Thoughts on Sept. 11

"Seek first to understand...."

Parallels with Pearl Harbor

Most of us by now have heard of the parallels drawn between the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and Pearl Harbor (nevermind Pearl Harbor was directed at military, not civilian, targets).

Well, for some reason Pearl Harbor started popping up in my life just before Sept. 11. It started a couple days before, when I talked with my (Japan-born) mother about Japanese culture and history, and wound up discussing the causes of WWII. And just a few days after September 11th, I went to a previously scheduled job interview where, again, the topic of Japan and World War II came up.

What struck me from those conversations was this:

Pearl Harbor and its aftermath were, in many ways, the outcome of misunderstanding, crappy role models, and prejudice -- on both sides.

  • The West Treated Japan Badly. Japan was poorly treated by the colonial powers it was trying so hard to be "one of." Japan was generally treated like a second class citizen of the world. American diplomats(?) went so far as to use racial slurs to refer to Japanese officials, further alienating Japan and pushing it toward war. And don't forget, Japan was "opened up" by an America that wanted to use the country for its own benefit -- and Japan's colonialism was following in the steps of the European countries that had gone that way first.

  • Japan Was Screwed Up Too. Internally, Japan had very little experience with foreign cultures. The Army, which had little experience overseas, apparently severely underestimated the power of the West, and overrode the wiser Navy in military matters (the Navy had been to many ports and hence knew better). Also, conditions within the troops were apparently deplorable -- many were treated terribly and knew no better, and hence turned around and dumped even worse on their prisoners of war and colonial subjects. The patriotic, religious fervor probably just made everything worse.

    So, Pearl Harbor was, in many ways, the natural outgrowth of the seeds sown before, throughout many levels of society, across the world. This is not to excuse the crimes of war, but to point out some of the root causes.

    What is the opposite of misunderstanding and bigotry? Understanding, tolerance, and compassion.

    What about Now?

    As I watched footage of the terrorist attacks on New York, I thought about the US' unintentional but nevertheless crucial part in the crimes. Oil companies that deliberately sit on alternative energy patents like the proverbial dog in the manger, keeping us dependent on foreign oil; yes, I believe that our oil money helped pay for this! The way we trained bin Laden ourselves. The policies in the Middle East. I read a (no-longer available) news story at that described the cultural ignorance of the U.S. (and the Middle East), the two-facedness, and the incredible suffering in the Middle East... to which the U.S. has been in part contributing, even if not for the sake of hurting people deliberately.

    Note though, the roles individuals play, on both sides. For example, in the above-mentioned news story, there was a line about how Egypt saw " of grinning US seamen painting ''Happy Ramadan'' on the missiles destined for Baghdad" (a friend points out it's the equivalent of defiling the holy day of Christmas to a Christian). And conversely, we saw images of some Palestinians rejoicing after the terrorist attacks. What callousness and indifference on BOTH sides! The incredible hatred and anger these things stir up! And how much more these will serve to provoke more hatred and violence!

    Would people who understand the sanctity of human life behave this way? Would people who have deeply studied other cultures and have come to appreciate those cultures act this way? Would people who have learned the meaning of real love act this way?

    I don't think so. The problem is that respect, understanding, and compassion are difficult to build up out of hatred and fear. The problem is also that these things must be built up on both sides of a conflict. But that should not stop us, especially those of us who can see into two or more different cultures, from trying!

    We Can Do a Lot of Good

    So, in this case, in addition to seeking justice, we should also be trying to love our enemies. Turn curses into blessings. Germans, our former enemy from WWI and WWII, turned out to the tune of 200,000 at the Brandenburg Gate in sympathy for the events of Sept. 11. The British, a bitter enemy long ago, is now grieving with us ... proof that time and good will can heal wounds. The Japanese are now close trading allies and political friends, despite Pearl Harbor and the bitter war that followed, only a generation or two ago. Americans CAN do good in the world, and HAVE done good in the world, and that good is appreciated and repaid in kind. Never forget that we are not powerless to stop hate.

    Never forget that it is excruciating poverty and pain and hopelessness that turns people into haters, whether in the Middle East or in the inner cities. And what the world needs is a reduction in hate and an increase in love.

    What Should We Do?

    So, even as the war machine grinds on (may it work for justice, not for sheer revenge), we can and must do what is in our power, no matter where we are, to forge bonds of understanding and respect with those whom we touch -- and we can touch people all over the world. And those of us who are privileged to be part of a cross-cultural exchange must use our vantage point to reach the rest of society and show what seeking to understand first can do.

    Here are some ideas (some of which I'm sure have been published many times over in the newspapers and mailing lists, which is whence some of these came from :)

    Note: I realize it is frighteningly "easy" to say "love your enemies," and another thing entirely to live it when it is your own family or loved ones who have been affected. Each person's circumstances are different; what is natural for one person is a horrendous battle for another....


    Copyright 2001, 2002 Eri Izawa.

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