September 5, 2002
Now a year has passed. We have bombed. We have infiltrated. We have analyzed and rallied and written.
And through it all we have avoided one sad truth: the terrorists have already won. They haven't won the war, but they have won a crucial battle.
My first memory of terror goes back to the Palestinian terrorist takeover of a school in the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot in 1974. It was incomprehensible to me that a man, a fellow human being, could kill children. But that's what happened in Ma'alot, where the terrorist takeover left more than 20 schoolchildren dead.
The world was horrified. Reaction followed a script that by now is well-rehearsed: Shock, outrage, condemnation and a knee-jerk search for explanations.
What would drive people to do such things, Americans reflexively asked. That question is one of terrorism's goals: an attack's success can be measured partly, of course, by how much it spreads terror, but more importantly, by how much it spreads curiosity. Why are these people so angry? Why do they hate us? Who are these guys?
Ma'alot and the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich -- 30 years ago this week -- planted the Palestinian cause in the mind of the Western world. Violence perpetrated upon innocents jolted the West into awareness. Evil succeeded.
And if awareness is a goal of terrorism, then Osama bin Laden, too, has already won.
"I'm mad at bin Laden," a Santa Monica physician told me recently. "I didn't want to know about the rest of the world's problems, but he forced me to. I liked my ignorance."
The attacks shattered our bliss and shoved the reality of the world's 1 billion Muslims in our face. Thanks to a newly awakened media, America now has a bachelor's in Islam and a master's in Muslim grievance.
All this would be fair and maybe even good were the education equal. The fact is, thanks to bin Laden, we now know more about them than they know about us. The Saudis might have blown enough oil money to buy every Palestinian refugee a Harvard education; Muslims might control nine sovereign states and armies, but somehow too many of them cherish their self-perception as victims of the West. And victims, they figure, need redress, not re-education. Just ask the Arab League.
Bin Laden and his minions don't care how aware we are, how much we learn about Islam. They only care that we convert to their brand of it. Barring that, we are all targets for annihilation, whether we are Donald Rumsfeld or Noam Chomsky, Arab or Christian or Jew, soldier or infant.
Whenever I look back on Sept. 11, this logic strands me on the same depressing shore. Certainly, as William Safire wrote so forcefully on Sept. 12, 2001, we need to "carry the war to the enemy." We've done that. But beyond shooting back, how can we avoid handing victory to the terrorists? I had no answer to that, until I heard Judea Pearl speak.
He was receiving an award in honor of his son, Daniel, who was murdered in Pakistan in the wake of Sept. 11 (see story p. 20). Here was a man whose own pain was immeasurable, whose reasons for bitterness and despair dwarfed my own. "On the surface," he said, "[the terrorists] seem to have won on all fronts -- and this thought caused me great pain." But many agonizing weeks later, as people touched by the son's death reached out to the father, Judea Pearl put into place specific ways to spread the good his son brought into the world. "If Danny's death can give humanity, or whatever is left of her, the banner that she needs to defend herself, then something good may come out of it," he concluded.
Not long after I heard Judea Pearl speak, I visited an exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, "Faces of Ground Zero." The larger-than-life-size Polaroid images of men and women who survived the attack -- firefighters who rushed to help, stockbrokers who searched for loved ones, steelworkers who tried to rescue the dying -- were themselves an attack on the inhumanity of the perpetrators of the crimes. They were, almost literally, the banners humanity needs to defend herself. Visitors to the exhibit waited in line to write their impressions in a guest book -- their hands shook and tears rolled down their cheeks. "I feel I am on holy ground," one person wrote.
The High Holidays are traditionally a time for prayer and introspection, a chance to reattach ourselves to what is true and holy and good. Of course, the violent fanatics who continue to plan our demise also pray, they also believe what they are doing is true and holy and good. I know -- and you know -- they are wrong, but evidently knowing is no longer enough. We must, like Judea Pearl and the heroes of Sept. 11, actively wave the banner of humanity. Wherever we stand and do that, we stand on holy ground.