Late in the evening of September 11, I decided that I had to write my feelings about the horror to prevent my own internal implosion from the agony that I was feeling. I wrote to my friends, to my family, and then decided to edit what I had written for a more general audience and send it to number of newspapers in case someone might print another perspective. I gave it a simple title:
I love you is not something we say often enough to the people who are closest in our lives, even less, if ever, to people with whom we are not in a close personal relationship, and certainly never to strangers. The likelihood is that I don’t know most of those that may be reading this and that I have not said, “I love you” to you anytime at all. But in the midst of this crazy making day, it seems important to remind human beings of love and caring. For who knows what the next few hours or days may bring.
I am a psychotherapist in Clearwater, Florida. Over the years, I have worked with many people who struggle with rage, often deeply buried and usually unacknowledged. The rage, whether it is justified or not, subtly or overtly affects every aspect of their lives. In the very early beginnings of this 21st century, we seem to be experiencing the expression of rage everywhere, in our homes as family members murder each other, in schools where children shoot children, in businesses where employees turn on employers or fellow workers. And today…ah today… this day, September 11, 2001, we all suffer as the news continues to unfold the horror that will register in the world as a major expression of aggressive rage that impacts us all on so many levels.
As the first building collapsed and then the second, I, like millions, perhaps billions of people, watched with stunning helplessness knowing there was nothing that we could do to prevent or help. After the original impact of the news settled, I contemplated the possibility of so many institutions being affected throughout the nation. I became concerned because I had nearly run out of food for my pets and for me because I had put off going shopping since it is not my favorite activity. I went to the grocery store, contemplating the possibility of massive repercussions later on in the hours ahead. The store was nearly empty, and silent…the streets were silent; the sky was silent.
A store clerk was standing next to a canned food section wiping tears from her eyes. Her brother was on a flight and she didn’t know if he was on one of the four that crashed today.
When I returned home, a neighbor was coming out to her car. Her business was closed and employees sent home because her building held a local FBI office. She had just found out that her brother was on a flight today…the relative who gave her the information did not know which flight and no one had heard from him. She broke down and cried as I held her. As the hours continued through this day today, I thought about other things that have nothing to do with the major human loss. I have just three car payments left on my auto loan and the financial institution where I make my payments is in New York and not available…a thought passed through my mind that I may never get the title to my car. Such a petty concern this seems to be, but it is just one of a billion, billion concerns that can be affected by a single act today.
One of the things that seems to be standing out so clearly in my mind is that we are living in a time when we can no longer count on power to keep us safe. Having arsenals of nuclear weapons and a gigantic military budget cannot keep us safe. Having the greatest wealth, having high degrees of education, having everything that to us has meant power cannot keep us safe. Power is meaningless without empowerment to all. As families who have lost loved ones to other family members, and schools who have lost students to angry child-gunmen, and as nations that have suffered from internal and external attack know, we cannot stop attack with greater attack. This does not work any more. Power does not protect us…
At the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” the victorious nations divided up the territory of the defeated nations…and World War II was not averted. At the end of World War II, the victorious nations divided up the territory of the defeated nations…and the hot “Cold War” was not averted. Power-over does not work. It never has. A boy beaten by his father silently rages and waits until he grows big enough to take the belt from his father’s hand, and then he uses it to beat his own children. Power-over methods disempowers the other for a period of time until the disempowered in seething rage attacks back…and it does not seem to matter if the father was justified in thrashing the son, or not, or whether the nation was justified in active defense or not. If anyone rages, whether it be the teenager who is teased to the point of attacking his school mates, or a group or nation that feels it has been shoved aside and its needs unheard, that rage affects us all whether we acknowledge the “justice” of the rage or not. Today is a wake up call and we have to decide if we are going to wake up or not. Today we have to decide if we will respond as we have responded for generations if not for millennia. Will we feel justified in starting World War III? Maybe we can learn to be empowered by releasing the wielding of power in our own personal lives as well as in our actions as a nation and instead begin to listen. Anyone who feels disempowered, even if that one is not powerful can bring the powerful to its knees.
