From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Where Do We Go From Here?

By W. D. Ehrhart

Like just about everyone else in America, I am still reeling from the events of September 11, the bloodiest day in American history. I am struggling to understand how our world has changed, and why, and how we are going to go on living in it. I do not believe there is anything good to be said about what happened on the morning of September 11. It was a horror the likes of which I have never seen before and dearly hope never to see again.

But I have been almost as horrified by what has happened in our country since then: the thousands of acts of hatred and violence directed at Arab-Americans since September 11; the flagrant, almost gleeful infringements on basic civil liberties; the massive bombing of Afghanistan resulting mostly only in the trading of one set of very bad rulers for another without resolving anything; all this and more, and apparently with the willing consent of huge numbers of my fellow Americans. I see and hear daily references to our war on terrorism, and I think of our war on drugs and our war on poverty and our war on crime and wonder if this new war against an equally elusive and spectral enemy will have a happier outcome.

I have heard few public officials or pundits wonder aloud why someone might hate this nation enough to do what was done on September 11 beyond self-serving and shallow explanations such as "these men hate freedom" or "you can't explain pure evil."

I expect those men were evil, or at least profoundly twisted. I don't imagine I would like to live in a world where they were in charge. But there are many ways to see the world and what happens in it. The great wonder to me is that such a small percentage of the world's population can dispose of so much of the world's resources year after year for decades and decades and then be shocked to discover that we have enemies.

Imagine for a moment how the world must appear to the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, many of them as old as me - and I am 53 - who have never known any home but a crowded one-room cinder block shack in a crowded U.N. refugee camp. Imagine for a moment how the world must appear to the thousands of Bosnian Muslims who were displaced, brutalized, maimed and murdered for four long years while the West stood around and wrung its collective hands. Imagine for a moment how the world must appear to the tens of thousands of Iraqi mothers whose children have died of malnutrition and disease resulting from an economic embargo kept in place by the United States of America for more than a decade in order to punish a people whose only crime is their failure to muster the resources and wherewithal to overthrow the brutal dictator who rules them with a lethal fist.

It is hard to imagine these things, especially at a time when we ourselves are still grappling with our own grief and pain. But we would do well to give some consideration to the sufferings of others, and who is responsible for that suffering, because if we think we can somehow make ourselves secure from the kind of attack this nation sustained on September 11 by sheer force of arms and military might, we have not put enough thought into the problem. And to imagine that we are a wholly innocent nation wantonly attacked by cowardly madmen for no sane reason will lead us nowhere useful. Millions of people hate the United States of America, and at least some of them have good reason to do so. It is not and will never be possible to find and kill them all, and the very effort will only create still more enemies.

So I think it is in our own best interests to ask ourselves why so many people hate us and what we might do about it. How many of us wear $80, $100, $120 sneakers? Have we ever seriously wondered who made those sneakers and how much they were paid to do so? Count up the number of telephones and television sets and CD players and computers you have in your house. Most of us have lives filled to overflowing with things. The most popular cars in America are three-ton gas-guzzling monsters. We have become, in fact and in name, not citizens but consumers.

I heard two very remarkable things on the radio only a week after September 11, and within minutes of each other. First, a newscaster solemnly reported that 15,000 American sailors and Marines had put to sea to fight terrorism as if the terrorists are out there on the ocean, bobbing around in boats, perhaps rowing to America. Then, only a short while later, an economist said that the best way America can recover from the devastating attack against us is to go shopping. He said we should get out there and go to the mall, buy things, spend money, get that old economy rolling again. Can you imagine how profoundly obscene that must sound to the many millions of people who cannot put clothes on their children's backs or bread in their children's bellies?

Historically and statistically speaking, most Americans have never had to face the horrors of war. September 11 changed all that. Now we are all combatants, or at least potential casualties, and all our high-tech wizardry is likely to be of little use against determined enemies with time on their side and nothing they are not willing to lose. Nor can we make ourselves more secure by taking fingernail clippers and crochet hooks away from airline passengers.

If the United States of America is ever to find real peace and security, we must start sharing with the rest of the world all the blessings and bounty this world has to offer. This will not be easy to do because it will mean that all of us will have to give up at least some of what we have, but it will be, in the end, easier to accomplish than any other option available to us. We need only look to the fate of the Greeks, the Romans, the Turks, or the Spanish for proof. We forget at our own peril that the sun never used to set on the British Empire.


W. D. Ehrhart's latest book, The Madness of It All: Essays on War, Literature and American Life,
will be published later this year by McFarland & Co., Inc.

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