Friday, September 16, 2011

A Humbling Perspective

For the week preceding, and on the day itself, BBC had features about 9/11: eyewitness reports from survivors and reporters, interviews with persons who lost family members in the tragedy, reflections on the reactions and consequences of this event, and reports of commemorations planned in the USA and around the world. Commentators repeatedly spoke of the significance 9/11 as an event which changed the world. Probably the coverage was more extensive than usual because it was the 10th anniversary, but I recall a number of BBC programs last year, as well.

This morning, I heard another perspective, and it made me think. Once a week, BBC broadcasts a 5-minute dialogue between “The Resident Presidents,” two fictitious African heads of state, Olishambles and Kibakima (not sure about the spelling here, but that is how it sounds.) They make irreverent and often humorous observations about current events. Mostly their topic of conversation focuses on happenings in Africa. This morning, however, their piece was on 9/11.

One president tried to engage his colleague in conversation about 9/11. The other claimed to have been preoccupied with a party and to have paid no attention. The first was amazed that anyone could be unaware of the anniversary. His fellow president then challenged him: “How many people died in 9/11?” “About 3,000” was the reply. The next question from the inattentive president asked about the hundreds, even thousands of people who have died in Africa recently, in ferries that sank, election violence, and mass rapes and executions associated with civil wars--and commented how quickly these losses disappear from the news, or don‘t even make the news in some countries. The next question was “And how many have died in Iraq and Afghanistan?” “Well, I don’t really know,” was the reply. “I have heard that over 150,000 have died, including civilians and military,” announced the president who did not seem to care much for 9/11 commemorations.

While I understand that 9/11 was about more than numbers, the coverage has raised some issues for me. Is there a question of balance here? What do we emphasize in our commemorations? Do we also use the anniversary as an opportunity for a critical assessment of our national priorities and the effects of our responses to 9/11? Or do we mainly re-live and renew our horror and grieving?

Of course, being in Zambia with limited Internet, I do not know what the media coverage was like in the USA, or much about community observances. But I checked it and was pleased to see that Tucson Habitat for Humanity is still practicing the commemoration started on 9/11 in 2002--organizing Building Freedom Day and involving hundreds of volunteers in laying the foundations and framing a number of houses for low income families. Ten were started this year, in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Such an effort celebrates the core values of America. The volunteers will include people from all walks of life, different ethnic groups, men and women, working together in mutual aid. The family that will live in the house helps with its construction. The work on the houses will continue for about eight months before they are finished.

Projects like these build community solidarity. They contribute to a climate of peace and respect. They reflect what is best about America, our “can do” approach to solving social problems and our willingness to cooperate and collaborate to help one another. I wish our Congress would see the model represented by the spirit of Tucson and begin to collaborate and cooperate on programs which will benefit the entire community, and especially the poor and vulnerable. We need to create jobs, extend educational opportunities, develop more affordable housing, and make health care available to all. This will only happen if we agree to pay our fair share of taxes and if we take a hard look at how much we are spending on military endeavors and our ever-expanding correctional system.

I am left meditating on what is the appropriate balance between concern for security and for freedom. Perhaps a better question is what will provide us with more security and freedom, at home and abroad? Is it more investment in fences, walls, and weapons? Or investment in creating opportunities for human development through education, work, and technology? It’s not as simple as that makes it sound, but I believe we need to be asking these questions and looking at a wider range of creative options in public policy.

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