How can we do today differently? I wish I had an answer. But to drop bombs on people killing more and more and more, and having them kill more and more and more does not seem to be it. I wonder what would happen if every human being that reads this chooses to release the belief in power-over in his or her personal life and listens from a place of caring enough to really understand what the other is experiencing. And I wonder what would happen if we decided to tell people that are in our lives that we love them? Perhaps this could happen…today. Storms I sent off the message and went to bed. In the morning, one newspaper editor out of a dozen or so responded with a statement that Today was eloquently written, and friends and family called to tell me they loved me too. Wednesday and Thursday, I wrote a great deal but felt too scattered and wounded to pull my writing together in any meaningful way. I couldn’t not watch the television reports and my heart ached for the loss, for the agony that was being reflected…and I began to feel concern for other reports that contained hatred instead of sadness. Innocent people in our own country were receiving bomb threats because of their family’s national origin. A report from a local station stated that there had been a gigantic increase in the purchase of guns, many by first time buyers. All of this was going on while the 8th named tropical storm was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, but few people here seemed to care that it was reported to be headed directly for Tampa Bay, where I live. Gabrielle was becoming a threat but almost no one had concern enough to buy supplies or protect their homes with plywood over windows as in the past. Everything in the Tampa Bay area closed down on Friday, September 14th and all of my clients cancelled their appointments. The storm did not become a hurricane but we were drenched with flood causing rain, and winds were significant. Staying home because the storm allowed me to continue watching the events unfold events that almost every American, and perhaps most of the world was watching with me. I watched the services at the National Cathedral and listened to the religious leaders from several religions quote from their Holy Scriptures, to the Reverend Billy Graham speak of evil and of healing and I listened to the President. Late in the evening, I wrote another response to the day, to the past days and again sent it to friends and as before edited it and sent it to newspapers. Again, there was only one response out of the two dozen or so newspaper editors to whom I had sent E-mail messages. But the one I received was not like the first. The article I wrote was titled:
Mirror of Evil
During the prayer and mourning service at the National Cathedral this past Friday, Reverend Billy Graham mentioned that many had asked him, “Why does God allow such evil to be in the world?” Graham responded with, “I don’t know, but the older I get, the more I cling to hope.” Others responding to that question said that evil exists because God has given us choice and without the choice of evil, our choice for good would be meaningless. I would suggest that perhaps there is a deeper reason that evil exists. It is possible that it exists to reflect to us the aspects of ourselves that we cannot see because of the pain we have within us that blinds us to who we are and what we do. I believe that evil is the name that we give to identify those who have committed acts that we do not understand that have caused us great pain. And we are all capable of committing acts that others do not understand that cause pain since each of us has within us all that is human. As human beings, we create our lives. We choose what we create out of our humanity. What we create draws to us what we have created. If I am a person of compassion, I create compassion in everything I touch—, and if what is commonly called violence crosses my path, I experience it with compassion. If I am a being of confusion, one who is experiencing confusion internally, I create confusion around me, and if violence crosses my path, I am confused. If I am a being of vengeance, of rage, of hate, of fear, then when September 11, 2001, crosses my path I want vengeance, or I rage at those who hurt me, I hate them, or I am afraid. I may commit acts out of my vengeance or out of my rage, or even out of my fear. Others who are looking at my actions may call them evil, though I may call them understandable and justifiable. But if I call any of those feelings evil or unacceptable, I will disconnect from them, I will not see them in myself, and only see them in others. Each of us has all that is human in us, including the “evil” that we can see in those who committed this atrocity on September 11. And what comes to us is a mirror that allows us to see what we would not see without it. This horror that rained down on us just a few short days ago, when seen as a mirror, reflected to some of us sadness or compassion; to others it reflected hopelessness and fear. Still others had raging anger that when one looks closely, looks very much like the raging anger expressed by the hijackers that is being reflected back to them. We can gain a broader and deeper sense of ourselves by observing what we felt in the aftermath of the horror. This beautiful nation that is my motherland has provided me a life of freedom and opportunity I likely would not have experienced anywhere else in the world. This wonderful life was given to me because America has been a nation with the qualities of freedom, of strength, of pride, of compassion. But this country has also had embedded in its foundational characteristics the shadow side of these qualities. While we have been a nation of freedom, we have also been a nation of slavery and have not noticed how the institution of slavery still silently exists, invisible now, but it is still there for some. We have been a nation of strength, but we have also been a nation of dominance. We have at times taken from others without asking and have required submission without caring what it felt like for those