Tuesday, September 13, 2011

For 9/11

I seem to recall being home early from “work” (it wasn’t really “work”; and lets leave it at that) on that Tuesday.

Back then I was still living in Israel, which is seven hours ahead of New-York City. It was a barbecue day and we had a few relatives over for a pleasant early dinner. Everyone was upstairs on the deck, chatting and gossiping about whatever was worth chatting and gossiping on, but I was in my room. Food was just about to be ready and I was expecting the customary “Isaac, come on upstairs” call. Instead, I heard my uncle calling my name from upstairs.


I dislike yells, especially when the subject of the yelling is myself.


—“Turn the TV on, something is going on in the USA”. Apparently he got a phone call from someone telling him that something serious was happening.

I turned the TV on and switched to CNN, where I saw a huge building going up in smoke. It took me a few seconds to get the idea of what it is that I was looking at, but it only really occurred to me once I actually read the text that was scrolling there beneath the picture.

There were (well, still are) eighteen stairs leading from our Israel home’s main floor to the upper deck, and never before have I climbed those eighteen stairs as quickly as I did right after I realized what was going on. The USA was under attack; and from then on, for many days, my (and many others’) eyes and ears were fully dedicated to fathom what it was that the world was going through.

Eight years minus a few days later, I flew from my then-home in Ontario, Canada to London, UK for attending Mark Knopfler’s charity concert for the Prince’s Trust (read about that experience in this blog post). Crossing the Atlantic Ocean for this concert, along with the preceding VIP mini-concert, had turned out to be quite the right decision because nothing—I repeat, nothing—beats Mark Knopfler in small, intimate venues.

A few songs into the concert, the host suddenly mentioned to Mark the fact that the eighth anniversary of 9/11 was going to take place in two days. That got me a bit confused; why on earth would 9/11 be mentioned in such an unrelated event?

I still remember suddenly hearing a soft weeping voice. To my immediate left, a mature woman—I figured she was about 60-70 years old—started sobbing. This entire 9/11 reference, along with the sudden thick, dark atmosphere that had landed upon the entire venue, caught me by surprise.

Back then, I didn’t know that “If This Is Goodbye” was written about 9/11; I had always considered it to be a beautiful, romantic farewell song. With this newfound knowledge in mind, I started re-interpreting the song’s lyrics as it was so brilliantly played on stage. It was an extraordinarily soul-wrenching experience, being that song so outstanding in any way imaginable.

Fortunately for you, (almost) the entire concert has been filmed for the Bio channel (in the UK), including that song. There you go:

Mark Knopfler performing “If This Is Goodbye” during the Prince’s Trust charity concert, September 9, 2009.

9/11 has made a worldwide impact. Other than leading to wars (justified or not) in the Middle East and complicating international affairs bloody everywhere, 9/11’s deepest and most profound impact was on people’s mindsets. 9/11 served as a day of reckoning to millions of people worldwide, signifying the evaporation of yet another bit of innocence left in this blue planet.

People started getting scared, which, at least literally speaking, meant that terrorists, after all, got what they were looking for. A lot has been written & said about what 9/11 did to Americans when it comes to the sense of security in their homeland, however 9/11’s impact has cascaded well beyond just the United States of America.

The Western civilization—before 9/11, never being the subject of systematic terrorism—was caught in a state of severe mental shock. Things that were taken for granted before, suddenly started appearing more elusive and much less clear; apparently, the vast majority of the Western population never before thought that there are people out there who will strive for innocent people being killed as means for achieving some sort of ideology. True, occasional terrorism acts took place over the last few centuries but something in 9/11 was different. This time, it was the sign of something more systematic.

And that very revelation shocked everyone.

But it didn’t, at all, shock Israelis. We already knew.

It is hard, if at all possible, to explain what it is like to grow up in a country that is surrounded by people who’d like to see it burn in flames, frequently targeting the said country’s citizens with missiles, rockets, bombs and whatever else is necessary to make it clear that you are not wanted there.

Something in you changes when you finish up writing a math exam in high school, and on your way out to breathe some fresh air, you hear on the news that yet another jackass decided to explode inside a bus killing dozens of people in the name of his moronic religious ideology.

Something in you changes when new government regulations call for your body being scanned by metal detectors whenever you’re about to enter a public establishment such as a mall, movie theatre and whatnot.

You get used to it, harbour cynicism and move on.

