By Bradley R. Smith
When I turned on the television this morning Billy Graham was preaching in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. to a congregation of the nation’s leaders, including President Bush and the Presidents wife and father. Graham is very old now, and feeble, but he still speaks with force and clarity.
He noted several times that he was speaking as a Christian, as if he understood that a number of those listening to him probably were not, that they were there to pay their respects to the dead, the injured, the missing, and to their country. He reminded those present that in the Old Testament God said, “vengeance is Mine.” I thought it a wonderful message at this particular time. And then he spoke for several minutes on hope, and that the final hope of Christians is heaven.
I have no hope for heaven, as I am not a Christian. I understand that hope is the root of pain, disappointment and rage and that it is neither here nor there. Still, in my heart, hope pervades everything. I hope that hundreds of survivors will be pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I hope that no more of their rescuers will be hurt or killed. I hope that the families of the dead and maimed will find ways to bear their grief. I hope to never see anything like this again. My life is a sea of hope from morning till night, and full of the pain that hope, unfulfilled, brings.
The idea that vengeance is a godly attribute and not a human one is endlessly provocative. The promise of vengeance and retribution is what we hear most from those who administer our government. What did President Bush think, what did those powerful officers of state think, when Billy Graham reminded them that God has told us that vengeance belongs to God? I understand there are political issues that have to be sorted out – that should have been sorted out long ago. But that isn’t how it works. We learn by experience. We’re supposed to learn from books, including the Good Book, but we learn by experience. Now we’ve experienced a new experience.
Those who commandeered the airplanes and flew them into the Trade Towers and the Pentagon are called cowards and murderers. Killers certainly – but cowards? I don’t believe it. I choose to believe that they were brave, dedicated men – men like most of those men and women they killed. I think that they were patriots acting in the name of their nation. Or religious men obeying what they understood were the commandments of their God. Or men whose families or communities had been humiliated and brutalized by American arms and wanted – retaliation and vengeance. They had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, many of whom are now grieving deeply, no matter how proud they are obligated to proclaim they are by the tyrannical societies and cultures in which they live.
There is a news story to the effect that two of those identified as being among the original perpetrators (there may be other acts of violence before this writing sees the light of day) had spent the Saturday evening before the tragedy drinking in a bar in some town in Florida. The bar tab was forty-six dollars. One was drinking vodka, the other rum. They were comrades. They were spending the evening like I have spent so many evenings myself. They were planning to intentionally kill thousands of civilians, as many as they could, but they probably didn’t chat up the bartender about it. We don’t know that they had anything against the people they were going to kill. Killing America citizens was a way to strike at the government they hated. That is the time-honored way of handling the kinds of resentments, anger, and hatred they felt for America. Like the bumper sticker I used to see in the 1970s: “Kill ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.”
Billy Graham, referencing several verses in the Old Testament that I am not familiar with, spoke of the “mystery” of evil. The idea that evil is mysterious had never occurred to me. Of course -- evil is mysterious, but then “good” is mysterious as well. Isn’t good layered as deeply into human life as evil? If it is not, how do we survive? Who knows what good is then? Good and evil are mysteries both. Is the intentional killing of civilians good or evil? Does it depend on the circumstances? Is retribution good? Is it a contextual matter? Who decides – the victim or the perpetrator?
Retribution, vengeance, punishment, killing has been the mantra coming from Washington from day one. This is how the leaders of the people, here and everywhere else, from time immemorial, have always handled these affairs. None of our leaders are asking publicly: “Why did they do this to us? Why?” They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to know. They think they may know, but they don’t want to know for certain. How are they going to handle the fact that the people who sacrificed their lives to kill and maim thousands of us and cause us untold grief, are people pretty much like ourselves who had their reasons?
President Bush spoke of using power to punish those responsible for the attack on America. It was the same vocabulary we have heard from the beginning. He noted that it has been said “adversity introduces us to ourselves.” It’s something of a truism I suppose, but I was taken with the phrase. What will adversity introduce us to, as Americans, at this time in our lives? Will it reintroduce us to patriotism? A lust for vengeance? Love of God? An awareness of the problems of evil and good – which oftentimes are expressions of the same desire, depending on who has become aware in the moment? A will toward understanding?
We must ask our government if it does not, itself, share in the responsibility for the attack on America. When Billy Graham talks to us about the mystery of evil, part of that mystery is how evil is shared between antagonists. Rage and the lust for revenge does not erupt from an empty vessel, but from an evil perceived to have been committed previously by another. When are we going to begin to try to understand what we have done as a people that appears to others to be so evil that they will volunteer to kill themselves and thousands of innocents to right the wrong that they perceive their own people to have been victims of?