under our domination. We have been a people of pride, but also of arrogance and with that arrogance we have assumed that what is in our interest is in the interest of the world, sometimes without noticing how what we have done impacts the people that experience what we do. We have reached out to help others in need in amazing ways that have brought us to tears, but we have also manipulated other peoples. An American of Middle Eastern descent described an experience he had a few weeks ago while covering a story on Islamic militancy training grounds based in Pakistani religious schools that are believed to groom young Muslim boys to be terrorists. This reporter asked one of the leaders questions about their hatred for the US. The response of the militant leader to the young American’s question was surprising to me. The answer was that during the Cold War, the US and Afghanistan were allies fighting a war against the Soviets. He explained that we had given the Afghans weapons and trained their men. We built roads and fed their people. We supported the Taliban and made them our friends. But then the Cold War ended and America deserted them. Because it was no longer in our interest to have them as our allies, we abandoned them and left them hungry, and hateful. We turned our friends into foes because we used them and discarded them like whores. Our national policy makers are responding to this current crisis by suggesting that we offer carrots again, promising economic aide, and giving assistance to the countries that we need to cooperate with us in this “first war of the 21st century. We, in America, have risen to our place in the world by our hard work, our individualism, and our commitment to excellence. But we have also done so without seeing the part of ourselves that did not respect minorities, that did not respect women, that did not respect the environment. Neither did we notice that we lacked respect for people of other nations nor did we see them with the same dignity as we gave to ourselves. We did not notice how that disrespect caused deeply rooted hatred against us by the very people who attempted to emulate us. We act surprised when a former ally turns against us in what from our perspective is such an insane and evil way. And on the home front, we act surprised when our children reflect to us the values that we unconsciously hold, values that they see because they live closer to us than to the words we speak to ourselves that cover those unconscious values with the higher ones. We speak of equality of men and women, but the vast majority of the most influential people in our nation are men. What have our children learned as they experience us as living this out our unconscious truth? We speak of equality of men and women, but our magazines and media display women as sexual objects, and we judge ourselves by how we look instead of who we are. We are surprised to find millions of our girls suffering from anorexia and bulimia. We speak of equality of the races and we hide our prejudices from ourselves, while our children join Neo-Nazi groups or buy music videos that speak of murderous hatred for those not like them. We speak of love, but we don’t take time to love and our children are lonely, empty, angry, and in pain; they may eat to cover their loneliness, fill their emptiness, or hide their anger, and we are shocked by this generation of obese children. They drug themselves to cover the pain of emptiness, and we fight back with a losing war on drugs. They attack each other and us to express their anger and pain and we build jails and suggest that teachers arm themselves. Many of us have stopped looking at what we do with pride of accomplishment of something good and have grown into a people who look at what we earn as a statement of our worth. We cannot see that too many of us no longer care about the quality of what is done to earn money, as long as riches result. Our worth is no longer seen an innate quality we hold within us but is our economic bottom line. Forty years ago Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Premier of USSR, proclaimed that America would collapse from the inside, not from the outside. Some of us have wondered if he knew more about us than we did about ourselves. And in the middle of all of this internal chaos, planes crash into the Trade Center Buildings and the Pentagon and we are in unfathomable pain. The very best of who we are comes out. In the highest sense of compassion, we give blood; we offer help and support those who dig through the rubble in search for life or for those who have died to bring peace to their families. We work ’round the clock, we pray, we light candles and we connect with our families and tell people we have not told in a long time that we love them. Our president walks in freedom among the people of New York and our leaders come together in freedom to pray in the National Cathedral to let the world know that we will remain free. We show our strength and resolve to not let this tragedy destroy who we are, and we renew our national pride… But we also respond from the other part of ourselves; our pain turns into fear; our fear touches our anger and we begin to display what we have hidden from ourselves for so long. There is the mirror. If we would look at what such an act of horror brings out of us we will be able to see ourselves in a way that we could never have seen before. Are we hateful, vengeful, or filled with prejudice against anyone who looks Middle Eastern? Do we consider what it must feel like to be a person of Middle Eastern heritage, as patriotic as anyone else, and to see the fear or anger in the eyes of those who were friends or acquaintances? Can we imagine what it feels like to come home and find your home trashed, your windows broken or to receive threats simply because of the sound of your last name? How different is this response to those made guilty for something they didn’t do than Jews in Hitler’s Germany or Japanese Americans in World War II? When we contemplate what might be a war with others because of what we believe they have done