Our Grief is Not Special

[Text of speech given at anti-war rally in Austin, TX, September 11, 2005]

This is not a September 11 speech.

This is a September 10 speech.

We all remember what we felt on September 11, 2001. I want to talk about what I felt on September 10, 2001.

On that day, I was in a state of profound grief, in a world saturated with unnecessary pain and suffering.

Iím not talking about the inevitable pain of being human in the world, not the personal pain that comes with the unavoidable disappointment and death that is part of being human. We all cope with that, day after day, the best we can.

Instead I want to speak of the pain that is manufactured by power: The pain visited upon people in wars that are started to consolidate the power of a nation and its elite; the pain created by economic policies designed to protect the wealth of the few; the pain inflicted on people not because it must be that way but because some choose to make it that way, with no concern for othersí suffering, which most of the rest of us accept without much thought, lest such thinking disturb our comfort and convenience.

When we truly come alive in the world, that pain will wash over us and force us to ask why it canít be otherwise. We will feel not only the pain of people but — even more deeply — the pain of a living world that is slowly being strangled by the stupidity of one particular species.

That was the pain and grief that many of us felt on September 10, 2001. Though there was nothing special about that day, on that day:

–More than half the people of the world lived on less $2 a day. That means on September 10 more than 3 billion people did not have access to the clean water, food, shelter, clothing, or medical care to provide a minimally decent life.

–About 500 children in Africa died every hour from poverty-related diseases. That means on September 10, about 12,000 children died in Africa as a direct result of an economic system which placed a high value on our comfort but no value on their lives.

–Somewhere in a farmerís field, a plow hit an unexploded cluster bomb that let loose its deadly force. That means on September 10 — in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Yugoslavia, or Afghanistan — someone died because of our military plannersí willingness to sacrifice civilian life not only in the moment of war but for years to come.

–In Iraq on September 10 — almost two years before the Bush administration unleashed the dogs of war there — innocent Iraqi civilians were dying from the lack of clean water, medicine, and adequate nutrition caused by the U.S.-enforced economic embargo. On that day, 150 Iraqi parents buried children because of a policy that the Republicans in both Bush administrations and the allegedly more benevolent Democrats in the Clinton administration had deemed acceptable. Those innocent lives were ìworth the sacrificeî to consolidate U.S. power.

–And on September 10, 2001, our delusions about endless consumption in a high-energy world continued to eat away at the ecological fabric of the planet. On September 10, each of us did our part to contribute to making the planet unlivable. Each of us — some more than others, but each of us in some way — kept living a life that is unsustainable, a life that would be impossible without the inequality produced by global capitalism and U.S. imperial adventures.

So, if my conclusion sounds harsh or uncaring forgive me, but it is long past the time to say this: There was nothing special about the pain of Americans on September 11, 2001. And there is no hope for this world until we in the United States — the most powerful and affluent country in the history of the world — understand that.

The deaths of 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania mattered, but no more and no less than the thousands of other deaths in the world that day, and the day before, and the day before that. Or the deaths since, as the United States has used the grief of Americans to justify two illegal wars of aggression, wars to consolidate the power and control of the few, wars accepted by the many out of moral laziness and fear.

All over the country today, people will be speaking about the nobility of the United States, the barbarism of the attacks on us, the deep suffering of Americans. I will do none of that.

I will not mark September 11 as a day of special grief until all of us mark every day as a day of special grief for those killed by the callous and cruel exercise of power. I am through indulging the grief of Americans. I will not be part of it. I will not contribute to it any longer.

Until we — not the leadership but us, ordinary people — in the United States learn to feel the pain of September 10 with as much intensity and humanity as we felt the pain of September 11, I fear we are doomed. We will never be able to be fully human in the modern world. And if we in the United States — the citizens of the empire — do not find a way to become fully human and dismantle the empire non-violently from within, then itís not clear the modern world will survive.

This empire will eventually be destroyed, as is the fate of all empires. The question that should haunt us is, ìGiven the enormous destructive capacity of the United States and its demonstrated willingness to use that power, will the world survive the destruction of this empire?î

We must save ourselves, and in the process make it possible for the new world that is coming — with or without us — to be born as gently as possible.

If we do this — if we struggle together — that new world can be a world redeemed, a place of ìsmall gardens and bright fish,î to borrow from a poet. It can be a world in which we can struggle to bear the ordinary pain of being human, the pain of that inevitable disappointment and death, in loving connection with each other and with the living world around us.

If we donít do this — if we donít save ourselves — then we will create a world in which the pain we see now will be but prelude to something much grimmer, something we can only imagine. That fate, imagined throughout human history, typically is called hell. We rapidly are squandering the beauty and bounty of creation, and through our greed and gullibility creating a kind of hell, not in our imaginations but on this earth.

Time is running out. The patience of the living world is running out.

And when that living world turns to us for a final accounting, when it starts to balance the books with us, please donít then begin to speak of justice, for it will be too late.

Those forces coming to take back the world for the living will be justice, come alive in the world.

And make no mistake: Justice will be coming for us.

ROBERT JENSEN is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu





Robert Jensen is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with New Perennials Publishingand the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw