The Twin Tower atrocity allowed for a moment of reflection, a chance for Americans to look inward, to see the world as those beyond our borders see us, victims of a horror too incredible to contemplate, the intentional detonation of civilian structures with the explicit and calculated knowledge that innocent lives would be cremated beyond recognition. And, indeed, the reaction was visceral in the heart of every American! How instantaneous the response to the crumbling towers on the part of all Americans. How galvanized the response across America, with an outpouring of money for the fallen firefighters and police, the mourning for the relatives of the victims, and the flooding of the blood banks. All felt the impact, shared the loss, and suffered the anguish of those who fled in terror the flaming debris, the falling stone, the blowing ash. Americans knew first-hand the horror of war at home.
But Americans, for the most part, know little or nothing of the actions taken in their name that have given birth to the visceral hatred, evident throughout the world, that plagues their every step. Lacking that awareness, they followed without question their leader’s plea to go to war against the evil forces that wanted to destroy America’s “freedoms.” That war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, sent wave upon wave of bombers to unleash untold tons of explosives on untold numbers of civilians who suffered the revenge of America’s determination to destroy its unknown enemy. But as I reflect on this galvanizing of America’s desire to eradicate its enemy, I begin to understand that we have not merged our feelings with the feelings of those who have suffered at our hands in Europe, in Asia, and in the mid-East. What we experienced on 9/11, a deplorable atrocity that took the lives of 3000 people, that brought havoc and chaos to our people for weeks on end, that destroyed a collection of buildings on approximately four acres of land in the middle of a city, could not compare to the totality of devastation wrought by American bombing on Fallujah, or Baghdad, or Lebanon, or Cambodia, or Hanoi, or Dresden, or Tokyo, or Hiroshima. That these acts were seen as acts of war by most Americans does not erase the impact of the slaughter they brought to thousands of innocent people caught in the accepted euphemism that allows the innocent to be sacrificed on the altar of collateral damage.
To bring the American mind to a point of recognition that allows for comparison of the suffering we have inflicted against others as a possible rationale for the hatred that has been leveled at America is a task beyond our powers. But something has driven millions around the world to look at America as a fearsome power willing and able to devastate smaller states to achieve its goals and to protect its purported interests. Why? Why this attitude about America?
As I reflect on times in my own life when America unleashed its mighty power on those incapable of defending themselves, I need only consider the firebombing of Dresden. “On the evening of February 13, 1945, an orgy of genocide and barbarism began against a defenseless German city, one of the great cultural centers of northern Europe. Within less than 14 hours, not only was it reduced to flaming ruins, but an estimated one third of its inhabitants, possibly as many as half a million, had perished in what was the worst single event massacre of all time.” (“The WWII Dresden Holocaust”). Dresden had no military installations, no aircraft to defend it, no munitions factories, only factories that produced cigarettes and china, and a hospital filled to overflowing.
700,000 phosphorus bombs dropped on 1.2 million people, 1 for every 2 people, where the heat reached 1600 degrees centigrade, in a bombing raid that lasted over 14 hours. Those who lived through this Hell on earth had to pile the bodies on huge pyres for cremation, 260,000 bodies counted; the remaining dead, indistinguishable, melted into the cement or charred beyond recognition. “In just over an hour, four square miles of the city–equivalent to all of lower Manhattan from Madison Square Garden to Battery Park–was a roaring inferno.” (Murray Sayle, “Did the Bomb End the War?”) We Americans gasped at the horror of four acres of destruction and 3000 dead; we could now, should we but reflect on time past, understand how others felt when they endured a slaughter of far greater proportions.
This horrendous description of our might has been repeated over and over again since WWII and during it. Tokyo and 63 other Japanese cities felt the brunt of America’s air power. “334 Super fortresses flew at altitudes ranging from 4,900 feet to 9,200 feet above their target (Tokyo) …For three hours waves of B-29s unleashed their cargo upon the dense city below… the water in the rivers reached the boiling point …83,793 killed and 40,918 injured, a total of 265,171 buildings were destroyed and 15.8 square miles of the city burned to ashes.”(Christian Lew, “The Strategic Bombing of Japan”). Then came Hiroshima. “… the bomb instantly vaporized, at a temperature of several million degrees centigrade, creating a fireball and radiating immense amounts of heat… Heat radiated by the bomb exposed skin more than two miles from the hypocenter… between seventy thousand and eighty thousand people are estimated to have died on August 6, with more deaths from radiation sickness spread over the ensuing days, months, and years.” (Murray Sayle, “Did the Bomb End the War”)
Consider these statistics: the Germans “dropped 80,000 tons of bombs on Britain in more than five years”; America dropped over 100,000 tons in a month on Indochina, and between Lyndon Johnson and Nixon, America delivered “7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos,” far more than we, and the British, unleashed on Germany and Japan in all of WWII. Nixon found reason for this devastation in his anger that North Vietnam had broken off peace talks in Paris.
That brings us to our illegal invasion of Iraq, an invasion we now know was engineered years in advance of 9/11 and for reasons that had nothing to do with the purported “war on terror.” We also know that we did it to aid Israel in its desire to destroy one of their enemies, a nemesis that supported “freedom fighters” against Israeli occupation of the land of Palestine. And today we have a second letter from Osama bin Laden, delivered via video, that proclaimed for a second time that Israel’s subjugation of the indigenous population in Palestine and its continued “cleansing” to rid the land of them, is a reason for the destruction caused by 9/11. Now, 100,000 civilian deaths later, close to 2000 American soldiers dead, cities in ruins, and the people in revolution against the American oppressor, we, as a nation, have chosen to continue our unilateral aggression making America more of a pariah nation and even less likely to share the grief of millions who have suffered at our hands.
And that returns me to that horrific morning of 9/11. How to demonstrate the enormity of that act, yet put it in relationship to time past that we might share the torment of those who have felt the oppressor’s boot and the wanton slaughter of innocents? In reflection days after 9/11, I had a vision of Hiroshima’s ashen landscape stretching for miles as far as the eye could see, an image indelibly marked on my mind as a young child. But in that barren waste rose the Twin Towers, silhouetted against the distant hills and sky, a reference point for reflection just before the planes struck, turning them into candles to light the darkness that shrouds the fields of death that once stood as the city of Hiroshima. Perhaps in the light of those candles we might see, what we have not wanted to see in our ignorance, that we have spread pestilence and death throughout the world and now we are reaping the whirlwind.
Notes: Permission to use photos of the Twin Towers has been granted by Ms. Donna Young, a freelance photographer now resident in India, and by Triroc.com. I am most appreciative for their willingness to share their artistry. I also wish to acknowledge the creative technical support of Ms. Sarah Lesniak of the University’s Teaching and Learning Center.
William Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. His new book, Psalms for the 21st Century, was published by Mellen Press. He can be reached at: cookb@ULV.EDU