At first it was an accident, an explosion; then it became a crime,
a terrorist attack; and soon, after, it shifted: the government
told us it was war with an enemy in the shadows. What does this
changing description have to do with men and women?
When I talked to students on Wednesday, they wanted to understand
why this happened, why people felt such hate, and they were afraid,
grieving, and a few were angry. They wanted to do something to make
the situation better. These seem exactly the ways a human being
must and should respond to such horror, to different degrees and
at different times-they seem productive ways to honor the dead and
try to make a better world. We had the chance to speak before we
were given the language of war and enemies. We were men and women
from many different backgrounds, talking together.
After that, government officials and media leaders gave those who had
not had a chance to talk and think yet, those still feeling and
grieving and in shock, the words of retribution, of getting back, of
an old, familiar way to recover a sense of power and action. It is
not a way of peace or understanding, and it has effectively silenced
many other kinds of language and thinking. This was now an attack on
America and a war against America-no longer a crime against humanity,
but against a nation-state. The spokespeople and decision-makers
were predominantly male.
Now I have heard people blaming Arab culture, the Islamic religion,
a "mentality" and whole nations of people, for the actions of 19
suicidal killers and their support network. What did all the hijackers
have in common, after all? Well, they are all men. But who would
be silly enough to advocate punishing all men as a group? Why is
one kind of category so immediately visible and the other not? And
would it help to put women back in the discussion visibly?
I hope we can listen hard: listen and see whether we can distinguish
the rhetoric of those who commit terrorism from those who wish to
destroy them. And more to the point, whether we can distinguish
the actions of each so clearly that "we" have not become too much
In a doctor's office, a technician said to me she wished the Middle
East were ruled by women-then they might sit down over coffee and
try to talk things out. She knew, and I know, it isn't that simple:
some men are working hard to fight the rhetoric of destruction and
hate, and some women are as gung-ho about fighting as men are. But
she was doing, in a way that all the binary talk of us/them, women/men,
Arab/western, has not (yet), some imaginative thinking that might
move us forward: she was remembering Arab women, making them visible
as a category that disrupts the war talk of this moment and might
at some time stop real fighting. She had been led there by thinking
of her own experience as an Irish-American, who wondered how her
community's loyalties and money might have contributed to violence-when
the categories of Catholic v. Protestant seemed to her so patently
outmoded as motives for fighting.
What we might learn from women's experiences, and women's movements,
seems particularly important right now. Famously, the women's liberation
movement in the U.S. argued that "the personal is political." Never
has the personal been more political, for nothing is more personal
than bodily pain and loss, and nothing can more quickly be made
a reason for political actions that will cause more pain and loss.
Once the language is one of a war of good versus evil, people no
longer try to sit down and talk together. The more the personal,
in all its variation, can stay part of the political picture, though,
the less likely we are to engage unthinkingly and abstractly in
acts of violence ourselves.
Women have worked hard for peace in Northern Ireland. Mothers
have stood up on behalf of the disappeared. Israeli and Palestinian
women have tried for more than a decade to speak across boundaries
and pain. They fought without bombs. The terrorists committed a
crime against humanity, a bigger crime to me than an act of territorial
war. But if it is a crime, can we find a way to treat it as a crime
rather than as a traditional military action? If we credit it as
if it were a military action, haven't we given it (potentially,
in someone's eyes) more honor than such a hideous crime deserves?
We don't bomb the hometowns and countries from which criminals come:
we punish the criminals and those who abet them, as specific persons.
On the other hand, if this is not personal in the easy sense of
personalized-not about one or two bad people leading a few hundred
other bad people-we need to understand this bigger context in order
to combat it. We can't learn enough to do so effectively unless
we allow ourselves to hear difficult things, insulting things, painful
Being male has traditionally been about being hard and invulnerable;
women were allowed, even encouraged, to be vulnerable and soft.
We have always known it wasn't that simple, but maybe we can draw
from what we know about that stereotyped thinking to get us out
of some traps. After all, those same vulnerable women were often
realized to be incredibly strong. Instead of rushing to put ourselves
back together as if invulnerable, maybe we can learn something through
this pain and vulnerability that will make us more humane, as individuals
and a nation: less baffled by the strength and difference of others'
feelings and thoughts about us, more ready to talk. I can only hope
this will make men and women strive to act for peace in the largest
sense--not naively, not forgetting, nor thinking that there will
be no punishments, but rationally and drawing on their personal
feelings and experience to help create a global community that honors
all human life.
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