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Monday, September 11, 2006

A Legacy in the Wind

If I'd been alive in the sixties, while everyone else was listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, I'd have been on a beach somewhere, looking out to sea with a reefer and a bottle of Bud, and listening to Bob Dylan.

Individual decades must dictate taste, so you'll find me on the beach minus the smokes and beer - but still listening to Dylan. Tastes can change, but human nature does not, it seems.

Dylan gets under the skin of everybody by singing about subjects that current artists should be singing about. The political issues in Dylan's music in the 1960s, and the critique of American domestic and foreign policy of the 1960s, are very relevant to 2006.

As his new album Modern Talking topped the US albums chart recently, it served as a reminder that there is an alternative political and cultural tradition in the US that is quite different to that represented by American President George W Bush.

And sitting on the beach, listening to Dylan's music dictations, I think about the world today.

Modern Day Talking

you redneck mother
judgment day is gonna
come down on you

Soundtrack to the film Greased Lightning (1977)

Today Mr Bush will mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in simple, tasteful ceremonies at sites in New York and Washington. Quite rightly and with no doubt, tributes will show how the attacks have changed the lives of many people, and not just those mercilessly killed that day, but those families affected in the most private and tragic way by the loss of a loved one.

Five years have passed since the attacks. But what is its legacy? Greater freedoms for all? World peace just around the corner? What great movement has Mr Bush set in motion after the attacks to make sure that 9/11 would never be repeated?

Divine Mis-givings

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all, "We died at
such a place," some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of anything when blood is their
argument?

Henry V, Act IV, Scene I, Shakespeare

It's true they say that evil thrives when good men do nothing, but what if the actions of good men ultimately make them as bad as the evil they fight? Or even worse, what if their cause is not just?

Mr Bush is a good Christian and like any good Christian he reads his Bible. In responding to the September attacks, if he had focused on the New Testament more than the Old - instead of the "eye-for-an-eye" mentality - he could have followed certain Christian teachings, with which just the right amount of courage would have helped to visualise a different world than the one created in the aftermath of 9/11.

Take for example the story of Jesus turning the other cheek to explain that no one can bring peace with blood on their hands (Matthew 5.38-41), and when one of his followers reached for their swords upon being seized, Jesus was quoted to have said,

"Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matthew 26.51-52)

Arguably, Jesus had a point.

America in 9/11 had a real chance to show true Christianity at its best and they failed, instead they showed true humanity at its worst. They got as vicious as the terrorists and lost hold of the moral high ground. Instead of Bush's "Wanted dead or alive" cowboy-patter after the attacks, imagine the impact if he had quoted Jesus to turn the other cheek. What a punch in the eye that would have been for the terrorists. What a risk, too, but what a different legacy he would have left.

In Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons, there occurs the following exchange between Thomas Moore and his son-in-law William Roper,

Roper: You'd give the Devil the benefit of the law!
Moore: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get to the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Moore: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws being all flat [...] d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

Using the attacks as political weight, passing the American Patriot Acts and giving greater unchecked powers for secret surveillance means the chopping and cutting down of common law freedoms in everyday America - in the name of national security against the "devil" of terror. There are people indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay, secret CIA prisons in Europe and jails in Iraq who have been deprived of the right of law, too, and there is a rising fear that America's "war on terror" may perish on a sword it wielded so mercilessly directly after the attacks.

It will seem unfair to some Americans that a day, which should cover sympathy for those that died on 9/11, has to be balanced with other events. But now, those 9/11 dead are linked to nearly 50,000 civilian deaths all across Iraq, to torture, secret detention camps, to a rising hostility to diversity, and to a lot of blood on America's hands.

Iraqi children have seen their parents killed before their eyesThere are innocent children in Iraq whose lives have been changed forever. They are crayoning out drawings of dead bodies and tanks. They are starving. They cry when they see military uniforms; they have nightmares of American soldiers breaking down family doors, of guns pointing its merciless unblinking eye at them. Is this what the 9/11 deaths should now come to stand for - their deaths to be used as an excuse for war in a country that had no connection with the attacks, or any legitimate threat outside its own borders?

Isn't this the real blasphemy against those lives taken? How can morals and religion stand with it? Where is our humanity? What separates us now? Jesus in turning the other cheek was showing his followers the line that divides good from evil is a thin line. In war, that line is even thinner.

9/11 will go down in history, but so, too, will its shameful legacy.

A Light Dimmed

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
[...]
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
"O Captain! my Captain!"

2nd verse, Walt Whitman (1865)

It seems that history will more correctly judge the actions of a few that have affected so many.

History is not just our human past, or the past of those that lived before us. It is the interpretation of that past, of things we never saw and can only intelligently guess. And like our world, this history, too, belongs to every man and woman irrelevant of race or creed. It is everyone's duty to understand what happened, because unless we understand the history of this as it really is, the world will not change - and it is much in need of changing.

The effect of 9/11 could have been so much different. It could have been used as a drive for world peace. There could have been a push to make sure those who died in the terrorist attacks would be the last to die - their deaths could have been the catalyst for a better future.

It could have been used as a platform to show the world how noble and brave America can be under attack, instead of being a nation that seems to look good on top, until it gets frightened and the mask slips to reveal that America is just like any other country - but worse.

Because it is a big country. A powerful country. A superpower.

One who should have known how to behave better.

In the book The Battle for Peace, US General Tony Zinni recounts what an Arab friend said to him immediately after 9/11:

"I'm worried that this tragedy could cause America to stop being America. [...] You Americans don't know your power, your influence, and your goodness. [...] Your anger and the retaliation you're about to take are justified. But in doing what you must do to respond to this evil, I hope, for the sake of the world, that you never lose sight of your values and your sense of justice in the actions that you take. The world needs you more than you realize." (pg 2)

But Mr Bush forgot this moral dimension, essential to America's actions in the world since the days of the nation's founders, the simple certainty that America has always sought to do what was right.

So, by shooting first and asking questions later, 9/11 will not mark a great change in world politics. With so many other terrible events - and more still to come - aiding to drown out this bloody event, it may simply become another milestone to show us that humans still have not evolved far enough from the apes to understand that - really - we are all the same.

A Legacy in the Wind

Yet, as bombs and bodies are finite, hope is infinite.

I still have hope.

The American poet Walt Whitman was once reported to have said that he didn't like the way America was governed by the gun, but that wasn't America, that was the government. The America he loved was a democracy of people of cultures from all over the world, shining a light for freedom. That is what I believe too, and though the light in America has dimmed, it has not gone out.

After Bush, maybe America can slowly start that fire again. But how long will it take?

The answer to that, as the living legend Dylan sings, is blowing in the wind. Once the wind calms, maybe the torch will shine, and maybe - just maybe - brighter than before.

Also read: Hijacked Hopes

Picture courtesy of BBC News.

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