We, in Israel, were of course terribly shocked of the very barbaric act of 9/11; but were we surprised that terrorism has eventually hit the Western world? Not much so. Attempts to commit terrorist acts in the Western world were made well before 9/11, and way after it. So, the intention to commit such acts has already existed for decades; the only thing that had to happen for such an attempt to actually succeed was failure to get enough intelligence to avert the attacks. It was bound to happen at some point, and it did.

9/11 has sent the world (not just the USA) to a war in Afghanistan in 2001, and another war in Iraq in 2003. Thousands over thousands of soldiers and civilians have died, including one who used to answer to the name “Osama Bin Laden”.

Governments in the Western world became more aware of security-related issues, often leading those governments to devise and enforce laws—some of which would have caused worldwide turmoil had they been suggested, say, back in the 1990’s (The PATRIOT Act is a good example).

And it’s not like the other end of this civilization clash (and whoever tells you that 9/11 was about anything other than a civilization clash, is lying to you) has been idle over the last ten years. Extreme Islamic terrorism, while being defeated in the battlefield, still exists and is harboured and sponsored by more than a few countries in the Middle East and around it. The motives for extremists to commit acts of terror are still there.

So we all went to wars; made air travel and border crossings significantly more cumbersome than before; surveys worldwide show a decreasing global fondness of Western countries’ citizens of immigrants and foreigners. International politics, having been complex and delicate to begin with, became even more problematic.

On the ten years memorial for 9/11, USA President Barack Obama stated:

“These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear.”

That statement has been resonating in my brain over the last couple of days.

True, we (and I’m allowing myself to generalize the world “America” to “The Western World”) haven’t given in to fear. But, have we defeated fear?

The answer to that last question is a resounding “no”. The very fact that our daily lives are still impacted by the existence of morons who strive to kills us for the mere reason that our values & beliefs are different than theirs—that very fact is sufficient to determine that no, we haven’t defeated fear.

We haven’t defeated fear and we haven’t defeated terrorism. We have absorbed them; and there’s a huge difference.

In other words, rather than defeating fear (that is, not living in fear anymore; essentially, rolling back whatever 9/11-impacted aspects of our existence), we learned how to live with it and sort-of get on with our lives.

We gave up a few things on the way, too: the aforementioned PATRIOT Act is just one example; having governments peek way deeper into our lives for the mere purpose of, say, crossing a border or foreign travel, is another such example. Global economy sucks the behinds of many goats, and the overhead involved in dealing with security issues can’t be discounted as one of the reasons for it. We send troops overseas to battle against terrorists.

Is that something to be proud of, though?

Is that all we can do? absorb?

The only way to defeat, rather than absorb, such fear, is to make that fear irrelevant.

If you know that you’re going to be spending some time walking through alligator-filled swamps, protecting yourself with head-to-toe protective gear would help you cope and live with the fear of being bitten, but assuming that alligators have the most basic sense of cost vs. benefit, wouldn’t it be much more effective to somehow get alligators to not desire to bite you in the first place?

There seems to be a tendency to believe that taking protective steps against terrorism is a viable solution: heck, we will make it harder for them to destroy us (of course, it’s going to cost us something: for example, personal freedoms), so eventually they’d understand and leave us be.

My take is that taking protective steps should be a tactic rather than a strategy. We can’t defeat terrorism and our fear of being terrorized by increasingly protecting ourselves against it (while paying the mental price associated with such overprotection). It is absolutely and completely useless to take protective steps (which deal with symptoms) without taking proactive steps to address the problem.

As long as there are motives for useless, deformed minds to terrorize us, such said minds will find a way to do it regardless of any protective steps we take. It’s basically a negative vicious circle that feeds itself: overprotection that leads to increased attempts at committing terrorist acts, which leads to yet additional overprotection.

The only way to eliminate such a vicious circle is to change the rules of the game in such a way that such negative, infusing dynamics become positive and diffusing. Rather than responding with “more of the same”, change the dynamics so each “side” does less and less over time.

(If you hadn’t read “Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution” by Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, perhaps you should)

I am by no means claiming that I have a solution for it all. But what I do know is that taking reactive steps to overprotect ourselves, while giving up more and more, is not only not a solution but it further amplifies the problem. While we can absorb fear and live with it, we can’t defeat fear by merely striving to minimize the risk of being hit again. It simply doesn’t work.

It never did.