On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was working for an airline. As the attacks unfolded a young woman came to the ticket counter, lost and forlorn, more so after hearing that all flights had been cancelled nationwide.
“What am I going to do?” she asked. “I have to be in Providence tomorrow for my father’s funeral.”
“My advice,” I told her, “is to go down stairs right this minute and rent a car while there are still any left.”
She half melted onto the counter before me. “All I have is the plane ticket. No credit card and only a little cash. What am I going to do?”
She didn’t wait for an answer, and I was as helpless as I watched her turn and disappear among the shock and chaos of the terminal. 20 minutes later I was walking from plane to plane down on the tarmac, with a wrench in my hand, as we were told to make sure no unauthorized persons were near the aircraft. Certainly I was as stunned by the events unfolding that morning, but I was hardly surprised.
Just a year earlier I’d interviewed a devotee of bin Laden’s perverse politics in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. I’d known about UBL since the Bosnian war, when he used the desperate plight of Bosnian’s Muslims to ingratiate his own profile. I understood then, and I understand today that history is not a soccer pitch where good guys and bad guys duke it out. History is a process. It is an avalanche of all our lives, the boulders of cataclysmic events seeming to define that avalanche to the exclusion of the greater mass of millions and billions of souls extending back among the first awakenings of human hubris.
Where do we begin, in defining the history of an event? Where do we begin with bin Laden? Surely his history begins before 9/11, before the USS Cole, the Embassy bombings in Africa and even the first World Trade center bombing. Do we choose bin Laden’s rise to prominence among extremists in the early 1990s? if so then we must also have some dialogue about the West and the United State’s abandonment of Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal. Or do we begin with the Soviet Invasion? Perhaps religious fundamentalism, fertilized by British colonialism and corrupt Arab royalty on the Saudi Peninsula offers the environment for creating a bin Laden. Indeed, we can find significant historical perspectives seeming to lead inescapably to this moment across 1400 years of Islamic history. and make no mistake, Islam did not exist in a vacuum, but is defined as much from within as by the interaction of other cultures, religions, and changing historical attitudes.
I recall an argument with a Serbian friend who was then living in Chicago, and their caustic and ignorant attitude regarding another ethnic group. There was a comment about how the Muslims were stealing their history and culture, and that Bosnia was Serbian country. I argued, when do you want to start the argument, when the Serbs first appear as a defined tribal group in the Balkans roughly a 1000 years ago? We could go back and start with the Romanized Illyrians, or the Illyrians themselves who were there for a thousand years in their own right. Perhaps the Celts and Illyrians, or dozens of other tribal cultures, from whom Serbs absorbed traits helping to define them today. Frustrated, I ended the argument by telling him he should hope that Americans never accept the hate and anti-immigrant venom he spewed about Balkan Muslims, who were actually of his same heritage.
But bin Laden was dead, and I must admit to a sweeping sense of emotion at that. I was carried by the emotion of people cheering and weeping at Ground Zero last night, but overriding all that was the sense that none of this was necessary. We, and by we, I mean humanity, everyone involved now and in history, never learn the lessons of history. The ultimate lesson is defined by the state of human suffering, a component ritualized but never prevented. 3000 dead in New York, Washington and Shanksville, 4-600,000 dead in Iraq, probably 100,00 in Afghanistan, more in Chechnya, Africa, Israel, Palestine, London, Pakistan, Spain and a thousand other places around the globe, and for what? What dividends towards peace or continued suffering will bin Laden’s death offer? Do we learn that the brutality, greed and ignorance of today leads to the bin Laden’s of tomorrow? Do we continue to define such things as cartoonish battles about good and evil, which only perpetuates an unending chain of action and reprisal? Or do we learn about the folly of the human heart and its transcendence to define our tomorrows? Anyway, that’s what I was thinking last night during the President’s address.