On September 13, 2001 our campus at the University of Michigan-Dearborn held a community event to reflect on the attacks of two days earlier. We were still reeling from the trauma of what had happened. I was one of three speakers (including Chancellor Little and Associate Dean Anderson-Levitt). These were my thoughts on that day. I tried to express the confusion, fear, anger, and danger of the day, all within a context of the three great Abrahamic religions:
The summer is over
The harvest is in
And we are not safe
These words of the Prophet Jeremiah came to me as I listened in tears to the reports of our greatest national tragedy. The images and details are even now hard to believe. We keep hoping this is a disaster movie and we can go home after two hours. We find it incomprehensible that anyone would want to inflict so much pain on so many people.
If any of you have answers to the questions that are racing through the minds of almost everyone in this room, then you are certainly wiser than I am. I have no answers at all.
Many of us instinctively turn to our faith in times of crisis but sometimes even that seems insufficient. The theologian Kierkegard said there are times of darkness when it is hard to believe that God even exists. At such times, he said, we must take a leap of faith into the dark.
That is how I feel today. Surely some of you feel the same. I see no evidence of justice in what happened. I see hatred and pain, and I feel in my heart a desire for vengeance, a vengeance that will be massive, and brutal, and even indiscriminate.
All my life I have been taught, and I profoundly believe, that vengeance is wrong, that hatred is wrong, and that if we yield to those impulses we will harm ourselves. As I stand before you today, those teachings are being severely tested.
A century ago a poet wrote some words of anguish in honor of a group of innocent people who had been massacred. The poet’s words cut to the heart:
Cursed be he who cries Revenge.
Fit vengeance for the death of a child
The devil has not yet conceived.
For myself, I can think of no appropriate revenge for these deeds.
Many times when I have been overseas, I have been shocked at the anger that people feel towards our country. I dearly love my country, grievously imperfect as it is, and I am always stunned, always, by the explosions of anger that I encounter. I am not talking about those who take joy in our pain but about the masses of people across the world —people predisposed to admire us for our achievements and to like us for our openness —who still have a sense of fear and resentment at how we treat them. We are big and powerful and rich and are seen even by friends as a country that insists on what it wants even if others are hurt.
Nothing we have done justifies what was done to us this week, but I hope you will accept my word when I tell you that much of the world dislikes us, at least our government.
Long ago, Saint Paul offered some advice to people who have been harmed: “Be angry but do not sin.” I keep telling myself that, hoping I can deflect some of my bitterness into something positive. I know that when the numbers come in and we begin to hear the human stories of those who died--the mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and dear friends--I know my desire for revenge will demand precedence over my desire for justice. I know that on television there will be the usual lineup of commentators telling us that revenge and justice are the same thing. But I know in my heart they are not. I know that while those who did this evil thing must be stopped from ever doing it again, there is something more to learn from this disaster than how to increase the efficiency of our security apparatus.
Apparently the people who did this monstrous deed are Arabs and Muslims. For those of you who fall into those categories, you have a double distress. Not only are you mourning our common loss, but you must be very worried about the safety of your families. We who are not Arabs or Muslims need to realize that we are also affected. One issue is the moral one: you cannot diminish any person without diminishing all persons. If Arab-Americans are harmed, our community will suffer.
A second issue has to do with those things we take for granted, such as free debate. When you hear people talk of “increasing our on-the-ground intelligence capabilities” at least some of them mean putting agents into our classes. Some would compromise our basic freedom to organize and speak. Already a key Senate advisor to the President is saying, “this is war and in war civil liberties must be treated differently.” Such developments would do great damage to our country and to our sense of community.
As we struggle with these issues, let us remember a valuable rule: it is more important to focus on what you favor than on what you oppose. Everyone in this room hates and despises what happened two long days ago. Something precious was taken from us. We lost not just buildings and lives. We lost our sense of peace and security. Franklin Roosevelt said that one of the basic freedoms was the Freedom from Fear. We no longer enjoy that freedom.
We have been told that we face a long struggle. The human psyche does not handle protracted strife very well. We want quick answers and quick solutions. This leaves us with a danger and a contradiction, that to enhance our security we might undermine our fundamental values of openness, justice, and fair play. American civilization is based upon the dignity of the individual, the guarantee of privacy and personal freedom, and the rule of law.
Our enemies have inflicted a terrible wound on us. We must not compound that wound by compromising those values at the very heart of our national existence.
We have lost much in the past two days but we can easily lose much more. The ultimate danger to our welfare is not from those who hate us but from our own natural tendency to fight back in a way that reduces our own humanity. There is a greater struggle than the one against evil. It is the struggle for what is right.
Those of you who are Muslims know well a story from the life of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. The story involves the struggle for God’s justice, which in Arabic is called jihad. The Muslims had faced a powerful enemy on the battlefield and had defeated them in spite of being vastly outnumbered. Afterwards, Mohammed’s excited commanders rushed to him to compliment him on the victory. The wise man told them to stop their celebration. I hope those of you who know his words will pardon me if I paraphrase what he said: “You have won the battle, the Lesser Struggle. Now you must fight the Greater Struggle, against your own tendency to sin.”
This week those who hate us lost that Greater Struggle and God will judge them for their sins. We Americans must make sure that we do not lose our own struggle for the Greater Justice. Peace be upon you.
-Ron Stockton is an author and professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.