I’m a tiny bystander to the great drama that is taking place at this moment in New York, Washington and the Middle East. For twenty years I have been lost in a small, detested niche of our society working to encourage intellectual freedom and an open debate on the Holocaust story. Where’s the connection? I have been charged with being a bigot, an extremist, an anti-Semitic racist, and my work is held to be contemptible by nearly all who learn of it. In this small, narrow niche, where there are almost no public allies, I have passed my time badgering professors, students and journalists to take seriously revisionist theory regarding the Holocaust and the gas-chamber story. I have argued that what happened between Germans and Jews during World War Two is misunderstood, that it still causes endless mischief and bloodshed, and must be opened up to free inquiry and an open debate. Working against the suppression of intellectual freedom with regard to the Holocaust story gives one a special perspective.
When I saw the first photos of the great passenger planes ramming into the Twin Towers, when I first understood that it was a “terrorist” attack, I immediately understood – I simply took it for granted -- that Muslims, probably Arabs, were behind it. I didn’t have to follow up a thousand leads. I was entirely ignorant of the facts on the ground. But I understand how the Holocaust story is implicated in the hatred so many in the Muslim world feel toward America. The story was used to morally legitimate the creation of the Israeli State on Palestinian land, and America approved. The story is used, ultimately, to morally legitimate every humiliation that Israelis inflict upon the Palestinians day in and day out, and America approves. Every humiliation of the Palestinian people is a humiliation for Arabs and Muslims everywhere in the world, and America doesn’t care. Every Muslim throughout the world knows that it is within the power of the Americans to put a stop to their humiliation. Americans haven’t understood the stakes. They are learning about them now.
Israeli Jews are caught in the same trap that Americans caught in. Americans and Israelis share the same self-righteousness, greed, and contempt for others that have brought this tragedy upon us, which is surely not the last one. We can learn from the Israelis but we have been unwilling to watch objectively. Israelis are on the ground with Arabs and Muslims. They have already tried force, retribution, vengeance and the killing of the innocent for the acts of the guilty. We have aided them in every way we could: given them tens of tens of billions of dollars, armed them with the most sophisticated weapons, protected them against the righteous indignation of the United Nations General Assembly. It hasn’t worked. Brutality, occupation, retribution, vengeance, assassination, even the bulldozing of orchards and vineyards and the homes of families. None of it worked. Now a handful of dedicated young men with pocketknives and box cutters, who are not Israelis or Americans, have sacrificed their lives for their country, their culture, their God.
It is likely that there is going to be a rise of anti-Jewish anger among a minority of Americans who are half-awake with regard to the grievous behavior of the Israelis toward the Palestinians and thus toward all Muslims. As revisionists, however, we understand that Israeli Jews have done nothing to the Palestinians that Americans do not have a history of doing to others – to the Iraqis, the Vietnamese, Laotions, Cambodians, Koreans, Germans and Japanese, and the destruction of a hundred indigenous cultures in North America – to mention only the obvious. We are not angry with the Israelis. We just want to cut them loose.
Revisionists must not become suddenly self-righteous, but keep in mind that in every instance Americans have done to the innocent what Jews have done to Palestinians and now what Muslims have done to Americans – we have intentionally killed the innocent for the acts of the guilty. Maybe this is part of the mystery of evil and good – that we are all capable of both, that we all do both. We will justify committing evil acts to attain a good. We will perform what we think are good acts and find that they produce evil.
I cannot advise the American Government on what to do next. What are my qualifications? And while I am not a Christian I have been most moved, and most moved to thought, by Billy Graham’s words at the National Cathedral. While we need to protect ourselves from those who want to harm us, the lust for vengeance belongs somewhere other than in the hearts of mere men. I want to keep in mind that Israelis have done no evil that Americans have not done, and no evil that approaches in scale or bloodiness those that we have done.
I hope that Americans will come to understand that what happened at the World Trade Center is within the parameters of what one American administration after another has considered normal, and that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people around the world have suffered the pain and anguish that we are suffering now, for the same reasons that we are suffering it. None of us, Christian, Jew, Muslim or any of the rest of us, understands the mystery of evil that led those young men to attack America on 11 September 2001. We’re all in the same boat – together.
Installed: 07/27/98, 1: 00 AM, PST