people felt on that day when their eyes met and they realized they were sharing the same shock and grief. It is what brought the country together to celebrate American values, it is what caused us to cry at the stories of tragedy and heroism, and feel for those who lost loved ones. That sense of love also created a hole in our hearts as we looked at Manhattan burning. Even if we had never been there, we connected. Similar emotions were felt around the globe as they always are in times of tragedy — love is the core instinct that brings us to want to help and identify with others in times of trouble. It is real and the most pure of human emotions. It cuts through the fog of diverse perspectives, ideologies, politics and religion — it is the recognition that as humans we are linked.
Fear emerges when one believes that the very things that bring stability and order to life are under threat. Fear is important to survival. Our cat has a fear of brooms. Get a broom out and he goes into hiding. No matter what treats are offered or if the broom gets put away, that fear lingers for awhile, until he’s convinced things are safe. For humans fear is similar but due to our complex societies the base reaction to a sense of danger (such as an attack by a sabre tooth tiger) gets applied to social conditions that are more abstract and symbolic.
Shortly after the attacks I heard of how Arabs, Sri Lankans, and people from India were being beat up or intimidated by Americans who thought them a threat. At that point I realized that fear was unleashing the worst of what we are capable of doing. When President Bush called Islam a “religion of peace,” I was shocked to hear countless pundits attack the President and defame a great world religion, trying to associate its one billion adherents to that small pocket of radical extremists represented by Bin Laden. Fear causes one to imagine dangers far greater than they are, and abstract them to whole groups of people, nations, ideologies or religions. Fear allows bizarre rationalizations of what otherwise would be unthinkable. Genocide, war crimes and cruelty are driven by fear.
9-11-01 brought out fear as well as love. Suddenly people felt vulnerable, the images were intense, the perpetrators both strange and yet inconspicuous. Would they strike again? Where and how? We didn’t know. Anthrax, small pox, poisoning of water supplies and chemical warfare dominated discussion. Fear reigns in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.
Shortly after 9-11 students contacted me saying that they were impressing family and friends with their knowledge of Bin Laden, chemical and biological weapons and Islamic extremism — all from my World Politics class, where these themes were touched on years before 9-11-01. The fact I’d been worried about these issues, and on visiting cities like New York and Washington always thought about the possibility of terrorism just as one thinks of earth quakes in California, made 9-11 less of a shock. For people who thought all was secure and safe, the shock evoked a stronger sense of danger. What other unexpected threats are out there?
After 9-11-01 I started studying Islamic religion and history, since it was clear that many were defining the attack as the opening act of a war between Islam and the West. The more I learned about Islam, the clearer it became that like almost all religions it was focused on good, but had portions that could be used to arose anger and violence. It is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly Islamic culture can’t be seen as more violent than that of the West — a culture that has given us colonialism, nuclear weapons and world wars. Over time as a society we went from knee jerk fear to perspectives tempered with more knowledge and understanding.
Consider: Since 3000 people were killed on 9-11, only 33 people have been killed in the US by Islamic extremists. During that same time there were 150,000 murders and 350,000 traffic fatalities. By any rational measure one should fear their car more than Islam! But uncertainty still intervenes — there are Islamic extremists out there, and they can strike again.
So ten years after I’d say that the biggest lesson from that horrific attack is the power of love to unify us, and the danger of fear to get us to act against our values. We showed both. In the time just after the attack I think at times fear trumped love — the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, the journalist Chris Hedges being booed off the stage when he gave a commencement address critical of US policy in Iraq, and admonishings to “watch what you say.” That’s declined as we’ve learned more and worked through the wars and controversies of the last ten years.
But the love that brought us together has also declined. The politics have become more petty and personal, with emotion and demonization replacing a sense of trying to come together to solve problems.
Societies may be like individuals. Too much fear and they become aggressive, afraid of self-criticism, arrogant and unable to cooperate with others. Learning from the strengths and weaknesses learned from 9-11 and its aftermath will help us keep a proper balance as we face future crises and threats. The best way to limit fear to its rational and protective functions is to avoid ignorance and try to limit uncertainty. Fearmongers probably driven by their internal demons, feed on ignorance, emotion and uncertainty to try to push people to embrace hatred and violence.
Clearly there are threats. There are evil doers like Bin Laden, so blinded by fear and hate that they can rationalize mass destruction. The power of love — us recognizing our common humanity and coming together to be more than what we could be separately is the best protection against folk like that. Fear tempered by knowledge and understanding will help us measure how to respond to threats.