to us, do we see the civilians in other countries, or those in this country who have Middle Eastern heritage as collateral of a justifiable war? Do we not notice that this is exactly the cause for which we curse our enemies? Do we run out and buy guns and not notice what this means about us: that we are willing to contemplate killing another human being? That we no longer see strangers as friends we have not yet met, but instead see them as enemies, especially if they speak with an accent and have olive skin? There is the mirror. Do we drop into hopelessness and deep fear? Do we lose faith? Do we disconnect from ourselves as eternal spirit and shake inside with fear? Are we so afraid of death that we disconnect from life? There is the mirror. Do we find ourselves reveling in the idea of turning the deserts of another country into a parking lot and wish to kill five of “them” for every one of us that “they’ killed to let them know not to mess with us again? Do we not notice that we have become exactly like the enemy who mirrors to us ourselves? If we wish to rid the world of evil, we must first look into ourselves by looking into the mirror that a horrible event as this past Tuesday has provided. If we find out why we hate, why we wish to hurt others, why we are in pain, why we are terrified, we can bring healing to our own wounds. This is the deepest purpose for evil–evil that God does not allow—but rather evil that we have created to see ourselves as others see us. If we had been a strong nation, deeply caring, deeply just, filled with compassion, and with spiritual connection, we would not have needed to experience the mirroring of ourselves in this horrible act that was inflicted upon us. We would not have committed acts that caused other nations or even our own countrymen to turn against us in rage. We can heal from this if we are willing to look in the mirror. If we choose to not look but instead to blame and seek revenge, we will continue to create what we unconsciously hold as our truth…and this will create other mirrors. Perhaps someday, those who hate us will learn to see that what they hate in us is a mirror of themselves, just as what we see as evil in them is a mirror for us. Let us not hate, but if we do, let us acknowledge it, and heal it in ourselves. God bless us all. Sincerely, Dr. Sandy Sela-Smith Another response
As in the previous nights since the infamous Tuesday, I woke to find a single response from one of the editors to whom I sent this letter. He wrote: You do have some strange intellectual bedfellows: Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell. So, America is imperfect and must pay for its sins! You just see different sins in your mirror than these pseudo-clerics see in theirs. If we employ the means of the enemy, we are no better than the enemy? Since we ourselves are not without sin, we should cast no stones? As long as you insist on being trite, why don’t you try this one: All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
You would say: “but evil is in the eye of the beholder.” And that is precisely the point here…..this is a we/they thing. It may be the sophisticated “in thing” for intellectuals to stand above the fray but, when you do so, you are the freeloaders (or is “scabs” more politically correct?) of this society….you want the advantages of civilization but quail when it’s time to pay the dues. Worse, like the French government always can be counted on to do, you manage to carp when others step up to the challenge! Deja vu sister: the Romans became too self-centered and fastidious to fight the barbarians and the price was the loss of their way of life.
The word “war” in its full and primal sense is the only appropriate word. There has been no “crime” committed here and there is no basis to “bring the perpetrators to justice.” We have no shared values with them, there is no jury of their “peers” that could be assembled, and there is no compromise or diplomatic solution available…..they and anyone who supports them must be eradicated. I just hope that twit in the White House is prepared for the tedious and protracted struggle (that will outlast his presidency) and the full and grisly ramifications of what now needs done.
This isn’t about hate……and certainly not about people of middle-eastern origins, here or abroad. It is about the sacrifices necessary to preserve the values and institutions of the freest and best society yet to appear on the face of this earth. If we turn the other cheek, we will be slapped as hard and repeatedly as Neville Chamberlain.
And what is this “God bless us all” cop-out? Why can’t you just stand up straight and proud and say what needs said: God bless America?
Late Sunday Evening, September 15, 2001, I responded with the following comments:
I have thought a great deal about your response to my writing. Honestly, I was surprised at how attacked I felt so I decided to work with my own response before sending anything to you. I wanted to understand how I might have said what I did in a way that hurt you and wanted to apologize for doing so. I wanted to tell you that though I don’t know you I love you as a fellow human being and it was not my intention to bring you pain. I read and reread what you wrote to me and decided to send a response in the interest of communicating with integrity. The text of what I wrote follows:
Thank you for responding with passion and honesty. Your message back to me contains points with which I agree and a few points that I believe may have been based on a misunderstanding of the point I hoped to make by writing. My intention was to ask readers to take time during this horrific experience to look within themselves to bring healing to inner wounds by noticing their own responses to the events of September 11. I do agree that we must search out and bring to justice those who perpetrated these acts against thousands of innocent people. But if we do not introspect, and instead respond with only vengeance, we will not be able to free ourselves from future horrors. I also believe there is a difference between resolve and revenge.
