September 27, 2001
Echoes of History
Ecclesiastes was right: Even in a world clouded by international terrorism, there's nothing new under the sun.
Since Sept. 11, I've taken comfort, however small, in the echoes of history. The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, with an estimated 6,300 dead, using American planes hijacked by foreign nationals, is unprecedented and horrific. Yet insisting on the uniqueness of its means and ends is debilitating. I look to the past, if only to save my sanity.
Spiritually, the destruction of the World Trade Center carries me back to the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. I understand as never before what it meant to a devastated people to see a tattered icon of civilization. And I think I understand now the greatness of a people who hallowed the use of tragic memory, transforming grief into a tool of survival.
In the candlelight vigils at Ground Zero, Americans are constructing a modern Western Wall, a living monument to infamy. Countless Jews throughout time have returned fortified merely from touching a remnant of brick of the old Temple, where sacrifices were only animal, not human. For the last two weeks Americans have also been in a kind of exile, separated from a way of life and security, perhaps never to return.
Jews turned their own Diaspora into an asset: holy space revived them in times of trial, and so it does for Americans too. President Bush appeared transformed, focused and fortified after standing near the gaping hole in the center of New York. I'll go to the site when I visit the city next week. Inevitably, so will you.
In the instantaneous commemoration of Sept. 11, Americans are creating the equivalent of Tisha B'Av, the day of national Jewish mourning for the destroyed Temples. This ennobled day will provide a link, what historian Yosef Yerushalmi calls the "historical symmetry," between pain of past and present. In this way we are creating holy time, reminding us of who and what we are.
The past also teaches that the need for a scapegoat is not new. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are not the first to blame a national tragedy on innocent victims: Didn't our own Isaiah blame the fall of the Jewish kingdom on intermarriage? That's oddly comforting, today.
Politically, history provides precedent as well.
On July 19, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared before the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warning that terrorism "is going to become a major challenge for this country, as well as for Europe." He urged world leaders to look back 300 years for a solution, when nations acted to end piracy.
"The only way, to the best of my judgment, to deal with this worldwide web of terror," Barak said, "is to stand firm and to treat them the same way that our ancestors used to deal with the piracy of the high seas; namely, to fully coordinate operational, intelligence and diplomatic efforts; not let them land at any port, or airport, for that matter; and immediately isolate them from the family of normal, benign nations."
For those who link piracy with "Peter Pan" or "The Princess Bride," let truth shatter a romantic illusion.
Like terrorists of our own day hijacking aircraft, pirates held the ships of the world hostage for nearly 800 years. And like contemporary terrorists, religion was sometimes its accomplice and its victim.
Piracy dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, with its high point being the Crusades (ending 1291) when Muslim pirates stopped Christian Crusaders and pilgrims heading for the Holy Land. Later, during the 16th century, Hapsburg Spain and the Ottoman Turks were pitted in a political battle for control of commerce on the Mediterranean; the battle between Christians and Muslims was subsumed in this turf war.
By the end of the 18th century, the religious factor declined, but the four so-called Barbary States of North Africa existed on the payment of bribes, called tributes, by trading companies and nations.
Then came America. U.S. merchant ships, no longer protected by Britain, were seized by Barbary pirates. Our sailors were taken into slavery. Though the new nation initially paid $18,000 in tribute, by 1801 the U.S. government refused the increasing blackmail demanded by the nation of Tripoli. Tripoli declared war on the United States. It was the World Trade Center attack of the time.
You can see where I'm heading, right to the lyrics of the Marine Corps hymn. The Marines won the initial battle on the shores of Tripoli in 1805, soon after what British Admiral Nelson called "the most daring act of the age," a raid to capture the frigate Philadelphia. By 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, European nations refused to pay tribute. America, standing up to terrorism, led the way.
Like Ehud Barak, I'm hoping world leaders are catching up on their history. .