Others have been touched by American flags. By candlelight vigils in New York City and peace rallies on Widener steps. By Midwesterners rushing to the Red Cross to donate blood and Southeasterners sending trucks northward with donated goods. They have been touched by the response of a nation in shock, in grief, in fear, in mourning. I too have been touched by this reaction, but I have been touched by the response of the world as well. I have been touched by the sight of Turkish flags at half-mast. By candlelight vigils in Dhaka, Bangladesh and peace rallies in Tibet. By Palestinians rushing to the Red Crescent to donate blood and by Europeans sending prayers westward with their leaders. I have been touched by the thousands of bouquets of flowers that have piled up outside of American embassies, by the millions of foreign school children who have observed moments of silence in the victims’ names, by the countries who have recognized that our loss is also somehow their own.
The leaders of our nation have also been quick to notice these outpourings, quick to commend those overseas for standing by the world’s leading democracy, for rushing to provide support for the global exemplar of justice, righteousness and the good. But there is a sad superficiality to these commendations. For, at the same time that America calls on the world to ardently preserve our sacred values, it must live up to a shameful history of having so rarely stood up for those values itself.
On Sept. 11, only hours after the first attack, British Prime Minister Tony Blair went on the air to tell peoples of all nations that a terrorist attack on America was an attack on the world. George W. Bush would soon adopt the same language himself. One must wonder, however, whether the carnage would have been perceived of in such global terms had it occurred on foreign soil, whether America would be rushing to prayer and battle had the buildings toppled in Central Africa or Latin America or South Asia.
I can only think that we would not.
The events of Sept. 11 were spectacular in their suddenness, their enormity and their surprise. But everyday the world is plagued by more mundane battles, fought not with high technology but with hands and fists and stones. Genocide in Rwanda. Civil strife in the Congo. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. These events were just as much an affront to justice as were the events of Sept. 11. And thus, by the rhetoric of an attack on American values anywhere being an attack on security everywhere, they should have warranted a meaningful U.S. response.
But the U.S. response to these atrocities was meager, if it existed at all. And the probability of the U.S. responding to similar events in the future seems faint and unlikely. For we remember that the Taliban—which now must be destroyed to bring peace to the world and dignity to the suffering people of Afghanistan—was, but a month ago, far from administrators’ minds. We remember that Bush campaigned on an explicit platform of not venturing into foreign lands to spread and protect the values that Americans hold dear.
Thus, we must ingest our sudden humanity with a grain of salt. We must recognize the expediency, and not the moral uprightness, underlying our government’s new cause. And we must call it to task on its hypocrisy.
Yes, the attacks on America were an attack on the world, but so are any attacks motivated by venom and hate, regardless of location, regardless of their scale. If America is to fight this war in the name of justice then it must be willing to defend justice when American soil is not directly under siege, when the victims of terror are not investment bankers and business travels and military personnel, but the unclothed, the unfed and the unknown. And if America is to call on the peoples of the world to act in our defense then it must be willing to act in theirs.
Some people speak of wanting an America to emerge from these events that is stronger and more proud. I wish to see an America emerge that is humbler and more humane. An America that will lower its flags to half-mast when another country is struck by brutality, that will call its citizens to vigils when peace is threatened abroad, that will observe moments of silence for the world’s voiceless victims, that will muster its troops for battles of justice in someone else’s home. We have the power to transform a moment of hypocrisy into a moment of truth; let our humanity not prove to be ephemeral.
Lauren E. Baer ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Dusnter House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.