Though you point out that this isn’t about hate and not about people of middle-eastern origins, here or abroad, the evidence from internet postings, from talk radio shows, and from television programs is that some and maybe many of us have made it so. What I wrote was not about government policy; it was about ourselves and our internal responses that indicate what we may be contributing to the fires of hatred against us. Their hatred is about them, and certainly what they have done will bring repercussions from the US and perhaps other nations that reflect their hatred back to them what they sent out to us this past Tuesday.
The Muslim leader I referenced denounced the US for offering aid and then ceasing to give aid. What I believe was at the core of the rage and vengeance he expressed was not that we treated them like whores, which was his interpretation of our action, but rather that they felt like “whores” and likely felt shame for acting like ‘whores.” They could not bare to hold these feelings and decided to see us as the ‘whore mongers.” As a result, they could see that we were the ones that were evil, which allowed them to feel justified in attacking us in such a horrible display on Tuesday. Like you, I believe there will be many sacrifices that will be necessary to preserve the values and institutions of this great nation. And I do not suggest that we turn the other cheek in blind acceptance of continued assaults. However, I do believe that if we do not use this opportunity to look deeply into ourselves to heal what is in us we will be fighting wars throughout eternity. Years after the pain of Vietnam, a few American and Vietnam soldiers came together to talk about their feelings about each other and about themselves. At first, it was extremely difficult to look at each other when they had seen only evil before. In the process of the experiment in human relations, men who had been enemies, who had no understanding of each, other began to see humanity in the other. For these people, there will be no passing on of mutual hatred as an inheritance to their grandchildren.
I do not believe that we “must pay for our sins” as you suggested. I believe that it is inevitable that we will receive back what we give out, not as judgment or punishment, but as a natural law of nature. I am not saying that if we employ the means of the enemy, we are no better than the enemy. I am saying that if we act from the same hatred as the enemy, the same desire for vengeance, and the same disregard for all that we have valued as a nation, then yes, we would become like the enemy.
I also agree that the famous quotation that all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing remains true. But we must be willing to self reflect to be sure that our actions are coming from goodness instead of from raging hate that we camouflage with patriotism, righteousness, or justice, and that may see enemies in innocent people.
You suggested that I would say that evil is in the eye of the beholder. And on the human level, I would agree with your conclusion, though on the higher level evil is pain responded to by hate. I am sure the hijackers who sacrificed their lives for their cause would not call themselves evil…they would likely call themselves righteous and holy patriots. But we won’t be able to stop what we interpret as evil by stomping it out with a vengeance. With each explosive stomp, more rage in them will be generated for our children and grandchildren to face. We will become a part of a world that has lived for millennia with inherited rage. We have a choice here. We don’t have to begin a war that will engulf the entire world and perhaps destroy it. While protecting ourselves, we can also be willing to look within to see what we have done, what we are doing to generate hatred among other people. This requires the greatest amount of involvement, not standing above it all as you suggest.
To say that Rome fell because it became too self-centered and fastidious to fight the barbarians does not fit the history that I have read. Their way of life was based on conquering other people, calling those other people barbarians and inferior because they were not Roman and defended themselves against being overtaken. Romans then used those they conquered as slaves to fight other barbarians. The loss of their way of life was a natural result of them living lives based on demeaning others.
Notice how easy it can be to tag those who ask for something as simple as introspection and self-healing in this devastating experience to be labeled as “intellectuals” a label that has caused millions of Chinese to lose their lives in the last century. It can be easy to identify those who speak out with other viewpoints as freeloaders or as “scabs.’ These were fire causing words in the last century that were used to attack and kill people who had different viewpoints about labor and the right to work than the opinions held by union members who fought against wealthy management. Notice the anger felt by those who attacked others as scabs and defended it with righteous fervor is so similar to the anger felt the terrorist groups who have attacked wealthy America. And in a single sentence, the French are verbally attacked as well, and those who disagree with the call to massive and vengeful war are compared to the French with an assumption that dissenters deserve to be attacked as well.
I do not see a prayer for God to bless us all as a cop-out. Instead I see it as a plea for humanity to notice responses, and take responsibility for how those responses continue to create the lives that each of us experience, personally and collectively. That, in the long run, will be the only way that we can offer all of our world’s children and grandchildren a world that will feel the blessings of God.
The Days Ahead
What we do in the days ahead will direct the path on which innumerable generations to come will walk. My prayer for us all is that we will make those decisions as consciously and carefully as we can. Those yet unborn are counting on us.