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When I woke up last Tuesday morning just in time to watch the second World Trade Center tower burst into flames, I was horrified, scared and most of all sad. But I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t angry when the Pentagon was hit, and I wasn’t angry when the two towers fell. I’m still not angry, even as they pull bodies from the rubble and the death toll continues to rise. Sorrow and grief are the only emotions I feel.
At first I wondered why I could not fully embrace our nation’s call for revenge, our government’s vow to hunt down those responsible and then to punish them. It just felt strange, and I asked my roommate, “Haven’t enough people died today?”
I understand the desire to crack down on terrorism, and how people feel that killing those responsible for last Tuesday’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would restore their sense of security. But I can’t help feeling that simple revenge will never truly solve our world’s problems.
Yes, simply punishing those responsible for the attacks would send a strong, necessary message. There is no question that what those terrorists did was completely inexcusable under any circumstances. There is a dire need to wipe out terrorism and to restore our faith in our world and our country.
But even if we capture every single person responsible for these attacks and punish them accordingly, as I believe we should, we’ll have come no closer to destroying the roots of terrorism—the very fire that drives those who would dare commit horrendous attacks like those we witnessed on Sept. 11.
In times like these it is hard not to have an “us against them” attitude, hard not to feel that our citizens, who are fighting so hard to save lives beneath the rubble, are in some way supremely superior to those who celebrated in the streets at the news of the attack. But we’re all human beings, sharing the same world.
What keeps me up at night is not thoughts of punishment or revenge or disbelief at how terrorists were actually able to attack our country. Instead, I wonder—what could go so wrong in a person’s life that he or she would be compelled to destroy thousands of innocent lives? What sort of perception must these terrorists have had of our country that would allow them to feel justified in seeking to destroy it?
But it seems there has been little room for these questions on the news in the past few days. Search and destroy seems to be the mission, and while I understand it, the narrowness of it saddens me. I would have liked our president to stand up and to try understanding what sort of emotions brought these people and this terrorism to our country. This would not be meant to justify their actions in any way, but to allow us to better come to terms with the motivations behind terrorism. This way, we might eradicate it from the core.
While I’m incredibly proud of the courageous American acts I’ve witnessed on TV these past few days, I can’t help but remember a time when those of this country used our own religious texts to justify the slaughter of Native Americans and the enslavement of blacks, just as the terrorists attacked our country in the name of Islam. While these instances might not be parallel, throughout the years, whether we knew about it or not, innocent people of other lands have died as a result of our country’s actions.
To understand is not to condone, and while the attack we witnessed is undoubtedly horrible, it’s not beyond our capacity to begin to try and comprehend how a person can become so lost as to commit these unspeakable crimes. If we refuse to try and understand, if we simply deny the humanity of these terrorists, then we will never be able to have a chance at truly being able to stop them. New generations motivated by the same emotions will emerge, and while we can continue to increase our security, there’s no guarantee that one day our luck won’t run out once again. I’m not suggesting that the United States is in any way to blame for the motivations behind last Tuesday’s tragedy. But seeking to understand it is something that we owe to ourselves, and to our future.
—HEATHER B. LONG
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